White Tears (Left Me Bored to Tears)

I haven’t read an entire book in a day in so many years. That used to be par for the course with me, but I haven’t had the spare time or really the inclination to commit a whole day to such an endeavor in a month of Sundays.

This was not the book for which I should have resurrected that old habit, but hey. Ya live and ya learn. Someone recommended that I read White Tears by Hari Kunzru at one point when I was soliciting book recommendations online, and I bought the novel over a year ago. I vaguely remember starting to read this sometime last year and then getting distracted and putting it down. For a year. I should have left it where I put it. But, last month I had a few days off of work and I decided to pick it up again and start from the beginning. Where do I even start with this book?

White Tears author is Hari Kunzru, an author of Indian heritage who is born and raised in England (according to his Wikipedia page). What this author thought he could possibly accomplish by writing a story of a white family (and slightly-extended network of other aiding and abetting white folks) in America being brought to heel by a Black ghost for their treacherous past of appropriation and exploitation, I’m not quite sure.

The basic premise of White Tears is that the main character, Seth, is the friend of a very rich white kid, Carter, who insists on listening to only Black music because it is more “authentic.” Authentic to whom and of what are not addressed, nor would they be by the type of characters portrayed here. Carter and Seth start a music production company and happily appropriate whatever is clever to make some hipster shit in New York. When Carter decides to step over the already shaky line of cultural appropriation to straight up theft of an unknown Black singer’s vocals, things start to disintegrate rapidly. Misstep for both Carter and Seth that turns out to be. The story takes us to Mississippi to learn about Charlie Shaw, the vocalist…who died decades before.

First, Seth as the main character and lens through which we receive this story is less than optimal. He is a completely uninteresting and annoying character who grovels at the feet of the major characters in the story. Whether Seth’s mediocrity and complicity are supposed to mean anything to the readers is a mystery to me, because it bored me to much to even think through thoroughly.

Second, the story attempts to combine elements of magic realism, much in the way that the actual Mississippi-native Jesmyn Ward has done, but to much less effect. Kunzru’s novel reads like he google searched “elements of magic realism” and then procedurally weaved in as many of those as he could find when examining how the character of Charlie Shaw comes to life through his stolen song and unraveling story of his tragic life.

Finally, the story, though one of the driving forces behind it is supposedly a Black man from southern America, comes off as a piece with little to no input from or observation of Black folks in America. It feels simplistic and silly as a “this is what happens to the descendants of those who appropriate and appropriate and appropriate and appropriate,” because, well, we all know that it doesn’t happen that way. Of course, the author would likely argue that reality must be suspended and that some portion of the story is what “should be” rather than what is. But, the white family at issue didn’t pull off their deeds alone—they had a whole system of white supremacy entrenched in the law, economy, and social customs of the country to back them up. The “justice” that Kunzru seems to think Charlie Shaw is achieving is past the realm of even fiction.

The whole time I read this book, I wondered what inspired Kunzru to write it. This story isn’t his. This country isn’t his. This history isn’t his. And not to say that someone has to own something to write about it, but when it comes to the tragedy and motivations and lost potential and grinding oppression and insidious undercurrent of cultural appropriation riding on the heels of gentrification across the country and the white capitalist exploitation of the very pain caused by white supremacy…well those seem like things that should be more than just a research project before you engage in the exercise of writing about them.

-Dij

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