A Writer Collapses—As He Recovers, His Dispatches Captivate Readers

From a New York Times story by Sarah Lyall headlined “A Writer Collapses. As He Recovers, His Dispatches Captivate Readers”:

Just after Christmas, the writer Hanif Kureishi was taking a long walk in Rome, where he and his wife, Isabella D’Amico, were spending the holiday, when he suddenly collapsed onto the sidewalk. It is unclear why — perhaps he fainted, said his son Carlo Kureishi, or perhaps he suffered an epileptic fit — but he fell awkwardly, twisting his neck and grievously injuring the top of his spine.

When Kureishi regained his senses, he was lying in a pool of blood, unable to move his arms or his legs. “It occurred to me that there was no coordination between what was left of my mind and what remained of my body,” he wrote, via dictation, a few days later on Twitter. “I had become divorced from myself. I believed I was dying. I believed I had three breaths left.”

Taken to the Gemelli Hospital, Kureishi spent the next several days “profoundly traumatized, altered and unrecognizable to myself,” he said on Twitter. “At the moment, it is unclear whether I will ever be able to walk again, or whether I’ll ever be able to hold a pen.”

Since then, Kureishi, 68, a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and director best known for “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Buddha of Suburbia,” has been dictating daily dispatches from his hospital bed. In vivid, poignant prose, he is narrating his ongoing drama but also conjuring past memories, musing about writing and art and describing the terrifying, sometimes transcendent profundity of being dependent on the love and patience of others.

The posts are presented as series of tweets and also compiled as a Substack newsletter — postcards from an unfolding crisis. They have touched a nerve in readers, who have responded with practical advice, as well as messages of love, support and gratitude for what they say has been an extraordinary model of grace and imagination in the midst of calamity.

“We are all with you in this room, lying next to you on your trolley and staring at the ceiling tiles,” a Twitter user named Affi Parvizi-Wayne wrote. “Your beautiful writing transports us every day to your world.”

Kureishi first said he wanted to post something on social media a few days after the accident, his son Carlo said in an interview. “He’s not a private person in that respect,” Carlo said. “He’s always been autobiographical in his writing.”

He started dictating, almost in the way of an old-time, pre-internet reporter phoning in a story to the office (As he speaks, he notes the paragraph breaks, for example, by saying “new paragraph.”) “It came out very naturally, very fluidly,” Carlo said. “I thought that was that.” But the first posts attracted a great deal of interest, in part because Kureishi was channeling the fears of so many readers.

“What happened to my dad is pretty much the event that’s uppermost in people’s minds of what they don’t want to happen to them,” Carlo said.

The tweets are brave, profound, playful, lyrical, despairing and occasionally very funny. Mentioning an impending rectal exam, Kureishi recalled the last one he had, courtesy of the public National Health Service back in England. The nurse mistook him for Salman Rushdie.

“As the nurse flipped me over she asked me, “How long did it take you to write ‘Midnight’s Children?’” Kureishi wrote. “I replied, ‘If I had indeed written ‘Midnight’s Children,’ don’t you think I would have gone private?”

As it happens, the two writers are old friends. “My friend Salman Rushdie, one of the bravest men I know, a man who has stood up to the most evil form of Islamofascism, writes to me every single day, encouraging patience,” Kureishi wrote in one Twitter post. “He should know,” he added, a reference to the vicious stabbing attack on Rushdie last summer. “He gives me courage.”

Kureishi is about to move to a specialty rehabilitation hospital, and his recovery is likely to be arduous and uncertain. After an operation on his neck to reduce some of the swelling around his spinal cord, he has regained glimmers of movement in his legs and the tips of his fingers, Carlo said. No one has made a definitive prognosis, though a physical therapist recently “promised that I would raise a pen again with my right hand,” Kureishi wrote on Thursday.

The author has been grappling daily with the recalibration of his closest relationships — with his three sons, his wife and his ex-wife, the producer Tracey Scoffield, to whom he remains close. “This bomb has also shattered the lives of those around me,” he wrote.

“People love to be kind and help one another,” he added. “They also resent their dependence on each other and the fact they can’t do everything for themselves. My accident was a physical tragedy, but the emotional outcomes for all of us are going to be significant, but also very interesting.”

In 1997, readers marveled at the courage and humanity of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor who wrote the memoir “The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly” after a stroke left him profoundly paralyzed, suffering from locked-in syndrome and able to communicate only by blinking one eyelid. Kureishi’s situation is different, of course: He is not as physically incapacitated as Bauby, for one thing. But what is perhaps most striking about what he is doing is that it is unfolding in real time, as if he is writing from inside a storm, rather than waiting for it to abate.

As such, his dispatches have the impact almost of a serial novel that is being written in installments as the action takes place and before the author knows the ending.

In one of his posts, Kureishi talked about his love of the physical act of putting pen to paper, how he likes to “write a word, a sentence, then another sentence, until I feel something wake up inside me.”

“As I make these marks, I begin to hear characters speaking, and then they start speaking to each other if I’m lucky; if I’m even luckier, they might start amusing one another,” he continued. “I’m sure many painters, writers, architects, sports people and gardeners love their tools, and see their tools as an extension of their body.

“I hope one day I will be able to go back to using my own precious and beloved instruments.”

Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks including Sports, Culture, Media and International. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro desks.

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