Kureishi, Hanif. Intimacy. Scribner, 1999.
Explosive—and justifiable—controversy surrounds the 1998 British best-seller Intimacy by Anglo/Indian Hanif Kureishi. Light to hand at barely a hundred pages, the novel weighs heavy with macho attitude. Too, while it is Kureishi’s most autobiographically confessional work to date, it tiptoes most lightly of his works around issues of racial and sexual identity formation. Intimacy records a sour night in the life of Jay—a fortysomething man who, not so unlike the author, leaves his partner, foodianado and publisher Susan, and their two ABC-age sons. Unlike Kureishi’s earlier racially identified, bisexual, and socially transgressive characters, Jay is a middle-class, heterosexual misogynist whose greatest transgression is that he simply wants out: He craves the world—a world that, as he puts it, is a “skirt I want to lift up” (15).
Jay is uncannily like Kureishi himself. He’s a successful writer and scenarist who makes a healthy income adapting books, penning reviews, and producing plays . And also like his author, Jay is a mixed Anglo and Indian Brit who hails from suburban working-class roots: Jay’s father’s a clerk and his mother’s a factory worker. (Kureishi’s sister recently refuted certain of Intimacy’s familial facts, accusing Kureishi of fictionalizing their family into a stereotype of alterity easily digested by the masses.) When Jay leaves Susan, he hints that he might hook back up with his erstwhile twentysomething love-interest, Nina. Kureishi left his partner, Tracy Scoffield, and their twin boys for a twenty-three year-old who, like Nina, plays drums for a rock group. Oddly, however, whereas Kureishi has made a career out of creating mostly bisexual and biracial characters and has capitalized on his own bisexual charm and “dark” good looks—appearing sexily on jacket covers and posing for Paul Smith at fashion shows and magazines—Jay is oblivious to his racial identity. In the end, the voice of Intimacy sounds like a whining combination of beat-your-male-drum-in-the-woods Robert Bly and I’m-a-poor-uptown-white-boy Martin Amis.
During the 1980s Kureishi first made his mark as a young Indo-Brit writer, scenarist, and playwright with an “Empire-Writes-Back” attitude. Along with a flourishing of mostly male postcolonial writers—Caryl Phillips, Ben Okri, Timothy Mo, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Salman Rushdie, to name a few—Kureishi fleshed out a panoply of black London types (conservative and radical, straight and queer, Indians and Africans, West Indians, Bangladeshis) that [End Page 1097] challenged mainstream ideas of blackness in a largely racist and homophobic Britain. The Buddha of Suburbia’s Karim Amir goes through puberty during an Enoch Powell era of racist oppression (Powell likened the ethnic subject to a contaminating “river of blood”). In My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and The Black Album, main characters struggle with their racial and bisexual identities during Thatcher’s conservative muscle flexing. Like his characters, Kureishi came of age as a writer during a time when, for example, Thatcher passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1987)—an act that criminalized queers and lesbians, referring to them, in a metaphor akin to Powell’s, as diseased “foreign invaders.” We might ask why Kureishi’s voice and attitude have suddenly shifted to almost completely deny the intersection of race and sexuality in the formation of the subaltern subject. Have the times changed that much?
Certainly, the racial and sexual climate of the late 1990s differs from that of the 1980s. Much representational turf has been won through black-authored resistance narratives in films, novels, and elsewhere. Perhaps, then, we can finally say that black writers like Kureishi complicate the earlier race-focused narratives by, as in the case of Intimacy, almost completely sidestepping the racial and sexuality issues. However, while many more British othered authors and directors now have access to those representational arenas that powerfully shape the mainstream imagination (just take a look at the number of black, gay, lesbian, and subaltern women writers who’ve been picking up the Booker in the last fifteen years), the everyday street reality remains aflame with racist and heterosexist violent behavior. For example, even while Intimacy made the transatlantic crossing in February 1999, home-made nail bombs were exploding in London’s Afro-Caribbean enclave, Brixton, in the Bangladeshi-populated Brick Lane, and in the Admiral Duncan, a well-known gay and lesbian pub. Three people died and dozens were critically injured. So while an Anglo/Indian writer like Kureishi may sell enough books to merit an Atlantic crossing, and the British gay-focused TV soap Queer as Folk took over the number-one prime time spot, National Front splinter groups like Combat 18 and White Wolves went out “fag-” and “wog-” bashing.
So how, then, can we justify Kureishi’s invention of Jay—a pathetic middle-class, heterosexist black Brit in deep racial denial? Jay only mentions his Indian-ness very obliquely and identifies most with his white, commitment-deficient rogue friend, Victor. Is Kureishi uncritically reproducing the mind of a race-oblivious über-macho? Or could this be Kureishi’s subtle critique, via Jay’s internalized racism and sexism, of the complicated Other-phobia present in a fin-de-siècle London?
Paradoxically, perhaps, Intimacy reveals Kureishi at his most naked and complex. In spite of having “made it,” Jay is full of fear and hate. He is afraid, but he can’t quite say why: “My childhood still tastes of fear . . . of being kicked, abused, and insulted by other children . . . of annihilation” (27). He hates his family—“At times I hated my father. . . . I hate my children, at times, as they must hate me” (82)—but again he can’t explain why. Because of his confused hatred, fear, and rage, “I shoved strangers on the street. In the tube I pushed someone down the stairs, hoped to be arrested by the police and charged with possession of an uncontrolled mind” (72). Jay has internalized the fantasies of the black self as a degenerate other; the racist hegemony acts from within as he controls and contains himself, and this fantasy literalizes as he becomes the pathologically coded, monstrous black man in need of containment. So while we can read Jay’s leaving of Susan as a simple act of sexism, we can also see how this act—his fear of the “pulsation of feeling” (66)—represents the accumulation of years of self-hatred. In the end, Jay fears himself and his family, internalizing the white mainstream’s image of him as a violent black male subject who targets white women: “I could strike her [Susan]” (25).
