Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I met Sjón in fraught circumstances in 2010, when we found ourselves in the middle of a controversy about religion and freedom of expression at a writer’s meeting in Turkey. I immediately liked him, and when I went home and started reading his books, I was gratified to discover his formidable, capacious imagination. We’ve remained friends, though we rarely get to see each other. I like the way he dresses, the edge of formality, a slightly old-fashioned gentleman talking to you about narwhals, who may fade to sepia at any minute.
I first became aware of Hari Kunzru in the mid-’90s while I was living in London and he was writing for the UK edition of Wired. A few years later he published The Impressionist and impressed me with his skills as an author. We met in person at a writer’s conference in Istanbul where V. S. Naipaul was supposed to address the assembly but was forced to withdraw at the last minute because of threats from the Islamist press. As we both are active members of PEN International, Hari and I organized a multinational response to the situation. The strong bond we formed back then has remainded. This conversation was recorded last fall during one of my visits to New York.
Sjón What made me very happy reading your new book, White Tears, is that you’ve actually written a proper ghost story—a misdeed in the past seeks justice in our times.
Hari Kunzru Ghost stories are always about repression, aren’t they? History that has been repressed. The more time I’ve spent in America, the more I’ve understood about that history of racial repression. The potential election of Trump suggests that the will to bury certain aspects of the culture is still there. Ghosts are a preoccupation of yours, too. Your proto-scientist in From the Mouth of the Whale lives half in the world of ghosts and half in the world of science. He inhabits the boundary between the supernatural and the natural.
S As readers we are used to certain things in stories that take place in the past. It’s usually a given that ghosts exist and that they have means to manifest. So I like how in your book, the ghost first manifests through technology and finds its way into our times through an audio recording. I’m interested in how old narrative formats can be used over and over again.
HK Genres emerged for a reason and if you’re going to engage with that as a writer you need to have respect for that tradition and an understanding of what a particular genre can do. You often use myth and archetypes in your writing. Do you think of yourself as someone who subverts archetypes or do you go along with them? Are you a playful postmodernist or a mythmaker, or both?
S Well, I think it’s important to respect the nature of the genre that you decide to make your own. The storytelling mechanisms of ghost stories, myths, and folk stories have been finely tuned and tested over millennia really. But then, of course, you have to subvert them and have your own way with them.
HK In Moonstone, you are clearly interested in the way imagination shapes and imposes form on reality. It’s a book full of cinema and the dreams in cinema that come off the screen and become real during the influenza pandemic of 1918–19, which affected Reykjavik, as it did so much of the world.
Yes, I was interested in how this underprivileged kid finds a way through cinema to form a character, a personality, and to understand his surroundings and his fellow men, who have completely rejected him. Cinema becomes his education, in a way, and the book is formed by his view of society, which he is reading through his knowledge of cinema. I’m interested in how as young people, we find tools in popular culture to define ourselves. I think the kids in your book White Tears are doing something similar. They’re trying to find an identity for themselves through the blues. Seth, a kid from nowhere, has an obvious need to connect with culture, to use music and sound to enrich himself and find meaning.
HK Black music has very often been stolen and co-opted by white people. But there is a complexity to the story of the blues. Early blues records had vanished by the 1950s. They were disposable things on their way to being forgotten completely. And it was a coterie of white collectors who rescued them from oblivion. Now there are problems with the white taste for the authentic, and the patronizing way that some of the old bluesmen were dug up and exhibited as authentic primitives. But there’s still something symbiotic there, and I’m always interested in gray areas.
S If you come to music with innocence or in ignorance—
HK —which is what teenagers do. As a teenager, you come to culture in the middle and start assembling yourself from the scraps that you encounter.
S And then later you slowly discover, as Seth discovers, that there is a much more complex history. I think most of us have gone through a period of simply liking things, being excited about things, and making them a big part of our lives. All those teenagers all over the world are spending hours and hours finding deep meaning in song lyrics while their parents and everyone else deem them disposable, cheap, or even bad. Sometimes, teenagers happen to become interested in something that is of real value, like, in this case, the blues.
HK So what were your “cultural scraps”? I know you had a very early interest in surrealism.
