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An Interview with Hari Kunzru

“CULTURE IS NOT A STOREHOUSE OF STUFF; AT BIRTH, YOU DON’T GET ISSUED A BAG WITH SOME RECIPES AND SOME GREAT BOOKS AND SOME SHIT THAT IS YOURS. CULTURE IS SOMETHING YOU DO.”

by Stephen Piccarella
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Hari Kunzru

“CULTURE IS NOT A STOREHOUSE OF STUFF; AT BIRTH, YOU DON’T GET ISSUED A BAG WITH SOME RECIPES AND SOME GREAT BOOKS AND SOME SHIT THAT IS YOURS. CULTURE IS SOMETHING YOU DO.”

by Stephen Piccarella
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Hari Kunzru

Stephen Piccarella
5 Snaps

In 2003, when he published his first novel, The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru was already a recognizable enough print and TV journalist to receive a record-breaking advance. The protagonist of The Impressionist hides and reinvents his identity, assuming different names and claiming different ethnicities repeatedly in order to survive in different spaces and cultures. Although Kunzru has maintained a stable public identity for decades, in his work little is as it first appears. In Gods without Men, the story of a middle-class New York family’s stay at a bed-and-breakfast in the Southwest becomes an inquiry into paranormal events and the limits of faith and reason. In White Tears, a story about two liberal arts grads opening a music studio in Brooklyn becomes a blood epic unearthing centuries of violence that have been struck from written history. 

When I read one of Kunzru’s novels, I find one of my own obsessions pursued to a satisfying end. White Tears connected my nerdy fascination with analog recording technology to the exploitation implicit in our cultural economies. Gods without Men, a pastiche spanning centuries, synthesized my excitement about psychedelia into a series of neat epistemological premises. In a world in which new and frightening questions emerge every day, it’s startling to discover how many of them Kunzru has already anticipated, engaged with, and answered.

Kunzru has published eight books at a steady clip since 2003, and yet he still finds the time to take down any public figure who dares to present him with a weak or dubious ideological stance on Twitter, from Newt Gingrich to The New York Times. He was named one of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” after publishing The Impressionist, has received honors including a Somerset Maugham Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and served as the deputy president of English PEN. These are just the highlights.

After consuming his work for many months, with increasing enthusiasm, I finally had the opportunity to talk with Kunzru. He’s busy these days with all of the above and also with raising his young children in Brooklyn, so a long meeting was out of the question. We spoke for an hour via Skype, which is a perfect platform for an author dedicated to calling the real into question: I saw his face, but never for long before it broke down into pixels. As it turns out, an hour is more than enough time for Kunzru to offer essayistic takes on ufology, blues revivalism, philosophy of mind, the decline of postmodernism, and the maddening landscape of contemporary political discourse. 

—Stephen Piccarella

 

I. A RECOVERING PYNCHONITE

THE BELIEVER: There’s a story I’ve been eager to share with you. A couple of years ago, before I read White Tears or knew that a book like White Tears was going to come out, I went with a couple of musician friends to visit a man named Joe Bussard.1 

HARI KUNZRU: Oh yeah, I know him, or I know of him. I’ve not met him.

BLVR: He played us wonderful 78 rpm records, lots of blues, and also country, gospel, and early jazz, like King Oliver. Then, a couple of hours in, he started reminiscing about a friend of his who had worked as an engineer with NASA, and he said that his friend, in the ’50s, went to Area 51, where the aliens had supposedly visited us—

HK: [Laughs]

BLVR: —and that when his friend was at the facility, there were five aliens in the room, and three of them were dead, one of them was alive but not moving, and one was up and walking around the room. Joe was definitely telling us this story with no hint of irony, and I think he believed it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s more than one person on the planet with these twin attractions to 78s and alien visitation. Do you see any connection between your sustained interests in early recorded music and UFOs? 

HK: My interest in UFOs has to do with religion, really, and how people handle the unknown. I’m fascinated by the different orientations that people have toward the things that are beyond human understanding, whether those things are threatening or exciting, whether they even need to fill the space of the unknown with some sort of determinate idea, whether they’re happy with not knowing as a condition. Now we’re at a historical and political moment where conspiracy is part of the warp and weft of our daily lives. The UFO conspiracy is very interesting to me as a way of tracing a cultural history, so I suppose that might be where it would connect with wanting to dig up forgotten music and trying to understand minor pathways through the past through music. My excitement about UFOs isn’t really a straightforward “Is anybody out there?” sort of excitement. It’s much more to do with the ways the stories we tell about them have changed since the Second World War, very early on after the Second World War, when the first UFO fascination starts to be part of public consciousness and the people involved in propagating it are by and large people who have a background in spiritualism. The aliens are effectively angels—they’re human looking; they’re kind of higher; they’re often very racialized as Aryan, beautiful white people, and they’re here on a mission to save us, usually from nuclear war or our own destructive tendencies. 

