Author's photo by Clayton Cubitt
It was started by blacks, taken over by the whites and called the Blues. This colourful irony of an iconic cultural expression compelled British Indian author Hari Kunzru to write what he calls ‘a ghost story of race in America’—a country he thinks haunted by racial history. White Tears, his latest book, is about this conflict of cultural ownership and belonging, of who an outsider really is, the difference between loving something and trying to earn it. Because, ‘we’re all made up of the things we love’. Which, for him, most recently happens to be his eight-month-old daughter Nila, who thankfully has someone else chasing after her as we talk about his much older love—the written word.
What is your first memory of writing?
The first thing I remember seeing printed was certainly in a school magazine when I was eight, and it was a story about my friends and I going on an expedition to either the arctic or the Antarctic, I can’t remember which, and I killed them all off over how much I liked them. It is kind of embarrassing but true.
Looking back at your journey, how would you sum up the last two decades of your writing practice? How has your craft evolved over the years?
I suppose my writing has become more controlled. In the beginning I always thought more was better, but I’ve learnt to use silence and reticence.
What inspired you to write White Tears?
So many different things. I came to live in the US in 2008, just when Barack Obama was getting elected. And I noticed how electing just one black person could be jumping to say, we don’t have to talk about race anymore. But it so happened that in the last few years as I was writing the book, the politics of race in America became more intense. And that probably hadn’t happened since the civil rights movement in 1960s. So that was part of it; I wanted to write about the history that I am now living, and also I’ve always had a great love for black American music. I wanted to write about that.
Can you give me a blurb on the book?
I tend to tell people that it’s a ghost story about race in America, because I think this is a country that is haunted by its racial history.
Tell me how you found and built your characters, Carter and Seth.
I wanted to write from the point of view of somebody who was observing a very wealthy, elite kind of American life. And, I wanted to write a book from the point of view of a sidekick. And there would be a lot of difference between the two. So that’s how they came about. Carter is based on different people I’ve had the chance to know or observe. To see how the gilded youth of America and other places operate is a good window for a book like this. The shier one, Seth, is the narrator, who is socially very awkward and only becomes part of the cool set when he meets Carter.
“In the beginning I always thought more was better, but I’ve learnt to use silence and reticence.”
What is your definition of an ‘outsider’ and that of ‘belonging’, two important words evoked from the pages, and two of the most misused words in the new world order?
Yes, that’s very true. To me, an outsider is anybody who doesn’t feel they are at the centre of their own life. They can be right about that or not. But anybody who feels that they are somehow looking at things from beyond a barrier is an outsider. Belonging is a very complicated idea right now, and I’m very chopped how quickly things are sliding for people in the US and in Britain as well; suddenly there’s this idea that you only really belong if you are white…I question that idea that white people have an exclusive ownership over being American or being British—it’s simply not true and that’s a big political fight that we’re having here, and in the same way in India. The fight about who is a real Indian, that phase keeps coming up and people pointing their finger at each other for not following the nationalist line of the government.
The past and the present meet your characters like both friends and foes throughout the story. How do you think people can make peace between both?
I would say this for everybody—you need to honestly face the past. If you don’t then it will distort the present and it will condemn you to live partly in the past. I think that’s what happened—injustices towards black Americans, native Americans. People here are very reluctant to acknowledge that in order to build this country, a lot of people suffered. For those of us who have a past involved in migration— my father’s migration from India to UK, my migration from UK to the US, I think you carry things with you…your connection to the land is not a simple one. You carry culture with you and you carry your values with you.
“To me, an outsider is anybody who doesn’t feel they are at the centre of their own life.”
Does saving the Blues stand for something greater in the book?
I’m interested in this idea that is much debated here—who owns certain cultural things? The story of the Blues is very particular, because it’s a black traditional form of music that became very popular with white people, and it was taken by white musicians and became rock and roll, and these days if you think of rock bands you now think of a bunch of longhaired white boys and yet the origin of their music is in black. So there’s a hot debate with music, the arts, books, with everything. And whether it’s your favourite book or a painting or a piece of music, we all use culture to help define ourselves. We’re all made up of the things we love. So it becomes very complicated if you are a young white American boy from the suburbs and what you love is the black music from 70 years ago. These aren’t simple things to resolve. Is that okay, is that not okay, why shouldn’t we touch something if it touches you? I often think there’s a difference between loving something and trying to earn it.
Can you take me behind your creative process?
I take notes in longhand in a notebook, and I enjoy immersing myself in different worlds…spending a lot of time reading books. For this novel I had to listen to a lot of music as well. I started listening to the music very seriously and a novel came out of that experience. And then, eventually, travel becomes a part of it as well, which does not happen very often. I went down to the city and I drove and went about looking for places mentioned in all Blues songs, and places that are associated with famous musicians, just trying to get little bits of text, and an atmosphere that you can’t find from reading or in the library.
What is next?
I spent six months in Germany last year, living in Berlin, and I’ve started writing something set in that city. It’s mostly contemporary, but has some things about the time before the Berlin wall came down.
Text Soumya Mukerji