S Yes, but as a kid, I read all sorts of junk. The Frank Hardy stories, the Nancy Drew books, Enid Blyton—these were on offer for Icelandic kids. Then came detective novels, and, for my generation, there was Bob Morane, who was this hero of Belgian pulp novels written by Henri Vernes. Those books were full of freakish things—Mongolian warlords who could clone themselves, international bands of assassins who fed on hashish. And then, of course, there was David Bowie, who was like a tutor to me because every interview he did was full of names of bands, authors, and artists to explore. He was the great educator for many of us in Reykjavik in the mid-’70s. The first time I heard the name Andy Warhol was in the lyrics on Hunky Dory.
HK Oh yes, “Andy Warhol looks a scream. Hang him on my wall.”
S I didn’t have a clue who he was until I looked him up. The decadence of New York was exciting, and I started picking up everything I could find on this scene.
HK I’m slightly younger than you, and Bowie was still performing that role for me in the early ’80s. There was a very self-consciously intellectual music press in London publishing these weekly music papers, New Musical Express and Melody Maker, and their writers would reference Derrida and all sorts of political things as well. So music culture and art school culture were filtering into my suburban world.
But I also had a taste for the fantastical. I read a lot of pop science fiction and violent thrillers. I remember Alistair Maclean’s The Guns of Navarone. I read all of his books. I had a taste for high drama and a rather belated taste for psychedelia as well. I didn’t really understand these as coming from the late-’60s early-’70s period of Mike Moorcock and other hip, psychedelic science fiction writers. When you have no context, these things strike very powerfully. You don’t just say, Oh, that’s come out of a hippie subculture and I don’t like hippies, or I do like hippies. You’re very directly imprinted by the stuff.
How isolated was Reykjavik? I have friends in Auckland, New Zealand, who always feel themselves to be very far from the center of things, and they make the extra effort to catch up. As a result they are ahead of a lot of people in London or New York.
S Absolutely, that was the situation in Iceland. In the ’80s, things opened up, but in the ’70s, we felt isolated. There were three or four record shops that imported respectable music, but you couldn’t find any obscure records. There was maybe one secondhand record store, which had the strange things. So the thirst for new music and attitudes was there. When you’re on an island up in the North Atlantic, the need to know what is going on in the cultural centers is very strong, and you do everything you can to feel part of it all. And then punk happened. Going into that made me feel like part of a movement of young people doing whatever they wanted to be doing. My friends were starting bands, and all of the sudden we were promoting concerts, doing readings, and making music together. Then, when we went to London, we felt we were meeting our equals in the scene there. There was no barrier. It was like, I’ve been listening to your music, now you listen to mine. I’ve been reading your poetry, now you read mine because we are part of the same thing.
HK I have this pet theory about Iceland, having to do with the volcanic landscape, where every so often islands come out of the sea and other bits sink down. Iceland is very comfortable with mutability and things changing into other things. Do you give any credence to my theory?
S (laughter) Yes, it’s possible that nature pushes us in that direction. On the grand scale, we know that our land was completely covered with ice during the Ice Age. It’s been changing and now there are some wonderful lakes in the wilderness where, for example, arctic char was trapped after the glaciers started retreating. These lakes contain fish that should migrate to the sea.
HK That’s a very Sjón fact. (laughter)
S Yes. We have all these facts showing how nature is constantly changing on the grand scale, but also on the scale experienced by humans—the weather and the seasons. I think that helps us understand that nature is transforming and transforming us along with it.
HK I suppose you can’t have the illusion of control.
S No, we’re absolutely at the mercy of these magnificent things, the land with its volcanoes and earthquakes, and the sea, which surrounds us and can be either a friend or a monster that devours us. As a writer, I love metamorphosis. I think it’s one of the great tools of literature.
You are working with elements of transformation in your own novel. There’s the mental transformation of Seth, the boy, when he’s being possessed, and then there’s this amazing scene when Charlie enters Seth. You describe it in a very physical way, Seth’s body stretching, followed by Charlie actually slipping into his body. On the one hand, it reminds me of something you might read in an old mythological tale; on the other hand, it reminds me of a Tex Avery cartoon. Maybe because of the wolf element.
HK Historical caricatures of black people in America always had exaggerated mouths and eyes and hands. All that racist exaggeration is connected with Tex Avery cartoons. And it’s definitely connected with a deep mythology of gaping maws swallowing you up. I needed to make literal the fact that this white hipster boy is being taken over by the spirit of this musician. That’s always been the fantasy of white hipsters, Norman Mailer’s The White Negro kind of thing: Imagine if I had all that outsider credibility and authenticity? When in reality, they don’t want to be black outsiders because that involves pain and sorrow of all kinds.
