THE WRITING LIFE ... Hari KUNZRU
THE REVOLUTIONARY AUTHOR
SHARON BAKAR engages in a discussion with the critically-acclaimed British novelist, HARI KUNZRU
My Revolutions is in many ways a big departure from your previous two novels not only in terms of theme but also style. Whereas The Impressionist and Transmission were highly coloured, humourous novels, this one feels much quieter, more reflective. What was behind this stylistic shift?
I wanted to see if I could control a tight, realist narrative, to hold the attention without resorting to fireworks. It was a real challenge.
The last time we talked, in Kuala Lumpur back in 2006, you were still working on the novel which you felt was your best to date, and you said that you weren’t sure how it would be received as it was so different from the previous novels. Have you been happy with the book’s reception? You were shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize which is important recognition, but it must have been a disappointment to have been left off some of the other major prize shortlists? (I was certainly puzzled.)
I think if you’re given an award, it appears to be the most logical, wise and definitive assessment of your cultural importance. If you’re not given one, then awards are illogical, arbitrary and frivolous. Essentially they’re useful marketing tools, but the assessment of literary value is a much longer-term process. I think we’re just beginning to discern the important books of the seventies. As for My Revolutions, it’s been very well received here in the US—and I’ve been approached by people who participated in the armed struggle at that time, who rate the book highly. That means a lot.
Terrorism and its causes has been very much an international preoccupation since 9/11. Although My Revolutions is set in the past, it clearly has a great deal to say about the times we live in. But why did you choose to look at terrorism in the 1970s rather than in the present day? What was it that particularly drew you to that time?
I have always been interested in that period. For some years I’ve been more interested in the currents of political thought than the music and fashion. I think we’re living in a very conservative time, where alternatives to the current world order aren’t being seriously explored. So it’s instructive to look back at a time when many people were convinced the world was on the cusp of radical change.
A more personal starting point was my own sense that the world is an unjust—even a hellish place for the poor and oppressed, and my feeling that perhaps radical, even revolutionary change is necessary. Now, once you have such an idea, you start to wonder what making such a change would entail. The question of force arises. Then the question of violence. When is it legitimate to use violence in support of a political idea? What if that idea turns out to be wrong?
Against this idealism, I have a second strong sense that it’s always wrong to take an abstraction, an idea, and try to force the world to fit it. The result is always horror and misery. I got interested in the political currents of the 1960s and ’70s, partly out of sympathy for this radical openness and idealism of the era, and partly because of the monstrousness which its political failures bred.
You were born in 1969, and so can’t have very strong memories of this period yourself and yet you managed to get it so right. How did you go about researching the novel? Did you manage to talk to anyone who had been caught up in terrorist activities at that time?
The book is a strange mixture of personal experience and library research. I’ve been on many demonstrations, including some which have turned violent. I’ve participated in political meetings, and the culture of British dissent, which stretches back to the sixties and beyond. But most of my research consisted of an attempt to familiarise myself with the various political currents around at that time. I read widely—Herbert Marcuse, biographies of activists, leaflets put out by groups and sects at the time. I also went to Thailand, to write the scenes set there. I’ve met many people who played their part. They range from those whose lives have been entirely defined by actions they took in their twenties—people who have served prison sentences, or have “enjoyed the attentions of the security services” to those for whom their sixties activities had few consequences. In the UK several government ministers were once young radicals. An amusing moment came when I found a yellowing leftist newspaper with an article by a young writer “In Praise of Mao.” That writer, Jack Straw, became Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair.
You told me when we last met that you would be working on a collection of short fiction next. How far along with that are you? How does the process of writing short fiction compare with that of writing a novel?
Well, I wrote a few short stories, a couple of which have been published in The New Yorker. But now I’m back to writing a novel. They’re very different disciplines.
I heard too that you are considering writing a science fiction novel? Are you able to tell us anything about that at this stage?
It’s not the novel I was thinking of when I met you. I am writing something with a science fiction element, in that it’s set in the Mojave desert, a part of the US which has a long history of UFO encounters. It’s a large-scale story, which is perhaps more reminiscent of The Impressionist, than My Revolutions, though it’s not as slapstick in tone.
You will be at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October 2009? Is attending festivals and promoting your work something that you actually enjoy?
I like festivals, because I get to meet people I’d never encounter otherwise. It’s also an excuse to travel, which I always enjoy.
You are an outspoken defender of freedom of expression and a critic of censorship in your work for English PEN. Do you see things getting better or worse in the UK at the moment and do you ever feel frustrated?
I’m living in New York at the moment. I’ve spent very little time in the UK during the last year. I have the impression that in small things, this is a very free city—more so than London, in some ways. I think the UK is going through a dreadful phase, and I’m happy not to be there.
What are you reading at the moment?
Recently I’ve enjoyed Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Rawi Hage’s Cockroach and an extraordinary memoir by a pioneering female anthropologist of the Mojave desert Indians called Carobeth Laird—the book’s called Encounter with an Angry God.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine