When Hari Kunzru released his first book, The Impressionist, in 2003, he was already well-known enough as a journalist to acquire an impressive advance.
The protagonist of The Impressionist is forced to keep changing their identity and background in order to survive in different cultures. Although Kunzru has had a solid public image for many years, in his works, little is as it initially seems.
In Gods without Men, a supposedly normal story of a New York family’s vacation to a B&B in the Southwest turns into an exploration of the supernatural and the limits of faith and reason.
White Tears, a seemingly lighthearted tale of two college graduates opening a music studio in Brooklyn, becomes a dark history of violence that has been erased from records.
I find that reading one of Kunzru’s novels provides an exploration of my own personal preoccupations.
White Tears allowed me to combine my fondness for analog recording technology with an awareness of the exploitation that often comes with our cultural systems. Gods Without Men blended my enthusiasm for psychedelia together with a series of rational ideas.
It is remarkable to me how Kunzru has been able to comprehend and provide answers to many of the difficult and novel questions that are faced in today’s world.
Since 2003, Hari Kunzru’s literary output has been impressive, with eight books released in that time. He has also been a vocal critic of public figures on Twitter, from Newt Gingrich to The New York Times.
His notable achievements include being part of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list following the publication of The Impressionist, receiving a Somerset Maugham Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and serving as the deputy president of English PEN.
Despite having studied Kunzru’s work for months and growing ever more fascinated, I finally got the chance to actually talk to him. His daily schedule is hectic, as he is also a father of young children living in Brooklyn, so a lengthy conversation was out of the question.
We spoke for a single hour via Skype, the ideal platform for an artist whose purpose is to call into question the ‘real’. I could see his face, but it was always fleeting, like it was dissolving into pixels.
As it turns out, one hour was enough for Kunzru to give his unique insight on ufology, blues revivalism, philosophy of mind, postmodernism’s downfall, and the chaotic political environment of the day.
THE ENTHUSIAST: I have a tale that I am eager to pass on. A few years ago, prior to reading White Tears or even being aware that there was a work like White Tears, I joined a couple of my musician buddies in visiting a man named Joe Bussard.1
HARI KUNZRU: I am familiar with him, though I’ve never had the chance to meet him.
BLVR: He filled our ears with wonderful 78 rpm records, an array of blues, country, gospel and early jazz such as King Oliver.
As the evening progressed, he began to recall a friend of his who worked as an engineer for NASA. According to him, in the ’50s, this person had gone to Area 51, where aliens were rumored to have landed.
BLVR: — Joe recounted to us a story with no trace of irony, detailing how there were five extraterrestrials in the room when his colleague was in the facility, with three of them already deceased, one inactive but still alive, and one roaming the room.
I don’t think it’s mere chance that multiple people on Earth share the same fascination with 78s and UFO sightings. Do you think there’s a link between your enduring enthusiasm for ancient audio recordings and unidentified flying objects?
HK: My intrigue with UFOs has to do with religion and how people respond to the unknown.
I’m captivated by the differing attitudes people have towards things that are past comprehension, whether they see them as dangerous or exciting, and if they even need to occupy the space of the unknown with some kind of definite view, or if being content with not knowing is adequate.
Currently, we are in a time where conspiracy is a part of life.
Examining the UFO conspiracy is interesting to me as an approach to following a cultural history, and accordingly, this may be related to wanting to unearth forgotten music and attempt to comprehend minor paths of the past through music.
My enthusiasm for UFOs is not exactly an “Is anyone out there?” kind of eagerness.
It has much more to do with how the stories we tell about them have altered since the Second World War and the very early days after the Second World War when the first UFO interest starts to be part of public awareness and the people involved in propagating it are largely individuals with a spiritualism background. The aliens are practically angels – they look human, are of a higher order, and are frequently racialized as Aryan, beautiful white people.
They are here on a mission to save us, normally from nuclear war or our own destructive behavior.
The ambiguity of people’s feelings towards the state is where the shift towards Area 51 as a site of people’s imaginations begins to take place. The ET-like Grey aliens appear in the early ’60s and their relationship with us is still unknown.
Some people speculate they are hostile, conducting experiments and treating us like cattle. The Area 51 story is also seen as a tale of the Cold War. Mark Pilkington, a British UFO researcher who had spent time in the UFO subculture, adopted a skeptical mindset.
The UFO faction had connections with the Air Force. High-level Air Force personnel would give subtle hints to confirm that the UFO researchers were on the right track.
This was the most exhilarating thing for the UFO people, as it seemed to validate their beliefs in the possibility of extraterrestrial existence.
This seems to be a cover up for the secret military operations being done on these bases, which is seen as the weaponization of the UFO culture.
BLVR: In the ’60s and ’70s, the American novel was greatly influenced by the theme of postwar paranoia.
Writers such as Pynchon and DeLillo, who were concerned with such paranoia, had a leftist political world view and were suspicious of authority figures. But, in recent years, paranoia and conspiracy theories have been appropriated by the right.