S Yes. And it made me so happy when that scene progressed and I realized that you were actually going to—
HK —go there. (laughter)
S I don’t know if it’s just my literary mind, always looking for associations, but I found so many things in common between our novels. In your book, it’s the blues that’s very prominent, and in my book, it’s silent cinema—two art forms that grew and bloomed in a short period of time and then just disappeared. Much of silent cinema is lost, and there are people dedicated to hunting down copies of great films that we know existed but have disappeared.
HK All that old film stock is highly volatile, isn’t it? You use that in your book, the fact that these films can spontaneously combust, and that memory is very fragile.
S The great stars of silent cinema were disposed of overnight when sound came along. There were so many things that I discovered when researching the book, like the role of women in silent cinema. They weren’t only the stars, they were also the producers.
S Yes, they were the producers and quite a number of them were also directors. And with sound, the whole power structure of cinema changed. Countries that had been powerhouses of silent cinema, like Denmark, for example, got sidelined.
HK The English language suddenly becomes dominant.
S Yes. Also, you have a new art form that hasn’t been dominated by men over the centuries.
HK Why did it change that women were producers of silent movies and not later films?
S Their power as divas had also given them financial power. So when they were pushed out as stars they also lost their power on the economic side. The guys stepped in and said, “Well, now we’ll take over.” There are so many things that change when an art form disappears.
HK The blues was overlooked. The companies who were making the records in the ’20s were very frequently not New York–based entertainment companies. One of the biggest companies was called Paramount, nothing to do with the motion-picture Paramount. They were a furniture company in Wisconsin selling gramophones, and they wanted to make sure that their customers had records that they liked to play. They didn’t really care what these were as long as it was to the taste of the different regions. So they had a network of scouts: up in Appalachia, they’d record hillbilly fiddle music; and in Arizona, California, or West Texas, they’d do cowboy songs. In the South, they were selling to a rural black audience so they’d record rural black singers. The Depression wiped out all these little companies, and after that, shellac was needed as a material in the war effort, so that kind of record production vanished. There was a window between the advent of electrical recording in 1920 and the late 1930s, less than twenty years.
S And silent cinema, if you think about it, only had around—
HK —a decade?
S Yeah, fourteen years for features, which start in 1913 and by 1927 they’re over.
HK In Moonstone, you’ve got this showing of Les Vampires in Reykjavik. Is that something that happened, or is that your wishful thinking?
S Every film mentioned in the book did play, and if I mention the date, it is the date it played in Reykjavik. I did very thorough research, and it was a big surprise for me to discover how up-to-date the Icelandic audience was on what was going on in cinema, from comedy capers and cowboy films to the great cinematic artworks of the twentieth century. At the time, it was mostly teenagers, the working-class, and the outcasts of Reykjavik who were going to the movies. Finer society went to the town theater for completely outdated Scandinavian drawing-room dramas. It’s interesting that the underprivileged were there to witness the birth of a new art form. They were the ones present at the premiere of Metropolis.
HK Whereas the guardians of Culture with a capital C were off doing something else.
S And it’s not like the guardians of Culture were reading Ulysses either. I think this must be happening today, too. Maybe I don’t realize that some of the computer games my son is playing will one day be recognized as great cultural artifacts.
HK Yeah, are we going to be defined pre- and post-Minecraft? (laughter) It’s a good reminder for writers that actually the short-term judgments of critics and sales usually don’t last. Things seep in from the margins, and tastes are formed in strange ways, often by groups of marginalized, obsessive people.
S Absolutely. If I can be dramatic for a moment, literature has renewed itself over the last one hundred years by calling to its cause those who have nothing but the language—the skill of reading and writing, the skill of telling a story. And they are bound to recreate literature by doing it wrong. I’ve got nothing against education or writing programs, but I think we should be aware that the great innovators of literature might be the kids who are—
HK —not in the writing programs.
S And who are discovering literature as something they need, and have to contribute to.
