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Interview with Hari Kunzru

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.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Did you have an interest in blues before you began White Tears or did the book emerge out of some assignment or event?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  I’ve always had a wide and keen interest in music, but my interest in pre-war American music developed relatively early. I remember for instance watching Paris, Texas (1984) when I was a teenager and liking its slide guitar soundtrack. Not too long afterward, when I was 19 or 20, the complete recordings of the blues artist Robert Johnson were reissued on a cheap two-CD set. So I bought it, but when I went home and put it on, I found it very difficult to listen to. I was so used to modern production, with electric guitars and mechanised 4/4 drum patterns, that in comparison these recordings – with their crackles and hisses quality and meandering progressions – seemed rather formless. I’d play it on occasion, but I didn’t really go deep into the blues, until I came into possession of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) sometime in the mid-aughts, back when folk was having a revival and I was kind of making my own journey backward into the history of black American music. I realised that this was how a lot people ended up discovering these old recordings, by trying to figure out where the music we were hearing now had come from. The anthology became important enough for me that when I moved to the States in 2008, I brought it with me.

Q

The White Review

—  Was there a particular tune that made the music really click for you?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  I think my gateway drug was Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, which was actually included on the Golden Record outfitted to Voyager 1. The recording dates back to 1930, and to my mind there’s nothing quite as haunting as this, though the more religious singers tend to go in this direction. You have more sermonic recordings like A. W. Nix’s The Black Diamond Express to Hell, which is a sort of blood and thunder crowd-pleaser, and W. M. Mosley Oh Death Spare Me Over Till Another Year, which I find especially interesting, because you can hear the roots of an even older English musical form of choral music that was later folded into the negro spiritual. Others that come to mind are Last Kind Words by the female Texan blues guitarist and singer Geeshie Wiley. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote a piece about her and another early female blues musician Elvie Thomas for the New York Times Magazine, though he came under fire after being accused of quoting supposedly unauthorised material.

Q

The White Review

—  There’s a lyric that reoccurs within the book which begins, ‘Gonna buy me a graveyard of my own’. Did you write that?

A

Hari Kunzru

— No, and that was one of the really big issues that I had to work out: was I going to write my own blues lyric and, if not, how was I going to approach uses actual blues lyrics? It helped that a lot of this material dates back to the turn of the 20th century and is long out of copyright. And a lot of these lyrics have been passed along and can’t really be assigned to one author or originator. So what I decided was that every blues line would be a sort of collage of real blues lines. I tried many different ways to simulate a blues lyric, but it always seemed to work better when using actual blues lyrics. It seemed kind of wrong to invent a lyric when there is a corpus of work that exists and has history. All those couplets are ones that turn up in a lot of other places.

 

For that line ‘going to build me a graveyard of my own’, I pulled from Jim Jackson’s I’m Gonna Start Me a Graveyard of My Own, where he sings about killing his lover’s suitor. But I was especially influenced by prisoners’ songs. In the convict leasing system that starts during the Reconstruction, they’d bring African-American men up on charges for old things, obviously without fair trial. Listen to the lyrics Texas Alexander’s Levee Camp Moan Blues: ‘You accuse me of murder, but I ain’t kill no man,’ or ‘You accuse me of forgery, but I can’t even write my name’. There’s also Vera Hall’s Another Man Done Gone, where she sings, ‘he had a long chain on’, a reference to that long chain they use to string prisoners. There’s a whole body of work about a guy called Joe Turner – or Joe Turnee – who seems to have been a guy who – if you were unfortunate to get picked up for some bullshit and put in a holding cell – was the guy that comes along, picks you up and adds you to his chain. And then you’d be off to work until you did your time, but more likely, you’d just perish. I mean, there is absolutely no incentive for any welfare toward these poor men at all, they’re all just free and easily replaceable labour.

Q

The White Review

—  Which is a fate suffered by one of your characters, Charlie Shaw, who was due to participate in a real recording session that happened at the King Edward Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi in December 1930. Why did you fixate upon that particular event and period?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  Well, it was a session that allowed for me to touch upon a lot of what was happening during that time. Just a bit of history: by 1927, the worst of prisoner abuses are, by and large, being curbed. Then that year, the Great Mississippi River Flood occurs, and its waters breach the levee then in place and killed a bunch of people. (Not surprisingly, this event inspires some blues tunes, including Charley Patton’s High Water Everywhere.) So the government ordered that the levee be rebuilt and improved which created a near unmanageable need for labour – terrible, forced labour. And who better to do this than the prisoners?