This new faction of the right in America has its entire ideology based on improbable conspiracy theories including white genocide–
HK: Yeah, and all that related to QAnon2.
BLVR: Has the recent appearance of fear from the right had an influence on your thoughts and views concerning these ideas?
I can answer that question in two ways: one from a historical perspective and one from a literary form. In the 1950s, the Red Scare was thought to be a consequence of a right-wing political movement, and the horror genre of Body Snatchers focused on the concept of an alien takeover.
However, from the New Left era up to the 1980s, the conspiracies began to center around government activities and the secret state.
People my age have lived through evidence of hidden machinations, beginning with the Kennedy assassination and continuing on to Iran-Contra and beyond.
The most shocking of these, I believe, were the COINTELPRO revelations, in which the state was found to be actively working against domestic opponents and even murdering people.
Don DeLillo is a fascinating figure in terms of his literary form.
His book Libra is one of the most complex works that looks at the idea of plot as either a conspiracy or a literary form. I was an eighteen-year-old admirer of Pynchon and other ’60s and ’70s writers with a humorous and zany tone.
Coming from a conservative literary background, I found it liberating to realize that you could tell jokes without having to stick to a realistic style. In the past, this kind of zaniness was connected to politics, but now it’s viewed as a frightening force.
In terms of literature, it became a set of forms. With postmodernism, things started to fall apart in the late ’80s or early ’90s.
When I was studying humanities in college, Derrida was the focus of the debates and the idea of language not being stable or fixed in its relation to the world was seen as a possible way to gain freedom.
Recently, this lack of an anchor has begun to feel more like a problem than a solution. There is a current trend in English-language fiction which has caused many writers to become anxious about plot and character, whom I wouldn’t have expected to have issues with it
. This autofictional trend has led many to declare that they are fed up with the falseness of fiction and prefer a biographically rooted authenticity. I see this as a sign of the thinness and strangeness of our current moment.
Despite this, I am still dedicated to the forms of fiction. I am comfortable with creating something original, and I believe that the structures of fiction can help us comprehend a very intricate, multifaceted world.
In the past, some fiction writers have felt embarrassed by their work due to the commercial world that it is a part of, which is often seen as uncool.
Novels are not easily reduced to a modernist rigor, but there have been experiments which have tested the novel as a formal apparatus. I am not self-conscious about the fact that I make up stories, and I appreciate the literary genre elements.
My previous experience as a science fiction writer, as well as the works of Pynchon, have helped to shape my writing in a way that is not considered trendy, but is useful in this modern era.
BLVR: The topic of authenticity appears in much of your work, but particularly in White Tears , where Seth and Carter, two young men who manage a recording studio in Brooklyn, are obsessed with uncovering the most genuine recordings – a paradox.
We can determine the level of authenticity of a Robert Johnson song on a 78 rpm vinyl record versus an MP3. You touched on the idea of using fiction to explore actual events – do you contemplate it in this manner?
I have always been on the receiving end of conversations about authenticity, because of my ethnic background.
As a young writer, I had expected postmodernist ideas to help create a different understanding of identity, one which didn’t place people on either side of a divide between those with a so-called “fully present” authenticity and those seen as lacking or broken.
Unfortunately, this theory and its politics have fallen short. For instance, when it comes to the blues, it is often used as a symbol of authenticity and realness.
This is problematic because it overlooks the fact that the blues has a heavily racialized history: the primitive bluesman is seen as having a nonintellectual, nonartistic connection with the sound – rather than being an artist creating art.
However, a closer look reveals that the blues musicians of the past were conscious, professional artists who would tailor their performances to their audiences. Therefore, the narrative of the blues as a primitive, savant-like music is false.
Authenticity fascinates me in the context of a fake story. I was very interested to learn about the New York record collectors in the ’40s and ’50s who essentially created a taste for the blues; it relates to leftist ideas about exclusion
. I’m not advocating a notion of ‘there is no real’, but I’m intrigued by the complexity of the narratives. In White Tears, I’ve written a story about bad white appropriation leading to bloodshed.
But it’s way more intricate than just white people taking from Black creators; the collectors and people such as Joe Bussard have done remarkable cultural work. Interestingly, Joe Bussard’s views on race are apparently not what one would expect.
My conclusion: I do not believe so.
HK: A man who knows a great deal about this is a Trump supporter, which is bizarre to me. This is the world we live in.
BLVR: After White Tears was published, many people interpreted the novel as being written by someone of color about racist white people. In an interview, though, you remarked that you “have no business writing this book.” I didn’t observe any reviews which made this comment to you, but I’m curious if a part of you meant to ask “Who does have the right to this story?” and “Am I allowed to?”.
HK suggested that the language of ownership, which we are so accustomed to using when discussing this matter, is causing us difficulty. On the surface, it appears to be sensible since people who create something should have rights over it.
