Writers & Company

Hari Kunzru on race, politics and the blues

British-Indian novelist and journalist Hari Kunzru's latest book, White Tears, addresses America's dark history of exploitation and greed.
White Tears is the latest novel from British Indian novelist and journalist Hari Kunzru. (Knopf/Clayton Cubitt)

Award-winning novelist and journalist Hari Kunzru's debut novel, The Impressionist, follows the journey of a half-Indian, half-English boy who is abandoned by his high-caste family when they learn of his parentage. As a result of Kunzru's own dual British-Indian heritage, his work often deals with the effects of racism and the struggle for identity.

In Kunzru's latest novel, White Tears, he​ explores the issues of white privilege and cultural appropriation through the lives of Seth and Carter, two New Yorkers bound by their obsession with blues music. White Tears is a ghost story that illuminates the uncomfortable truths about racial politics and the abuse of power in America.

Hari Kunzru spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York.

Learning about black history through music

There is a long and ignoble history of African-American musical culture being appropriated and profited from by people other than the people who made it. I started to collect black American music at a very early age, before I had any sort of coherent idea of the culture that these records came out of. Music was my way into learning about black history. But there comes a certain point when you have to ask yourself, "Do I own this in any real way? In what sense is this mine or in what sense does my love for this grant me any rights?" And then you get into this whole very fraught area about appropriation and about ownership, about who gets credit, who gets paid, who has the right to interpret these things. And that's one of the things I really wanted to pick over in this book because it's not a simple set of questions by any means.

America's haunted past

There are a lot of stories around magic and ghosts that turn up around music. There is something strange and ghostly about recording music, and I wanted to tell a ghost story. I wanted to try and approach this material through that particular genre because I think the more I understand about America, the more I feel that it's a country that is haunted by race and by its past. Ghost stories are always about something that's repressed, something that comes up from the past and insists on invading the present. The classic North American site for any ghost story is an old Indian burial ground. That's the repression. It's the previous people who were there, the people whose genocide founded the country and in this way, it seemed to me like quite a good way to talk about race and politics in America.

The value of inauthenticity

I think people fetishize authenticity and I think it can be a very toxic way of looking at the world. My joke about myself is that I'm the most inauthentic person I know, and I suppose my own racial history is part of that. I have an Indian father and an English mother, so I was never quite white enough or brown enough. But also people are constantly searching for a kind of guarantee of their own authenticity, a sort of stamp of approval or a certificate. I think it's a very interesting exercise to go against that, to think about what the value of inauthenticity is.

Hari Kunzru's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Bird's Lament" composed by Moondog, performed by the London Saxophonic.