Then suddenly it shifts at the point when people’s feelings about the state start to become more ambiguous, and you get Area 51 emerging as a site in people’s imaginations. The standard ET-like Grey aliens only come along fairly late; I think they turn up in the early ’60s, and they are oriented toward us as much more indeterminate. Some of them are actively hostile, they’re doing experiments, they’re potentially treating us like cattle, they’re certainly not our protectors from a higher plane of knowledge, and you see how the UFO story propagates. The Area 51 story’s really interesting as a story about the Cold War as well. There’s a guy called Mark Pilkington, a British UFO researcher who spent a lot of time in the hard-core UFO subculture and who adopted an interestingly skeptical frame of mind. The UFO faction has these contacts with people from the Air Force. High-level Air Force people turn up to tip the wink to some UFO researcher to say, “I can’t say publicly that you’ve got it right, but hey, man, you’re on to something there,” and this of course is the most exciting thing imaginable, a confirmation that everything they believe is possible is true. The UFO people are made to believe they’re correct and that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, and this provides a sort of smoke screen for the various test flights and other secret military projects being done on these bases. It’s deliberate disinfo, weaponizing the UFO subculture.

BLVR: Postwar paranoia was a literary theme particularly in the American novel in the ’60s and ’70s. I understand the first wave of paranoid literature, at least in the West, as being connected to a vaguely leftist political world view. Writers who were concerned with paranoia—Pynchon, DeLillo, et cetera—were skeptical of the government, skeptical of power. In recent years, in America and elsewhere, paranoia and conspiracy theory have really become co-opted by the right. There’s this new faction of the right wing in America. All of their ideology is based on harebrained conspiracy theories like white genocide—

HK: Yeah, and QAnon2 and all that.

BLVR: Has seeing this emergence of right-wing paranoia affected the way you think about those ideas?

HK: There’s two parallel strands to how I’d want to answer that. One is to do with history and one is to do with literary form. If you take the Red Scare of the ’50s—which initially emanated from a right-wing political position—and the Body Snatchers genre of alien movie as a sense of ideological takeover by people from another side, there has been a historical shift in our thinking about conspiracy theory. From the moment of the new left and afterward, the ’60s right through to the ’80s, the conspiracies become about the government and the actions of the secret state. If you’re my age, you lived through everything from Iran-Contra onward. Kennedy onward, it was already very well established that there were wheels within wheels. I would guess that the things that really shook people on the left were the COINTELPRO revelations and the idea that the state was prepared to work against domestic opponents and was prepared to murder people. That was, I imagine, very shocking for people. 

In terms of literary form, DeLillo’s such an interesting figure. Libra, his book about the Kennedy assassination, is one of the most sophisticated books addressing this question of plot as conspiracy versus plot as literary form. I’m a recovering Pynchonite, really. I was an eighteen-year-old fan of Pynchon and various other ’60s and ’70s writers with quite an antic, zany tone. I came out of quite a conservative background in terms of what literature was supposed to be and what you were supposed to write, and it felt very liberating to me to understand that you could tell bad jokes and not worry about maintaining a certain realist texture. In the ’60s and ’70s that zaniness connected in a political way. There’s the Man and there’s the kids who are kind of crazy and wild and free. That’s really flipped. I think that now we don’t have a sense that informational excess, and our inability to process everything and the kind of absence of stability in tone and reality, is a liberating force. I think that feels, in this political moment, like a very threatening force. In literary terms, it became domesticated as a set of forms. With high postmodernism, eventually the wheels fell off, sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Around the time I was an undergraduate in humanities departments, Derrida was the point around which you had to argue, and this indeterminacy—that language did not relate to the world in any fixed or stable way—again was being mined for liberatory possibilities. 

