Amitava Kumar talks to the author in The Paris Review:
Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, is being released in the U.S. today. Set in the Mojave Desert, the novel is an echo chamber for stories divided across more than two centuries. The clever symmetries that link the stories reveal the bleached bones of American identity—racial mixing, violence, an unending contest over the politics of meaning and faith. This is Kunzru’s fourth novel; his debut, The Impressionist, appeared in 2003 and was followed by Transmission (2004) and My Revolutions (2007). I conducted this interview by e-mail, but I saw Kunzru only a few weeks ago, in late January, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He had done a public reading from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses , a book banned in India since its publication more than two decades ago. Rushdie had been scheduled to appear at the festival but, because of threats to his life, decided to stay away. When I last saw Kunzru, it was close to midnight and he was making calls to lawyers overseas. He had been informed that he was facing arrest. The next day, on legal advice, Kunzru left the country.
The first time I read about you, you were described as having “a nonspecifically exotic appearance” that marked you “as a potential native of about half the world’s nations.” How do you usually explain your origins?
I was born in London. Depending on who I’m talking to, and how I feel, I might describe myself simply as a Londoner, British (that one’s only crept in since I came to live in New York—to anyone in the UK, it’s weirdly meaningless), English, the son of an Indian father and an English mother, Kashmiri Pandit, rootless cosmopolitan …
How did Gods Without Men come about?
I got stuck in Los Angeles on 9/11. I’d been in California for a couple months and was supposed to fly home to England the next day, which was not going to happen. I had a weird experience involving trying to give back a little rented Japanese sportscar with Arizona plates, freeways being closed, getting lost and driving round the perimeter of ghostly, closed LAX on the tensest day in modern American history. Then it involved the LAPD and firearms. Only my English accent stopped the fuckers arresting me. It wouldn’t work so well now with cops and immigration people in the Western U.S.—they’ve got English-accented Pakistanis on their radar. Anyhow, I got away unshot and found West Hollywood full of freaked out hipsters telling each other someone was about to fly planes into the Hollywood sign. People were losing their minds.