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Interview with Hari Kunzru

15 October 2009

Hari Kunzru is a British novelist and journalist, author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission and My Revolutions. Of mixed English and Kashmiri Pandit ancestry, he grew up in Essex. He was educated at Bancroft’s School, Essex. He studied English at Wadham College, Oxford, then gained an MA in Philosophy and Literature from University of Warwick. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Hari currently lives in New York.

Hari attended this year’s Ubud Writers Festival with the backing of the British Council. During the Festival, he spoke at several events and interviewed Wole Soyinka as part of the Literary Lunch series. We caught up with him at the Neka Museum on Sunday and had a chat.

The contents of this interview — 20 Questions with Hari Kunzru — was broadcast via Twitter earlier today. We include the full transcript below, plus a bonus question.

UWRF: Who are your key influences?
Hari: I hate this question because they change every week. Pynchon, Ballard, Delillo, Dostoevsky, Nabokov.

UWRF: How did you get started writing?
Hari: Sitting alone in my room on the dole.

UWRF: Did you always aspire to make this a career?
Hari: I wanted to be a writer from when I was quite young. When I left university, I decided to take odd jobs and write a novel.

UWRF: What was the first writing you had published?
Hari: The first piece of writing was in a school magazine when I was 8.

UWRF: What was your first serious fiction publication?
Hari: A short story in an anthology after university.

UWRF: How long between the publication in the anthology and the publication of the first novel?
Hari: About 9 years.

UWRF: How did you find your publisher?
Hari: I eventually got an agent after many years of trying. He got an auction among publishers for my first novel.

UWRF: How did you find your agent?
Hari: He saw a short story & asked me if I had a novel. I showed him the first chapter of The Impressionist. He signed me up there.

UWRF: So your agent found you?
Hari: Actually I had tried to get him to represent years earlier with my first manuscript. He said it was not publishable, but keep in touch.

UWRF: So you have novel manuscripts that predate The Impressionist?
Hari: Yes, two, but they are unpublished.

UWRF: What is happening with those?
Hari: They are on my hard drive and that is where they will remain!

UWRF: What was your key break?
Hari: I think it was learning my craft through writing. I did various kinds of writing. Lifestyle journalism also teaches you to be interesting straight out of the gate.

UWRF: What inspired The Impressionist?
Hari: Partly family; wanting to understand where I came from & the colonial history that brought my parents together and made me.

UWRF: How long did it take you to write The Impressionist?
Hari: 2 years, maybe 3.

UWRF: Describe your writing work process.
Hari: On fiction, if I am writing not researching – 1,000 words a day.

UWRF: How do you work with your editor?
Hari: I only show completed drafts. I get comments from editor & agent & then do another draft. You always need another pair of eyes.

UWRF: How did you get the British Council to support you to come to this Festival?
Hari: In a way it’s a mystery to me! What usually happens is your publisher or the festival organizer contacts them.

UWRF: What are you working on now?
Hari: Another novel, set out in the Mohave Desert.

UWRF: Does it have the irony of the first 2 books or is it more serious like your most recent book?
Hari: I hope it has the best qualities of all 3! Probably not as broadly comic as the first 2.

UWRF: What’s your advice to other writers?
Hari: Learn how to kill your children. If you take 10 days to write a paragraph & it’s not working you have to cross it out.

UWRF: What’s your reaction to new media formats like blogs and twitter and their impact on literature?
Hari: I am very excited by them actually. We have a new literary culture happening. New forms mean new kinds of writing.

You can learn more about Hari by visiting his website: http://www.harikunzru.com

Jo’s Blog : A Long Table Literary Lunch in the rice fields.

12 October 2009

Jewellery designer John Hardy graciously opened his bamboo doors to the Ubud Writer’s and Reader’s Festival to host a wonderful Long Table Lunch on Saturday.

Passionately committed to environmental sustainability and community issues, Hardy’s production houses are made of bamboo and locally thatched roofing or ‘ylang ylang’ crafted into unique designs. The buildings blend into the surrounding landscape; emerald green rice fields as far as the eye can see.

