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Monday, Oct 14, 2019

Like everybody else, I was very scared – Paul Beatty, on Trump’s win

Man Booker-winning author Paul Beatty opens up on his influences, his learnings from psychology and being an American in an uncertain political climate

brunch Updated: Feb 25, 2017 23:33 IST
Paul Beatty says that Donald Trump’s inauguration speech reminded him of the old Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup (1933)
Paul Beatty says that Donald Trump’s inauguration speech reminded him of the old Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup (1933)

When Paul Beatty took to the stage in London shortly after he won the Man Booker Prize 2016, he was overwhelmed. He hadn’t expected this. After all, his novel, The Sellout, had taken over five years to complete, and had been turned down by 18 publishers until a small independent press in the UK accepted it.  

What made publishers so wary? “I don’t know, I haven’t asked anybody. And I don’t want to know. I’m just thankful that somebody decided to publish the book,” says Beatty, on the sidelines of the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet that was held last month. 

The Sellout, a scathing satire, explores race relations in Dickens, a fictional agrarian ghetto town near Los Angeles. The narrator, Me, is an African-American urban farmer who grows artisanal marijuana and watermelons. He is brought to the Supreme Court for reinstating slavery and segregation in Dickens, which is likely to be wiped off the map of California.

Past and present

The plot is wonderfully unusual, but also discomfiting. Slavery was commonplace in the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. “The story was just me being curious, trying to render these supposedly antiquated elements of American history in a contemporary setting,” says Beatty.

In fact, the topicality of his win could not be more coincidental. He was awarded the Booker two weeks before Donald Trump was announced the 45th President of the United States of America. “Like everybody else, I was very scared, but I did believe it. I’m the type of person who tends to go to the worst case scenario anyway, and it’s interesting to see things play out,” he says.  

In fact, when Trump was sworn in, Beatty was at the Jaipur Literature Festival and managed to catch just about five minutes of the event. While he was relieved that he was away, watching snippets of the President’s inauguration speech reminded him of an old Marx Brothers film. “It was from the ’30s, Duck Soup. The characters are in a crazy country called Freedonia, and I thought this is the same thing. The fundamental inanities… greed, power are so old. And you just realise how destructive power can be. It’s been just a few weeks and he’s done a lot of symbolic things that could lead to some really traumatic times,” asserts the author, who also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Sellout.

Paul Beatty at Jaipur Literature Festival in January
Paul Beatty at Jaipur Literature Festival in January

Does he feels a sense of optimism after the extraordinary participation in the Women’s March last month? “There are a few special people in this world who refuse to allow themselves to be squelched or silenced, who have the stamina to speak up against wrongs. Thank goodness at least in the States they have always been around. I’m deeply optimistic, especially when people fight back,” he says.

More than black and white

Beatty grew up in Los Angeles, in a primarily White neighbourhood. His relationship with his own Afro-American identity began evolving when he was a teenager. In an essay for the New York Times over a decade ago, Beatty wrote about how he was given a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after the eighth grade. It was the first book he’d ever opened by an African-American author, but he was quick to relegate it to the trash can.

“At some level, when I decided to write, I knew this is not the tone I want to write in. Not to say her tone is invalid, but for me there are a bunch of other layers and frequencies that go along with that. And in a weird way, that book had an influence on me even though I didn’t read it,” he says.

Whether it’s The Sellout or his first novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Beatty’s works have an inherent sense of humour. In the introduction to Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (2006), he writes about discovering that ‘W E B Du Bois’, “the pillar of African-American stolidity” had a sense of humour. “I wish I’d been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would’ve been comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one laughing at myself in the mirror,” he wrote.

The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Paul Beatty’s first novel, explores issues of identity; The Sellout explores race relations against the backdrop of a fictional Los Angeles neighbourhood
The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Paul Beatty’s first novel, explores issues of identity; The Sellout explores race relations against the backdrop of a fictional Los Angeles neighbourhood

Beatty grew up on a steady diet of cartoons and comics – he loved Mad magazine, and also cites Catch-22 as a major literary influence. “I was 13 when I read it. It may sound crazy but on a base level, I love World War II. Catch-22 was so smart, and in a voice that I knew somehow.”

His ability to etch out his characters has a lot to do with his background in psychology. He acquired a master’s degree from Boston University and teaches at Columbia. It made him realise that often, what you think is happening is not always happening. “We’re socialised to see things in a certain way. When I teach, I make sure that the students are listening to each other, but also listening to themselves. Sometimes you’re not aware of what’s important to you because you’re too busy. Psychology taught me to take time out, step outside, and look at things from different perspectives,” he says.

Four novels, two books of poetry, an anthology and a Booker down, Beatty says that he has no idea what’s coming next. “There’s something, I hope,” he grins.    

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From HT Brunch, February 26, 2017

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First Published: Feb 25, 2017 23:33 IST

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