The un­quiet Amer­i­can

Man Booker Prize win­ner Paul Beatty's satir­i­cal take on the politics of race

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

‘This may be hard to be­lieve, com­ing from a black man, but I’ve never stolen any­thing.” That is the provoca­tive open­ing line of Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prizewin­ning novel, The Sell­out. The same mock­ing tone, dry as sun-bleached bones, per­vades this satire by Beatty, the first Amer­i­can to win the Man Booker, lit­er­a­ture’s high­est-pro­file award.

Var­i­ously de­scribed as “badass”, “out­ra­geous” and a “work of ge­nius”, The Sell­out cen­tres on a pot-smok­ing African-Amer­i­can farmer who is hauled in front of the US Supreme Court for tak­ing on an ab­surdly will­ing black slave and seek­ing to re­in­state seg­re­ga­tion in his home town — an agrar­ian ghetto in south­ern Los An­ge­les, sym­bol­i­cally named Dick­ens.

A 21st-cen­tury slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion cam­paign cham­pi­oned by black Amer­i­cans? Is this an all-or-noth­ing lit­er­ary gam­ble? You bet. Is it edgy? Beatty, who seems to drop the N-word on every other page, might have in­vented the term.

A for­mer poet with an aver­sion to the phrase “spo­ken-word po­etry”, Beatty pokes fun at ev­ery­thing from the civil rights move­ment to the lack of Korean taco trucks in non-white LA neigh­bour­hoods.

“They won’t ad­mit it, but every black per­son thinks they’re bet­ter than every other black per­son,” says The Sell­out’s slave-own­ing nar­ra­tor, named Me. Mean­while, a peren­ni­ally in­dig­nant black ac­tivist, Foy Cheshire, is lam­pooned for at­tempt­ing to re­ha­bil­i­tate the clas­sics with ti­tles such as Un­cle Tom’s Condo and The Great Blacksby.

White peo­ple are also in Beatty’s sights — along with the in­sid­i­ous myth that, hav­ing had a “black dude” in the White House, the US is an eq­ui­table, post-racial so­ci­ety. In a chap­ter ti­tled Too Many Mex­i­cans, Beatty’s nar­ra­tor says dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups in Cal­i­for­nia have long ut­tered this racist lament, among them mid­dle­class whites: “The type who never used to have any­thing to say to black peo­ple ex­cept ‘we have no va­can­cies’ and ‘ you missed a spot’ … fi­nally have some­thing to say to us.”

The Guardian called The Sell­out “the most lac­er­at­ing satire in years”, while US co­me­dian Sarah Sil­ver­man has said “de­mented an­gels” might have writ­ten it.

Yet Beatty the in­ter­view sub­ject turns out to be as cir­cum­spect as Beatty the writer is un­in­hib­ited. As his rich bari­tone notes surge down the line from his New York home, the 54-yearold writer is oblig­ing, friendly — and stub­bornly un­der­stated. On the big­ger is­sues his novel ex­ca­vates, such as the unof­fi­cial racial seg­re­ga­tion of US schools, he is pos­i­tively non­com­mit­tal. His mes­sage seems to be that he is no­body’s mes­sen­ger.

The au­thor — who will speak in Bris­bane to­mor­row and is head­lin­ing this week’s Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, with one of his ses­sions al­ready sold out — says: “I think that peo­ple are smart enough, you know, to hope­fully just en­joy the story.”

The ret­i­cent lit­er­ary star even con­sid­ers the word “satire” prob­lem­atic: “I don’t think the book is satire, re­ally. It might be funny, but I’m not writ­ing the book to pro­voke a re­sponse.” Ear­lier this year, he said on an NBC talk show that the satire la­bel cre­ated a bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tion: “That la­bel comes with a big bur­den, you know, the Mark Twain kinda [thing]. You have to be witty, you gotta wear a seer­sucker suit all the time.”

