Hanif Kureishi: I’ve become a reluctant dictator

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Hanif Kureishi pictured before his accident
By Sarah Bell
BBC News

Novelist Hanif Kureishi sustained life-changing injuries when he collapsed and landed on his head on Boxing Day last year.

Left without the use of his arms and legs, the award-winning writer of The Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Laundrette has charted his experience in brutally-honest blog posts. He credits his sense of purpose to his relationship with his responsive readers.

A year on, he joined BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as a guest editor and described the accident’s profound impact on his life.

“I thought: “‘I’ve got a few more breaths and then I’m going to die.’

“Then I thought, as I guess many people do when they die, that “this is ridiculous to die in such a stupid way. Surely I could do something a bit more dramatic, a bit more interesting to tell people”.

“I also had a sense of thinking: ‘There’s lots of things I really want to do, I’m not ready to die yet.'”

Kureishi’s thoughts in the moments after his accident were remarkably lucid. The 69-year-old was staying with his partner Isabella in Rome when he fainted after a walk. He woke up lying in a pool of blood.

“I thought I might FaceTime a few friends actually, while I was lying there waiting for the ambulance, and say goodbye. But Isabella said it wasn’t such a great idea, that people would be rather shocked by seeing a dying man pop up on their iPhone.”

Although Kureishi had been unwell with an infection, his collapse was unexpected. His sense of outrage at his fate is shared by fellow patients who were badly injured in sudden accidents.

“One guy fell out of bed and broke his neck. People fall down the stairs. People fall into swimming pools. It’s a catalogue of farcical and cruel, contingent, meaningless events.

“There’s a guy I was talking to the other day, he was in his garden, he tripped over a rake and broke his neck. He was absolutely outraged by the injustice of what had happened to him.

“It’s very common, with these kinds of circumstances, [to feel] that you’ve been plucked out of the world at random and punished in some kind of Kafkaesque way.

“But then you get a much broader sense that this happens all the time to people.”

Kureishi was on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 2009

Kureishi says he is still the same person he was a year ago, but has lost his sense of humour – and innocence.

“I was quite a jaunty fellow, I went around the world quite cheerfully, I enjoyed walking about and seeing things and talking.

“The world seems much darker. And you look at all those innocent people strolling around the world looking so healthy and fit and happy and you think: ‘You don’t know guv, what’s coming down the road.’

“And that’s a very cruel and cynical way of seeing things, but you’ve gone through a door when you have an accident in the way that I had an accident.

“But in a sense I feel that I’m much closer to reality – that, in a way, we’re living in some kind of nirvanic miasma until something like this happens.”

Over the past year, Kureishi has been treated in five different hospitals in Italy and then the UK. His paralysis has transformed his relationships.

“I can’t even make a cup of tea. I can’t scratch my nose. So I’ve had to learn to make demands. I’m a reluctant dictator.

“There are friends and acquaintances who have been absolutely devoted – people you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of as being particularly like that.

“You’ll find that one particular person might volunteer to bring you food, to give you a head massage, to sit with you, to make phone calls for you, to do your emails for you, everything.

“There are other people – more men actually, I would say, than women – who just can’t bear to be in a hospital. And you can see them looking at their watches, thinking: ‘Hhow the hell do I get out of here and how soon can I leave?’ because it’s such an awful thing to see all these people in wheelchairs and crippled people staggering around the corridors, and they all think: ‘God, it’s gonna be me next.’

“I was like that before, because I spent a lot of my teenage years in hospital with my father, who was very ill for a long time. So I have a horror, phobia of hospitals with reason, and now I live in the hospital. That’s an irony for you isn’t it?

“But to be struck with an illness like mine, you suddenly see what other people are made of, and who they are, and how generous and kind they can be, or how indifferent they can also be.”

In fact, Kureishi has observed that becoming disabled has given him a strange power.

“One of the things that happens to you when you’re disabled is that you feel less powerful, that you’re a sort of impotent god for your kids, but actually in another sense you are more powerful. You’re incredibly powerful.

“People are really drawn towards you because of your illness, they’re fascinated by it and they wonder when it’s going to happen to them.

“You can’t say that it does nothing to people. It’s very moving, very upsetting and life changing for other people around you.”

The Today programme

Hanif Kureishi is guest editor of the Boxing Day episode of BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme.

Listen now on BBC Sounds

The award-winning author wrote his first blog post just a week after his accident. He now publishes weekly, with the help of his son Carlo.

“I had to find a completely new way to write. I can’t sit at my desk for hours fiddling around with words and crossing things out. I can’t use my hands, I can’t use a pen.

“So I just have to say it as legibly and coherently as I can. I dictate it directly now to Carlo and he writes it down and then after a couple of days we’ll go back through it and revise it and make it a bit better.

“But I have to make it up in my head beforehand, the whole blog, I have to sort of see it visually and then read it off the front of my mind.

“I open my mouth and hope for the best. It’s a very interesting way of working because it’s not really like writing and it’s not really like speaking, it’s something a bit in between.

“I’ve never before written something and then published it literally 10 minutes later. I can write a 4,000 word essay and put it on Substack and reach an audience. There’s no censorship. It’s a very interesting and stimulating way to write – I would never have thought about doing it if I hadn’t had this accident.”

Kureishi, pictured with his youngest son while still in hospital in Italy, says writing is a collaboration with the reader

Reading the comments and experiences people share in response to his blog helps give him strength to continue, Kureishi says.

“I communicate with other people, and I try and remember that what’s happened to me is not so uncommon.

“You realise that every family in the world has experienced death or illness or disability in some form or another, and that they will. And so they tell their stories and they’re about brain injuries, physical injuries, which are very moving and upsetting and interesting, and many of them are much worse than mine.

“So, I’m communicating directly with a big audience, which is what I’m supposed to do, I’d like to do, as a writer.”

Throughout his career, Kureishi says he has considered his writing to be a collaboration with the reader.

“You write a piece and you see what happens in the other person’s head about what you said and how they make something of it.

“And it may take years. I often meet people who say: ‘Oh, My Beautiful Laundrette meant so much to me in the mid ’80s and I wanted to thank you for that.’ And you think: ‘Well, that was a long time ago but I’m very glad I did it and now, the fact you say that to me, moves me and makes me feel that my life hasn’t been utterly pointless.’

“And that’s the pay-off, even though it may be 35 years later. It’s the reader that makes the work. Unless other people read it, it doesn’t have any meaning.”

Kureishi is now back home. In the pre-recorded interview, he reflects on how his long hoped-for return might feel.

“I really want to be with Isabella and my family and in my own house. I want to walk in the door and go about my world again as though this has been some terrible interregnum.

“But I’m going to go back into my house as a disabled person and I’m going to sleep in a hospital bed and I’m going to have people who are going to hoist me in and out of bed and change my clothes and give me a shower.

“So I have to adjust to becoming another sort of person with different relationships with different people.

“But I also have to try and identify with others to whom this has also happened, they live lives that they really didn’t think they’d end up living.”

Hanif Kureishi was speaking to the Today programme’s Mishal Husain.

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