Monday, February 15, 2010

Hari Kunzru: A writer with a mission

Hari Kunzru: a writer with a mission.
By Uma Anyar

Hari Kunzru is one of the prestigious authors who will be presenting at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Oct). He is the recipient of several coveted literary prizes, including a Betty Trask Award and the Pendleton May/Gilford Arts in 2002 followed by the Somerset Maugham Award in 2003 for his first novel The Impressionist. The book was also short listed for the best new novel category by, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Whitbread, the WH Smith Literary award and the William Saroyan first novel award among others. That is an impressive response to a debut novel.

But Hari Kunzru is not a mere prize seeker. He has stirred up controversy by refusing to accept the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys prize because ‘Sometimes questions of literary value are inseparable from politics.’ The prize was funded by the Mail on Sunday, which, according to Kunzru, was responsible; with its sister paper The Daily Mail, of pursuing ‘an editorial policy of vilifying and demonizing refugees and asylum-seekers’. Such editorial policy contributed to the establishment of ‘a pervasive atmosphere of hostility towards black and Asian British people’. It would have been hypocritical, the writer argues, to accept a prize sponsored by ‘a publication that has over many years shown itself to be extremely xenophobic’ and awarded for a novel that disputes the accuracy of racial definitions.

“As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail’s editorial line.... The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence, and I have no wish to profit from it.” He suggested that the money be given to the United Kingdom Refugee Council.

Politics and literature intertwine in all of Kunzru’s writings, which explore the complicated and contentious legacy of colonialism as well as the influences of contemporary globalization on the construction of individual identities. Globalization is a new form of imperialism by multinational conglomerates that control and consolidate power through capital. His concerns are for the people who never benefit from this wealth and power, who are marginalized and unseen with little or no rights in society.

Kunzru defines The Impressionist as an attempt to turn Kipling’s novel on its head: ‘Kim is the fantasy of the white subject who can see the hidden easternness of things. I wanted to change that round, to make western whiteness the exotic thing. I have worried in the past that I’ve not felt anchored to things, not felt committed. Part of it is being mixed-race, but part of it is temperamental. I’ve always been very scared of people who are certain. Nothing terrifies me more than a religious fundamentalist who really knows what right is and is prepared to do violence to what they consider is wrong. Claiming that degree of moral certainty is more or less a form of mental illness. I wanted to write in praise of the unformed and fluid.’

Hari Kunzru was born in 1969 of mixed British and Kashmiri Pandit ancestry. He grew up in Essex and educated in England where he earned an MA in philosophy and English at the University of Warwick. He currently lives in New York City. Kunzru has a background in journalism and has written travel articles and conducted interviews for Sky TV’s electronic arts program The Lounge. He is a citizen of the world and is considered a futurist because his second novel Transmission, which is the story of Arjun Metha, an Indian ‘cyber- coolie’ who carries his version of the American dream not to New York or Los Angeles but to Silicon Valley where he discovers he is just an updated version of cheap labor. He retaliates, when the anti-virus corporation he works for fires him, by creating and transmitting computer viruses that threaten world stability. The story is about public and personal boundaries and how the effort to keep out the real refugees seeking asylum with border fences backfires when cyber space viruses coyly named after Arjun’s favorite Bollywood film star, Leela Zahir, breach cyber firewalls. Transmission personalizes the fears and the delights of a globalized world as well as examines loneliness and unconnectedness in a world where the local, the particular are fast disappearing. Pizza Hut pizzas are available in almost any city on earth. If information is power then the disruption of information is another kind of power, that of a down trodden and dispensable man’s retribution for being shut out of the glittering candy shop of the American dream

Kunzru published Noise, a collection of short stories in 2005 and then chose to go against the established, successful trend in the publishing world that requires an Indian writer or even a half -Indian writer like Hari Kunzru, to write about migration, marriage and family ties.
“I said let’s do it, let’s not even have a hint of India in the book because I wanted to make a statement that I reserve the right to imagine anything I want,” Kunzru told Reuters at an annual literary festival in Jaipur, India.

“I wondered if I would be allowed to write a book that didn’t have Raj furniture or any Indian people. And I found that my publisher was very supportive,” he added. Readers have long been fed a steady diet of multi-generational family sagas, arranged marriages and difficult migrations from writers of Indian descent, but Kunzru said people are more sophisticated now and more accepting of other themes.”

My Revolutions (2007) does not have a single reference to a sari or to anything exotically Indian. It deals with a failed 1960’s English radical. This book takes on another set of problems that any author writing about sixties and seventies radical politics would have to contend with; how to adequately convey the abhorrence of violence and the inevitable pull toward it, which fueled Radicals in the sixties. The urge to make a difference, to be affective, pulled the leftist radical underground warriors to extremes they never expected to be part of when they started protesting against government policies and the Viet Nam war.

The comparison of today’s suicidal terrorist acts and a quainter era when bomb threats came with considerate phone call warnings.

No comments: