Hanif Kureishi: Young people have nothing to be hopeful for

Hanif Kureishi sustained life-changing injuries when he collapsed and landed on his head in December 2022

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Hanif Kureishi’s Nostalgic Reflection on the 1970s in “The Buddha of Suburbia”

For acclaimed novelist Hanif Kureishi, the 1970s were a time of remarkable hope and optimism – sentiments that are vividly captured in his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia.” Now, over three decades after its publication, this seminal work is being adapted for the stage, and Kureishi, along with renowned theatre director Emma Rice, have been reflecting on the book’s central themes.

“There was a sense that you could do anything or be anyone,” the 69-year-old Kureishi tells the BBC, reminiscing about his own childhood. “The racism was definitely more overt than it is today, but there was still a terrific sense of optimism – in fact, it was the last age where people were hopeful of the future.”

Kureishi first gained widespread recognition in 1985 when his screenplay for “My Beautiful Laundrette” – a poignant exploration of the relationship between a British Pakistani boy and his white boyfriend – was nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar. Reflecting on the stark contrast between his own upbringing and that of his children, Kureishi laments, “It’s sad that young people have no hope anymore.”

“Hope isn’t an empty dream – it means there is a possibility in the world that what you want can happen, and my kids don’t think they will ever be able to buy a house or find lucrative work,” he explains.

It is this very longing for hope that prompted Emma Rice to bring “The Buddha of Suburbia” to the stage. “Our show gives people that hope,” she says. “It shows them that we can all live together and be happy.”

Set against the backdrop of the turbulent “Winter of Discontent” in the 1970s, “The Buddha of Suburbia” follows the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Karim, who is desperate to escape the suburbs and immerse himself in the exciting opportunities that London has to offer. First published in 1990, the novel won the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award and was later adapted into a four-part television series by the BBC.

Now, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Wise Children are collaborating to bring this beloved story to the stage, with a six-week run in Stratford-upon-Avon. For Rice, the production is a “heart-breaking and joyful exploration of family, friends, sex, theatre and, ultimately, belonging,” as well as a “celebration of the 1970s, particularly the music and fashion.”

Despite the potential risk of the story feeling dated, neither Kureishi nor Rice are concerned about the play’s relevance. “I’m not interested in being relevant,” Kureishi says defiantly, though he acknowledges that the story’s cultural significance is likely to resonate with young audiences today.

“There’s always been a struggle to get theatre out of the middle-class ghetto, but I really think young people will be interested in understanding how our society got to where we are today,” Kureishi explains. “And we have to remember that the 1970s were a turning point in British post-war history – it shows the roots and beginnings of things we are living in now, like immigration and fragmented families.”

Rice, a former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, also sees parallels between the political climate of the 1970s and the present day, noting that “just like in 1979, we are on the edge of a general election and are potentially on the brink of massive change.”

For Kureishi, this stage adaptation holds particular significance, as he has recently sustained life-changing injuries from a fall, leaving him without the use of his arms and legs. Despite the immense physical and emotional challenges he faces, Kureishi has found solace in his collaborative writing process with his sons, who have become an integral part of his creative journey.

“The best thing is that I now get to see my sons every day,” Kureishi shares. “Now our collaboration has an intensity to it. When you are writing, you are raw and exposed, and both me and my sons have had to get used to that. We are learning more about each other every day.”

Despite the adversity, Kureishi and Rice remain optimistic, finding joy in their partnership and the opportunity to bring “The Buddha of Suburbia” to the stage. “Emma and I talk about how lucky we feel – lucky to be doing this show together and also lucky to be here on this planet,” Kureishi says, echoing the very sentiments that permeate his beloved novel.

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