Hari Kunzru: ‘The border is not a nice place right now for anybody with brown skin’

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A writer in a polarised world. Hari Kunzru talks about his art and politics in a conversation with Rahul Pandita

THE BRITISH-INDIAN writer Hari Kunzru, whose latest novel, White Tears, is just out, currently lives in New York. In 2003, Kunzru turned down the John Llewellyn Rhys prize because of its association with the British conservative paper Mail on Sunday whose editorial line, Kunzru said, fostered an “atmosphere of prejudice”. In a phone interview Kunzru speaks about, among other things, living in Trump’s America and a writer’s duty in today’s world.

White Tears is seen as ‘a broad frontal attack against racism,’ as a review describes it. Others have called it a narrative against capitalism, against cultural appropriation. Were you conscious of these themes while you were writing it?

All these things swirl around. I should underline that it is a novel and I don’t write fiction for merely polemic. I don’t write something in order to condemn or make a case for a particular point of view. What I have tried to do in this book is to set up situations and have characters interact so that these kinds of questions will hang in the air. In a way it is a ghost story and it is a story that deals with the uncanny… so I go to a lot of ambiguous places with lot of these issues rather than make a case and try to make straightforward non-fiction polemic. That’s a good dividing line to have.

Do you think fiction—good fiction—can hold an argument against power?

Yes, there are many arguments good fiction can help people understand— complex social relations or insurgency or a long embedded racial history. The techniques of fiction are very good for that because of the kind of storytelling which allows you to go very close to people’s psychology or that of your characters. I think, for example, it is much better than cinema because cinema certainly requires almost everything to boil down to individual characters; it is very hard for cinema artists to talk about complicated political situations because you have to personalise everything. Narrative fiction has a lot more stretchiness. I don’t think direct polemic is healthy to fiction but I think fiction is inevitably political.

As an immigrant, what has been your experience so far in Trump’s America?

An anxious one, I would say. I haven’t crossed the border too many times since Trump came to power. I was in Berlin when the first attempt to impose a travel ban on various majority Muslim countries was implemented. And I arrived back at the airport very nervously expecting I might get caught up in extra screening or that I will have to give up my electronic devices. We are now hundred days into this situation and certain things are becoming clear—firstly that the highly ideological nativist wing of the Trump administration is only one faction. Secondly, Trump himself has no particular belief in anything other than his own aggrandisement. And his own profit. And so he is prepared to sway on many of these issues if that is convenient to him. His administration is certainly incompetent. And that is a great saving grace for those who oppose it because they are just not capable of doing certain things. It is also a worry… you will see that right now… they are playing these very, very silly games with North Korea... they don’t seem to understand the gravity of some of the statements they are making. One big shift from everybody’s point of view is that people are no longer able to trust the factual accuracy of the government’s statements. Which is a huge shift here… there always has been political spin but, by and large, a government spokesperson would not lie and now they lie and that is very destabilising. In my neighbourhood in New York, there are many Yemini people and there are a fair number of undocumented Latin Americans; and there are millions of ways in which the immigration and customs enforcement authority seems to have taken the Trump administration as a licence to do a lot of things. I mean the agency looks semi out of control. They are making policy by just going forward with actions and then worrying about the legality of them later. My father spends time here; he is now a British citizen but he used to be an Indian passport holder and it seems he is getting caught up in secondary screening. So, it is very uncertain; for anybody with brown skin it seems the border is not a nice place right now.

I as an artist, as a Leftist, I wouldn't choose to fight on that ground of liberalism as it is currently being defined

Does the ascension of Trump mean the closing of the American mind? Some have called it national hallucination.

I think, in some ways, Trump is more like when a disease that has been there for a long time breaks out on to the skin and you finally see evidence of the body as diseased. But I don’t think Trump represents anything radically new in the American mind. I think this country is more polarised than it’s been anytime since the late 60s. And similar strains are also felt in India and in the UK and other places in Europe between cosmopolitan elites who are benefitting from globalisation and other populations who are not getting those benefits. And populist politicians who claim to speak for the people and a lot against the insufficiently patriotic or rooted class who seem to be doing well in a sort of internationalism or globalisation. These are the sort of accounts playing just not in the US.

