It’s Hari Kunzru’s first press trip to London for a few years, this time to discuss his fifth novel, White Tears. It’s that rare beast: a novel of ideas that is also a transfixing thriller. The morning after he arrives from New York, we meet in a room just off the lobby of his hotel to discuss the book. I was interested in why he wanted to write such an overtly political novel, which confronts issues of race and representation head on. He settles into the sofa and says, “One genesis of the book was things I observed when Obama came to power very soon after I’d moved to the US. There was this wave of journalism saying ‘now we’re entering post-racial America!’ It seemed bizarre to me. Why would the election of one man lead people to think that? If we know anything about racism, we know that it’s to do with systems and structures rather than one person doing very well. And I detected in that attitude a wish not to look at the past.”

I’ve also heard you talk about Obama being a particular kind of black man as well?

“This was pointed up to me thinking about O.J. Simpson. There’s this wonderful five-part documentary which looks at the sort of man O.J. had to present in order to be as successful as he was: he was a football star, he was very clean-cut, he went to USC, his big season was in 1968 amid all that civil unrest and when he was asked about that he said ‘I don’t want to be seen as black or white, I want to be seen as O.J.’ And Obama had to present himself in certain ways that are similar to that in order to get over with white America. You can’t be a militant – I think by temperament Obama is centrist liberal and he likes consensus anyway – and he was brought up partly by his white grandparents and he spent a lot of time in Hawaii. Michelle Obama’s background is a more typical black American background and she was the target of a great deal of fear because of that. She’s darker-skinned, ‘confrontational’ – she’s actually not but she seemed to scan to some people as being frightening and controversial – and Obama escaped some of those definitions because of his mixed heritage and the way he presented himself.”

The central characters in White Tears are two young white record producers who invent a black artist and release a record based on an old blues song they hear a chess player singing in Washington Square Park. Did Kunzru feel conscious of his own ethnicity when writing the book? “Absolutely, it would be disingenuous to pretend you can sally forth without those considerations if you’re writing about race. I really wanted to write about it but at the same time I was very aware of the febrile atmosphere around discussions of race and representation. The ‘call-out’ culture that social media has potentiated means that a lot of people are very nervous about writing about race. A lot of white writers are feeling intimidated by that.

There was a huge soul subculture when I was growing up in Essex… People who were virulently anti-immigrant would also be often dancing to jazz-funk and they didn’t see any contradiction in that.”

“But then I also don’t think the perspective in this book is one that a black writer necessarily would have chosen either. This is a book about omitting a black character. It’s about someone who should be present but is absent from the cultural table. I also wanted to write about what you could call a white pathology of how race distorts people’s social lives… in the ethereal, hard to grasp way that race informs conversations about other things. White boys who love black music, for example. I mean, I was a brown boy that loved black music: I grew up with soul music, funk music, hip-hop. There was a huge soul subculture when I was growing up in Essex, which was a very white area in the eighties. The people who were loving this music were often the same ones calling me a ‘Paki’. People who were virulently anti-immigrant would also be often dancing to jazz-funk and they didn’t see any contradiction in that. At university, there were also these reggae-loving white public schoolboys. I fell in love with jazz and a lot of free jazz of the sixties and seventies was very wrapped up in black nationalism, but in all these spaces I was moving through, there was black culture but there were very few black people, who had made that culture, present. There’s a real tension between loving something like John Coltrane or Yeezy or whatever and wanting ownership of it by knowing everything about it and having read everything about it. There’s a long and unpleasant history of white entrepreneurs profiting from black music. When it comes to the blues, look at how the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin had to pay out for using music that was taken from bluesmen.”

We talk about the music in White Tears and Kunzru tells an anecdote that illustrates the extent to which words from blues songs have been endlessly recycled: “In an early draft of this book, I got obsessed with this couplet from a bluesman: ‘The only thing I done wrong/Is stay in Mississippi a day too long.’ It’s chilling: it’s about someone who ended up on a chain gang because they were physically in the wrong place. The singer is saying, ‘I’m not guilty of the crime I’m accused of.’ I gave the manuscript to someone to read and she said, you need to get rid of that line, it’s in a Sheryl Crow song!’”

I imagine he was also nervous that a blues nerd might read the book and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Yes, you have to become the nerd!” he laughs. I suggest Kunzru had a head start. “I’d been listening to the music for a good many years before I started writing the book, but then my last line of defence was an extraordinary, extraordinary man called Christopher King who is a collector who became a friend. He invited me to his place in rural Virginia and I got to put the needle down on some incredibly rare vinyl there, that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars. He read the manuscript. I wanted the recording session [in the book] to be in summer but he said to me it couldn’t have happened in summer because the recording medium was wax and if it was too hot, there was no air conditioning, they would do the recording further north and would only come south in the winter months.”

How did you find him?

“I approached a few people and I was politely rebuffed by a New York collector called John Heneghan who had given an interview to the New York Times but he said ‘it’s not in my interest to disseminate knowledge of this music any further’ because it would make it harder for him to acquire it. These guys really hate Jack White of The White Stripes because he’s made it really fashionable for a certain kind of young rock star to have blues 78s and it’s pushed the prices up.”

The idea that there’s a sort of authenticated racial identity has always been troubling to me. The joke I often repeat is that I’m the least authentic person I know, and a lot of my writing is about unpicking authenticity.”

Nostalgia, and in particular listening to music recorded before you were born, is a liberating force in the book, but I wonder how Kunzru feels about nostalgia?

“There’s this thing about a recording where you’re engaging with loss because you’re listening to the past. Nostalgia is an ache for a homeland and a recording brings into your room the voices of people who may be long dead, who are not present, and that can be a magical conjuring up of the past or it can be a way of reaffirming how long they have been gone. When you’re listening to old recordings that have been poorly recorded you can hear that surface noise which is the sound of time, the sound of that distance. One of the intellectual reference points for this book was a British critic called Mark Fisher who died before I could give him a copy of the book. He talked about ‘hauntology’, which is a phrase he got from Derrida but he used it to try and unpick ideas about ghostliness and about loss and absence and distance in time and music. He wrote very movingly about everything from The Specials’ Ghost Town to the way old music is used in films like The Shining to bring an uneasy sense to things. Mark was very interested in a British sense of the uncanny, and I wanted to bring some of that into an American context.”

I wonder if being part of at least one diaspora himself, as someone Anglo-Indian who now lives in the United States, informed how he wrote the book. “I don’t feel part of two cultures, I don’t see myself like that. I don’t feel split, I feel present on this sofa as much as anyone else but my background is offstage for me as well. I grew up in a very British context. There’s policing from both sides on that: the idea of being a coconut – you know, brown on the outside and white on the inside? – the idea that there’s a sort of authenticated racial identity has always been a troubling one to me. The joke I often repeat is that I’m the least authentic person I know, and a lot of my writing is about unpicking authenticity and asking what it is people are trying to do when they praise something as authentic or damn it as inauthentic. I often like to follow arguments about how productive inauthenticity is because it leads us to understand how much of identity is constructed, it’s about performance and it inoculates one against certain kinds of ‘groupthink.’” He pauses and then says, finally, “I’m not one of life’s joiners.”


Hari_Kunzru_290Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions and Gods Without Men, and the story collection Noise. He was a 2008 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2016 Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in New York City. White Tears is published by Hamish Hamilton. Read more.

Author portrait © Clayton Cubitt

Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and 1843 magazine.