The Booker Prize-Winner – Paul Beatty talks to Rushati Mukherjee and Barnamala Roy on Post-truth, Cultural Appropriation and ‘Books that Don’t Really Do Anything’.Adjudged the Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1990 (though he refuses to call himself a ‘performance poet’), Paul Beatty has moved on from writing poetry to fiction and non-fiction- The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Tuff (2000), an edited anthology of African-American humour- Hokum (2006) and The Sellout (2016). Apart from numerous honours, his recent work –The Sellout received the Man Booker Prize in 2016.
Beatty is easy to talk to. He is genuinely interested in the comments we make; he takes the time to listen to every question asked. His answers are not quite what one would expect: not aggressively academic, but everyday words spoken in everyday tones that make even the most sombre of topics seem conversational. Speaking after his session at the TATA Steel Kolkata Literary Meet 2017, our talk led us through his life, art and memories.
Rushati [R]: The novel, The Sellout, was turned down by eighteen publishers. From that point, to winning the Booker- was there a sense of validation?
No, I didn’t know anything about it! The book had been out in the States for a while and it had done very well. I didn’t know anything about it until I had won the prize, basically. So, it wasn’t like I was going, ‘Oh, no!’ I didn’t know.
Barnamala [B]: One of the trivia regarding The Sellout that one is inevitable to encounter is that you are the first American to win the Booker. What are your thoughts on this?
Somebody told me today that it was the first funny book to win and also the shortest book to ever win. I’m not that pro-America to feel proud as an American to win the book, but I feel happy and proud as a writer to have won.
R: Has the win in any way changed your writing? Are you more conscious of an audience?
Maybe. With this book, I was completely not conscious of an audience. This was quite a small book, the next one will be even smaller.
B: So, speaking of audience, your books are infamous for their multiple allusions, making them ‘inaccessible’ to certain readers. (The Guardian mentions that even your admirers have found you inaccessible at times). Is this inaccessibility a deliberate choice to yield to only a certain group of readers?
That’s not deliberate. It’s just the way I write. It’s the same in the States. Some people get it, some don’t. One time a girlfriend of mine told me, “Oh my god. It must suck to be you. Everyone gets about fifty percent of what you are writing about.” I hope that the fifty percent that people don’t get is still interesting enough for them to continue with the book. I myself do not like books that I do not understand all the time.
Global events affects my life and it is going to impact my writing at some level, but to what degree I do not know. Some people are good at separating what is happening globally from their writings- I’m not of those people.
R: As someone who is in the spotlight at the moment, do you think the global events will feature in your upcoming novel in any way- in the inside or on the outside? (I know you talked at length about this during your session at the Literary festival!)That’s a good question, but I don’t really know. There is a book I had been thinking about before I won the Booker, I have been thinking about it after the win. Global events affects my life and it is going to impact my writing at some level, but to what degree I do not know. Some people are good at separating what is happening globally from their writings – I’m not of those people.
B: Coming to India- since Hominy, the slave in The Sellout projects the Indian caste system onto the racially segregated town of Dickens, there is a line that intrigued me, “Because white people are the new niggers. We are just too full of ourselves to realize it.” I find it intriguing in the context of the caste system in India, because caste discrimination is still very much a reality here and on top of that (and because of that) currently it is such a sensitive issue, that literally a slip-of-the-tongue could land you in jail.
You use humour to counter issues of race in your writing but I don’t know if people in India are equipped to deal with casteism using humour, here, they have to be wary all the time. What are your thoughts on this? Were you aware of the current Indian scenario (since The Sellout refers to it)?
Here? No, not really. I’ve learnt a bit about it in school, I have read books about it- about what it is like to be this, what it is like to be that. It is not like I’m paying attention to what is happening in India, but I’m curious though – you said a slip of the tongue could land you in jail. Could you elaborate?
So these people, the ones who are getting offended, they’ve had the power for so long, going back for hundreds of years. They don’t want anyone else going back to that same power. That’s the scary part.
