In the summer of 2008, the English novelist Hari Kunzru left London for New York City after accepting a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. With three novels under his belt, Kunzru was already considering his fourth: ‘My intention was to write a book set in sixteenth-century India,’ he told me, ‘but it totally fell apart as soon as I got to New York. I just couldn’t concentrate on anything that wasn’t set in America.’ He confessed his difficulty to some friends who happened to be planning a road trip to Joshua Tree, who invited him along.
The novel that Kunzru eventually wrote, Gods Without Men (2011), was steeped in the lore and culture of the Mojave Desert, where UFOs, cults, sacred Indian sites, peyote visions and burnt-out rock stars blend together to create a mesmerising love letter to his newly adopted country. When it was published, however, American culture was entering a crisis. A far right movement had emerged in opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency. Two years later, Black Lives Matter was born after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin.
Around this time, Kunzru, now a full-time New York resident with an American wife – the novelist Katie Kitamura – and two Brooklyn-born kids, began working on a novel about the blues. For research, Kunzru travelled with a group of music writers to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to visit Chris King, a noted collector of vintage records. The group sat around drinking bourbon as King spun one ancient track after another, sharing with them both his archive of music and his vast knowledge of it – though he would demur from sharing too many of the records’ secrets.
A similar scene is described in White Tears (2017), Kunzru’s newly published novel and first major work since Gods Without Men. It tells of two white music producers who ingeniously fake their own antique blues track, only to be told by an eccentric record aficionado that they’ve happened upon an actual tune recorded by a long lost blues musician. This discovery is the first tug on a string leading back to the bloody knot of racial discrimination in the United States: ‘It occurred to me that if America is still haunted by racism,’ he told me, ‘then this novel should take the form of a ghost story.’
We spoke in February at Kunzru’s Brooklyn home where he played me a selection of rare blues tracks – some nearly ninety years old – as we discussed the politics of writing and the blues’ inescapable history of race, poverty and injustice.