Newness in the world: an introduction to The Black Album

Hanif Kureishi explains how the rise of Islamic radicalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as Britain's growing awareness of itself as a multicultural society, inspired his novel The Black Album.

The Black Album was a novel I had begun to think about in 1991, not long after the publication of my first book, The Buddha of Suburbia. Unlike that story, which I'd been trying to tell in numerous versions since I first decided to become a writer aged 14, The Black Album was more or less contemporary, a state of Britain narrative not unlike the ones I’d grown up watching in the theatre and on TV.

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie in February 1989 had reignited my concern about the rise of Islamic radicalism, something I’d first become aware of while in Pakistan in 1982, where I was writing My Beautiful Laundrette. But for me that wasn't the whole story. Much else of interest was happening around the end of the 80s: the music of Prince; the collapse of communism and the velvet revolution; the rise of the new dance music along with the use of a revelatory new drug, Ecstasy; Tiananmen Square; Madonna using Catholic imagery in 'Like a Prayer'; and postmodernism, mashups and the celebration of hybridity – of exchange and creative contamination – which is partly the subject of The Satanic Verses.

Typescript draft of 'The Rainbow Sign' by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript draft of 'The Rainbow Sign' by Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi describes becoming aware of Islamic radicalism during his first trip to Pakistan in 1982, in the essay ‘The Rainbow Sign’.

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Typescript draft of The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

Draft of the Black Album by Hanif Kureishi. April 1993

In The Black Album Kureishi responds to the politics of the 1980s but also the period’s vibrant pop culture. Prince, drugs and dance music collide in this draft scene, written April 1993.

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This was also the period, or so I like to think, when Britain became aware that it was changing, or, in effect, had already changed from a monocultural to a multiracial society, and had realised, at last, that there was no going back. This wasn't a mere confrontation with simple racism, the kind of thing I'd grown up with, which was usually referred to as the colour problem. (When I was a young man it was taken for granted that to be black or Asian was to be inferior to the white man. And not for any particular reason. It was just the case: a fact).

No, it was much more. Almost blindly, in the post-war period, a huge, unprecedented social experiment had been taking place in Britain. The project was to turn – out of the end of the Empire and on the basis of mass immigration – a predominantly white society into a racially mixed one, thus forming a new notion of what Britain was.

And now was the time for this to be evaluated. The fatwa in 1989, and the debate and arguments it stimulated, seemed to make this clear. Was it not significant that many of these discussions were about language? The Iranian condemnation of a writer had, after all, been aimed at his words. What, then, was the relation between free speech and respect? What could and could not be said in a liberal society? How would different groups in this new society relate – or rather, speak – to one another?

The coercive force of language was something I had long been aware of. As a mixed-race child growing up in a white suburb, the debased language used about immigrants and their families had helped fix and limit my identity. My early attempts to write now seem like an attempt to undo this stasis, to create a more fluid and complicated self through storytelling. One of the uses of literature is that it will enable individuals to enlarge their sense of self – their vocabulary, the store of ideas they use to think about themselves.

In the 1970s, many of us became aware, via the scrutiny of the gay, feminist and black movements, of the power that language exerted. If the country was to change – excluding fewer people – so did the discourse, and why not? Language, which implicitly carried numerous meanings, developed all the time; if it was never still it could be revised, coaxed in other directions. There were terms applied to certain groups which were reductive, stupid, humiliating, oppressive. (Children, of course, are described constantly by their parents in ways which are both narrowing and liberating – and they have a good idea of what it is to live in an authoritarian world. It wasn't for nothing that I had been fascinated in my late teens by Wittgenstein's apophthegm, ‘The meaning of a word is its use’.)

If there were to be better words the language had to be policed in some way, the bad words being replaced by the good. This, of course, became known as Political Correctness, where language was forced to follow the – usually Leftist – political line. Inevitably there was a backlash, as this form of political control seemed not only harsh and censorious but sometimes ludicrous and irrelevant.

Liberals were in a tricky position, having to argue both for linguistic protectionism in some areas and for freedom in others. So that when some Muslims began to speak of respect for their religion and the insult of The Satanic Verses, the idea of free speech and its necessity and extension was always presented as the conclusive argument. Criticism was essential in any society. This could be said, but not that. But how would this be decided, and by whom?

The Marxists, too, were finding the issue of the fatwa difficult. It was only partly a coincidence that Islamic fundamentalism came to the West in the year that that other great cause, Marxist communism, disappeared. The character of the stuttering socialist teacher in The Black Album – Deedee Osgood’s husband Brownlow was partly inspired by some of the strangе convolutions of the disintegrating Left at the time.

At a conference in Amsterdam in 1989 I remember arguing with John Berger, who was insisting that complaints about the The Satanic Verses were justified, as they came from the downtrodden proletariat. Why, he said, would he want to support a privileged middle-class artist who was – supposedly – attacking the deepest beliefs of an otherwise exploited and humiliated Muslim working class? This seemed to me to be an eccentric and perverse point of view, particularly from a writer who had previously valued freedom, when it was obvious that the opportunity to dissent, to be critical of leaders and authorities – and to be free of censorship – was necessary for anyone to live a good life, as the many writers, critics and journalists in prison in Muslim countries would no doubt attest.

To struggle my way through this thicket of fine distinctions, debates and violent outcomes, I invented the story of Shahid, a somewhat lost and uncertain Asian kid from Kent – whose father has recently died – and who joins up, at college, with a bang of similar-minded anti-racists. The story develops with Shahid discovering that the group are going further than anti-racist activism. They are beginning to organise themselves not only around the attack on Rushdie, but as Islamo-fascists who believe themselves to be in possession of the truth. 

Typescript second draft of The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi, revised by hand

Draft of the Black Album by Hanif Kureishi. 25 June 1993

Shahid hears the news that a fatwa has been issued against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

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This is a big intellectual leap. As puritanical truth-possessors, Riaz’s group and those they identify with, have powerful, imperialistic ideas of how the world should be and what it should be purged of. Soon, believing the West has sunk into a stew of decadence, consumerism and celebrity obsession – a not untypical fantasy about the West, corresponding to a not unsimilar fantasy of the West about the sensual East, as Edward Said has argued – they believe it is their duty to bring about a new, pure world. They want to awaken benighted people to the reality of their situation. To do this they insist on a complete dominance of people's private lives, and of female sexuality in particular.

Some of these attitudes were familiar to me, as I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when the desire for revolution, for violent change, for the cleansing of exploitative capitalists and a more moral world, was part of our style. Almost everyone I knew had wanted, and worked in some way to bring about, not only the modification of capitalism, but its overthrow. For us, from D H Lawrence to William Burroughs and the Sex Pistols, blasphemy and dissent was a blessed thing, kicking open the door to the future, bringing new knowledge, freedom and ways of living. The credo was: be proud of your blasphemy, these vile idols have been worshipped for too long! The point was to be disrespectful, to piss on the sacred. As Guy Debord wrote, ‘Where there was fire, we carried petrol’.

Notes for The Black Album, by Hanif Kureishi

Notes for the Black Album by Hanif Kureishi. c. 1993

‘Brownlow on the 60s – it was a period when everything was questioned’: Kureishi takes notes on the attitudes of the 1960s in preparation for The Black Album.

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But there was, mixed in with this liberation rhetoric, as in all revolutions – either of the left or right – a strong element of puritanism and self-hatred. There was a desire for the masochism of obedience and self-punishment, something not only illustrated by the Taliban, but by all revolutionary movements which are inevitably bloated with the egotism of self-righteousness and in love with self-sacrifice. This concerns not only the erotics of the revolutionary moment, the ecstasy of a break with the past and the fantasy of renewal, but also the human penchant for living in authoritarian societies and intransigent systems, where safety and the firm constraint of the leader is preferable to liberal doubt, uncertainty and change. As Georges Bataille reminds us in an essay written in 1957, ‘Man goes constantly in fear of himself. His erotic urges terrify him’.

