Hanif Kureishi

My Ear At His Heart

“The relation between a life and the telling of it is impossible to unravel.”

Where do we look to see ourselves? Mirrors are mute beyond reflection. Our seminal representations of being begin with our parents.1

I’ve written about our relationship with our mothers and how we are unable to see them apart from our selves. But what about the fathers? Does their narrative clarify on our own?

On the floor in a corner of my study, sticking out from under a pile of other papers, is a shabby old folder containing a manuscript I believe will tell me a lot about my father and my own past. But ever since it was discovered I have been glancing at it, looking away, getting on with something else, thinking about it, doing nothing. The manuscript was given to me a few weeks ago, having turned up after more than eleven years. It is a novel written by my father, a legacy of words, a protracted will, perhaps – I don’t know yet what it contains. Like all his fiction it was never published. I think I should read it.

When Hanif Kureishi (born December 5, 1954) begins an exploration (“exploration – I don’t know what else to call it” writes the author) of his father’s unpublished manuscript, he steps into a stream of being and self-understanding in My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father.

When initially faced with this weighty object of memory, Kureishi sets it aside, choosing instead to look at his own history in books.2

When I first conceived the book I am now writing, lying in bed at night – before the discovery of dad’s text – I intended it to start with other books. I was wondering about the past as I often do now, dreaming further and further back, and thought that a way of capturing the flavour of my younger self might be to reread the writers I’d liked as a young man. I would look at, for instance, Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Salinger, Orwell, Hesse, lan Fleming and Wilde again, in order to see whether I could reinhabit the worlds they once made in my head, and identify myself in them.

In these memories Kureishi cobbles together what he calls a “collage” of self, but the real substance of who he is remains unfound. Unfinished.

Kureishi addresses this directly (like the unflinching, self-mining novelist he is).

But these are other artists and I am vacillating.

Pressingly, there is still the question of the semi-hidden book in the folder poking out from under a pile of other papers in my study, papers I have yet to find a place for, which reproach me every time I spot them. I have to say that I know the folder contains a novel called ‘An Indian Adolescence’. My father, who was a civil servant in the Pakistan Embassy in London, wrote novels, stories, and stage and radio plays all his adult life. I think he completed at least four novels, though all were turned down by numerous publishers and agents, which was traumatic for our family, who took the rejection personally. But dad did publish journalism about Pakistan, and about squash and cricket, and wrote two books on Pakistan for young people.

Eventually we cannot avoid looking to our parents to see ourselves, if only because our narratives are impenetrably interwoven. Even if the relationship is strained or non-existent.3

Children hear scores of stories, in numerous forms, before they can read them. But at the centre of their education is their induction into an ongoing story. This is the family legend or tradition, various versions of which their parents and family are keen to impress on them. Whatever else was going on in my life, through books I was entering a narrative, or myth, which concerned reading, and writers, as a kind of family transaction. Sport and cricket in particular – was part of this myth. Probably none of us would have been able to say exactly what sort of story it was. Nonetheless, an important communication was being made about what counted in the family, about how I should live and who I should be. If every child has their place in the family dream, and the parents have a project for the child, neither they nor the child can be sure what it is.

Photograph of Hanif Kureishi for "My Heart at his Ear" in the Examined Life LIbrary.
Hanif Kureishi, 2017.

What Kureishi faces in My Ear At His Heart is the concept that both he and his father – quite different people – can connect through a similar aspiration for telling and understanding one’s own story.4

Kureishi’s family, Indian by birth but Pakistani by politics, was displaced by war, and moving to a new country that never felt like home.

Paul Cezanne's Father. featured in Hanif Kureishi's "My Ear at His Heart" in the Examined Life Library.
“The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement” by Paul Cezanne. Cezanne pursued art as a career despite the objections of his banker father, and yet was beholden to his father for financial support, a tenuous relationship that eroded Cezanne’s sense of independence and well-being. This painting, from 1866, is a declaration of power, freedom, an expression on canvas that was impossible in person. Learn more. From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

“I think I go to my desk only to obey my father.” Kureishi writes of their disconnect and his unrelenting restlessness. “This might explain why I’m so furious when I arrive there and why I don’t know what to do when I’m finished.”

The unquenchable intellect that is Canadian-born Durga Chew Bose wrote of similar feelings:

To be first-generation means acquiescing to a lasting state of restlessness. It’s as if you’ve inherited not just your family’s knotted DNA but also the DNA acquired from their move, from veritable mileage, from the energy it took your parents to reestablish their lives. I learned early […] that my parents were not from here, but from there: Kolkata.

From Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood

And yet, there is a stream of connectedness, something that flows into us and through us and from us. Across borders and language and more. It is that desire to be part of our own story (and indeed, heritage) and to do that we need the chapters that precede ours.

Kureishi continues:

There is something I should confront. Although Dad’s book is written in the third person, switching occasionally, by ‘mistake’, into the first, I have to say it seems inevitable that I will read his stories as personal truths, if not in the detail then in the feeling. It annoys me, as it might any novelist, to have my own work reduced to autobiography, as though you’ve just written down what happened. Often, writing isn’t always a reflection of experience so much as a substitute for it, an ‘instead of’ rather than a ‘reliving’, a kind of daydreaming. The relation between a life and the telling of it is impossible to unravel. Still, whatever my father has made, I will be reconstructing him from these fragments or traces, attempting to locate his ‘self’ in these imaginings or scatterings.

In one of my recent ambles through The British Library, I found a manuscript of Kureishi’s 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia in which he crosses out a few lines, including the lead that read “It was the most exciting time there could have been, perhaps because everything was in flux.”

Draft of Hanif Kureishi's "The Buddha of Suburbia" in the Examined Life Library.
Second draft of Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” Kureishi’s almost autobiographical first novel of a young adolescent in London. Learn more. Courtesy of the British Library.

The line stayed with me because “flux” means something flowing constantly. That stream is where we see ourselves. Not entirely, but substantially.

At the end of the book, Kureichi ends on a sweet, critical note: “My father gave me what he wanted for himself.”

Kureishi continues:

Father gave me what he wanted for himself, and it was a lot: for a start, the education he lacked. If I’ve been interested in anything it came through what was in his head, along with the daily visits to the library I made with my mother. Then, out of father’s attempted writing cure, the energy of his narrow commitment, I found my own stories to tell. I cannot overestimate what a pleasure the writing life has been and how it has sustained and made me. It was where I started from and where I’m still going. Maybe, by doing this, I’ve given him something back; maybe the debt is done.

Some equally vulnerable narratives, fished from the same stream of kin consciousness, are Rebecca Solnit’s tour of the narratives we use to structure our lives and feelings, Dani Shapiro’s discovery for self launched when she found her biological father was not her biological father, as well my own study of what we truly inherit from the people who came before us.

That we all might have a folder with an old manuscript from our ancestors, cradling their vulnerabilities, failures and aspirations.