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#ACERBIC: Reading novels interferes with my SIGNALS, says Hanif Kureishi

Author Hanif Kureishi claims he and Nobel Laureate Vidia S Naipaul "hang out" and has categorically rejected claims that his latest novel is a satirical take on Naipaul's life.

'The Last Word', Kureishi's seventh novel, revolves around a young writer who is commissioned to write a biography of Mahmoon, an award-winning and cantankerous old Indian writer living in rural England; chain smoking, drinking heavily and deriding foreigners, despite being an outsider himself.

Prior to its' publication, the literary world was abuzz owing to the similarities between Mahmoon and VS Naipaul and the book's similarities to 'The World is What it Is', Patrick French's exhaustively compiled and surprisingly frank biography of V S Naipaul.

However, speaking at the opening night of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature in London, Kureishi denied the claims, saying that his work had always been about cantankerous old men.

"Grumpy old Indian men are my Mona Lisa.  I come from a big Muslim family.  My dad had ten brothers.  So I'm used to all that smoking and drinking and showing off and shouting and fighting.  So characters like Mahmoon are very familiar to me.

"It wasn't like I woke up one morning and said I wanted to write about an old writer and his biographer.  It was about the conversations.  I remember the fascinating conversations that took place between us and our father and his brothers.  That's what I've written about."

Asked by an audience member if he "hung out" with Naipaul, Kureishi quipped: "Yeah.  We hang out.  In fact, we hang loose". 

Despite occasionally showing off his own grumpy side, Kureishi - born in South London to a Pakistani father and a British mother - remains a formidable presence, with an acerbic wit and unconventional views on a whole host of things.

During his appearance at Asia House, the 59-year-old spoke at some length about his life and work: his expletive-laden, often-rambling and frequently funny anecdotes revealing much about a man voted one of the fifty greatest British writers of the last 70 years.

Among the most revealing was that he shies away from reading novels.

"Reading novels interferes with my signals.  It influences my thought processes.  I read poetry.  I really don't have to read because I think I have finally figured out how to do this writing thing".

Instead, Kureishi said, his appetite for writing is greater than ever before.

"I have an idea and I want to write it down immediately.  I don't want to waste a day.  My sons come into my room where I'm scribbling down ideas and they say, 'Dad this is the sum of your life?

"I have always liked the idea of writing stories about people, about characters.  I like that process: the excitement of thinking for a purpose, holed up in my little room and writing something that someone else somewhere in the world will enjoy.  It's a good thing to do", Kureishi added with surprising understatement.

Not that he needs to keep writing.

In January, the British Library paid £100,000 for Kureishi's personal archives, including the drafts and notes for 'The Buddha of Suburbia', 'The Black Album' and screenplays for 'My Beautiful Launderette', 'Venus' and last year's poignant and melancholic 'Le Weekend'.

It's a treasure trove, taken gingerly from Kureishi's "dark and dingy" book-strewn room and safely ensconced behind shatter-proof glass, to be marvelled at by generations to come.

It is a fitting tribute to a man who has given voice to the immigrant experience better than any other British Asian writer.

"When I was young, 'Whiteness' was the standard.  If you were my colour you were treated as if you were retarded or you were patronized.  That's why I began writing.  To put all of those conflicts and thoughts on paper."

But, he says, he was not aware of the racial context of what he was writing at the time and warned against writing about "trends".

"You can't really try to write about trends.  You need to write about people and characters.  You can't think about writing from a sociological point of view.  You can make the most banal story into something dramatic.  You don't need a lot to happen to be inspired."

Humour, he added, was the most important element.

"I think it's far more difficult to write happy things.  Any f*&*er can be miserable.  Jokes are subversive.  A joke can undermine authority better than anything.  Also, as Stephen Frears said, we are in show business.  We are in the business of entertaining people. 

Watch the author read an excerpt from 'The Last Word' at Asia House.

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