Author Hari Kunzru talks about his love for cities and what to expect from his upcoming book
Overcrowded metro stations, buzzing downtown pubs, collaborative art spaces, houseful cinema halls and noisy traffic — most cities are all this, and more. It’s the people and these elements that seem to have given writers endless ideas to dig deeper into their roots, origins and lives — all the while, looking for new stories to tell. While many literary masterworks have been set against the backdrop of growing cities — both real and fictional, in recent times, we’ve found cities themselves becoming the central characters of plots. One such writer who continues to delve into a never-ending cityscape is Hari Kunzru. For geographic reference, his last book, White Tears, was set in New York, while it dealt with the lives of two urban characters. In a candid chat on the sidelines of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, we caught up with Kunzru to talk about his love for cities, his writing rituals, personal choices, and more.
How do you view cities as central characters in contemporary fiction?
I have lived in cities all my life, I am a city person. I like the social relations in cities. I like the subway carriage where everyone is from everywhere. I like being in a street full of people, I like randomness, that‘s the kind of experience that attracts writers. That‘s something we want to unpick.
But what’s the most exciting thing about these overcrowded entities?
I suppose it is the changing randomness in city life. I don‘t do very well necessarily when everything is exactly the same. I like to do things in a way that‘s unexpected.
How different is life for you today, compared to what it was like earlier, as a son of an immigrant?
I have made a very different kind of life for myself. I grew up in the suburbs in London. It was quite homogeneous and I stuck out as a young brown boy. To this day I don‘t love the suburbs. There‘s another reason to be in the city. I am just another person. I like to be just another face and cities are getting much easier to navigate. You walk with a map in your pocket (referring to mobile phones) and you just have to type the name of places you want to eat and you get it. Cities were kind of harder and scarier earlier, it wasn‘t easy to navigate. It’s different now.
Talking about fiction, is the world more accepting of brown voices today?
It varies from place to place but I think certainly, South Asian writing has done well for a generation and more. I think people are much more accepting of different kinds of writing from South Asia. People understand that we don‘t have to talk about the smells of sweet in our kitchens. That‘s very positive. I am finding that readers in the US and UK are more accepting of fiction and translations. Yet it is different for India. The next frontier for Indian literature is going to be vernacular literature. Translations of all the wonderful novels that exist in India and making these accessible internationally will be the next big thing. That’s because it‘s the kind of Indian experience that‘s captured by Indian writers that the world is looking forward to.
But what makes Indian (vernacular) writers and their work unique?
It used to be true. Maybe it‘s still true! Nineteenth century fictional plots still make sense in modern Indian society. If you think of a classic, Jane Austen kind of a narrative, there‘s a girl and a boy who want to be together, and the family objects. There are many such kind of classical stories that can be told in a modern Indian setting. I mean that‘s just one thing. But India is also undergoing a convulsive change. When you look at Sacred Games (the TV adaptation) which is quite popular in the US, people realise there‘s a big city out there where there are the same crazy things like Chicago that are going on.
What are you working on next?
I am writing a novel about a writer who has gone on a prestigious residency in Berlin. He is a non-fiction writer who is having a lot of unfocused anxieties about the state of the world and he is trying to write a book about poetry. He hits a writer‘s block and he doesn‘t do any work and is binge watching an American cop show on a streaming service. He becomes very obsessed with the a kind of a dark vision of the world. I started it as a serious book but the first time I read from it I laughed. I didn‘t expect this would be funny. It‘s certainly funnier than the last book.
Where do you write, do you have a dedicated space?
I used to be a fussy writer but then I became a father. I am capable of writing more or less anywhere. Now I have lesser time and much more chaos around me. My wife is working in my room at times and I am working in another room. We have a two-year- and a five-year-old. I am happy if there‘s no Lego under my feet and no tiny toys on my keyboard. If I have a flat surface to work and I am left alone for half an hour, I am happy. There‘s a nanny helping us. However, I am very happy with the invention of noise cancellation headphones.
What kind of music do you listen to?
When I am working I tend to listen to music to create a tranquil space. I listen to various kinds of sparse ambient music or instrumental music. I can‘t listen to words (songs).
You started out as a travel writer, how different is travelwriting in the age of Instagram and Twitter?
Especially with Instagram I think people fall into this trap of self-presentation. It can be quite toxic to them. There are times when you don‘t look good, when travel is hard. You are quite sweaty and covered in dust or you might have missed the bus and have to sleep overnight at a station. It‘s not fun! It‘s not glamorous. You could maybe make a funny post about that. But there‘s something about telling the truth, about your life which is generally hard to do when you are scrutinised.
What’s your advice to travel writers?
I would say the only thing that would set you apart from everyone else is your willingness to tell the truth. It is very tempting to crop a photograph and show only the picture perfect view of the sea. But if you happen to be with twenty other people, maybe look at them too. I mean I would be very interested to know more about people when they are being tourists. That‘s a different kind of writing and that‘s part of travel as well. People are happy to present a picture of themselves, the first person to go somewhere, the only person to be there - the exclusive experience, but another time, instead of going with that flow, people should just think what will happen if I told the truth.
Would you write a travelogue anytime?
It‘s hard kind of writing. There are lots of ways of fake travel writing and presenting yourself as an explorer who is having a wonderful luxury experience that none else is having. But increasingly, I am pursuing only fiction and keeping travel experiences personal.