Unlike Jay, Kureishi’s earlier characters identify as black British and dare to transgress sexual and racial borders. In My Beautiful Laundrette the character Omar (called a “wog boy” [End Page 1098] and told to “get back to the jungle”) takes a white ex-National Fronter, Johnny, for his lover. In The Black Album Karim Amir announces, “to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it” (53), yet his strong bisexual identification allows him to resist the heterosexist controlling structures that contain gay/straight, male/female polarities: “I liked strong bodies and the backs of boys’ necks. I liked being handled by men, their fists pulling me; and I liked objects—the ends of brushes, pens, fingers—up my arse. But I liked cunts and breasts, all of women’s softness, long smooth legs and the way women dressed” (55). And in The Black Album Shahid comes to into a critical awareness of his own internalized racism: “I wanted to become a racist. . . . My mind was invaded by killing-nigger fantasies. . . . Of going around abusing Pakis, niggers, Chinks, Irish, any foreign scum” (8–9). So where Omar resists sexual categories and Amir and Shahid come into a self-awareness of their blackness, Jay’s critical insights remain much like the following: “There are some fucks for which a man would watch his wife and children drown in a freezing sea” (91). As black cultural critic Stuart Hall explains in “What is this Black in Black Popular Culture?”:
. . . certain ways in which black men continue to live out their counter-identities as black masculinities and replay those fantasies of black masculinity in the tethers of popular culture are, when viewed from along other axes of difference, the very masculine identities that are oppressive to women, that claim visibility for their hardness only at the expense of the vulnerability of black women and the feminization of gay black men.(31)
For example, where Jay identifies with macho role models—the woman-abusing Victor, a character like Shahid identifies with the musician-artist Prince. The Black Album’s narrator describes Prince as “half black and half white, half man, half woman, half size, feminine but macho too” (21), offering an alternative to the confining gender and sexual types Jay identifies with; Shahid, like Prince and unlike Jay, becomes a character that is both “soft” and “tough,” white and black, straight and bent. Shahid, as Kobena Mercer writes generally of artists like Prince, embodies “the cultural constructedness of the sexual roles and identities we inhabit” (141).
Certainly, unlike Shahid or Karim, Jay is not a character to celebrate. Even when he comes close to crossing sexual borders, as when he lingers for a little too long on his “young gay friend’s” emotionless sex life and talks of Victor’s “lovely helplessness” (45) with more than a casual interest, Jay’s intimations of a transgressive same-sex desire are cut short. Heterosexual panic snaps into place, and the body of the white woman, Nina, becomes the object of Jay’s fascination in the end.
Kureishi’s Intimacy might not be the race-and-sexuality-focused novel we’ve come to expect—and that is still needed—in an ultra-conservative, New Right Britain. Kureishi serves up a middle-class, heterosexual identified Anglo/Indian character who is full of contradiction and short-sighted stupidity. To his credit, however, Kureishi takes a bold step away from liberalist multiculti expectations; his bold, terse, sharply crafted prose spotlights that murky, confused area of black male identity not many have the courage to take on. Jay’s story (which is also Kureishi’s) provides a representation alternative to the Black-British subject as de facto resistant to and transgressive of a white, heterosexist, middle-class hegemony.
This isn’t to let Kureishi, or Jay, off the hook. Kureishi’s sentences might hum with an honest vitality, but his waxing poetic easily turns into self-indulgent drivel: “What a job, the harvesting of misery” (73). And it’s hard to stomach lines such as “there are some fucks for which a man would watch his wife and children drown in a freezing sea” (91) and detailed descriptions of [End Page 1099] Jay’s masturbatory transgression. Kureishi’s self-centered, misogynistic slights of hand merit those critical responses that identify him as a self-obsessed wanker (The Edge) and Intimacy “a repugnant little book [filled with] such callousness [it] verges on the psychotic” (Connolly 18). Finally, Kureishi’s figuration of Jay as a sentimental onlooker of gay sexual politics simply reproduces the current trends that contain queers and lesbians by hyping same-sex sexuality as a fashionable Look—and not a permanent reality with very real consequences.
In all of its mixed-upness, Intimacy remains a powerful record of the political unconscious of a fin-de-siècle otherness. Outlawed desire can exist, but only as an unthreatening, fantasized alternative to heterosexuality; the black middle-class male subject can exist in a dominant white mainstream but only as a non-member that must deny racial heritage and violently vent against women. That Kureishi spilled the novel out in a month might speak less to his coming to terms with his behavior than provide a testimony of his intimate scrape with a contradictory black and white, straight and bent, British political unconscious.
Frederick Luis Aldama, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English at Stanford University, is currently working on two book-length manuscripts, Hybridity, Mimesis, Ethnicity and Queer Subaltern: Reformings of Suffering and Ecstasy. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published in the Journal of Narrative and Life History, African-American Review, Stanford Humanities Review, and other journals.