MEET THE WRITER

‘Satire is an easy word to just hide behind:’ Paul Beatty on his Man Booker-winning novel

The author of ‘The Sellout’ on labels, self-expression, the Trump-Modi era and racism.

The biggest change after his Man Booker Prize win for The Sellout, indicates Paul Beatty, is the press posse he’s facing halfway across the world. He’s probably most uncomfortable having flashes popping in his face and eager journalists hanging on every word. He’s not comfortable giving answers like an authority figure, and refuses to speak for an entire race. Difficult to label and box, Beatty is attentive in conversation, thinks through his answers, long pauses and all…and is as authentic as you’d imagine. Excerpts from an interview at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

You’ve spoken about being uncomfortable with The Sellout being labelled a satire. Can you tell us why?
What’s weird is I don’t read a ton of contemporary fiction…man, maybe I don’t read the stuff that they would label satire. But It’s kind of a word that hasn’t been thrown around lately much. This book is not much different in terms of tone and stuff from anything else I’ve written, but the word “satire” never comes up (for those). So I think that word is somehow tied to whatever the zeitgeist is right now in the States. It’s like a counter-point to something, not just to Trump or whatever, but also to this kind of progressive rhetoric. Sometimes, yeah, the book is definitely about that, but it’s not satirical, really, to me.

And the other thing is, there’s a…y’know, people were talking about humour earlier today. You can just hide behind that word. You can say something is a satire, okay, but what does that really mean? Where’s the invective? It’s an easy word to just hide behind and not have to really deal with or confront, whether, as a reader or as a reviewer, one is implicated or not. It’s a word that’s like this shield.

It’s funny, I taught this course on satire – of course I had no idea of what the word means. The students were giving really good examples of where that word gets used. I had one student – the guy’s a fantastic writer – whenever he says something that makes people really uncomfortable with, he’ll go like you know, that’s all satirical, as an excuse, y’know what I mean. You know, I don’t want the book to be that.

Seeing Nabokov talk about Lolita, and seeing that book initially, some people had called it a satire. If you think about it, I’m not trying to equate or do something tantamount to that, but you know this book and that book and whatever, they make people very uncomfortable, not necessarily in a bad way.

But you know what I mean? You got this paedophile and whatever is going on there, and then people go “satire” – almost as a way of making it a little more palatable. I’m just really uncomfortable with that word. Because it also limits, maybe, what people think I should be doing next. Because it’s hard for somebody to be a satirist and then write something, I can’t let that happen.

It allows people to not engage with some of the difficult…
Yeah but then it also sets another level of expectations that I don’t give anything about.

Are you worried at all about this pressure of expectations?
Yeah, he (a journalist) asked me that. It’s not like I don’t think about that stuff, but it’s one of those things, I can just worry about it when it comes. Right now, I’m not writing anything, I’m trying to enjoy what’s happening. Even something that for me was as painful as this press conference.

Was it painful?
I’m not good with people looking at me like that, and people asking me very serious questions. And I’m not a very good answerer of questions (laughs).

You know it’s like the book, it’s like the criticism I used to get for my earlier work. I wouldn’t get it a lot, but occasionally, “Well, Paul is not providing any answers.” You know, cause the job of the womanist or whatever they see you as is to provide the answers. Even beyond that, yeah I’m not just good at it. It makes me uncomfortable…sorry (laughs).

But when you’re teaching – you’re a professor at Columbia – how do you deal with students who presumably are constantly asking you questions?
I love when they ask me questions. The questions are great. You know we talk about this stuff because one of the pressures that they feel is to always be on the right side of something. And they are. They’re all well-intentioned and most of them are very good people, you know. But then, does that get in the way of…not necessarily of what they believe, but of things they want to say – and those things don’t have to be the same?
And so I think (American literary critic) Lionel Trilling operates from a place that the writer is full of shit when talking about their writing. You know what I mean? And it’s like yeah that’s what…you gotta come at it that way.

It’s something I wrote about in another novel about this Japanese jazz musician – whose music I don’t know…but I read this beautiful interview with him. And the first thing he tells the interviewer was, look, everything I’m going to tell you is a lie. It wasn’t like he’s trying to lie to the person, but he’s trying to express that thought, that you never actually say what you really mean. Or, he doesn’t. And when he said that, I completely sympathise. And so I have a hard time, talking around shit and trying to…

Whereas you write, presumably that’s part of the painful (process).
But I can write about that. I can write about that not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do ‘cause that’s fun for me, I love that grey area, I love that being lost.

The Sellout is a really personal story – I didn’t get that from any of the reviews, actually. I went in thinking it’s going to be very high-level, but…the story itself is really personal.
It’s one of those things…I’m glad, it’s nice to hear that. You’re the first person to say that to me. I gotta remember, I should use that.

The thing is he’s trying to create his own space, which is what I try to do as a writer. It’s one of those things I realised later on, that’s what I’ve always been trying to do, create space. You know, space for myself, space for interpretation, just space, whatever that is. Even though there are costs to creating space, certain spaces are finite.

The thing you’re talking about, that’s interesting, because the story is at some level tangentially about these heavy loaded words, that it’s like this political kind of thing, but it’s not, really.

When I started writing, people would…not argue but have discussions…about whether I was a political writer or an apolitical writer. That intrigued me, because I don’t think of it that way.