Yet, the concept of quasi-legal rights and property can lead to absurd outcomes. Furthermore, any form of fiction is impossible without acts of appropriation; if one were to adhere strictly to the idea of ownership, something like Anomalisa would be the result.
As a result, the battle is essentially lost; the notion of purity is not achievable. In order to express their imagination, people should not be prohibited from doing so.
Black music has been very influential in HK’s life, and he has had to consider the lack of ownership he has over it.
Great art is universal, and should be accessible to those who do not necessarily have a cultural connection to it. Taking a nationalist cultural stance can be problematic, and other methods are required to make the issue legible.
When discussing cultural politics, it is easy to look at the economy of it all.
Who can sustain themselves through creating art? Who is given recognition? It’s not like everyone is born with a bag full of recipes, books, and other items; culture is something that is done, shared, and dialogued about. It requires participation.
When pondering if one should write, it involves understanding your personal position and how it relates to the present
. It is also about being honest about whom should be heard from. It is not about censorship, but about protecting rights. White writers may feel that their voice is neutral and transcends any of their own beliefs.
But everyone should be conscious of their own identity and how it impacts their writing. This is not a burden, but a learning opportunity. This conversation is a positive one and there is a lot to gain from it. In the end, nuance and embodied dialogue will make us better writers.
III. THE SELF AS A NOTEBOOK
The self can be thought of as a kind of notebook, where experiences, memories, and knowledge are stored for later use
. It is a repository of the individual’s history, enabling them to recall, interpret, and act on their memories. In this way, the self is an important tool for interpreting the world and guiding decisions.
BLVR: In White Tears and Gods without Men, questions of identity are significant right from the start and, as the stories develop, become increasingly complex.
In both novels, Seth’s story is intertwined with Charlie Shaw’s, and they seem indistinguishable. Jaz is certain his son is not his son, and there is a chance he is right.
4 The political identity is important, but do you have any interest in a psychological or philosophical question of being that is not political or that predates the political?
I’ve been looking into the concept of a character, the psychology of fiction, and how the idea of a self is related to the functioning of the mind.
My research has taken me to Thomas Metzinger, a German philosopher, who claims that the self is merely an imagined construct. This theory is interesting but also unsettling for many of our fundamental beliefs about the world.
My first novel, The Impressionist, follows a character who has changed himself so completely at different points in his life that it’s not clear if he’s still the same person.
It was inspired by the postmodern idea of Talented Mr. Ripley, but with a focus on the question of what happens if someone commits a crime and then is put on trial, but isn’t the same person anymore in some meaningful way.
In the ’90s, I was a part of the tech counterculture scene in London, where people were excited by the posthuman liberation from everyday life. Now, however, the idea of posthuman has become much more frightening.
Currently, I am pondering what happens to human rights if we no longer accept the concept of humanity.
This could mean that any actions, such as making food out of neighbors or burning them, would be justified, which I find interesting for fiction writers to explore.
I am currently working on a novel about a student of poetry who begins to think he has no inner life. This is not as dark as White Tears and it touches upon some alt-right ideas.
BLVR: We’ve had an abundance of conversation on the topic of authenticity, with your work containing a lot of vagueness and insecurity.
This is clearly something that you are fixated on. Your creations are also interested in the thought of faith, both spiritually and politically, and taking a stance on an ideology. Is there a set of beliefs that you feel you can embrace and pledge allegiance to?
Growing up, I was not exposed to any spiritual tradition. On one side of my family, there were Hindus and, on the other, Christians. As a result, I was left to my own devices so as not to offend either side. I identify as both a materialist and an atheist, not believing in anything that exists outside of the knowable world. I do, however, find the unknown fascinating, understanding that our senses are limited and that our perception of the world is a model rather than a reality. From this point of view, I would consider myself a skeptic but it is not a feeling of distress.
Joe Bussard has built up one of the most comprehensive stashes of original 78 rpm records. In it, there are a bunch of country, blues, and jazz singles from the 1920s which he gained through a method known as “canvassing” in small towns, a process which is discussed in White Tears.
The moniker QAnon is applied to a conspiracy theory that began on 4chan, the online message board.
It alleges that a number of well-known, mainly liberal figures are behind a hidden agenda of child abuse and a plot to oppose Donald Trump, who it is assumed is conscious of what is going on and is fighting against it.
Centered around the eccentric James McKune was a group referred to as the blues mafia. They lived in a single room at the YMCA on Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn and included figures like Don Kent, Pete Whelan, as well as John Fahey, the guitarist.
In the latter sections of White Tears, there are alternating narrative voices. Seth, a young white music producer, and Charlie Shaw, a blues musician whose story is no longer known, both relate their similar stories.
Gods without Men tells of a young boy, Raj Matharu, who goes missing while on a trip in the Southwest with his parents, Jaz and Lisa Matharu. Upon Raj’s return, Jaz notices a difference in his behavior, which leads to suspicion that it is not the same child.
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