More recently, that lack of anchor has started to feel like a problem rather than the solution to anything. We’re in an interesting moment in English-language fiction right now where we’ve had several years of a kind of nervousness about plot and character from a lot of writers. The autofictional trend that’s been around has led a lot of people who I never would have thought had much of a problem with plot and character to suddenly declare that they, too, are sick of the fakery of fiction and want to have some sort of biographically rooted authenticity. I see that as a nervous reaction to the thinness and scary zaniness of our current moment. But I’m quite committed to the forms of fiction, actually. I’m very comfortable with making stuff up, and I think the structures of fiction are quite useful for understanding a very complex, multipolar, multifaceted world. Historically, a certain kind of fiction writer has been a bit embarrassed about fiction, because compared to contemporary art and the kind of coolness of modernism—I use coolness both in the sense of hipness and also in the sense of affectlessness and precision or tightness—fiction is in this cheesy commercial world. You have bad covers put on your stuff, and the whole thing is just desperately uncool. Novels are just never going to be reducible to a kind of modernist rigor. You can look at things like the nouveau roman as various interesting experiments that test out the novel as a formal apparatus, but essentially the novel is baggy and messy, and bits get stuck to it, and it gets mixed up with the writer’s life and the writer’s world in a very unsatisfactory way. As I say, I’m not self-conscious about the fact that I make things up, and I like echoing literary genre stuff. I have a past as a teenage science fiction writer. Again, Pynchon is a sort of hinterland to my writing that is not a cool hinterland. It’s a kind of speculation attached to writing stories that I think is useful and can do work in our present moment.

 

II. “A FAKE STORY ABOUT AUTHENTICITY IS INSTANTLY FASCINATING TO ME.”

BLVR: A lot of your writing is about authenticity, but specifically, in White Tears, Seth and Carter, the two young men who run a recording studio in Brooklyn, are obsessed with finding the most authentic recordings, which is a contradiction. A recording is a copy of something, but we recognize a gradation of authenticity from a Robert Johnson song on a 78 rpm vinyl record to one on an MP3. A lot of the things you were talking about, like using fiction to investigate what’s happening in the real world, are playing to the same concept, using what is by definition inauthentic to touch something real. Do you think about it that way?

HK: I’m very suspicious of the ways that authenticity gets deployed culturally and politically. I’ve always been on the wrong end of any conversation about authenticity because of stuff to do with my ethnic background. I’m insufficiently white and insufficiently brown. When I was an undergraduate and a young writer, I was really hoping that these postmodernist ideas were going to allow us to put together a new way of understanding identity that wasn’t on this spectrum between those perceived as having a “fully present” authenticity and the rest of us, who were a bit lacking or broken in some way. The limits of that theory and those politics have emerged now. The blues is sold as a signifier of authenticity first and foremost. If blues turns up in popular culture now, in a beer advert, or whatever it is, it’s signing the real America, it’s signing a kind of rootsiness, it’s signing a kind of connection with the past. Historians of the blues are at pains to point out that this is quite a racialized history as well, because you end up with this picture of the primitive bluesman somehow channeling the sound, in a nonintellectual, nonartistic way, in a sort of savant way, rather than as a conscious artist making art. Robert Johnson spent half his time playing polkas to white audiences. He was a professional musician. He was going to change his set depending on where he was playing. If you were playing at a church picnic, you were playing holy songs. If you were playing at a barrelhouse, you were going to play blues. If you were playing for the boss’s white relatives, you’d play Tin Pan Alley popular songs. These guys were very self-conscious professional artists, so that whole story about the blues is fake. 

A fake story about authenticity is instantly fascinating to me. I was very, very interested when I discovered the coterie of New York record collectors in the late ’40s and early ’50s who essentially invented the contemporary taste for the blues,3 and the terms in which we think about it, which is to do with leftist ideas about social exclusion. Certainly it’s about authenticity. I’m not speaking in favor of some old-school There is no real; let’s all go skipping through the fields of signification, tra-la-la-la-la, but I’m interested in the complexity of these stories. In White Tears, I grant you, I’ve written a story where bad white appropriators end up in welters of blood, but it is way more complicated than just bad white people stealing from the authentic creative Black people, because those collectors and people like Joe Bussard have done extraordinary cultural work. Funnily enough, Joe Bussard’s personal opinions about race are apparently not those that one might wish him to hold.

BLVR: I don’t think so.

HK: There’s a guy who’s steeped in all this stuff, and I think he’s a Trump guy, actually. That seems insane to me, but that’s where we are.

BLVR: After White Tears came out, I think a lot of people did receive it as a novel by a person of color about racist white people. However, in an interview you said, “I have no business writing this book.” I didn’t read any reviews where anyone said that to you, but I’m wondering if there was a part of you that meant to ask or provoke this question of “Who does have the right to this story?” And “Is it me?”