R: I interviewed someone at Jaipur Literature Festival last week, and he said that these are the new Brahmins – the people who get offended. The person said that it is now a tyranny of political correctness.I disagree with that. I know what this person is trying to say but I disagree with it. Let’s say this law exists and these people are offended. Let’s even say that this sensitivity to ‘politically correct’ terms is power. It’s not- but let’s just say it is. So these people, the ones who are getting offended, they’ve had the power for so long, going back for hundreds of years. They don’t want anyone else going back to that same power. That’s the scary part.
R: About power structures, you mention in one interview that you are not very fond the phrase “cultural appropriation”.
I’m not completely sure what it means.
R: I think it is basically something to do with someone who is traditionally dominant in a power structure, takes an idea from those who are not and then uses it and denies credit to the original creators.
Sure. I mean, people have always done that, people are always going to do that. I don’t think about it that way. I have been driven around – I went to the horse races recently.
R: How was that?
It was interesting. So, I see these jockies and they have the swastika on them and I think the Nazis had taken the swastika – is that cultural appropriation?
Maybe. I don’t believe in that kind of ownership.
Most people can write what they want but the sad part is that they don’t listen to the feedback. I take things from all kinds of cultures- whatever the thing is which is going to help me express what I want to say, I’m going to use it.
R: As a writer, where do you think influence and appropriation merges?
I don’t know. I don’t care. I think no one has ownership to anything and I feel most people are well-intentioned. They are just trying to tell a story- they are not necessarily trying to write something demeaning. But, those things are always going to happen. And when you do that, the person has the right to say-“You know what? I feel demeaned.”
Most people can write what they want but the sad part is that they don’t listen to the feedback. I take things from all kinds of cultures – whatever the thing is which is going to help me express what I want to say, I’m going to use it. For me it starts with language – just in that book, you get all kinds of language in there- Italian, Spanish. At same level, language is oppressive, it’s appropriation…But it’s is the way I communicate and I cannot help it. You are allowed to create.
B: About your country you have maintained- “Maybe I just don’t feel accepted, so I don’t feel hurt. I’m not a patriot. It’s just my home, where I grew up, but hurt, no.” I’m tempted to find a similar strain of being an outcast – in not belonging to either the group of hip-hop poets when it comes to your poetry or to the satirists in your novel-writing. Do you think bypassing the limitation of categories (in writing) and identities brings you closer to more authentic writing (and existence)?
No..I don’t think so. What’s authentic? What’s more authentic?
I mean, I care because I’m trying to write a good book- but I’m not worried about someone else’s level of authenticity.
B: Because you were talking of the “inauthenticity of being authentic” in your talk today…Yeah, so I’m trying to tell a story and the thing is people clamouring about whether it is authentic or not doesn’t bother me. I mean, I care because I’m trying to write a good book- but I’m not worried about someone else’s level of authenticity. With this book, the town Dickens – it is sort of based on a real place, where people have farming- not like that farming, but people have horses. It took me forever to try to write the place in the absurd style that I write but also make it feel like it really exists. But it wasn’t about being authentic. There are very parallel things in the book which are part of that neighbourhood but most of it is just made up. It took me a long time. It’s not like I’m writing a thing in the newspaper saying here’s a story of a place that really exists. There are people who would say- “I don’t believe that this doesn’t exist.” I don’t care about that but what I ensure is if I am convinced that this is really the place – even if it is imaginary. So it’s a combination of a small but not real authentic stuff but things that feel genuine in my memory.
R: So, it is like alternative fact?
Maybe. Maybe it’s good fiction that creates alternative fact. I don’t know.
R: It is almost impossible to keep Trump out of any conversation! About this alternative fact and post-truth world of Trump – is this a world that writers are already used to because they write fiction?
I don’t know what post-truth means necessarily. Alternative facts- I have an idea about what they mean- it’s about a person making up a reality they want. The interesting part is they agree to it- whether they believe it or not.
R: It’s interesting that you mention that you don’t know what the word ‘post-truth means because at JLF, the last session was on post- truth.
