Author Imprint

S2017 E2 | CLIP

Novelist Hari Kunzru Discusses the Blues and Race in America

The cutthroat business of blues collecting is a major theme in Hari Kunzru’s new novel, “White Tears.” He discusses the power these collectors have and why he included them in his book.

AIRED: April 06, 2017 | 0:06:12
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

>> Welcome to "Author Imprint,"

a public media bookcast.

I'm Lisa Lucas.

Hari Kunzru is

a London-born writer and editor.

He got his start as a journalist

and published

his first novel in 2001.

His fifth novel, "White Tears,"

is a haunting and timely

look at race in America.

He joins me today

to talk about the book.

Hari, thank you so much

for being here today.

>> Thanks for inviting me.

>> Of course.

So first off, before we talk

about what the book is about,

I want to talk about the title.

>> I wanted to provoke a certain

discomfort with the title.

Clearly, it's a phrase

that turns up on the Internet,

often in the context of fights

about who is justified

in claiming victimhood

and who is justified

in having their pain

acknowledged and centered.

And it's a title that I wanted

to spark in that way

and in the context, as you say,

of the current very vitriolic

debate around race.

>> You want to tell us

a little bit about the book

and about why you wanted

to tell this particular story?

>> It's the story of two young

white New York record producers.

They're in their mid-20s.

They're hipster kids.

One is the son

of a very wealthy family,

and the other is a kind

of suburban nobody,

but they're bonded together

by their shared love of music.

And one of these guys

is in the habit

of walking around the city,

recording all the ambient

noise that he hears,

just the conversations, traffic,

anything that kind of

comes into his orbit.

And he accidentally records

somebody singing a blues song.

It's one of the chess players

in Washington Square.

And his friend becomes

obsessed with this vocal

that he's recorded,

and they mix a guitar into it,

and they add some crackle

and hiss and make it sound like

a very old 1920s blues record,

and they put this out

on the Internet

as a kind of prank

and also as a calling card

for their studio.

They specialize in giving things

a retro sound.

And they're contacted

by an old collector who says,

"Well, where did you get this

record?"

And they said,

"Ha-ha, we made it up."

And he says, "No, you didn't.

I haven't heard this record

since 1959."

And at that point, it diverges

into the possibility that

they haven't made this thing up,

that they have, in some way,

channeled

something from the past.

So it's a ghost story.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And a ghost story seemed

to me a very appropriate way

to approach

the subject of race in America

because this country is haunted

by its racial past.

>> Ghost stories are

always about

something that's been repressed,

something from the past

that people would rather forget,

and that forces its way

to the surface.

>> What do you think the legacy

of all of this,

kind of repressing the fact

that we actually do have racism,

that we do have a race problem,

what happens?

There's a sort of disorientation

that comes with being unwilling

to acknowledge history.

I think the whole sort of way

of talking about guilt

and innocence

is slightly beside the point

because I think

you can kind of acknowledge

that you benefit

from a particular system or that

you have a particular place

within it without being crippled

by some sort of emotional

reaction to it.

And I think it would be --

It would clear the air.

It would allow conversation

to begin, which, at the moment,

is blocked

>> And I think that actually

using the blues,

which you do in the book to look

at race in America

and to look at theft

and cultural appropriation

actually is really interesting

because I think that idea

of loving blues music

and wanting to take it

and circulate it and protect it

and preserve it is actually

a real lack of comprehension

of what the value

is to the people

who made the music.

>> I mean, the blues

has got such a fascinating

cultural history here.

The taste

for the blues,

the kind of, the ideas

that we feel intuitively

we have around the blues,

which are to do

with authenticity or

to do with a kind of closeness

to history,

you know, even in some cases,

a kind of primitivism --

these are all actually

a New York taste

from the kind of 1940s

and the 1950s.

And the blues

was not a kind of music

that white musicologists

cared about at all.

>> Well, there's a sense of

going down and knocking door to

door and taking something,

saying, "I'll give you 25

cents," or whatever the going

rate was at that time for a

record, but not giving

anything back, you know?

>> Right.

>> And then also, when you look

at the amount of money that

Mississippi John Hurt records

have made -- I mean, I could go

to the store and buy a

Mississippi John Hurt record

right now.

And do any people that were

related to him actually benefit

in any way?

>> Yeah, I mean most of these --

and pretty much everything

is out of copyright.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> You can make a --

I mean, that's another thing

that's very interesting

about blues collecting --

is that unlike

other kinds

of record collectors,

these collectors of 78s

often have a great deal of power

over how the music

is disseminated because some of

these very famous records only

exist in one, two, three, four

copies.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> So if you have the good copy,

the cleanest copy of a

Mississippi John Hurt record...

>> Right.

>> ...everyone who wants

to put in on a CD

or wants to distribute it has

to come to you to master it.

there's a kind of tendency

to look at this history and say,

"Well, that was something

that happened down there.

And it's a pathology

of the South.

And north of

the Mason-Dixon line,

we've always done things

differently, and it's fine."

And then one of the --

>> Or back then.

>> Yeah.

And I wanted to connect,

like, Williamsburg today

back to this history

and to try and show

that with movements of capital

and, you know,

really kind of material things

that there are --

You know, it still has you

by the ankle there.

>> Hari, congratulations on the

book, and thank you so much for

joining me today.

"White Tears" by Hari Kunzru

is out now.

Pick it up.

This is "Author Imprint."

I'm Lisa Lucas.

Thanks for tuning in.

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