So where did this au­da­cious idea come from — an African Amer­i­can who, al­beit re­luc­tantly, takes on a black slave and de­cides to put his crime and poverty-blighted town (even Ch­er­nobyl re­fuses to be twinned with it) back on the map by seg­re­gat­ing a lo­cal school? Beatty, who grew up in Los An­ge­les, says his novel be­gan with an idea for Hominy the slave — an 80some­thing “race re­ac­tionary” and for­mer child ac­tor who begs to be enslaved af­ter Me talks him out of com­mit­ting sui­cide. Hominy be­lieves a seg­re­gated school will “make Dick­ens more at­trac­tive to white re­set­tle­ment”.

“I just kind of built that world around that char­ac­ter,” says Beatty. “It was a good way not so much to bring the past and fu­ture to­gether but just to talk about a lot of things in a funny con­text.” He notes how his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, fea­tures a mi­nor char­ac­ter “who runs away into slav­ery. He’s a dancer and he loves the way they move as they pick the cot­ton.”

Given his habit of turn­ing his­tor­i­cal trau­mas on their heads for comic ef­fect, he says that “af­ter every book I write, some­body asks me the ques­tion — ‘Is X, Y and Z mad at you?’ Not that I’ve heard. The books are more than just try­ing to take the piss out of a cer­tain sec­tion [of so­ci­ety].”

De­spite traf­fick­ing in po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect gags, Beatty has said The Sell­out is “a sad” book. Asked about this, he riffs ca­su­ally: “I don’t know why I said that. I say some­thing dif­fer­ent about the book every time some­body asks me.”

Last Oc­to­ber, the some­time con­trar­ian made his­tory by be­com­ing the first Amer­i­can to win the Man Booker Prize. His lat­est novel had al­ready gar­nered Amer­ica’s pres­ti­gious Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for fic­tion — past win­ners in­clude Hi­lary Man­tel, Junot Diaz and John Updike. (In 2014, the Booker — pre­vi­ously lim­ited to Bri­tish, Com­mon­wealth, Ir­ish and Zim­bab­wean writ­ers — was ex­panded to in­clude all nov­els writ­ten in English, pro­vided they had been pub­lished in Bri­tain.)

Beatty says he was sur­prised to take out the Booker, and footage of the cer­e­mony shows a tall, be­spec­ta­cled man, suited up and kind of mor­ti­fied as he is over­come with emo­tion. He said: “I can’t tell you guys how long a jour­ney this has been for me … I don’t want to get all dra­matic — writ­ing saved my life or any­thing like that.” Then he choked out some­thing ex­actly along those lines: “Writ­ing’s given me a life.” Since he won the prize, the writer says his ex­is­tence has been “a lit­tle bit” of a whirl­wind. “You do a bit of trav­el­ling and lots of talk­ing,” he says, chuck­ling. In­ter­est­ingly, de­spite earn­ing rave re­views, The Sell­out strug­gled to find a Bri­tish pub­lisher af­ter its suc­cess­ful US re­lease. It was turned down by 18 Bri­tish pub­lish­ers be­fore small, in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ing house Oneworld took it on — the same com­pany that pub­lished Mar­lon James’s A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings, the pre­vi­ous Man Booker win­ner, in Bri­tain.

Beatty down­plays his novel’s bumpy tra­jec­tory to­wards Bri­tish pub­li­ca­tion, which was in­ter­preted as a sign of pub­lish­ing’s con­ser­vatism. Nev­er­the­less, he won­ders whether “there’s this niche of what a story’s sup­posed to read like. I meet ed­i­tors every now and then who see books that they like, but they re­ally can’t ac­quire be­cause they don’t think they’ll be able to sell it.”

He re­veals he re­cently judged a lit­er­ary com­pe­ti­tion — he won’t say which one — and was struck by the “same­ness” of the books in con­tention. “It didn’t mat­ter where the book was set or what pe­riod the books were set in. I was just like,

‘Th­ese books are all the same, they’re struc­tured the same, just all the same tone.’ And I re­alised they’re just kind of com­fort­able, even when deal­ing with un­com­fort­able [sub­jects].”