B: Yeah, even the Apeejay Literary Festival in Kolkata hosted a session on ‘post-truth’. I don’t think many people have much inkling of what it is.
People are like –oh post truth? Let’s have a session on post-truth. And then, no one ever explains what it means.
B: You were saying in your talk about writing about a changed world or about a person who tries to change the world, instead of writing about changing the world. You have been in performance poetry/poetry slams before. So, do you see any potential in poetry slams to attempt at a changed world?
No, I wasn’t a performance poet. I just read out my little poetry. Once performance poetry started to become a thing, I was like- “yeah all this shit is the same” and doesn’t have any potential for change.
R: What are the challenges of writing a poem, as opposed to writing as opposed to writing fiction, for you?
That’s a good question. I don’t have a real good answer for it!
B: What led you to novel writing from poetry?
Part of it was, I was tired of being a poet! You had to be in public all the time. You’ve got to read all the time. I don’t like being in public all the time.
B: Poets do publish their poetry collections and not read them out, though!
Absolutely. It’s true. But when you’re in New York, people are always like, come read, come read!
R: That’s very interesting: a lot of the poets I know became poets because they were very private and they thought fiction was pushing themselves too far out.
Absolutely, poetry’s still important to me. I still read poetry.
R: Who’s your favourite poet?
I don’t have a favourite poet, I don’t think. I love all the Japanese haiku writers, Issa, Busan.
R: I love Basho.
Oh, yes, yeah. There are some really good collections of that stuff. My favourite book of poems is a book called Japanese Death Poems (sic). It’s all the poems that a lot of poets, noble people, the last thing they wrote before they died. It’s a really good book.
So for me, there is a ton of stuff that I read that is unique. There is a poet, Sterling Brown that I love. I’m not going to just drop names, you know! But there is a ton of stuff that influences me.
B: Could you mention the names of a few black writers who have maybe influenced you?
Why don’t you ask me about all the writers? There’s a ton of writers that I like. I went through a phase of writers such as Fran Ross. She wrote a book called Oreo in 1971, 72? I didn’t read it until the 90s. And I was so upset because it’s such a good book, so new, so novel. And I got so angry , because it’s in a voice that people don’t expect, they don’t accept that. And so the book never really did anything. It’s such a brilliant book. So for me, there is a ton of stuff that I read that is unique. There is a poet, Sterling Brown that I love. I’m not going to just drop names, you know! But there is a ton of stuff that influences me.
R: Since you mentioned that it’s a book that never really did anything, so for books that don’t really ‘do anything’ once you put them out in the world, as a writer, does that hurt?
I think it can, yeah. But there’s no guarantee. Writing is not going to guarantee success.
R: Does that make it any less valid?No, I don’t think so. I remember once I did a radio show. I didn’t see the guy, it was on the phone, a national radio show, but the guy was a writer and he was complaining about how ‘good books don’t sell, no one cares, they only read trash’, all this kind of stuff, literate this and that. I don’t think, like, any book is owed and audience. People read what they read and I think there are hindrances to a book reaching people, but hopefully some people do find them. But he was really upset. I didn’t know him, I asked him who he was, he told me his name, I asked, ‘Well, what do you write?’ And he writes those trashy books that he gets mad about! Made sense to me in a weird way. He’s not doing what he really wants to do, but he wants to write, so he’s writing trash. I don’t know, man. I think that it’s nice when people find good books. Sometimes books get a second life. You know, there’s a book called Stoner by a guy named John Williams.
B: Yes, I know it. They brought it out after so many years, they revived it.
I had never heard of it. The New York Review of Books published it and I was like, man, that is a beautiful fucking book! It’s a beautiful book! And he’s dead, and I don’t believe in people looking down, but it’s important to have people that care, people that cherish and want to share it.
R: There’s a whole debate about popular literature and literary literature. Can you comment on that?
I don’t care, really. I might think about how I think books are like, you know. I was talking today, about the awards that I had to be a judge for, and I was saying, all of these are good books, they’re all the fucking same!
B: How are they the same?
They just feel the same. I’m not saying they’re not good books, but they just feel the same!
