I’m no astronaut of blackness: Paul Beatty

American author and Man Booker Prize 2016 winner Paul Beatty on his novel, how writers need to decide which side of history they want to be on and why he doesn’t see himself as a race writer.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Updated: October 26, 2016 2:57 pm
"I don’t see myself as a race writer", says Paul Beatty. (Source: Hannah Assouline) “I don’t see myself as a race writer”, says Paul Beatty. (Source: Hannah Assouline)

Update: Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker Prize 2016

In Hokum, An Anthology of African-American Humour (2006), its editor, author Paul Beatty, wrote: “For Black Americans… the fears that accompany being born in a country founded by persecution and propelled forward by paranoia are best confronted head on…African-Americans, like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humour is vengeance.” Beatty’s writings (four novels and two volumes of poetry) dazzle with acerbic humour and provocative subversions of cultural and racial identities. At the heart of his new novel, The Sellout (Pan Macmillan, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016), for instance, is an unnamed narrator who finds himself in the Supreme Court for trying to reinstate slavery and ghettoisation in Dickens, the suburb in LA he calls home. But Beatty calls himself neither a satirist nor a comic writer. Instead, he says, he writes about the changing world. In this interview, he talks about race, history and writing for “weirdos”. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea of The Sellout come about?
I liked the idea of rendering slavery and segregation — two classic American civil rights tropes—in a contemporary setting. There are folks who like to think that, in many respects, African-Americans were better off during slavery and legal racial segregation.

The Sellout seems to suggest that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Is that how you feel?
Not exactly. There’s no doubt ‘things’ change, but to what degree? It’s funny, we have all these public metrics of social change, like unemployment, graduation, and incarceration rates and the gender pay gap, but they’re only used argumentatively. It’s not as if one can use these measures in the same way the media uses the Dow Jones index as an indication of market stability. Sometimes, the American social climate feels as if it’s changed, but it hasn’t. Maybe, what’s needed is a Dow Jones equivalent. The Gandhi-King-Rosa Luxemburg Index of Fair Play and Equality, then, perhaps, temporal comparisons could be made.

In the acknowledgements section of The Sellout, you mention the work of William E Cross, particularly his paper, ‘The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience’. Could you tell us how his work impacted you?
Although I didn’t necessarily agree with his hierarchical notions of black identity development, it was refreshing to see someone talking about black identity as a shifting construct, to see it represented schematically. But, more importantly, it was an excellent illustration of the cultural bias so rampant in the social sciences. I like to think Cross’s work changed how psychology as a whole talks about identity development, irrespective of demographic context.

Has your idea of race and its significance changed over time? At the core of your novels, there is a self-exploration. Why do you think an awareness of individual culpability is essential to understanding race?
(It) changes every day, but only as it applies to myself. I don’t explore as a race. I’m no astronaut of blackness. However, I’m a firm believer that an awareness of my individual culpability is essential to my understanding.

Do you think writing about race is essentially about perspectives?
I know this is somehow a nonsensical statement for many folks, but I don’t see myself as a race writer. I write through my perceptions of the world, and its perceptions of me. And some of that is filtered by race, but also through being from California, being male, being near-sighted, loving (Kenji) Mizoguchi films and a host of other things. I think all writers write about race and gender and sexuality. It’s as much in what’s being said, as it is in what’s not being said. Gertrude Stein is as universal as Toni Morrison, Joseph Conrad, (Yasunari) Kawabata, (Kurt) Vonnegut, and I guess, as of last week, Bob Dylan. My perspective is as normative as the next person’s, which isn’t to say the people of different races write about race in the same way. However, I could point to Native American, Asian writers, white writers, Latino (writers) who write about race in similar ways, but it’s a matter of perception, rather than accuracy.

Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write?
I used to joke that I wrote for people who don’t read. Some jokes are true, that one was a lie, but I can only hope there are enough weirdos out there who appreciate what I do. We have a sense of what a book is supposed to be, and especially what a black book is suppose to be, and, in many ways, my work isn’t that. But who knows if that’ll remain the case.

The cover of The Sellout. The cover of The Sellout.

A decade ago, Barack Obama’s nomination as the President of the United States seemed a significant marker of change. In recent years, however, the rise in state violence against African-Americans has been a matter of grave concern. How do you react to this dichotomy? Do you see an end to this any time in the future?
Has there been a rise in state violence or an increase in news coverage? We have to be careful in equating media awareness with reality. What dichotomy? Obama is commander-in-chief, not the police chief. Has there been a rise or decrease in American-sponsored violence during his administration? Depends upon where you live in the world, I suppose. Do I see an end? Have you read Voltaire’s Candide? What end are we talking about?

You grew up in Los Angeles, before you moved to Boston, and to New York eventually. How did your experiences in these cities shape you as a writer?
Hard question to answer. I did grow up in Los Angeles, and though I haven’t lived there in years, it’s where I live in my head. Like some sea breeze decanter, it’s the place into which most of my thoughts and experiences are distilled. Boston is where, in a sense, I realised I’d had enough of life and decided to become a writer. New York is where I write. It used be about the anonymity and New York always being nostalgic for its old self. Now, I don’t know what it is. Inertia, maybe. But the city that’s shaped me the most as a writer is Berlin. The value of the written word remains high. The connections between language and history and place, it’s a place where the phoneme is a national treasure.

How much of your work is autobiographical?
Not much. The beauty and fun of writing is in the conjuring, not the reliving. Why write about what I’ve already lived?

In India, last year, a lot of writers, poets and artists returned their national awards to protest against the present government’s “cultural intolerance”. America, too, is quite polarised at the moment. Do you think the role of writers has changed in current times?
This might be imperialist thinking, but those roles have to be determined by the writers as individuals. There are always going to be artists on the wrong side of history, on the wrong side of the moral imperative, and, for that matter, writers misused by oppressive systems, neither of which makes them any less of a writer. Whatever one thinks about Céline the man or his work, he’s nothing, if not a writer. I don’t think America’s quite as polarised as it was during the Civil War, but in any case, there will always be writers who tell people what they want to hear, and those who don’t, though, admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two. I admire writers who write to change the world. However, I’d like to think that I don’t do that. That I write about a changing world.

Do you think, increasingly, we tend to take ourselves too seriously?
No, after reading Aristophanes’ The Frogs, it was apparent that we’ve been taking ourselves and our works too seriously for at least 2,500 years…

In the 1920s and ’30s, there was the Harlem Renaissance Movement; the ’60s saw the Black Arts Movement. Do you see any possibility of such literary or aesthetic movements in America now?
Not really. The sense of what constitutes the African-American or black experience is too amorphous. But that’s a good thing.

What do you think are Donald Trump’s chances of being the next President of the United States?
I don’t.

Do you consider yourself to be an African-American writer or a black writer? Is there a difference?
I’m a black writer. Maybe, but neither of them pay very well.

What does writing mean to you?
Same things it means to everyone else: expression, language, the uniqueness of voice, and, sometimes, not much. I’m not very musical or visual, writing speaks to a part of my brain not much else can reach. I can’t really answer the question. Not in any way that’s meaningful. Hopefully, my books are examples of what writing means to me.

Is there something you are working on now?
Getting my life in order.