He’s Tweeting for His Life

Hanif Kureishi’s tweets from his sickbed are a bravura performance that is no performance at all.

Twitter symbol pieced together
Matt Chase / The Atlantic; Getty

On the day after Christmas, the British novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi was visiting Rome when he suddenly blacked out in his apartment and woke up immobilized. “I then experienced what can only be described [as] a scooped, semi-circular object with talons attached scuttling towards me,” he tweeted 11 days later from his hospital bed. “Using what was left of my reason, I saw this was my hand, an uncanny object over which I had no agency.” He had suffered a grievous spinal injury that paralyzed his arms and legs. His wife began transcribing his words. Later, his son took over. These dispatches, anywhere from five to 20 tweets a day, given a title and later compiled as a Substack entry, have become an international phenomenon, written up in newspapers around the globe. Well-wishers—mostly strangers—reply, thanking him, encouraging him, commiserating, offering advice.

We’ve read communiqués from the sickbed before, but Kureishi, best known for his post-colonial, sexually multifarious, comic, and deeply cool screenplays (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and novels (The Buddha of Suburbia), as well as his bad-boy persona, brings a new urgency to the exercise. Several things explain the immediacy. One, the medium he is using, Twitter, is designed to make every utterance feel like a call for an ambulance. Two, he actually is dealing with a life-or-death situation: Either he recovers or he doesn’t, and his tweets seem to have something to do with the outcome. Three, catastrophe has given Kureishi a new topic and a new voice, richer than ever in its humanity.

We’re watching a bravura performance that is no performance at all. An immobilized, aging writer is processing in real time a traumatic present while gathering up his past in the face of God knows what future. The point is to piece together something—a memoir, a journal, a lifeline—jaunty enough to sound like him, to assert that he, who is himself, is still there, a writer, not a vegetable, able to communicate and pursue his vocation. Affirmation of self, connection to readers, survival: His bulletins express the most primal purposes of literature. As he tells his followers:

Every day when I dictate these thoughts, I open what is left of my broken body in order to try and reach you, to stop myself from dying inside.

You are keeping me alive.

I hope it doesn’t sound callous to say that Kureishi is being revitalized by disaster. I don’t think he’d mind. His son and collaborator, Carlo Kureishi, implied as much in an interview this week with Times Radio. His father, he says, is writing “more than he’s written in years now. He’s writing almost a thousand words a day, which is incredible, considering his condition. And he’s really got a subject now … which is always what a writer needs.” Or, as Kureishi puts it, lying “completely inert and silent in a drab room, without much distraction, is certainly good for creativity. Deprived of newspapers and music, you will find yourself becoming very imaginative.”

Broken up into flowing, haiku-esque tweets, his posts sound spontaneous, but Kureishi plots them carefully. Carlo describes his father asking him, “What are we doing next?” and “In three months time, what do we want to produce?” and talking about his philosophy of writing: “How do you make it interesting; how do you tell that story?”

So I don’t think I’m wrong to perceive intentionality and form. In the first thread, from January 6, he brings us up to speed: “I cannot scratch my nose, make a phone call or feed myself. As you can imagine, this is both humiliating, degrading and a burden for others. I’ve had an operation on my spine and have shown minor improvements in the last few days.” The next entry, January 7, “Enema,” begins his review of his life as a writer. One day, his father bought a new typewriter, and Kureishi learned to type by blindfolding himself with a tie; later, he copied out passages from Crime and Punishment. This led him to his calling. An interruption: “Excuse me for a moment, I must have an enema now.” On January 8, in “Dead Fingers Talking, Talking,” he describes his former writing routine and its accompanying material objects, bottles of different-colored ink and “good thick paper” on which his characters take shape. Another interruption: “Excuse me, I’m being injected in my belly with something called a ‘Heparina.’”

By January 11, in “The Door Opens,” Kureishi is cheerfully gossiping about the imperious theater agent Peggy Ramsay (she discovered the playwright Joe Orton and is featured in Orton’s biopic Prick Up Your Ears), whom he met while still on the way up. Kureishi gave her a manuscript of his to read; she got strawberry jam on it and told him contemptuously that it “looked a little short”; later, she developed dementia, and when her office burned down, she blamed it on him. He wants to get across what life is like for writers, “living creatures in the world” who struggle like everyone else.

But also: Let us not forget where we are. He worked out that tweet while his head was stuck all night between his bed and the wall and he couldn’t pull it out. You make what you can of what you are given. As he says elsewhere, “This is how I write these days; I fling a net over more or less random thoughts, draw it in and hope some kind of pattern emerges.”

Kureishi’s prospects don’t always seem bleak. Physiotherapists hoist him into a wheelchair and suddenly, he sees the sky for the first time in weeks: “some trees and a cloud and few birds. For the first time I believed that things might begin to improve.” He appears to be making progress: “I work in the gym with the physio”—the physical therapist—“for an hour or so and I feel different parts of my body starting to respond. This has been the best day so far.”

Deprived of his body, he takes pleasure in his physiotherapists’: “I have become a big admirer of Italian men. I find them very handsome. Their skin is smooth and it glows. Their sharp dark body hair is inspiring. They are neither macho nor mummy’s boys.” He is curious about the people who work in the hospital, their lives, their opinions. “I’ve had many intimate conversations with young queer and non-binary staff members,” Kureishi wrote. “They are afraid for the future of Italy, which as you know has the misfortune of being governed by a fascist.”

His main objective, though, is to whistle past the graveyard. The enema prompts the memory of an exam he had a few years earlier under the auspices of the National Health Service: A nurse inserted a finger into his “back side” and asked how long it took him to write Midnight’s Children—the great breakthrough novel of Britain’s other South Asian literary celebrity, Salman Rushdie. “I replied, ‘If I had indeed written Midnight’s Children, don’t you think I would have gone private?’”

But let us not forget where we are. You can make paralysis funny, but it’s not. His sign-offs are fond but desperate, and wryly repeat the phrase “in these shitty times,” as in, “Stay with me friends, don’t let me go. In these shitty times, your loving cripple, Hanif.” He can be pissy. He doesn’t always get along with his wife, who sits with him all day long. “She was looking tired and thin, as of course she would do in the circumstance of this terrible strain,” he writes. “Then she turned to me and asked, ‘Would you have ever done this for me?’ I couldn’t answer. I don’t know.”

Kureishi’s prognosis is uncertain. His family would like to bring him home to England, but moving him is complicated. In the meantime, he clings to identity, existence, hope, and, above all, wit. As he says in another sign-off: “More tomorrow, more optimism, more jokes.”