B: Do you think they were nominated for the prize because they were partly the same?
Maybe, maybe! I think, there are things that people are very comfortable with, they’re fine, educational I guess but they’re the same. And so for me, I love reading a book where I go, ‘Yeah, no one else could write this.’ This is new, this is fresh, instead of a book that’s just so accessible all the time, because they’re so worried about how many people are going to read it. They’re fine, they’re going to make good TV shows, they’ll make good movies, but they’re not the books that move me. I read twenty books and for seventeen of them, that’s all I said. In a weird way, it was good, because when something fresh came, even if I didn’t like it I went, ‘Okay, this is not like the rest of this.’ But this is just my take. Somebody’s going to read my book and say, oh, this stuff is exactly like that other shit!
But when you share your work, you can’t go, ‘Oh, you don’t like it? It’s unique, that’s why!’ You’re trying to share, like I wrote this book for me. You’re trying to share in a way that’s in your voice. And people pick up on that stuff.
B: I read up somewhere that you were criticised for your writing by a teacher, and after that you rethought the layout and form of your writing. Since you’ve always stressed on uniqueness as a factor in developing as a writer, do you think people might lose that uniqueness in trying to tame their content?
I think that can happen, like how Kiran was talking about, how she was trying to write to this whole room (in a writing workshop), so I think that can happen. But then she wrote a good book! It’s not like the book’s not going to be good or that people are not going to like it. But when you share your work, you can’t go, ‘Oh, you don’t like it? It’s unique, that’s why!’ You’re trying to share, like I wrote this book for me. You’re trying to share in a way that’s in your voice. And people pick up on that stuff. I was talking to someone else and I was saying, you know, with this book, I was trying to be really vulnerable with myself, with the characters, with the story. And I think the things that translate, or one of the things that translate is the vulnerability. I’m not answering your questions, sorry!
B: In your talk at the Tata Steel Literary Meet today, you were talking of how some novelists can channelise their anger in their writings- like how they give knee-jerk reactions to the world in their fiction and how you cannot do that. Could you elaborate on this?The knee-jerk reaction is the right action, you know. And I’m just not that type of person, because I’m so slow. It’s not like the knee-jerk reaction means it’s going to be a bad book or something. It’s just, for me, I tend to write – just a sentence or word comes to me and I just build them up, build them up . It takes me a long time to figure out how I feel. Like, yeah, Trump, that’s easier, I already know how I feel. But, if we did that, everybody’s going to say the same thing. I have to think, what’s unique about this, in this world? But we want the knee jerk reaction. We’re so used to – boom, boom (immediate reactions). And I completely understand that. So, like, there’s a beautiful book that I really like called Erasure by a guy called Percival Everett. It’s about a writer. In it, a woman wrote a book that he hated, but it was really popular. And, in his own aesthetic, and he was like, ‘Man, they like this and they don’t like what I do?’ And that was funny, because I’ve felt the same frustration that he felt. And, he responded to it so beautifully. He personalised it in some weird way, about his own career as a writer, how he saw himself and made fun of himself. But he wrote a really smart book in which he writes about a writer who picks up this other book. He doesn’t name the book, he just puts the first sentence from the other book. But it’s about his frustrations, and it’s a great book. He’s never going to sell as many copies as the other did, but for me, it’s such a smart, really insightful book. He didn’t go, ‘This book sucks’- it wasn’t about that book.
R: It was about what that book meant to him.
R: As a professor, what tool do you give to your students to help them be unique?
The thing I try to give them, because they’re critiquing each other, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I think this is good, but I think your story should be about XYZ.’ I don’t let them do that. I tell them, everyone is trying to tell another story. You have to think about how to help them tell it. And then they go, ‘Ah, okay!’ Then they give better critiques, even if it’s not the story they wanna hear. It’s not about you can’t do this, you can’t do that.
R: If you had to satirise one political figure in the world right now, apart from Trump, who would you choose?
That’s a good question! I don’t know, there are so many people! I don’t really satirise individuals, I satirise the way people think. I can’t think of anybody, sorry!
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