How working with homeless people gave Kazuo Ishiguro an education in human nature

How working with homeless people gave Kazuo Ishiguro an education in human nature
A crash course in compassion — Before he was a Booker Prize-winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro was a social worker in a London homeless shelter. He tells how a tough job taught him about the extremes of human nature and helped shape him as a writer.

At formative points in my growing up, I did social work. I worked in community development in Scotland for a short while and I worked with homeless people in London for two or three years. Those periods of experience did go into my first novels, but not in a direct way. I was never tempted to write about the homelessness scene in a realistic way. I felt a bit guilty about this, but I used to work in a homeless hostel in west London.

“It was almost like a crash course in seeing the frailties of human beings and all the things that can actually destroy people. You saw a whole wide range of examples just paraded in front of you, one after the other. When you’re dealing with homeless people, they’re homeless for a huge variety of reasons and it can get a bit depressing. But when you’re young and slightly idealistic and naive, as I was then, there’s a kind of culpable detachment you have to these people. You think you’re going to be able to help them – they’re going to get better, they’re going to get better, it’s just a temporary thing. You end up seeing so many people in different stages of distress and their lives unravelling. You see people without their natural defences.

kazuo ishiguro in Hampstead

“They’re quite open when they’re in that vulnerable stage. They pour out things to you. You see the different strategies they have to try to keep their spirits up, the kinds of lies they tell to each other – to themselves. A huge number of people you meet in that situation say, ‘Something has just happened this week that’s going to change everything for me for the better. It’s been really bad you can see from all I’ve told you that everything’s collapsed over the past five years, but guess what? This thing has happened and everything will be alright now.’ You hear that over and over again.

“The number of people I’d met on that scene who had changed their names over and over again – it’s almost like they needed a fresh start. I always felt vaguely guilty that I learned so much that helped me in my fiction writing. I suspect as a very inexperienced young person, I didn’t give them as much help as I could’ve done if I was older and knew more. But I did learn quite a lot from that experience. It certainly helped in the way I look at characters and to some extent the way I create the worlds in my novels.”

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, is published by Faber & Faber.

This interview originally appeared in Huck’s 50th Issue SpecialGrab it in the Huck Shop now or Subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

 

Latest on Huck

In photos: Three decades of Glastonbury Festival’s people and subcultures
Photography

In photos: Three decades of Glastonbury Festival’s people and subcultures

A new photobook explores the unique cultural experience and communal spirit found at the UK’s largest festival.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo
Photography

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo

A new book by photographer Feng Li uses images of strange encounters to explore the historical centre of street photography.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore
Culture

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore

A new book dives into the ancient traditions and rituals that many are turning to in an age of uncertainty, crisis and climate breakdown.

Written by: Thomas Andrei

Inside London’s Museum of Sex
Culture

Inside London’s Museum of Sex

For two days only a derelict house in south east London will become a hub of artwork exploring eroticism, sexuality, gender, and the body.

Written by: Brit Dawson

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?
Outdoors

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?

During this summer’s edition of the Euros, one certainty is the ubiquity of Diamond’s 1969 hit. But how and why did it gain such a storied place in England fans’ hearts? Jimmy McIntosh investigates.

Written by: Jimmy McIntosh

Can things only get better, again?
Election 2024

Can things only get better, again?

With the re-emergence of D:Ream’s euphoric 1993 hit and a ’97 style Labour landslide looking likely, Hannah Ewens dives deep into the creation of Cool Britannia, and asks experts whether it could be repeated again.

Written by: Hannah Ewens

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now