The long table itself was set outside under a canopy. Guests were presented with bamboo tumblers containing ‘Virgin Mojitos’, a perfect cooler alongside the chilled face towels offered on a hot Bali day. A healthy mix of writers and readers mingled until ‘Hardy Ambassador’ Warrick opened lunch with a welcome speech.

With over 500 local employees, Hardy’s jewelry enterprise is one of Bali’s larger businesses. What makes each piece so special is that designs are all originated on paper rather than computer and are then hand crafted individually. The resulting jewelry sells all over the world in locations such as 5th Avenue.

With over 500 mouths to feed every day, Hardy grows his own organic rice, fruit and vegetables that are then cooked by traditional means foregoing the use of electricity. Our organic Balinese buffet included dishes such as green beans with coconut, the tastiest chicken I’ve ever tasted and marinated vegetable skewers. With one of Bali’s best organic ‘nasi campur’ (rice and a selection of Indonesian delights) in front of me I was ready to here some author’s deliver their favorite excerpts.

Kurdish poet Bejan Matur was first to read some of her poetry, which was then translated. She believes that there is no frontier between poetry and life and travels the world living a nomadic lifestyle.

Malaysian author Lee Su Kim added some wit and humor which was followed up by Shamini Flint who chose to read from both her last Inspector Singh novel and one of her children’s books Ten. I was lucky enough to sit next to Shamini and heard one of the reader’s pose the question “Why are each of your novels set in different places in Asia?” to which she retorted “Gives me a chance to bitch about another destination!” Very funny lady. I’ll be buying Ten for my son when he’s old enough.

Token male orator for the afternoon was Jamal Mahjoub. Jamal grew up in Khartoum in the Sudan and draws on his life experiences to produce his novels and short stories.

By the end of the afternoon my mind was full of poetry, my belly was full of organic faire but sadly my fingers were not full of Hardy’s amazing jewelry. Offer’s please!

Rico’s Blog : UWRF 2009, Day 3

10 October 2009
Friday's Pecha Kucha at the Lotus Stage

Friday's Pecha Kucha at the Lotus Stage

For me, Festival Friday all boiled down to two killer events: The Literary Lunch with Wole Soyinka and the Pecha Kucha.

The Lunch was held at the Four Seasons Sayan. Soyinka and host Hari Kunzru sat in two casual chairs  at the front of the room and had a chat, not unlike two mates down at the pub. Kunzru was the interviewer, but Soyinka needed little prodding; he’s an easy conversationalist and spoke at length on each of the topics raised.

He spoke at length about his influences, discussing his childhood. He was raised in a Christian home, but he maintained a fascination wiuth the secular performance arts he saw on the street. His father was a teacher and as a result, Soyinka was exposed to the classics and cited among other influences Euripides (“It made a huge impression on me.”). The weaving together of these traditions populates his works and informs his thinking to this day.

Soyinka spoke of the role of the artist in activisim. He feels that literature holds a special place, labeling it the most immediate event in the arts. And while he did not feel it was necessary for artists to create barricades with their bodies, he clearly felt that they needed to at least show up! The arts have an important role in society and “writing is a sacred undertaking; a crucial aspect of the community.” He also cautioned “never be too long on rhetoric and too short on action.”

African issues were also on the agenda, with a portion of the talk focusing on the negative impacts of evangeliam on West African life. He was quick to draw a distinction however, stating that while christian evangelism had done much harm in West Africa, that spirituality was of great value and had an essential place in society. He also condemned the “monsters that have stepped into the roles of the colonial powers and now rule under the guise of ‘democracy.’”

On the subject of his separation from Nigeria and his past stormy relationships with authority, he reflected “I’m not in exile; I’m on a political sabbatical.” When Kunzru asked him how 2 years of imprisonment and solitary confinement had affected his work he replied without missing a beat – “not at all.” Soyinka had clearly made peace with his situation and is comfortable with the consequences of his actions. Indeed, you could say he is undeterred. At one point he stated, “For some writers, going into exile is needed to reach their work; it shakes the dust off their feet.”

