Migrants and Refugees in Contemporary Fiction. Identity Crises in "The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi

Term Paper, 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


1 Identity – The Novel's dominating Theme

2 Karim's cultural Hybridity

3 Sexual Identity – Process and Progress?




“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishmen, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.”1 These two much-cited sentences mark the beginning of Hanif Kureishi's successful first novel The Buddha of Suburbia which was published in 1990. How these first lines are connected with the term paper's topic is revealed late in the introductory part. Moreover the introduction of this term paper includes following points. First of all a general overview about the most important aspects of the novel is provided. This part should not be confused with a summary of the whole book, but it is a necessary frame to understand further investigations. After this the main theme of the paper is explained. This passage ends with a thesis which guides the reader through the investigations made in the main body. The paper's structure and what the reader can expect to get to know in the single chapters is also revealed. Furthermore it includes some information about the state of research and the personal motivation towards the topic.

The Buddha of Suburbia is a modern Bildungsroman, depicting Karim's journey towards self-discovery. The story is presented in the form of a fictional autobiography, with Karim as the narrator-protagonist. It is set against the background of ordinary life experiences in the multicultural London of the 1970's and 1980's. The seventeen-year-old protagonist lets the reader follow him over four years in which he undergoes different forms of transformation. The adolescent Karim is a second-generation immigrant who has an English mother, Margaret, and an Indian father, the title-giving “Buddha of Suburbia” Haroon, by whom he is highly influenced. The lively novel is divided into two sections. “In the Suburbs” and “In the City” and primarily set in the South London Suburbs and Central London with a short but significant move to New York. There are other minor protagonists like Haroon's friend from India, Anwar and his family, who will be introduced in the main body.2

A look back at the the novel's first lines leaves the reader quite confused. Reading the first sentence one would not suspect Karim to struggle with his national identity as he obviously lived in England all of his life. But already the last word of the first sentence and the second sentence itself is contradictory to that anticipation as it indicates the narrator's crisis of being in between two different cultures. As mentioned before, the novel is set in the seventies and eighties, which were hard times for immigrants as racism and xenophobia were at the top of the agenda. Hence every character in the novel who shares a non-English background experiences discrimination. But racism and xenophobia are not nearly the only topics Kureishi addresses. The novel is extraordinarily rich in themes. It ranges across class, race, politics, gender, sexuality, pop culture, literature and theatre. There is one thing all these different aspects have in common. They all culminate in the struggle for identity and this struggle is prevalent in every character in The Buddha of Suburbia. Consequently the term paper's main goals can be formulated as follows. First of all it aims at proving that the novel's dominating theme is identity respectively 'identity crisis' and that it is not just depicted through its main protagonist, but within many characters. Therefore different experiences of the character need to be investigated in the first part of the main body. These investigations will furthermore point out that the novel is concerned with different forms of identity crises such as the problem of masculinity and sexuality. After this the last step is to analyse the main character's development from the beginning to the end of the novel. As a kind of basis, following thesis will guide the term paper: Identity is the most relevant topic in The Buddha of Suburbia. The main protagonist Karim successfully undergoes different processes and finally escapes from his identity crises.

The term paper consists of an introduction, three main chapters and a conclusion. The first part of the main chapter demonstrates the different forms of identity crises which are thematised in the novel. At this place some theoretical terms just like hybridity need to be mentioned and explained for a further understanding. Furthermore the reader gets familiar with some other characters who play an important role in terms of identity. Part two and three of the main body specifically focus on the novel's main protagonist as well as on two major forms of identity crises. First of all Karim's Indian background is taken into account accompanied with the problems his cultural hybridity causes. Afterwards the many sexual experiences the narrator gains in the novel are investigated. Which events have an impact on his personality? Which kinds of inner conflicts does he have to face and does he manage to solve them or does he miserably fail? All these questions are answered in the main body. The conclusion contains a summary of all important aspects investigated in the paper. Moreover the thesis which was proposed in the introduction will either be confirmed or confounded.