Part of it though – this is interesting – is I think people oftentimes, whatever they view as the other, that other is emblematic of all the other others out there. They have a hard time saying yeah this is just this guy’s experience. And that experience might have some other things in common, but uhh…And then there’s another framework where people want to recognise the commonality of the experience.

I think it’s all kind of dangerous. I mean it’s one of the things, that you know…groups just scare the shit out of me.

Groups?
Yeah absolutely. Trump is a – I was going to say masterful – but he’s not masterful, he’s this ID out there. This kind of weird kind of mob collectivity and it’s really interesting how he uses his pronouns…

How does he use his pronouns?
When he says “America”, when he says “this”, when he says “us”, who’s in his head?

So that’s something that’s always intrigued me but completely repulsed me at the same time, ever since I was little…(trails off)
But it speaks to the immense range of human behaviour.

Seen from the outside, with Trump it seems to have become okay for fringe elements to come out. Similarly, in India, because you have a majoritarian government, and all of a sudden it seems to be okay to say certain racist and other things…From the outside, it looks like it seems okay for the Ku Klux clan guy to come out and say…
But you know in a weird way may sense it’s always been okay. I can’t remember when this hasn’t happened. In my experience, it’s always been okay.

Someone like (Narendra) Modi – he’s had a lifetime in politics of doing this. It’s always been okay. But now for whatever reason they have the numbers. You know these things shift. And then something happens and then everybody is going to go like yeah yeah I wasn’t a part of that. These aren’t new creations.

I don’t even know where to start. I just don’t…

Look, I grew up in California. We had these very progressive governments. But we had (Ronald) Reagan as governor, he was a very staunch conservative. We had Gray Davis, we got rid of him quick. We got (Arnold) Schwarzenegger. There’s so many things happening…There’s the celebrity thing happening, he’s what every American wants to be – this gauche, second-generation rich, unfettered…And kind of in a weird way, he’s gauche and unfettered, but the things that people find impressive about him are kind of not really true…

When OJ Simpson got acquitted…I remember someone telling me a story…she was talking to a lawyer or something…a white woman, very liberal, very progressive. But that woman was so angry that OJ got acquitted that she was saying out loud, I have to really rethink my ideas on affirmative action and on social welfare and all this.

I went whoa – ‘cause those have nothing to do with each other!

But I see that kind of thought all the time. It goes back to that personal-political thing a little bit. Because OJ has done whatever he’s done and doesn’t have to be held accountable for it, but all of a sudden that means, shit, these fucking black people, these people, these people – you know.

It would be interesting to know how Indians read your book – we’re also ridiculously racist, skin colour and…
Of course, yeah, that’s everywhere though.

Reading you as a brown person, I feel like oh my god, there’s some stuff I just get, you know? I don’t know if white people would (laughs).
You know it’s true – It’s one of those things I didn’t realise about being here. I’m uncomfortable because I’m clearly (gestures)…but there’s another comfort that I have, ‘cause it’s brown on brown (gestures to both our arms) in a weird way. This is it. It doesn’t mean anything necessarily beyond that. But…I don’t know where these lines stop and start.

(At my session) I asked the audience, what are Indians, why are people here so receptive to this? I’m trying to turn that back on people a little bit.

That question was asked differently here. I was in Italy and they asked me the same question – what do you think this book has to say about Italian society? And I went, one, I don’t know anything about Italian society. I can make a ton of guesses that could be wrong or could be right. But your job, for me, is that you gotta ask what’s applicable for you, ‘cause I can easily tell you, ‘cause I think many of these things are applicable anywhere. It’s not just about colour, it’s about how we make these distinctions.

And here I mean, you know, this is interesting, I count this conversation as part of this. When I was in London and doing all this press, the questions from the Indian journalists were so fucking good. And then, the questions from the Indian press and the Irish press were great. Part of the thing is, this colonised mentality. You know this angst – at a personal level, at a societal level, you know? I didn’t think about it till I was saying, you know India and Ireland, and I think it was my wife who said, yeah former colonies.

I didn’t even register colour – we used to travel when I was a kid – I didn’t even know I was brown till I was living in Finland and for the first time it came up. When I came back, I was much more aware of, you know, prejudices based on…but in the US it’s just a given…like generations have known.
But still, you know, when you’re told that something doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist, that shifts sometimes. People are raised differently.

When we were little we lived in an all-white neighbourhood, Santa Monica. And then we moved to a neighbourhood that was changing, shifting, from all white to mostly black I guess. Not our neighbourhood, the general area.

My mom never talked about race. Some black kids get You’re black, you have to be aware of such and such, people are going to…” Not that we didn’t know that we were black – it’s hard not to know…

There are things that I was just aware of, how things are done, expectations, how people behaved, over time, expectations from me.

I have a friend from Gujarat – one of my best friends – who’s Japanese and English, and lived her first 20 years in Gujarat. She has a very weird thing about how she sees herself in her mind. We’ll be walking in New York and she’ll see herself in the mirror and say oh yeah I forget how Asian I look. She’s got a ton of stuff in her head, sometimes she sees herself as white, sometimes as Indian brown…

But the thing you were talking about, when you left…

It’s the same with LA. I never started really seeing LA till I left, and came back and formed all these other kind of opinions about the place.

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