One phenomenon we are experiencing worldwide is the rise of the rightwing. This is, many have argued, a result of people’s anger towards liberals or elites. What do you make of it?

Ya, you can tell me how you think this is playing out in India. But certainly in UK, you look at the Brexit vote and look at the division. There is a class division, isn’t it, between what some might think might be the country’s oppressed poor rising against their wealthy oppressors? There is this hinterland which seems to have been forgotten by the political and media class and so feel alienated. They haven’t reaped the economic dividends of globalisation and that alienation is partly cultural and partly economic and is responsible for the rise of hatred... In the UK the anti-immigrant feeling played a part. You can argue whether these have any foundations in reality. But in the UK you can look back at 30 years of Press beating the drum and saying that immigrants are to blame for certain social problems, that they are putting pressure on the welfare state.

With the chaos in the Middle East and the crisis of ISIS and millions of refugees inside Europe and the rise of hardliners, do you think the West is headed towards a war of sorts with the Islamic world?

Political Islam that gets so much attention doesn't actually represent the vast majority of the world's Muslim populations

We have had this narrative since at least 9/11, we have had clash of civilisation narrative that I have personally written against and warned about the consequences of. Because I think the increased polarisation helps those who are the extremes of both poles. The ISIS-al Qaeda narrative demands a unified crusader enemy who must be resisted in order to bring about a caliphate. And likewise the construction of a global homogenous Islamic enemy is very useful to security state hawks in Western countries and in the US in particular. And sadly that narrative is winning. It is only going to get worse in the near future. Because of the mess in the Middle East and the production of refugees… because it is simply not possible even for Europe to absorb the number of refugees that could potentially come. And so you are seeing the rise of nationalism and extremely repressive measures being conducted by European states who are trying to find a way of not having millions of people arriving on their shores. The US is smugly sitting behind the Atlantic Ocean and taking in a very small number of Syrians… two thousand…a number that is absurdly small. The polarisation will increase and it is getting very hard for people like me to hold the line for some kind of open society in the face of polarisation. But I think it is necessary to remind people that political Islam that gets so much attention doesn’t actually represent the vast majority of the world’s Muslim populations; you have the same kind of diversity of interests and views as Christians do or any other group does.

Do you think it has become difficult for a writer to be a liberal, not only in today’s America, but in today’s world?

I am very uncomfortable with the term liberal. Its usage as a term of abuse from the Right means you have to really define terms. I think one of the least tenable positions now in politics is the status quo of 2015 to even 2016 which was the kind of centrist liberalism which was very placid about what could be called neoliberal globalisation as long as socially liberal concerns like gender equality, gay rights were dealt with. I mean my position is to the left of that. I think there are structural questions that need to be addressed. Questions of distribution are very very hard to address for anyone in that frame of liberalism. So, I as an artist, as a leftist, I wouldn’t choose to fight on that ground of liberalism as it is currently being defined. I think the Hillary Clinton kind of liberal position is quite ridiculous here in the US now. I think we are going to go through a period of extraordinary political turbulence here because of a generational shift. I mean you look at all the statistics about how life is treating the twenty somethings—the millennials. They have less chance of earning the same money as their parents; they have less security in the workplace, they don’t seem likely to have a share in the wealth that is being produced because this is an absurdly wealthy country. The wealth of the last economic boom went to the very top, it didn’t trickle down. So, we are going to see more polarisation; we are going to see more political violence, to be honest.

There was a time when writers felt very strongly about the politics of their times—totalitarianism, the iron curtain… and they would come on the streets in protest. Do you think today’s artists and writers are doing enough? Is it even a writer’s duty to protest?

I think certainly in the US right now, there is a new commitment to politics amongst artists and writers. But maybe there is a confusion what effective political action looks like. As you say, there is a movement of the Left opposing fascism in the 30s; there is a moment of the new Left in the 1960s. Both of these political styles don’t quite function now …one of the big questions for socially liberal artists and writers, is there no grand narrative after the end of Communism. It is very difficult to construct an easy alternative to the system that exists today. There is a lot of work to be done in imagining different ways of organising the economy and society and I think that is an uphill struggle. And meantime there are a lot of pressures towards atomizing people towards increased surveillance and control. Think about the possibilities that new technologies offer for anyone who wishes to control a population.