Riaz, the solemn, earnest and clever leader of the small group which Shahid joins, understands that hatred of the Other is an effective way of keeping his group not only together but moving forward. To do this, he has to create an effective paranoia. He must ensure that the image and idea of the Other is sufficiently horrible and dangerous to make it worth being afraid of The former colonialistic Western Other, having helped rush the East into premature modernity, must have no virtues. Just as the West has generated fantasies and misapprehensions of the East for its own purposes, the East this time stationed in the West will do the same, ensuring not only a comprehensive misunderstanding between the two sides, but a complete disjunction which occludes complexity.

Of course, for some Muslims this disjunction is there from the start. To be bereft of religion is to be bereft of human value. Almost unknowingly, Muslims who believe this are making a significant sacrifice by forfeiting the importance of seeing others, and of course themselves, as being completely human. In Karachi, I recall, people were both curious and amazed when I said I was an atheist. ‘So when you die, said one of my cousins, you'll be all dressed up with nowhere to go?’ At the same time, Islamic societies, far from being spiritual, are because of years of deprivation among the most materialistic on earth. Shopping and the mosque have no trouble in getting along together.

Some of the attitudes among the kids I talked to for The Black Album reminded me of Nietzsche's analysis of the origins of religion, in particular his idea that religion – and Nietzsche was referring to Christianity – was the aggression of the weak, of the victim or oppressed. These attacks on the West, and the religion they were supposed to protect, were in fact a form of highly organised resentment or bitterness, developed out of colonialism, racism and envy. The violent criticism of Rushdie, an exceptionally gifted artist of whom the community should have been proud, was in fact a hatred of talent and of the exceptional, a kind of forced equalisation from a religion which had not only become culturally and intellectual mediocre, but which was looking to the far past for a solution to contemporary difficulties.

Towards the end of The Black Album, with the help of his lecturer and soon-to-be girlfriend Deedee Osgood, Shahid understands that he has to withdraw from this group in order to establish himself on his own terms at last. This isn't easy, as the group has provided him with support, friendship and direction. It also doesn't want to let him go. He gets out, in part, by beginning to discover the exuberance of his own sexuality and creativity. ‘How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made?' asks Salman Rushdie, relevantly, at the beginning of The Satanic Verses.

It is also no accident that British and American pop, as exemplified for Shahid by Prince's intelligent, sensual and prolific creativity, is in a particularly lively phase. The clubs and parties Deedee takes Shahid to represent a continuing form of the youthful celebration that Britain has enjoyed since the 60s. If religions are among man's most important and finest creation – with God perhaps being his greatest idea of all – Shahid also learns how corrupt and stultifying these concepts can become if they fetishise obedience, if they are not renewed and re-thought. Like language itself, they can become decadent, and newness and vigour doesn't have an easy time. If blasphemy is as old as God, it is as necessary, because religion and blasphemy are made for one another. Without blasphemy religion has no potency or meaning. If there's nothing like a useful provocation to start a good conversation, this can only be to the advantage of religion.

It turns out that Shahid is one of the lucky ones, strong enough to find out after flirting with extreme religion that he'd rather affect the world as an artist rather than as an activist. The others in his group are not so intelligent or objective; or perhaps they are just more passionate for political change. Whatever the reasons and it is probably too late for psychological explanations something had begun to stir in the late 80s, which has had a profound effect on our world, and which we are still trying to come to terms with.

Hanif Kureishi explores suburbia, pop-culture, race and the fluidity of identity in relation to some of his most famous literary works. Shot at his house in south London and at the British Library, the film offers rare glimpses into Kureishi’s archive, allowing viewers to examine manuscript drafts of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.

'Newness in the World' from COLLECTED ESSAYS by Hanif Kureishi. Copyright © Hanif Kureishi 2011, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.

  • Hanif Kureishi
  • Hanif Kureishi grew up in Kent and studied philosophy at King’s College London. His novels include The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel, The Black Album, Intimacy, and The Last Word. His screenplays include My Beautiful Laundrette, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Le Week-End. He has also published several collections of short stories. Kureishi has been awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the PEN/ Pinter Prize, and is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His work has been translated into thirty-six languages. He is professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University.

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