 

So that’s one thing. The other is that in 1929, the crash comes and the bottom falls out of the recording business. Paramount stops issuing records in 1932. Its competitor, Okeh Records, which was purchased by and became a subsidiary of Columbia Records in 1926, also grows dormant even though Columbia somehow survives the crash. So it was vital for me to be able to tie together this sort of end of a blues era with the crest of a revived and reviled prison system.

Q

The White Review

—  It’s strange that a ghost story about the blues would feel so relevant, yet a lot of conversation around White Tears goes into how it examines America’s ongoing racial divide. How did this aspect develop?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  I’d been thinking about a blues novel as far back as 2008. I’d come to the States in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign and witnessed Obama make it all the way to the presidency. And then, you know, America was all too eager to pat itself on the back, with commentators declaring that we had finally arrived at a post-racial America. And it became evident rather quickly that that wasn’t the case, that there was this visceral anger at him being in the White House. Soon you had the rise of the Tea Party and later the Alt-Right, who bombarded the Internet with content that was anything but post-racial – watermelons and monkeys and shit like that.

 

I remember trying to grasp the full brevity of outrage after Trayvon Martin was murdered less a month after Obama’s second inauguration, and the Black Lives Matter movement began to formulate. I knew a lot about the history of race in America on an intellectual and even basic scholastic level – you’re taught basic American history in British primary schools – but I had no idea that the racial divide ran so deep, and that there were so many people invested in maintaining old racial hierarchies. I thought to myself that this was a country that was haunted by race, so when I decided to write about race and the blues, I thought it should take the form of a ghost story. Blues already has a ghostly quality to it – you can literally hear its distance from the present. There’s something haunting, too, about putting on a record and letting the voice and performance of someone long dead fill your room.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you find your work often anchors itself to the moment in which you are writing?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  For me, because I’ll live inside a book for two to three years, it has a tendency to become a filter for what’s going on around me within that period of time. I’m working on a novel now. It’s set in Germany and is about coming to terms with Northern European Romantic culture and the idea of the self, notions that have long been tied to right-wing nationalism of that region. Once again, there are ideas about the north and whiteness, and supposed specialness, destiny and cultural depth of the northwestern European that they see as superior to everyone else. So in that regard turned into a book about the New Right, as well.

Q

The White Review

—  Your novels tend to go in directions that are completely unanticipated. They’re not plot twists, because they’re never logically foreseeable, but they almost eschew logic in exchange for a sort of mystical leap. Can you talk about that?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  I have this sort of quasi-mystical notion of things rising up on their own. I like letting that happen. For a long stretch of writing I’m driving the narrative with a rational process of research ideas, but the kind of mystical flipside of that is to allow non-rational elements to seep into the narrative. For White Tears that meant giving this doubling of time and character, especially when the protagonist Seth begins to literally straddle past and present as himself and as the absent blues musician Charlie Shaw. I don’t plan on those things from the get-go, but when they bubble up, I go with it.

Q

The White Review

—  Charles Bly, the creepy and aggressive blues collector in your book, drives from New York to the Mississippi Delta region, and goes around knocking on people’s doors asking for these old records. Did he have a real life analogue?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  Bly is a version of a legendary and reclusive collector named James McKune. I have Bly inhabit some of his more peculiar habits like, you know, living in isolation in a room in the Williamsburg YMCA, or his belief that there was only a certain number of records you could have in your canon – only a couple hundred – and in order to have a new record he’d have to kick something else out. McKune was one of the first people to really start seriously collecting the blues, and he knew things existed because there were gaps in the numbers between things that he had. McKune cultivated this circle of fellow enthusiasts that called themselves the Blues Mafia. And they did what they called ‘canvassing,’ they’d pack up a car and they go door to door in neighbourhoods in the South and it intrigues me because it’s exactly the same time as the Civil Rights Movement is going on. So there are white boys walking around trying to register people to vote – and then this different kind of white boy who just wants to know if you have any old records in a trunk. It was McKune who discovered Charley Patton, who had recorded seven records for Paramount in 1929. Amanda Petrusich wrote a piece about McKune where she described the massive importance of this discovery. To put it into perspective, Patton’s now known as the Father of the Delta Blues, because you can hear in his playing a style that clearly influenced people even as late as the Second World War – especially in Muddy Waters who tightened it up, and later brought the blues to the electric guitar. That’s the blues style that would later influence the British. What’s amazing is that the classic blues sound originated from a single county in Mississippi, which were a lot of these guys were from big names were from: Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, Muddy Waters and Tommy Johnson, whose was an alcoholic and wrote tunes like Canned Heat Blues, where he sings about drinking whatever spirits could strain through a sock, and trying to make money by busking in front of a Chinese restaurant in Jackson.