HK In the last couple of years, I’ve started teaching in writing programs here in the US, and, like a lot of people, I have an ambivalent relationship with them. There are clearly things that can be taught, but at the same time, the strange parts of works don’t survive a workshop process with a bunch of people sitting in a room going, “Well, I didn’t understand that,” and, “Where’s your central character?” There’s something valuable about isolation and invisibility and not having to professionalize your output too soon. In the visual arts these days, kids are being picked up by galleries while they are still in art school. They go straight from being students to being commodities in the art market. It’s rare that anybody can make anything of lasting intellectual value if they’re immediately picked up as the generators of collectible objects.
S Yes, it’s like the Icelandic music scene, which grew out of the notion that there was no reason to compromise. You had an audience of thirty-five people, twenty of whom were your friends. Why on earth would you compromise for those thirty-five?
HK Do you have a rhythm to your production? I always feel that I stretch out with one book and then I sort of—how should I put it?—try to do something perfectly with the next. And then kind of stretch out again and then try to consolidate the work with the one after that. It’s just sort of how the work seems to take me.
S Well, I’m not a writer who sits down every day and works on a novel or a particular piece of writing. There are stretches, sometimes months, when I do no proper writing.
HK What do you do instead?
S (laughter) I’m doing research, I’m doing this and that. You know, literary work. I work on some commissions, a screenplay or a libretto. The novels I work on only once in a while. Then I create space and retreat to my fortress of solitude and write for six weeks or so. There’s a short novel that I hope will be next; I’ve been running through it in my mind now for four or five years, thinking about it from every aspect.
HK It’s like a puzzle. You can sit on the subway or wherever and turn it over in your mind and work out some particular facet of it.
S I have the first scene laid out, and I’ve been going back to it over and over again, adding little pieces of information. It’s a novel about a young man involved with the group of people who reestablished the Neo-Nazi movement in 1962 in the Cotswolds. They authored the Cotswold Agreement, which is foundational for European and American Neo-Nazism. George Rockwell, the founder of the American Neo-Nazi party, and the first man to openly walk under a swastika flag after the Second World War, was part of the group. He was married to an Icelandic woman. I’ve been collecting information about the Neo-Nazi movement for maybe twenty years. This is usually how I work. I keep gathering material because I feel the need to know about something, and eventually I arrive at a point where I realize that I can actually make a novel out of it and not just a crazy collection of—
S Facts and strange stuff.
HK I’ve always been interested, partly in a know-your-enemies sort of way, in Nordic mysticism that specifically excludes people like me. There’s a version of British identity that excludes migrants and has an inheritance from the 1930s movements that wanted to reconnect to the soil, and further back from Romantic nationalism and a kind of Northern mysticism. I’ve always been fascinated by the irrationality of the Northerners. (laughter) Whiteness is supposed to be about being rational and taming the childish and unruly natives, but actually, just like everywhere else, there’s a flipside of deep mystical irrationality.
HK Sending an expedition up to the Arctic to look for Atlantis. Nick Griffin, until recently the head of the British National Party in Britain, recorded a folk album that I think was called West Wind. This is a man who appears in public in a suit and tie, but peel off his layers and he’s interested in all this Pagan, mystical material. That interest is common to far-right movements across Europe. As a kid who loved Tolkien, it was disappointing to realize how much all that fantasy literature is appropriated by those people or is involved in their conception of themselves.
S And, of course, in the North we still have this problem of the far-right appropriating our traditional literature and culture. The Third Reich’s use of runes and the names of gods and the whole mythology of the North was really an abuse. I am told by historians of symbols that the use of the Swastika is a rare example of an age-old symbol being redefined. It can’t be reclaimed as a positive symbol.
HK But it’s amazing how utterly resilient India has been. Swastikas are everywhere. And there’s no stigma around it at all, which is kind of pleasing to me. But for my Jewish friends it is an irredeemable symbol, one that should be suppressed. While Hindus are like, This has been our thing for thousands of years, and the fact that some crazy German misused it for twenty years is irrelevant to us.
S After the Second World War, it was an important cultural task for the Nordic countries to rehabilitate the culture.
HK Who was important in doing that? In Germany, the landscape and the traditional visual aspects of the culture were unusable because the Nazis had trashed them so badly. Who would you point to in any field—literary, visual, musical?