Questions from the audience expanded the discussion very little, though they did provide some levity. One audience member asked Soyinka if he could explain his strong resemblance to Kofi Annan (I swear I am not making this up), to which Soyinka quipped that he had not experienced problems with that but that he “signs a large number of autographs for Morgan Freeman. I hate disappointing people, so I just sign.”

In sum it was an inspirational session.

That evening I found inspiration of another sort at the Pecha Kucha event at the Lotus Stage. Pecha Kucha is presentations format, in which each speaker is given 20 slides and a short time period to present an idea. The event then lines up a series of these presentations. I sat through eight presentations, from a restored Balinese film festival, to fighting criminalization of addiction, to mopeds. It was a blast and the pace of the event was great fun. While not every idea is of interest to everyone, the short time span means you are never bored to tears. At one point last night, the speakers were blaring Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” while the presenter tried to raise his voice over the din to proclaim the joys of mopeds — all set against the backdrop of a Balinese temple gate. Pure, joyful weirdness.

Jo’s Blog : ‘Slumming’ it at the Amandari: Cocktails with Vikas Swarup

10 October 2009

Before I start writing this blog, can I ask the audience, how many of you have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire?

Vikas Swarup, author of the novel ‘Q and A’ which inspired the movie ‘Slumdog’ described himself as an accidental author. Swarup joked that, as a foreign-service employee, he was amongst many who tried their hand at fiction and were on the look out for a publisher. With his wife away for a month, Swarup was ‘devoid of distractions’ and set about writing the story of a contestant on ‘Who will win a Billion?’ who would win using street knowledge. ‘Q and A’ took only two and a half months to write.

vikasThe producers of the program actually told Swarup that ‘Millionaire’ was “…not about brain power but more about knowing the value of money”. An excerpt from the novel illustrates this point: “Have you considered buying him off?” the commissioner suggests hopefully.” I mean, he probably doesn’t even know the number of zeros in a billion. I imagine he’d be quite happy if you threw him just a couple of thousand rupees.”

One of Swarup’s inspirations had been the furor which ensued in the UK following Major James Ingrim’s ‘Millionaire’ win and subsequent allegations of cheating. It was proved that, through a series of coughs, his wife and a college lecturer in the audience assisted Ingrim with the answers. Swarup was interested in exploring the idea that an uneducated contestant with common sense could have the chance to win too and would definitely be accused of cheating!

After writing the first four and half chapters Swarup sent off his unfinished manuscript to publishers to no avail. He eventually struck lucky through in an internet contact which put him in touch with agent Peter Buckman. Swarup asked a fellow author for advice on choosing an agent, “If he asks you for money, don’t sign!”. Vikas asked all the right questions (who else do you work with…) and found out later that he was Buckman’s first client!

Deal agreed, Swarup set himself a tough deadline to write the last seven and half chapters in just one and half months before his position in India/Pakistan relations began. Doubleday Publishing showed interest in the book and wanted to promote it properly which meant that it would be another two years before it was released. However, a year before release, UK’s FilmFour Productions showed interest in producing ‘Q and A’ as a movie. Swarup commented that not in his wildest dreams did he consider that his book would become a box office movie; “I thought of it as a very Indian book.”. ‘

‘Q and A’ has been published in 42 languages and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ went on to win 8 Oscars. Swarup finds this all highly amusing after being approached about ‘Slumdog The Musical’; “All I need now is a Macdonald’s doll of Ram Mohammad Thomas!” Maybe they could call it the McMillion doll.

When asked his opinion of the movie version of his book, Swarup is diplomatic. The book shows that through ninety five percent hard work and five percent luck anyone can make it. Swarup believes “ there’s no shortcut to success”. However the movie version focuses on destiny. He accredits the Oscar wins to the superb child acting, the musical score mixing Hip Hop, Pop, Reggae and Indian music and the stunning cinematography.

