FOR Hanif Kureishi, the business of creative writing has got caught up in issues of reportage. His new book Intimacy sits on the fiction shelves of bookstores, as did The Buddha of Suburbia published eight years ago. But the books are both about himself and his life, close enough for his mother, sister and his former partner to say that he wasn't just writing fiction; he was getting his facts wrong.
Intimacy is nakedly, brutally almost, about walking away from his partner Tracey Scoffield, even if he calls her Susan. A bitter letter really to the woman he left, a letter the reading public is invited to look at. "Nobody believes it's just pure fiction," claims Scoffield, speaking days after Kureishi's sister Yasmin wrote to The Guardian following an interview in which he spoke about his family. Her brother, she said, was lying about their family life, and had "sold his family down the line."
Hanif Kureishi is quiet in the face of the facts about the 'facts' he has been writing about. But it raises questions about a writer's licence to fictionalise his life. Or, the ethics of writing autobiography, fooling about with facts and calling it fiction. "He says it's a novel, but that's an absolute abdication of responsibility," Scoffield said in an interview to The Observer. "It's total hypocrisy. There are sequences which are intended for me only and only I can understand them."
Kureishi writes about the 'Susan' of the story: "I liked her humdrum dexterity and ability to cope." That's about as generous as he gets. Later, about a session with a counsellor: "Susan's fat red weeping face in that room the second time, as I declare that I don't think things can be repaired. To have made it absolutely clear, I should have given her a back-hander or a finger in the eye. Then they would have understood!"
Kureishi has spoken of the writer's need to write with freedom. "If you started to censor yourself as a writer you wouldn't get anywhere at all, you'd have a terrible book. You'd be full of things to say but you'd be afraid to say them." This freedom, Scoffield says, has been at her expense and at the expense of her children. In an interview, Kureishi countered this when he talked about his four-year-old twin sons he left behind with his partner: "Children are durable. They are tough. It's not as though I am killing them." One critic has called this a "repugnant little book".
His ex-partner spoke of their story being presented as a novel days after his sister said his earlier novel was only a distorted story of their family life. "Does being famous mean you can devalue those around you and rewrite history for even more personal gain?" Yasmin (and not Jasmine as she corrected The Guardian) wrote.
She said the story of his family he narrates "gives a false impression of our family life." If that book was fiction, so was the story of his life that he narrated in the interview as his actual story. Home was not as sordid as Hanif suggested. "We lived in a pleasant semi (semi-detached house), down a quiet cul-de-sac in Bromley. My grandfather was not a 'cloth cap working class' person. He owned three shops and he was a kind, warm man." Hanif's story is that his mother had a little job in a shoe factory, frustrated by her dependence on her husband.
His sister wrote back: "My mother never worked in a shoe factory, there are no shoe factories in Bromley. She had several part-time jobs in the beginning, one of which was working for three months in Russel and Bromley to help pay my school fees, as I went to a ballet school. My mother, after she left school, went to art college until the age of 21: she is an intelligent, articulate and not uncultured person. I feel deeply saddened that it should have come to this because I've felt so proud of Hanif...."
The difference between sister and brother, between fact and fiction seemed most bitter about the father. "To be kind to Hanif I won't tell you everything, but I will focus on the lies in this article," Yasmin wrote. Far from being "particularly devoted to him" as Hanif claimed, his father did not talk to Hanif for a year after The Buddha of Suburbia came out, Yasmin wrote. "He felt Hanif had robbed him of his dignity." The description of her father as a "bitter man" at the end of his life was "cruelly exaggerated," she wrote. Despite his illness he and his wife "went on holidays... and generally enjoyed themselves." Yas-min said she holds the memory of her father dear "and I will do anything in my power to ensure that it is not fabricated for the entertainment of the public or for Hanif's profit". She said: "It is a shame that I have had to write this letter to you, but if our life has to become public knowledge, at least get it right."
A family is "sold down the line" under the garb of creative fiction. The writer tells his readers there is enough in the fiction that was actual for them to be hurt. But he does not take responsibility because it is a novel. Hanif Kureishi writes nakedly well, even if not creatively. He is his own subject; those around him fill in. Given that, does he owe them honesty and decency? But who said he's trying to be a nice guy?