Apart from the novel itself which is of course one of the main sources for the following analyses and interpretations, there is a number of highly recommendable secondary literature that is very useful for investigating the topic. At this point one has to mention Nahem Yousaf's Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia as well as Susie Thomas' Hanif Kureishi. A reader's guide to essential criticism. Yousaf's solely analyses Kureishi's first novel while Thomas investigates many of the author's writings including an extensive chapter about The Buddha of Suburbia. In general Kureishi's literature is part of recent debates about the representation of immigrants. Furthermore there are controversies surrounding his treatment of homosexual relationships in the novel. For these reasons many of the books which deal with colonial and postcolonial literature, include a chapter about The Buddha of Suburbia.3

At the beginning of my introduction it was mentioned that it will also contain some words concerning the personal motivation and why the theme identity crisis is analysed . The subject with all its different aspects seems to be as relevant as never before. No single person who lives in Germany in 2018 can deny that she or he is not concerned with the current refugee crisis. Even if the immigrant's situations are not comparable with Karim's, a vast number of people might find oneself represented in the novel's protagonist or other characters. Not least because of the current situation the topic is worth being investigated.

1 Identity – The Novel's dominating Theme

Kureishi's current standing as one of the leading representatives of 'Black British' or 'Postcolonial British' writing in Great Britain is largely built upon the success of his first novel The Buddha of Suburbia. But which categories does the author address in the novel and how are they connected to the identity crises?

First of all Kureishi's emphasis on the categories of race and ethnicity needs to be mentioned. Their highly sensitive treatment in accordance with the problem of identity construction are foregrounded in the novel. The matter of race and ethnicity becomes visible because of the narrator's 'brown' skin colour. This is why he is biologically marked as a racially different 'Other' and stereotyped by the 'white' majority as a victimized object of racial abuse and violence. Karim, the immigrant protagonist, is torn between the positions of cultural assimilation and diasporic isolation. For this reason he is primarily concerned with trying to locate himself, to sort out the concrete options of his potential fur cultural and ethnic hybridity and to make sense of his 'in-betweenness'.4 This concept of hybridity plays a major role in the novel. Diaspora, such as the migration of Haroon, Anwar and Changez, resulted in cultural hybridity in Britain. A strong sense of nationalism united many Britons against any scary, alien 'Other'. The mentioned concept of hybridity is central to the novel as the readers are confronted with scenes of racism, such as the attack by the right-wing gang who “jumped out on Changez and called him a Paki, not realising he was Indian. [...] and started to carve the initials of the National Front on his stomach with a razor blade.” (The Buddha, p. 224). Such criminal organisations like the National Front were able to emerge in the seventies and eighties due to the growing xenophobia many of the white Britons felt towards the increasing number of immigrants in England. This process of growing nationalism has a key role as it closely refers to the matter of identity.5 In its original sense, the term hybridity means “a crossing of different species” as well as “anything derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of different or incongruous elements”. Although cultural hybridity is highly contested in postcolonial theory, it is useful as it describes the resisting of cultural nationalism within the 'host' society.6 The term perfectly describes the ambiguous position demonstrated by Karim. He describes himself as an “odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not [...]” (The Buddha, p. 3). This self-characterisation proves that ethnic and cultural identity are highly emphasised in the novel, as its main protagonist is concerned with negotiating his personal cultural position during the novel.