When questioned about the objections in India to the movie which dramatically ceased upon the Oscar wins, Swarup jokes that “Indians celebrate success” and is quick to point out that it was a small minority in opposition. He sees the book more as a “…gritty portrayal of Indian society where even a slumdog can become a millionaire”.

I have to say that this Q and A session was definitely the highlight of the Ubud Writer’s Festival so far and Vikas Swarup is worth a million himself!

Jo’s Blog : Chocolate and ‘Dangerous Women’ UWRF

9 October 2009

Yesterday was a day of indulgence. Auditory delights as poets read excerpts from their favorite pieces and authors paneled fascinating discussions about subjects such as ‘The Future of Compassion’ and ‘Translation as Suka Duka’.

Ubud Writer’s Festival is a veritable melting pot of cultures and life experiences. Listening to the outstanding author Wole Soyinka describe his interpretation of ‘compassion’ as “the ability to transpose oneself into the condition of another without losing one’s ethical core” was humbling to say the least. Wole not only forgave the man responsible for his resulting jail term but he continued a friendly relationship with him upon release.

Fellow discussion panelist Seno Gumira Ajidarma added that compassion often rises within conditions of violence, referring to the May 1998, after which the Reformasi period in Indonesia begun.

After a thought provoking start to the day lunch took on a lighter note. The literary luncheon entitled ‘Dangerous Women’ was held at the stunningly beautiful Alila Ubud Resort’. Entering the resort through an expansive emerald green rice field, I immediately exhaled. A panel of passionate female authors such as the hilariously funny Shamini Flint (launching her book ‘A Bali Conspiracy’ on Sunday) and Sushma Joshi made lunch side splittingly witty and a complete joy.

What constitutes a dangerous woman was the discussion opener, which afforded some fantastically funny input from the ladies. Shamini commented “ middle aged Indian women don’t have sex. Both my children were born by immaculate conception!”

Dessert was a triple chocolate delight which I then followed up with a extra helping at ‘Voices from the Chocolate Lands’ held at Rumah Rio; an eclectic mix of poetry readings whilst enjoying Javanese chocolate. An altogether heavenly day!

Rico’s Blog : UWRF 2009, Day 2

9 October 2009

Today was a day of audio oddities. In retrospect, I can tell you EXACTLY when it began: I was sitting in Casa Luna, leeching their Wifi (thank you thank you!!), when I noticed that the gamelan music in the background was in fact a Balinese rendition of that horrid theme from The Titanic. (I’m all in favor of cross-cultural pollination, but that’s just wrong…) Little did I know that this mundane event would be the first of a series of aural treats & tribulations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — let’s backtrack a bit. Most of the day was brilliant.

I spent majority of the day downing coffee and pastries and being “social media man.” That part was OK. Also spent two hours in Jungle Run’s video suite editing down yesterday’s highlight reels. That part was OK, too. (Thanks Jungle Run!)

In between lots of Twitter and Facebook posts, I managed to catch some interesting events. Lawrence Blair’s film, Dream Warriors of Borneo, was screened at Casa Luna. Prior to running the film he chatted with the crowd and spoke of some of the oddities one can find in Indonesia, like vampire moths and poisonous birds (perhaps that should have been my first hint that this could be a weird day). After, I walked downstairs to enjoy the Suka Duka-themed art exhibition. The exhibit is small but there are some lovely pieces on display. The expo runs throughout the Festival, so drop by if you get the chance.

In the afternoon I stopped briefly by the Chocolate Lands session at Rumah Rio. This was a sold out event, so I quietly snapped some photos then slipped out. Later in the day Jo regaled me with tales of fabulous chocolate goodies, including some incredible ice cream.

jammingI think my favorite event was the Stories in Cloth, held at Threads of Life. There was a presentation on textiles and a musical performance that was both haunting and lovely. The singer was accompanied by a traditional musician playing an instrument I have never seen before. (The photo on the left show him in action.) The sounds were distinctly primitive, but pure and simple. An audio oddity to be treasured.

I closed my day with a jaunt over to Tutmak to catch Cat Wheeler’s book launch. Ibu Cat is an old Bali hand and I wanted to show her some support. Turns out my presence was superfluous; her supporters turned out in droves. Cocktails and canapes backed by a reading made a really pleasant transition into evening. Then it got ugly…

As Tutmak was not serving food due to the book launch, I headed over the Ubud’s token burrito bar for a bite. Being from South Texas I had serious reservations but like a moth to a flame, I was drawn in. The place is small. A couple was in the middle of a heated discussion, giving the entire joint an air of tension. Meanwhile Steeler’s Wheel droned on in the background: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” Oh yeah.

After several margaritas that would peel the paint off a ’64 Fairlane, I head back to the hotel. I go to the bar for my internet fix — like the digital junkie I am. I get there and they have singer with an acoustic guitar — and a lisp — singing “thumb-where ooooo-ver thhha raaaaain-bow.” You’ve GOT to be kidding me…

I fire up the headphones, light up a Paratagas P, order heavy alcohol and retreat to my own space – determined to control for at least a while my audio stimulation.

The punctuation for the day was added by Sam Cutler — unbeknownst to him. At the Writers Rock Hard event tonight, someone in the audience asked him “Is Rock ‘N Roll dead?” to which Sam replied “Well, I’m not”.

Yep. Can’t vouch for the rest of the ya, but I’m not dead yet. So there.

More Literary Goodness!

8 October 2009

Here’s a complete and up to date list of all the book launches scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday:

FRIDAY 9 OCTOBER

12-1pm BUNUTE RESTAURANT

‘Teman Hutan’ Friend of the Forest – Captain Freddie

“Teman Hutan/Friend of the Forest” is a picture book story that has been written and illustrated by Federico Joaquin Elizalde, aka Captain Freddie, for the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and the Orangutan Information Centre of Sumatra (OIC). It has been translated into Indonesian and is presented as a bilingual book. The story is about Pongo the Orangutan, how he lives in the forest, how similar he is to humankind, from his behavior to his DNA. More importantly, the book points out that orangutans help reforest the jungle by eating mass quantities of fruit and dispersing seeds throughout the forest. As reforestation projects can be costly, instead people could try to support the orangutan carry on with their jobs that they do for free, naturally. The book will be distributed for free to local schools and villages in Sumatra to promote awareness of the plight of the orangutan and the deforestation of Sumatra.

Published by Orangutan Information Centre and SOS.

4.30-6.15 pm GAYA ART FUSION

Green Leaves on a Passing Wind – Manaf Hamzah

International Publishers Forum, in cooperation with the Obor Foundation, the National Arts Council of Singapore and the Republic of Singapore Embassy, will launch the novel Dedaun Hijau di Angin Lalu (Green Leaves on a Passing Wind). At the launch Singapore author Manaf Hamzah will speak about the novel’s plotline. Maman Mahayana, the book’s translator will speak about the challenges of translating the novel from Malay into Indonesian.

5-6 pm CASA LUNA

INDONESIA RISING – Dr Nasir Tamara

Indonesia Rising documents the key social, economic and political developments in Indonesia following “Reformasi” and democratisation. Regarded world-wide as an Indonesian expert, Dr. Tamara explains how democracy has been the fundamental force that has allowed Indonesia to recover from the deep crises of 1998 to rise as a regional power, bringing progress and change to the archipelago.

6-7 pm ANHERA

“DIVING INDONESIA’S RAJA AMPAT – The Planet’s Most Bio-diverse Reefs” – Burt Jones and Maureen Shimlock

International renowned marine life photojournalists Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock will present a captivating multi media underwater tour of Raja Ampat in conjunction with the launch of their book, Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat. Burt and Maurine’s work developed from Conservation International’s Indonesia Marine Program, and surveys the region’s wealth of dive sites and topside attractions. Because of its unprecedented marine biodiversity, Raja Ampat has become the focus of a wide range of conservation initiatives in recent years, and this book aims to raise awareness of Raja Ampat’s value locally and internationally.