HK: Yeah, absolutely. Clearly I’ve stumbled into the middle of something that I have no ownership over, and that whole language of ownership, which is the language with which we have been taught to frame this conversation, is causing us a lot of trouble. It seems on the surface that it’s a useful language because you think intuitively that some people made some stuff and they should have rights to it and other people, who don’t own that stuff, are stealing it. That sometimes leads to actual legal challenges. But then you get into quasi-legal language and it allows for quasi-legal conversations about rights and ownership and property. I think it runs into the weeds in very well-documented ways. Who judges? Who are the gatekeepers? Who is the council of the owners that gets to say who’s appropriating and has the right to use what? Instantly you get into absurdities. Fiction is not possible without acts of appropriation.  You cannot create a character without acts of appropriation. Anomalisa, that movie where everybody has the same face, is the kind of work you’d have if you were attempting to speak only from the position that you own. So essentially the battle is already lost; purity is not possible. When writing fiction, you are venturing forth into a situation. Whether you’re understanding that in the usual kind of identity categories or not, you are appropriating. A priori, you can’t deny anybody the right to attempt to imagine what they want to imagine. It doesn’t seem either desirable or practical to make that prohibition. Black music has been such an important part of my life, and my absence of ownership of that music has been something I’ve had to work with. When I put the needle down on a dub record, a reggae record, and sing idly along to some lyric about Haile Selassie, what is it I am doing there? One of the characteristics of great art, one of the things that we want to say about great art of any kind, is that it’s universal. That’s almost in the concept—that it speaks outside the context in which it was made, so that means if you want to assert that, say, John Coltrane is a great artist, he has to be allowed to reach people who have no cultural connection to him or no necessary ownership of him or the tradition he comes from. If you’re taking a nationalist cultural position, you’re into some sticky stuff, and you’re limiting the horizon. If you’re saying that only certain people get to listen to and love something, then you’re also in trouble, so given that the ground is so treacherous for everybody already, I think you have to find some other ways of unpacking the question to make it legible. 

In terms of cultural politics, the easiest way of slicing it up is to say there’s a material basis. You can follow the money. Who’s getting paid? Who’s able to sustain themselves by making work? Who’s reviewed? Who’s listened to? Who’s acknowledged and recognized as great artists? That is fairly easy for us to trace. It’s just about who gets to sustain themselves. Culture is not a storehouse of stuff; at birth, you don’t get issued a bag with some recipes and some great books and some shit that is yours. Culture is something you do. Culture is something in which you participate. Participation as in sharing, as in a dialogic thing, is where we start to understand what’s actually happening here. If you are participating, regardless of your ethnic origin or your position, if you are in that relationship of dialogue with the work, whatever it is, and if you are putting in as well as taking out, then I think that is useful and positive. “Should you write?” is a question that involves being quite honest about your personal position and the meaning of your particular artistic gesture at this historical moment. Right now, there are many areas that it seems not especially useful to hear from some people on. I would rather hear a trans writer about gender than I would a cis writer. I think a lot of the hand-wringing right-wing talk about censorship and the mob and the illiberal left is just hooey. They don’t actually care about anybody getting free; what they care about is protecting their own rights, and it’s very unfamiliar for some white writers to have their objectivity questioned. They are socialized to believe that their voice is in some way neutral, and that they are almost disembodied, they are capable of transcending whatever their individual position might be in order to speak universally. In a way, that’s the central claim of artistic whiteness, whereas the rest of us have to inevitably think about our identities, these bloody millstones around our necks that we’ve always got to go, Oh, I’ve got to write about my identity. I’ve got to think about my identity. What we all want is for us all to be able to freely imagine, but without that culpable forgetting that you are an individual with a particular window on the world. I don’t think that’s a terrible burden for white writers to have to shoulder. It doesn’t necessarily stop you from doing anything; it just means you’re actually tuning into some aspects about being in the world that will probably make you a better writer. I’ve spent my entire life talking about identity, and nobody’s ever asked Ian McEwan about his identity. I do want to say that I think this is a positive conversation. It’s good. It’s being presented as the sans culottes mob tearing at the ankles of the beautiful, free white artists and shackling the imagination, but it’s really very good that as a culture we’re having this difficult conversation. I think things are moving on, and when the smoke clears and all the silliness and hysteria get put in the past, we’re going to work out that we haven’t really lost anything at all, that we’ve gained a level of nuance and a sort of ability to be embodied and be in dialogue with one another that’s really aesthetically useful.

 

III. THE SELF AS SCRATCHPAD

BLVR: I noticed that in White Tears and Gods without Men, questions of identity are important at the outset, and as you move through the novel, they don’t go away, but they do become more and more complicated, and there comes a point in both novels where it seems that the question of being is problematized. Seth’s story becomes intertwined with Charlie Shaw’s, and they become indistinguishable. Jaz becomes sure that his son is not his son, and he may be correct.4 The question of political identity is important here, but are you interested at all in a psychological or philosophical question of being that is perhaps not political, or that precedes the political?