S Well, it’s difficult to say. I think one way of doing it was to go past the pomposity of mythology and more toward the folk culture—which had also been appropriated, but within the folk culture you could find some more unsavory elements that had not been used by the Nazis. More ribald and—
HK —ah, kind of carnivalesque things.
S You could start slowly rereading the folk tales and the myths from an antiauthoritarian point of view, focusing more on how they celebrated diversity and fragility and all of that. The Icelandic sagas have heroes, but they are all failed heroes. They’re denied a hero’s death. So there were possibilities to work with these stories in a new way. But we still have this problem. A friend of mine is the head of the Pagan society in Iceland, and they are constantly fending off right-wing fans from the US.
HK That’s fascinating. Is there a Paganism that isn’t susceptible to that? It’s all about deep essence and connection with the land. Could an immigrant to Iceland become a Pagan?
S Oh, yes. Paganism with its multitude of gods offers an answer in our multicultural society, where suddenly people have had to live with the fact that there are many different religions and ideas thriving together.
HK There’s no single point of access to the divine.
S Monotheism in Europe is definitely crumbling. It’s also within the Icelandic tradition to have this variety of thinking. The fabric of society is changing. I think up to twelve percent of Icelandic society now is made up of immigrants, people from other countries. The biggest group is Polish, and then we have a sizable Thai group, and a Filipino group. So Icelandic society is changing very fast and this poses some interesting questions for our literature. Until now, Icelandic literature has been written by Icelanders in Icelandic and from the Icelandic perspective. Now, with twelve percent of the population coming from elsewhere, we have to redefine what Icelandic literature means. I’ve just finished editing a special edition of Tímarit Máls og Menningar, one of our oldest and most respected literary magazines. For the first time we are publishing a number of authors living in Reykjavik who do not use Icelandic but Polish, Spanish, and English.
HK I suppose the touchy thing for Iceland must be language. If there’s any sense that Iceland’s very deep and noble literary culture is being eroded, that must produce anxiety from some people.
S We see a tendency, especially among the youngest generation of authors, to write in English. They were brought up on the Internet, so at least half of their reading is in English. And this is a completely new situation for Icelandic literature. I am quite conservative. I write in Icelandic most of the time. I write good, proper Icelandic, and I lean toward the older style, not because I’m trying to preserve the language but because I find the most joy in writing, in struggling with that kind of language.
And, of course, there are people who are worried. We have strong nationalistic tendencies. And for the first time in history, a right-wing nationalist party is yearning for parliament and who knows what will come of that? As of today, they have two percent in the polls, but we will see what happens. They are arguing against multiculturalism; they are arguing particularly against people of the Muslim faith moving to Iceland. Like everywhere, the hilarious thing is that the conservative people trying to keep everyone out haven’t the first clue what Icelandic culture is made of. Because they’ve never read a book or embraced Icelandic art, and they don’t realize that Icelandic culture is really a hybrid. It has always been.
HK A seafaring people.
S Yes. All of the highlights of Icelandic literature are from periods when its authors have completely embraced foreign ideas. The sagas were written by the Nordics and the Celts. Then we have the Baroque and the Romantic periods. Then we have communism, and surrealism, and so on. You cannot find one Icelandic writer who was not thoroughly embracing what was new in his day. So much for isolated island literature.
HK Let’s end with literature’s ability to work with lost stories.
S In your book, you work with a lost blues musician who never got the chance to leave a recording of himself. In my book, I work with a queer kid who needed a writer to make him manifest.
HK So these are acts of recovery, aren’t they? I mean, they are political, I suppose, in the sense of wishing to point out holes and absences. And they are also pointing out something about cultural memory—there are elements of chance, although we don’t see them as chance in retrospect. Something was recorded, or a manuscript was kept.
S Yeah, you know, one thing I hate is when people try to tell you what authors should do. We’ve got enough of that, especially from the political side. But I think I would say that one task an author can set for himself or herself is to look actively at forgotten spaces or silenced histories. This can be one of our tasks.
HK That seems like a good task for the writer.
Hari Kunzru is a British Indian novelist and journalist. He is the author of five novels, most recently White Tears (Knopf, 2017). He lives in Brooklyn.
Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) is an Icelandic poet, novelist, and lyricist. His latest novel is Moonstone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). He has also published nine poetry collections and written four opera librettos, as well as lyrics for various artists. He is the president of the Icelandic PEN Center.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.