Q

The White Review

—  White Tears pokes fun at the white appropriation of black culture by having two of its characters as these hipster-ish dudes who exploit black music for their own purposes. But as a writer, were you ever aware of a boundary that, if crossed, would have resulted in something like the backlash against Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till?

A

Hari Kunzru

—  Of course this was a major consideration in how I approached the book. Early on I realised I did not want to write entirely in the voice of a 1920s bluesman. Sure, there’s a sense in which fiction is always a performance of identity. It’s more or less inherent in the form of narrative fiction that the writer speaks in a voice or voices that are not his own, or from positions which, in the propertarian argot of our moment, are not ‘owned by’ him. Writers often talk casually about ‘inhabiting’ a character, which sounds kind of cool and shamanic. Maybe there is something of that in what fiction writers do, but not all shamanic inhabitations are the same and in this case the whole deal had a whiff of minstrelsy to it. Eventually my anxiety about this became quite productive. There’s part of the book that is all gaping mouths and people climbing in and out of skins. I always seem to write about absences and I ended up with a book that doesn’t centre its major black character at all. Quite the opposite: that character’s absence, his erasure from history, is the motor of the plot, a plot that is mostly a sort of carnival of white pathology.

 

The other important decision was how to approach quotation. The book is about the Blues, and the lyrical corpus of Blues music contains some sublime poetry. It’s ‘folk’ poetry in the sense that we don’t attach an author’s name to it. I wanted to write, very specifically, about why we don’t know these names. Who first sang ‘I lay down last night trying to take my rest, and my mind got to rambling like wild geese in the West’? I would like to honour the artist who gave me that line, which has run round and round my head ever since I heard it, but I don’t know his or her name. Many musicians (white and black) have, of course, copyrighted songs that contain lines from the blues tradition. There is a Sheryl Crow song that uses the refrain ‘the only thing that I done wrong, was stay in Mississippi a day too long’. I imagine the rights owners charge a lot to quote from a Sheryl Crow song. I first heard those lines on a 1950s field recording of prisoners at Parchman farm. They’re older than that. In my own work, I decided that as far as possible, all the lyrics I used, and in particular the lyrics of the song at the book’s centre, would not be ‘written by me’ (i.e. pastiched from real lyrics) but be the nameless voice of the tradition in some less mediated way. All the lines I use in that song are quotations. They all exist in many variants, and most can be traced back before the start of sound recording.

Q

The White Review

—  You’re not shy about being politically active – you’ve written essays on racism, participated in advocacy to free imprisoned writers as a trustee of English PEN, and have been a patron of the Refugee Council. Does this activism exist in your work as a novelist? How do you make room for politics in writing?
A

Hari Kunzru

—  All fiction is political, in the sense that you choose to tell some things, and not others, and you inevitably bring your perspective on the world to your fiction. Having said that, I don’t think fiction works very well when it’s subordinated to an agenda. I take political positions when I write essays and journalism, but advocacy in fiction is a sort of category error. It’s not what fiction is for. Ideally, I think, one creates situations in which political questions rise up, either through the characters or just in the dynamics of the writing. Then the most interesting thing is not to put your thumb on the scales, but just let things unfold, particularly if the results unsettle you.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Michael Barron has written for Harpers, BOMB Magazine, VICE and Pitchfork. He lives in Brooklyn.




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