24 June 2017

Urban Legend: Paul Beatty Interview

Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning novel is a sublime, savage satire about modern-day racism in America. The author tells Trisha Gupta why no one—not even him—should be off the table to poke fun at.

Photo credit: Outlook India
In 2016, Paul Beatty became the first American writer to win the Man Booker prize. The surreal tale of an urban farmer who re-institutes segregation and slavery in his corner of Los Angeles, The Sellout was rejected by 18 UK publishers before an independent press called Oneworld took it on. The book’s whiplash wit slices through the smug fog of political correctness surrounding race, class and just about everything in America. Yet, there’s an inspired everyday lyricism to the writing, which owes something to Beatty’s past as a poet. Nothing is sacred in this book, yet everything he touches in it—from the LA public bus system to old-school Hollywood racism—feels almost spiritual.

We met Beatty at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), in January 2017, and talked about watermelons, stereotypes, life after the Booker, and why ‘intellectual’ isn’t a label he minds…

ELLE: I thought The Sellout was more brutal, much angrier, than the reviews let on. 
Paul Beatty: I don’t think of it as angry. Sad, sometimes. But it’s interesting how people read things. During the Man Booker event, the moderator said, “Paul, your book is so angry!” There was a book there about a guy serial-killing people, another about a woman who plots this murder. How come those [books] aren’t angry and mine is? I’m not saying it’s not angry...

ELLE: ...but other things are angry too. Yes, I see. A different question: what does fictionalising real stuff do for you? 
PB: In terms of its emotive present, [my book] might be authentic—the anger, the frustration, humour. But I’m not trying to duplicate reality... The thing is the imagining. I write about things I don’t know anything about. That’s the fun part: to make it seem like this person exists. I have some sense of the psychological stuff in the book. But I don’t know anything about this neighbourhood I’ve written. Or surfing. Or gardening. At the [JLF] session, a woman asked me, “Is there a question that no one asks you?” I thought, no one ever asks me about the fruit.

ELLE: You mean the watermelons your protagonist grows?
Yes, and the satsuma oranges, the peaches...

ELLE: There’s also the stunning moment when the protagonist, Bonbon, asks his dad if slavery might have been less psychologically damaging if it was called ‘gardening’. Was there something you wanted to say, about gardening?
PB: [Laughs] No, not really. I don’t garden. My mum gardens, or she used to. The fruit is an important part of my memory of California, of how I grew up, with a lemon tree in the backyard, a peach tree... For me, the book is about those details as much as the larger stuff.

ELLE: The details are often a dense web of cultural references, from Mark Twain to BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre, Eva Braun to Nina Simone. Have you always done this?
Good question. I think so. My poetry wasn’t so different. It’s a line between me and the reader. It’s a test for me, almost—who are these cultural touchstones? Who’s the right person to insert?

ELLE: Sometimes a name is enough to open up a world.
And sometimes there’s the decision of whether the narrator needs to explain something or not. I’m writing for somebody who may not understand what I’m doing, but who’s open to hearing everything

ELLE: Has your style ever been called ‘too intellectual’?
Sometimes. One angry review went, “I didn’t like the book; I had to look up all these words.” But someone else said, “That made me want to buy the book!” So nothing’s for everyone. It’s how I write. I’m not going to change.

ELLE: Does such feedback ever influence how you think about what you’re doing?
Yeah, I think about this stuff. A book that helped me was Dante’s Inferno. Beautifully written. But full of references! He’s name-dropping—these popes from the 11th century, these bishops, archbishops, artists. No one can know all of these people. But you get the lay of the land. You get a sense of his anger, his judgementalism. It’s not important that everybody knows everything.

ELLE: A writer friend of mine is miffed about this ‘explaining’, about editors who tell her, “Not everybody knows this Delhi neighbourhood”. Would anyone say that if it were a New York neighbourhood, she asks.
Yeah, and there’s something to that. There are some advantages to being American—the culture is inundated with these references. But hopefully things will start going both ways, so people have a sense of India beyond Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

ELLE: You resist labelling, and yet you have these comic riffs: on black women teacher-poets, for instance, or women who love Nina Simone. It’s hard to get away from categories.
PB: That’s how we communicate. It’s mean. But I start with ridiculing my labels for myself. I once wrote this poem called ‘Stall Me Out’, making fun of things my friends said about me, and things I know about myself. It freed me up to not take myself so seriously.

ELLE: That’s very hard to do...
Yes, because you think: if I don’t take myself seriously, no one else will. But I learnt to use myself as a dartboard. Maybe I’m rationalising, but I think I really am making fun of things that matter to me.

ELLE: India, these days, specialises in taking offence. But I also worry about us left-liberal sorts, the ones giving offence in India—we rarely laugh at ourselves.
People are trying to protect ground they’ve had to earn. I had a student, a lesbian, who said, “I want to make fun of my community, but we’ve worked so hard to get here.” But this is how you broaden your horizons. The problem is when people feel they’re progressive, and therefore must be beyond reproach.

ELLE: Do you still write poems?
No. I haven’t written a poem in 15 years. As a poet, you have to be really public. I hate that.

ELLE: Do you mean the performative part, like when you were with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe?
Yes. There was this one time I was writing a poem, and in my head I went, “They’re going to like that.” And I caught myself...

ELLE: …imagining your audience?
Exactly. And I thought, I have to stop this. I was the intellectual New York poet, I was this, I was that. People can read you however they want. But how much do I want to participate in that?

ELLE: Did studying creative writing with Allen Ginsberg shape you?
Absolutely. I’d never written a thing before I showed up [at Brooklyn College]. Allen was a gracious guy, especially if he liked you. His speech and his writing style were very similar. He was an excellent storyteller; a very good editor. His graciousness, his insistence on clarity were important to me. And his precision.

ELLE: Your book is very much about urbanity. Do you have a favourite city?
In New York, I’ve encountered stuff, especially musically, that I wouldn’t have anywhere else. Now I live in California, too, since I’ve gotten married. When I first got to New York, I could be so anonymous; I loved that. Before I started teaching [creative writing at Columbia University], I would stay home all the time. I was invisible.

ELLE: Has the Booker changed that?
Here, at something like JLF, it has. But otherwise, people don’t read, so no one knows who I am. [Laughs] And someone’s going to win next year. I’ll get shunted to the side. Next up!

Published in ELLE India, June 2017.

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