Not A Sellout: A Talk With Paul Beatty
Paul Beatty on his Man Booker-winning novel The Sellout, labels, self-expression and a post-Trump world
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 feels uneasy having flashes popping in his face and eager journalists hanging on to his every word. He's not comfortable giving answers like an authority figure, and he refuses to speak for an entire race. Difficult to label and box, Beatty is attentive in conversation, thinks through his answers … and is as authentic as you'd imagine. Here are edited excerpts from an interview at the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival.
You've spoken about being uncomfortable with The Sellout being labelled a satire. Can you tell us why?
I don't read a ton of contemporary fiction … maybe I don't read the stuff that they would label satire. This book is not much different from anything else I've written, but the [descriptor] 'satire' never comes up [for those]. So, I think, that word is somehow tied to whatever the zeitgeist is right now. The book is a counterpoint to something, not just to Trump, but also to this progressive rhetoric.
And the other thing is, you can hide behind [the] word [humour]. You can say something is a satire, but what does that mean? Where's the invective? It's an easy word to hide behind and not have to 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.
Seeing Nabokov talk about Lolita, and seeing that book initially, some people had called it a satire. 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 what people think I should be doing next.
The Sellout is a really personal story—I didn't get that from any of the reviews, though.
I've always been trying to … create space—space for myself, space for interpretation, just space, whatever that is. Even though there are costs to creating space, certain spaces are finite.The story is at some level tangentially about these heavy loaded words, that it's political, 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 often times, whatever they view as the 'other', that other is emblematic of all the other others out there. They have a hard time saying this is just this guy's experience. And that experience might have some things in common [with other writers] … Then there's another framework where people want to recognize the commonality of the experience.
I think [belonging to a group] is all kinds of dangerous.
Reading you as a brown person, I feel there's some stuff I just get. I don't know if white people would (laughs).
It's true. It's one of those things I didn't realize about being here. I'm uncomfortable because I'm clearly [gestures towards himself] … but there's a comfort that I have, 'cause it's brown on brown [gestures to both our arms]. This is it. It doesn't mean anything necessarily beyond that.
[At my session in Jaipur] I asked the audience, What are Indians, why are people here so receptive to [my book]?
That question was asked differently [in India]. 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 right. But your job, for me, is that you gotta ask what's applicable for you. It's not just about colour; it's about how we make these distinctions.
I count this conversation as part of this. You know this angst-at a personal level, at a societal level [as formerly colonized].
I didn't 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 prejudices based on [the colour of your skin].
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. 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 ...
I have a friend 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, I forget how Asian I look." 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 [Los Angeles]. I never started really seeing LA till I left, and came back and formed all these other kinds of opinions about the place.