James, the 2015 Booker win­ner, has ac­cused pub­lish­ers of pan­der­ing to the tastes of white, mid­dle-class fe­male read­ers. Beatty is more diplo­matic as he says: “I don’t think it’s the pub­lish­ers who are pan­der­ing, it’s the writ­ers who are pan­der­ing. I think peo­ple try to fig­ure out an au­di­ence, and some­times a lot of peo­ple write to an au­di­ence … Part of that has to do with a need to be liked, kind of writ­ing to be liked in a weird way. I don’t write not to be liked, but I don’t write to be liked. I just try to trust what I’m do­ing.”

He has writ­ten four nov­els, all set in mul­ti­cul­tural and black com­mu­ni­ties, and two books of po­etry, and in 2006 he edited an an­thol­ogy of African-Amer­i­can hu­mour ti­tled Hokum. In the in­tro­duc­tion, he showed the same star­tling ir­rev­er­ence he brings to his fic­tion.

He wrote about read­ing canon­i­cal black writ­ers as a young man and “wel­com­ing the rhetoric but over time miss­ing the black bon mot, the snap, the bag … It was as if the black writ­ers I’d read didn’t have any friends.” He con­cluded: “The defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the African-Amer­i­can writer is so­bri­ety — un­less it’s the black lit­er­a­ture you buy from the book ped­dler stand­ing on the cor­ner next to the black-vel­vet-paint­ing dealer, next to the bur­rito truck: then the pre­vail­ing theme is the menage a trois.”

His jour­ney of lit­er­ary in­so­bri­ety shifts up sev­eral gears in The Sell­out. The novel is re­plete with jokes that seem cal­cu­lated to give of­fence, at a time peo­ple take of­fence all too eas­ily. At one point, Me says: “Like most black males raised in Los An­ge­les, I’m bilin­gual only to the ex­tent that I can sex­u­ally ha­rass women of all eth­nic­i­ties in their na­tive lan­guages.”

It even­tu­ally be­comes clear, how­ever, that Me and Hominy’s seg­re­ga­tion mis­sion is a case of th­ese char­ac­ters mock­ing their own pow­er­less­ness — can you seg­re­gate a school that is al­ready de­void of white stu­dents? What is the point of re­in­sti­tut­ing “whites only” seat­ing on pub­lic buses when whites don’t ride on them? Me and Hominy’s sep­a­ratist cam­paign in Dick­ens is ab­surd not just be­cause it is of­fen­sive but be­cause the town — in­spired by the real-life Los An­ge­les district Compton — is al­ready ef­fec­tively seg­re­gated. When asked about this, Beatty (pre­dictably) turns vague. “Peo­ple know the plight of schools, they don’t need me to do it [com­ment],” he says, in­sist­ing he is just pre­sent­ing “a story”.

The au­thor teaches cre­ative writ­ing at New York’s Columbia Univer­sity. Given the risks he takes with his fic­tion, does he find that uni­ver­si­ties, with their talk of safe spa­ces and mi­cro-ag­gres­sions, are no longer places for dis­sent? “I never re­ally hear any­one talk about what a ‘safe space’ re­ally is in a con­crete way,” he says. “I don’t kind of pay at­ten­tion to it. I un­der­stand the need for stu­dents to feel not threat­ened. But then there’s the idea of what does be­ing threat­ened mean? That’s one of the things that the book is about — we throw out all th­ese words — safe space, seg­re­ga­tion — and no one talks about what th­ese things are.”