HK: Funnily enough, that is really what I’m working on at the moment. In a literary way, I got interested in what a character is a long, long time ago, and the kind of psychology that turns up in fiction, and the kinds of bogus psychology that feel comforting in a piece of fiction—explanations for character, explanations for motivation, and so on. But more recently I’ve been reading a lot of neurophilosophy, philosophy of mind, and becoming very interested in the ways that the whole idea of a self is kind of epiphenomenal to the way that the mind actually functions. The normal folk picture is: I decide to go pick up my flask, and my intention to pick it up activates my mind and body, and the flask gets picked up. That is not the correct picture. The self is something like a model that we project or that we use as a scratchpad for various processes that we need on our desktops at that particular moment. I’m reading quite a lot of the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger. He’s a fascinating guy who’s at the intersection of a lot of scientific work about the brain and a lot of philosophy-of-mind stuff, and he wants to make the case that the self doesn’t exist in any real way, that the self is essentially a model, and this is fascinating and also deeply troubling for lots of very basic things that we think and feel about the world. 

For my first novel, The Impressionist, I wrote a story about somebody who changes himself so thoroughly at several points during his life that it’s not clear that he is substantially the same person as he was before. That’s edging toward a postmodernist idea, but I was trying to keep it in the frame of somebody who’s actually, in a slightly Talented Mr. Ripley­–ish way, reinventing himself. I still find that really interesting to chew over. If you do commit a murder and then you’re on trial, if you’re not substantially the same person, or if you’re not in some meaningful way the same, what is that? What is going on there? And if ideas about intention and causality in the mind are not as clear as we think, then all sorts of things start to fall apart. In the ’90s, I was a graduate student and also running around in the tech counterculture scene in London, where artists and writers and tech people were thinking about the posthuman, and at that point the posthuman was a joyous liberation from the normie shackles of the everyday. Now we are heading toward something that is posthuman, and it’s terrifying. 

A question that’s really preoccupying me at the moment is: If you no longer believe in the category of the human, what happens to human rights? If there’s no dignity that is afforded the individual by virtue of being human, that opens the floodgates, doesn’t it? That means if you want to make Soylent Green out of your neighbors, then you can make them into food, you can torch them, you can do whatever, and I think that’s a fascinating question for fiction writers in particular, because we do have this nineteenth-century psychology that we habitually function with, and there’s certain explanations for things that are felt to be correct in novels. So I’m writing a novel about a scholar of lyric poetry who starts to suspect that he has no inner life. It’s funnier than White Tears, and it heads into a lot of alt-right-y stuff as well.

BLVR: We’ve talked a lot about authenticity, and your work is rife with indeterminacy and uncertainty, and obviously these questions preoccupy you. Your work is also concerned with the idea of faith, and different spiritual faiths, and also faith in a political sense, in aligning yourself with an ideology. Spiritual or political or otherwise, is there a belief system you feel you can adopt and commit yourself to?

HK: Off the shelf, no. I grew up outside any spiritual tradition. On one side of my family there are believing Hindus, and on the other side of my family there are reasonably serious believing Christians, so I was rather left to get on with it so as not to offend one side or the other. I tend to call myself a materialist and an atheist. I don’t believe there is a realm of spirit outside the potentially knowable world. My relationship with the unknown is that it’s potentially knowable, but it also fascinates me that our senses are limited things. We can detect certain spectra of light. The picture I have of the world around me is a model rather than a true, complete picture. It is an approximation that my brain is putting together and updating. From that point of view, I suppose I’m a skeptic, but I don’t find that a necessarily traumatic position.

1. Joe Bussard maintains one of the largest collections of original 78 rpm records. His collection includes country, blues, and jazz singles that date back to the 1920s, many of which he acquired by “canvassing” small towns, a practice detailed in White Tears.
2. QAnon is the popular name for a conspiracy theory originally advanced on the online message board 4chan. QAnon links various powerful persons, many of them mainstream liberal politicians, to malignant activities including systematic child abuse and political conspiracy against Donald Trump, who, according to the theory, is aware of these efforts and actively working to combat them.
3. The so-called blues mafia centered around the eccentric James McKune, who lived in a single room at a YMCA on Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn. It included figures like Don Kent, Pete Whelan, and the guitarist John Fahey.
4. White Tears alternates between different narrative voices in its latter sections, recounting similar experiences in the voice of Seth, a young white music producer, and Charlie Shaw, an early-blues musician whose story is lost to history. In Gods without Men, a boy named Raj Matharu goes missing while traveling in the Southwest with his parents, Jaz and Lisa Matharu. When Raj is later returned to his parents, Jaz observes Raj’s behavior and becomes suspicious that he is not the same child.
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