Struggling with identity?
Award-winning author and all round Renaissance man Hari Kunzru was in the country on Tuesday and shared his thoughts on writing and how he stared at a cursor for a month with SHARON BAKAR.
A sense of dislocation makes for good art, says Hari Kunzru.
I’D read enough of Hari Kunzru’s journalism to know that he is something of a polymath with an interest in everything from literature, art and music to philosophy, technology and politics.
His reputation for being an extremely “cool dude” had also preceded him: besides being one of Britain’s hottest young novelists, he’s written for some of the trendiest magazines (Wired, Wallpaper), spins vinyl as a DJ, and apparently knows how to mix a mean martini cocktail.
For all that, Kunzru is remarkably down-to-earth and approachable, as I discovered when he was in Kuala Lumpur last week on a visit sponsored by the British Council.
Kunzru grew up in predominately white, suburban Essex, the son of a Kashmiri doctor and English mother who met while working in the same hospital. “Not quite belonging is a good position to make art from,” he says.
Indeed, Kunzru’s struggle with the question of identity explains the sense of dislocation that lies at the heart of his fiction.
Set in India, Britain and West Africa, Kunzru’s sprawling first novel, The Impressionist sets out to explore the whole question of the uncertainty of selfhood. It’s an end-of-empire reversal of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, says Kunzru, with “all the furniture of a typical Raj novel, but it uses it to interrogate all the assumptions people have about what an Indian novel ought to be.”
Kunzru describes The Impressionist as “a kind of doughnut novel”, with his central character, Pran, as the hole in the middle. Pran is quite deliberately given no interior life whatsoever, and slips in and out of different identities as he is propelled forward by the forces of history.
The novel won a couple of major literary awards and was short listed for several more, which no doubt had Kunzru and his publishers sighing with relief after the whopping advance he’d received for a two-novel deal.
But Kunzru initially felt blocked by the expectations heaped on him when he began writing Transmission.
“It took me about a month of staring at the cursor to really be able to start it,” he says “but then I started to enjoy myself and wrote quickly after that.”
The novel explores the impact of globalisation and weaves together the stories of Arjun, an Indian cybercoolie who releases a malicious computer virus on the world, a jet-setting marketing executive, and a desperately unhappy Bollywood star shooting her next musical in a castle in Scotland.
Kunzru said that the writing of the book began with several disparate images (someone washed up on a beach, a lonely figure walking down a road) and then trying to make sense of them and seeing how they could be brought together in a story.
The characters also grew from places that Kunzru visited, including a £10mil (RM67mil) penthouse by the River Thames, “the most exposed and least domestic living environment I could imagine”. He gave Arjun a family background very similar to one of his cousins who is in middle management for a software solutions company in New Delhi, and used a new city zone on the opposite side of the river as the setting for the early scenes of the novel.
Kunzru’s novels are richly detailed and littered with many a clever turn of phrase. He says he produces “not very many drafts”, but works them over meticulously until satisfied, taking pleasure in “the music of a good sentence”. He appreciates the craft of other writers, often picking apart a passage to see how the author has achieved a certain effect. He says that he particularly enjoys Sybil Bedford, E.L. Doctorow and the measuredness of the later Philip Roth.
Kunzru, like many writers of his generation, acknowledges a debt to Salman Rushdie and admits, “The Impressionist couldn’t have been written before Midnight’s Children.” And he credits author Hanif Kureishi with opening up “a huge cultural possibility” with his novel The Buddha of Suburbia.
Noise is a compilation of surprisingly dark short stories exploring the implications of an increasingly wired world. “I enjoy opening up a little world that works according to its own logic,” Kunzru says, adding that he hopes to write more short stories after the publication of his third novel next May.
The first draft has now been completed, and Kunzru believes it to be “far and away” superior to his previous work.
“It hasn’t a thing to do with India, race or technology, but is about commitment,” he says. “It’s about a young man who drifts into extreme leftist radicalism in Britain in the early 1970s and becomes involved in direct action, and ultimately in bombings of property.
“The book is framed by narrative taking place in the late 1990s. It’s about what it’s like to be 21 and believe in your own rightness, and then what it’s like to be 50 years old and to not have the luxury of certainty anymore.”
Kunzru finds himself increasingly being asked to speak with a political hat on. As a spokesman for British PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organisation, he recently drew the ire of the Maldives Government when he wrote a newspaper piece urging tourists to boycott the islands because of government complicity in torture, imprisonment and disappearances.
And he famously turned down Mail on Sunday’s John Llewellyn Rees Award because of the paper’s “hostility towards black and Asian writers” and insisted that the £5,000 (RM33,500) prize money should be donated instead to the Refugee Council (a British non-governmental organisation that provides advice and assistance to asylum seekers).
Concern for the underdog and the disenfranchised clearly informs more than just Kunzru’s novels.
Sunday, May 14, 2006
My article on Hari Kunzru in today's StarMag