The crises of identity are not only concerned with the categories of race and ethnicity. The Buddha of Suburbia also touches on the themes class and gender. Even if these categories do not have the same impact on the novel's characters they cannot be neglected. Especially 'gender troubles' and significant expressions of a 'crisis of masculinity' have much importance for the life paths and identity constructions of the male protagonists. It is notably interesting that the categories of race and gender are mixed in the novel, as interethnic sexuality is portrayed in it. Kureishi also has an explicit interest in manifestations of a crisis of masculinity in The Buddha of Suburbia. Albeit with respect to minor characters and not primarily to the main protagonist Karim, the novel reveals significant features of such a crisis.7 There is Eva Kay's husband, for example, who cannot cope with the self-empowerment of his ambitious and adulterous wife and ends up in a mental asylum after he suffers a nervous breakdown. Another scene which illustrates a crisis of masculinity is the desperate attempt of Uncle Anwar, who wants to reestablish his patriarchal authority by extorting his daughter Jamila. He wants her to accept a marriage with a husband flown in directly from Pakistan. This literally ends in his own self-destruction as Anwar goes on a hunger strike in the fourth chapter of the book. This sequence once again shows the mixture of ethnic and gender considerations. Anwar's attempt of “literally staking his life on the principle of absolute patriarchal authority.” (The Buddha, p. 64), does not only fail in terms of reestablishing his paternal claims, but is as well motivated by his internal wish to reaffirm his imaginary identification with the ethnic roots of his Islamic-Indian cultural origins in which he grew up. These two circumstances justify his decision to blackmail his own daughter. Although Jamila finaly indulges to her father's wish and marries Changez, Kureishi's female characters in general are not inferior to the male. On the contrary they are fairly successful in managing their lives and solving their identity crises. Jamila cannot at all be compared with a silent victim. After marrying Changez, she refuses to have sex with her husband and instead pursues her sexual freedom and continues to sleep with Karim and later is in a lesbian relationship. All in all Changez fails to assert his authority over her and needs to adapt the ways of his wife rather than vice versa. On the other hand, through his failure to establish himself as the head of his marriage, Changez is freed to explore different aspects of masculinity and pursues an affair with a Japanese prostitute called Shinko. This story again depicts the characters' possibilities to develop a strong sense of identity.

Finally, the last important category in terms of identity crises is the sexual identity. The desire for the racial 'Other' is a repeated pattern in The Buddha of Suburbia. In this sense the novel is a kind of look back at the era of the so-called sexual revolution when sexual experimentation was simply a part of the rebellious seventies atmosphere. Hence bisexuality is presented as the norm rather than a deviation.8 In the novel, especially the main protagonist Karim experiences many sexual relations of different kinds which will be subject of the main body's last chapter.

In this part of the term paper it was verified that Kureishi's first novel links to many different aspects of identity crises. This was illustrated by the experiences of different characters. The following chapters investigate two forms of identity crisis in a lot more detail. How far is Karim affected by the issues of race/culture and sexuality and what is the outcome of his personal crisis?

2 Karim's cultural Hybridity

Karim Amir is the seventeen years old main character and the first person narrator of the novel. Growing up in the South London suburbs he has to bear the falling apart of his parents' marriage, his sexual awakening and, in general terms, find out what he wants to do with his life. During these everyday struggles, Karim is confronted with a national identity crisis, because of his Indian origins. As announced in the first sections of the book, Karim is mixed race with a kind of 'creamy' skin colour as it is put in the novel. For this reason he cannot really relate to people of Indian descent, but is also not accepted as a member of the 'white' English community. For example, his mother Margaret summarises the national identity crisis by saying the following words: “But you're not an Indian. You've never been to India. You'd get diarrhoea the minute you stepped off that plane, I know you would. […] Who gave birth to you? You're an Englishman, I'm glad to say.” (The Buddha, p. 232.)


1 Hanif Kureishi. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber, 1990. 3.

2 Nahem Yousaf. Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Continuum, 2002. 28.

3 Susie Thomas. Hanif Kureishi. A reader's guide to essential criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 4.

4 Stefan Horlacher. Constructions Of Masculinity In British Literature From The Middle Ages To The Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 230.

5 John McLeod. Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. 213.

6 Stefan Glomb, Stefan Horlacher. Beyond Extremes. Repräsentation und Reflexion von Modernisierungsprozessen im zeitgenössischen britischen Roman. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004. 185.

7 Stefan Horlacher 232.

8 Elahe Haschemi Yekani. The Privilege of Crisis. Narratives of Masculinities of Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, Photography and Film. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag GmbH, 2011. 164.]

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Migrants and Refugees in Contemporary Fiction. Identity Crises in "The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi
University of Rostock
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
migrants, refugees, contemporary, fiction, identity, crises, buddha, suburbia, hanif, kureishi
Quote paper
Philip Sell (Author), 2017, Migrants and Refugees in Contemporary Fiction. Identity Crises in "The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/994829


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