Even so, he notes how a col­league felt he couldn’t teach a poem be­cause his stu­dents deemed it anti-Semitic. “I was like, ‘It is, but it’s still a pow­er­ful piece of lit­er­a­ture.’ But he just felt like he couldn’t teach it. I didn’t judge him on that. I don’t know how I feel about th­ese things, nec­es­sar­ily, to be hon­est. But I know they’re worth talk­ing about. I think they’re worth fight­ing about. I tend to side with the peo­ple who I think are most vul­ner­a­ble, but that doesn’t give you li­cence to do any­thing [in terms of cen­sor­ship].” Un­like his char­ac­ter Foy, who turns Twain’s

Huck­le­berry Finn into a “po­lit­i­cally re­spect­ful” work, re­plac­ing the word slave with “dark­skinned vol­un­teer”, Beatty is “not a per­son who’s try­ing to erase the past, at least not in that way. I don’t get that. That book has been around for a long time, for a rea­son … I think some of the dis­com­fort [with Twain’s use of the N-word] is the stuff that you gotta deal with. Some­times there are things that make me deeply un­com­fort­able, but I’m re­ally at­tracted to it. Peo­ple have a hard time han­dling that kind of dis­so­nance.”

Mar­ried, child­less and in­tensely pri­vate, Beatty started his lit­er­ary ca­reer as a poet. In 1990, he won the New York Grand Slam po­etry cham­pi­onship, and this led to pub­li­ca­tion of his first book, the hip-hop in­flu­enced po­etry col­lec­tion Big Bank Take Lit­tle Bank.

He has per­formed his po­etry on MTV and in the early 1990s he vis­ited Ber­lin with other US po­ets who de­clared them­selves “cut­ting-edge” and — even worse in his view — “spo­ken-word po­ets”. He told the Full Stop web­site: “I had never heard the phrase ‘ spo­ken word’ be­fore. I had no idea what that meant. I hoped that wasn’t what I was do­ing. I just re­ally hated it. It sounds re­ally po­lit­i­cally cor­rect — it’s gob­bledy­gook.”

While he comes across as self-con­tained, he jokes that writ­ers “are so needy — the talk­ing is one thing; be­ing around [them] is an­other thing”. He was raised by a sin­gle mother, a nurse who en­cour­aged him and his two sis­ters to read Saul Bel­low and Joseph Heller. In­ter­est­ingly, Beatty re­vealed in his Full Stop in­ter­view that while grow­ing up in LA, “I would go and visit my girl­friend at the time in ju­nior high … [and] the cops would stop me and tell me, ‘ You don’t be­long here, get the f..k out’ … There were no [seg­re­ga­tion] signs, but I learned there were def­i­nite signs there.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from school, he left LA — de­scribed as “mind-numb­ingly racially seg­re­gated” in The Sell­out — for New York and Bos­ton, where he stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing and psy­chol­ogy re­spec­tively. “Psy­chol­ogy is a big part of how I see the world and that, of course, in­flu­ences at some level how I write or how I choose to ren­der the world,” he says. His psy­chol­ogy back­ground sur­faces in his Booker win­ner, as Me’s fa­ther con­ducts bizarre ex­per­i­ments on his son, in­clud­ing elec­tro­cu­tion and a pub­lic mug­ging, to teach him about the plight of black Amer­i­cans. (Me’s fa­ther is even­tu­ally shot dead by the police.)

I ask Beatty whether he sees Hokum — and by ex­ten­sion his comic nov­els — as an an­ti­dote to the high se­ri­ous­ness that revered AfricanAmer­i­can writ­ers brought to their work. Re­ally, I should have known bet­ter.

“Ab­so­lutely not, it’s not an an­ti­dote to any­thing,” in­sists this au­thor who has earned a place in the his­tory books with his Booker win, yet re­fuses to make claims for his writ­ing. “Any spa­ces I’m fill­ing in are just spa­ces I’m fill­ing in for my­self, but for any­body else? I’m not try­ing to fill a void or any­thing.”

Paul Beatty will speak at the State Li­brary of Queens­land to­mor­row and at the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val on May 26 and 27.

Paul Beatty: ‘Writ­ing’s given me a life’; af­ter win­ning the Man Booker Prize in Oc­to­ber last year, be­low

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