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'White Tears' Is A Mystery, A History, A Coming-Of-Age Story


Early on in Hari Kunzru's new novel, the narrator, Seth, a white Brooklyn hipster, makes this statement about his love of quintessentially black, old blues music. Speaking of his fellow hipster and wealthy college buddy, Carter, he says, we really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness. What Seth and Carter find, as the story unfolds, isn't what they bought but what they owe.

Hari Kunzru's novel is called "White Tears." It's a mystery, a coming-of-age story, a history, and Hari Kunzru joins me now from New York. Welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your main characters are these bedroom music collectors and DJs, and they're called Carter and Seth. And I think they are recognizable to anybody that's seen a beard in Park Slope. Can you tell us about who they are when we meet them?

KUNZRU: Yeah. They meet at a liberal arts college somewhere upstate in New York. And Carter is - he's the heir to one of America's great fortunes. He's an extremely wealthy young man, and he's kind of the coolest guy on campus. He's - he has money to do whatever he wants, if he wants to throw a party or whatever. And Seth is exactly the opposite. He is a loner. He's a very introverted young man who has a fascination with music technology and kind of geeking out on various kinds of music things. And the love of music is what draws these two very unlikely friends together.

They are sort of obsessive collectors of black music. And Carter, in particular, who, I think, feels that for all his money, his life is rather weightless and the things you do doesn't - don't have substance, he feels that there's something real and true and authentic that he can get from this music and from this culture that he doesn't have himself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The central event that propels the mystery in this novel is an act of theft. Explain what happens.

KUNZRU: Essentially, Seth and Carter, these two young, white men, fake a 1920s blues record. They take a few words of a blues song that Seth has heard traveling around the city, and they put it together with a guitar figure. They bury the whole thing in crackle and hiss, and they present it as if it's a very old 1920s blues record.

Now, they put this out on the internet as a sort of calling card for their production house, and people get very excited about it. And they're contacted by an old blues collector who asks them where they found this record, and they're very smug and amused. You know, they say - ha ha ha, we made it up. And he says, well, no, you didn't. I haven't heard this record since 1959, and there is a story attached.

And this collector, who's a character called JumpJim, once went down to the South with an older and very obsessive collector called Chester Bly. And the story follows from the present, falling back into the past and follows these guys as they go around the South looking for old records.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there a similarity to this character in, let's say, Alan Lomax and the other early white collectors? You know, they saved this music for posterity. But did they also kind of steal it?

KUNZRU: Well, I think that this is a fascinating area, and it's one of the questions that really drew me to the blues and to the history of blues collecting and the story of the Lomaxes because these collectors were certainly - and many are now - elite white men. But it's not a simple question of nasty white people stealing from authentic black people. They did do real cultural work in rescuing things that otherwise would have been cast into oblivion. But at the same time, they interpreted that in a certain way. They had certain views about what was good and what was bad, and they kind of remade the story of the blues in an image that suited them.

You know, the Lomaxes, father and son, John Lomax was a particularly - I suppose he would be thought of as quite a problematic character in our days. And in the '30s, he was a folk song collector. And what he loved was the most authentic - he was looking for the roots of music. And he asked himself where he could find the most authentic black music that was untouched by contact with white people. And the answer he came up with was in the penitentiary.


KELLY PACE: (Singing) I said the Rock Island Line.


PACE: (Singing) I said the Rock Island Line.


PACE: (Singing) I said the Rock Island Line.

KUNZRU: He got access to various penitentiaries in the South, and he recorded the people that he found there. And it seemed not to really touch him, the actual condition of the people that he was recording, the situation in which they found themselves. And eventually he discovered Lead Belly, the very famous blues musician and a while later, secured his release and took him on a sort of circuit of lecture demonstrations. And Lead Belly would play at parties on the Upper West Side to sort of left-leaning, liberal types.


LEAD BELLY: (Singing) Good night, Irene. Good night, Irene. I'll get you in my dreams.

JOHN LOMAX: That's fine, Lead Belly. You're a fine songster. I never heard so many good nigra songs.

LEAD BELLY: Thank you, sir, boss.

KUNZRU: So there were these very complex power relations, I suppose, that are going on there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Would I be right in saying that your book is an indictment of the infatuation with blackness and black culture by white people?

KUNZRU: I think an indictment might be a bit too straightforward a word. I mean, I think that America is a country that is haunted by its racial history. And it is very hard for black and white Americans to look at each other in an uncomplicated way and to understand each other in an uncomplicated way. And often in the realm of culture, and especially in the realm of music, there is this possibility of connection but actually it becomes very fraught.

And I'm not saying that white people, or any people, shouldn't listen to any kind of music they wish to listen to but that there's a difference between loving something and trying to own it or control it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your characters are collectors, but they don't make art themselves. So what do you think the responsibility of the curator is?

KUNZRU: I think you have to be very alive to the possibility that you're using these objects to tell a story that's your story rather than the story that actually is there. When you think about the blues, the taste for the blues that we have now is really largely formed by a group of collectors in New York in the '40s and '50s.

And these guys had a particular feeling about what was good about this music, and it was all about outsiders, and it was all about the slightly mythical, diabolical figure who goes down to the crossroads and sells his soul to the devil to play guitar. And actually, that has a lot to do with their own desires and their own feelings about otherness, perhaps. So as a curator, I think you need to be alive to the possibility that you're actually distorting things sometimes with your love and passion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that a responsibility that you feel as well? Should there be a limit to what writers write about if they're not directly connected to that specific history?

KUNZRU: Well, I think that's a dangerous route to go down because I think, a priori, no writer should be limited in any way like that. But you have to understand that you can do things well or badly. The question of rights is often brought up when it comes to, should writers be able to write different kinds of characters or people who are distant from them? But - and if you take that to its logical conclusion, everybody would have to just write characters who are exactly like them. I would be in a sort of strange world populated exclusively by mixed race British-Asian guys. And so, you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Sounds like a fun world.

KUNZRU: It's a crazy world, but it's a world of, you know, Eccles. It's a solipsistic world. So what all writers have to try and occupy positions distant from their own. You know, you have to occupy a position of different genders, different ages, different races. You know, in this book, I clearly don't own any of these positions. But also I've tried to approach it, I suppose, with humility. That seems to be a good word. The writers should approach their material with a degree of humility.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hari Kunzru's book is called "White Tears." Thank you so much for being with us.

KUNZRU: Well, thank you for having me.


WILLIE BROWN: (Singing) Can't tell my future, and I can't tell my past. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.