Hari Kunzru, Writing Program Adjunct, on Writing in the Age of Trump

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This past semester, Hari Kunzru, a fiction writer and member of the Writing Program adjunct faculty, taught a class called The Weight of the World. The class explored ways writers can respond, whether directly or obliquely, to their political landscape. Kunzru challenged students to wonder, “How should a writer be? How should she deal with questions of power and politics? When is it best to shut out the world and listen to the ‘small still voice’?”
One might also ask: When is it best to shut out the not-so-small-and-still voice of the President-elect?
Indeed, Kunzru’s class, concerned as it is with politics, was uniquely situated to respond to the recent presidential election and to provide a context for the question, which many artists, here at Columbia and elsewhere, have been asking themselves: What is the role of the artist in the age of Trump? We caught up with Kunzru and asked how his students have been responding to the election, and why he thinks the task of the writer is “becoming acutely important” in our shifting political landscape.
Our recent presidential election has raised questions about the role of the artist in society, and particularly the role of the artist in a repressive society, which many fear is just the kind the President-elect will bring about. How can writers specifically respond to our new political situation?
The role of the writer is becoming acutely important. One thing you keep seeing people say online, in response to whatever latest statement by the President-elect, is that nothing means anything anymore. Words don’t mean anything. He’ll say one thing during the campaign and there’s no guarantee that’s actually a policy position he’ll take. He’ll flip-flop, he’ll hint at things. He’s a master of confusion. If writers do anything, it’s to try to dispel linguistic confusion, to try to express ourselves precisely and truthfully.  It will be up to us to combat what I see as a degradation of language, and certainly a degradation of public discourse.
What inspired you to teach the class, “The Weight of the World”?

I’ve always been interested in what the relation of fiction in particular is to political speech and questions of politics. People are very suspicious of the idea of a political novel, with some justification. They imagine it’s an instrumentalization of fiction, that it turns into propaganda. There’s something opposed-to-art about a book that seeks to persuade a political point of view. Having said that, I think novels have quite sophisticated ways of understanding complex situations. You have a lot of tools at your disposal to bring different kinds of understanding into the same space. It can be a useful way of thinking through social and political questions, in order to provide a space where these things can emerge. I think that’s the point where fiction writers can operate usefully—not shackling ourselves to trying to say, “Do this, do that,” or making policy positions, but just to articulating what the questions are that we’re seeking to solve. How we do actually want to organize ourselves?
What kinds of texts have you been using in the course?

I’m teaching a lot of translated fiction. I’m teaching quite a few things that are probably not fiction at all—they’re more poetry. We started off with some very personal narratives, things that stayed close to the author’s own experience, and then worked from there, always with the question, “How does the writer respond to the world? What is the writer’s role and duty?” We’ve been through a lot of very different kinds of writing, but always with that in mind. You’re never outside it, you’re also situated inside the world you find yourself in, that you’re writing in. Things that force themselves upon you. Like Trump.

How have your students been responding to the election?
People are seeing that there’s some sort of urgent change happening. They’re trying to work out how far this is going. There’s a version of this where it’s the beginning of the end of the republic, and there’s a version which is a Republican administration which is slightly more vicious than usual. Where on that spectrum are the next four years going to lie? Uncertainty is the main emotion experienced in class. People are trying to understand what it means to be a writer at this moment.
Kunzru’s next novel, White Tears, is forthcoming in spring 2017.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.