SATURDAY 10 OCTOBER

1-2 pm CASA LUNA

The Proper Care of Foxes – Wena Poon

Wena Poon’s first book, Lions In Winter, was listed for both the Irish Frank O’Connor Award and the Singapore Literature Prize. In The Proper Care of Foxes, she explores chance encounters and impossible romances between young men and women in the culturally-fluent Internet Age. At once trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific, the Singapore-born American author defies current categories of literary fiction.

6-7 pm FOUR SEASONS SAYAN

NOT A MUSE is a richly satisfying anthology of poetry by and about the 21st century woman that defies all the rules of Publishing. For a start, ‘poetry’ is considered to not sell, and ‘women’s poetry’ is marked as a sub category under that! This title blows away all those conventions with a good looking cover and a line up that will inspire you to take another look. More than 100 exciting poets from 24 countries and vibrant verses from literary luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, Sharon Olds, Erica Jong, Lorna Crozier, Elisabeth Harvor, Rati Saxena, Anindita Sengupta, Louise Ho, Eileen R., Tabios, Agnes Lam, Fatima Naoot, Pascale Petit, Rose Flint, Luisa A. Igloria, Michelle Cahill, Menna Elfyn—and many others. Indonesia’s own Laksmi Pamuntjak has written the preface that invites women from around the globe (and men for that matter) to listen to what the Muse has to say.

7.30-8.30 pm THE POND

THE LOVE OFFERING OF THE OCEAN MAN – Dino Umahuk

The Love Offering of The Ocean Man is the third anthology by Dino Umahuk that includes 111 poems that he wrote from November 2008 until August 2009. Dino has previously launched The Metaphor of the Ocean’s Passion (February 2008) and A Man Who Walks On the Ocean (February 2009). The poems in Dino’s latest offering convey the spiritual struggle and the heart’s journey of this Northern Maluku man. In this book, Dino walks much closer to the silence, to the secret of the earth.

Published by Tinta Pena & Ummu Press.

7.30-8.30pm THE POND

The Homeland Narration “Ternate’s Poets Anthology”

Several of Ternate’s poets have come together to explore themes of culture, politics, spiritual, humanity and love. Some use their local language from different parts of Maluku. These established and emerging poets come from varied backgrounds including academia, local councils, government employees and activists.

This is the first anthology of poetry written by Northern Maluku poets and supports the passion of art & literature that has been dormant for a long time on this king’s land.

Published by Tinta Pena & Ummu Press.

SUNDAY 11 OCTOBER

1-2 pm ANHERA

Bocah Muslim Di Negeri James Bond – Imran Ahmad

This Indonesian translation of Unimagined is a hilarious and captivating memoir of a Muslim boy born in Pakistan, who moves to London aged one and grows up torn between his Islamic identity and his desire to embrace the West.

Deliciously funny and painfully insightful.

Published by Mizan.

5.30-6.30pm MINAMI RESTAURANT

INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES: A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL – Shamini Flint

Inspector Singh is back, but this time on secondment to Bali. A bomb has exploded and Singh has been sent to help with anti-terrorism efforts.

“Down these mean streets a man must waddle … It’s impossible not to warm to the portly, sweating, dishevelled, wheezing Inspector Singh from the start of this delightful debut novel.” – The Guardian

6.30-8.00 pm INDUS RESTAURANT

OX-TALES – UK authors

Ox-tales is four volumes of short stories featuring 38 of the UK’s top authors, (including Hari Kunzu) which was published in July to raise money for Oxfam’s work around the world. Each collection of Ox-Tales is formed around one of the four elements, to highlight the work of Oxfam’s projects, including Earth (from land rights to farming), Air (campaigning to combat climate change), Fire (supporting victims of conflict) and Water (providing safe water in emergencies)

Oxfam works with others to overcome poverty and suffering anywhere in the world. Oxfam has been working in Indonesia for more than 50 years. Oxfam GB is a member of Oxfam International and a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 612172. Registered office: Oxfam House, John Smith Drive, Cowley, Oxford, OX4 2JY.
A registered charity in England and Wales (no 202918) and Scotland (SCO 039042).

The book will be launched by Hari Kunzru.

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