The poet and novelist Paul Beatty likes to keep a low profile, even when he's being interviewed. Ask him about his childhood, or winning a slam poetry championship in 1990, and the 52-year-old New Yorker grows uneasy. "I'm not comfortable talking about that," he'll say more than once. A poor PR man, yes — but over the course of four novels and two books of poetry, Beatty has slowly emerged as one of the funniest, most searing writers we have. His prose, studded with pop-culture references, has the bandwidth and energy of the best MC in the house, while the books themselves (especially his hilarious fiction debut, The White Boy Shuffle) contain enough caustic, laugh-out-loud jokes to make Richard Pryor proud.
Now with The Sellout, his first novel in seven years, he's given us the mother lode. There's a lot going on here: a cold-fish love story, battles with the thought police, "the Mexican problem." But the basic plot involves a young, black watermelon-and-weed grower who — in one of the satire's many absurdist twists — keeps Buckwheat's understudy, Hominy Jenkins, as a slave ("It's the role I was born to play") and tries to reinstate segregation in his hometown. We talked with Beatty about how the book came about, his first encounter with racism, and the unexpected benefits of trying to slap yourself silly.
How did you come to write The Sellout?
I was broke. The usual crap. I got this grant, and I had to make up something for it. I had these vague things in my head, just shit I've been thinking about.
Can you elaborate on the "shit I've been thinking about?"
When I was younger, it wasn't out of the ordinary to stumble across a book that had been banned in some school district or library system — "banned in Boston," they used to say, often tongue-in-cheek. But I was, and still am, definitely attracted to good books deemed controversial, that someone felt the need to keep out of someone else's hands for whatever reason: Catch-22, Lolita, Animal Farm, All Quiet on the Western Front. It's not a search for the forbidden, or embracing paeans to violence and salaciousness — I've nothing against either, but that shit's everywhere. It's about embracing the profoundly profane, the absurd. Because the stuff that's most inappropriate is oftentimes the most necessary and the most beautiful.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished The Nazi and the Barber, a hilarious Edgar Hilsenrath novel people have been telling me for years to read. It was banned in Germany for a long time, and I liked it — not because it was banned, but because it addresses its subject matter with a frankness, not to be conflated with honesty, that makes it hard to read, because you're flinching the whole way through. Steven Wright used to tell a joke that went something like this: "You know when you're leaning back in a chair and you almost fall, but you catch yourself right before you do? I feel like that all the time." That's what it's like to reading that book; the flinching wasn't momentary, it was constant. I finished it not knowing if I enjoyed the prose or the jokes, but certain that I liked the way the book just sat on my chest like an older sibling pinning you to the living room floor and popping you upside the head. Repeatedly.
So maybe that's it. I flinch all the time. Even when people I know really well touch me — I flinch. Maybe that's why I wrote the book. I wanted to see if I could make myself flinch. Or see if I could slap myself silly.
When did you first experience racism firsthand?
How do you answer that? I have no idea. It might be that question. I do remember…I must have been in second grade, and I remember some kid calling me a nigger and we got into a little fight. He walked me back to the little day care center and pulled out the dictionary, and we looked up the word "nigger." He's like, "Look, that's not you." I do remember that.
The book pretty much skewers any suggestion that things have improved.
I don't think things were ever good. Anywhere, any place, any time. It's not so much about color or anything else. There are some things that can be gained by convincing yourself things are good, so I understand why people do it. But I don't think things are ever good. That's just my nature.
I think one has to be careful of calling the white-robed KKK horses in The Birth of a Nation racists. Although I have known dogs that only barked at black people.
You write about the difficulty of talking about race in an open way. Is there any easy way to go about talking about it?
There's a little passage in the book where [the narrator] says that basically when people talk about race, it's usually white people wanting to say, "All you niggers are lazy," and black people wanting to say, "Fuck all you white people" — which isn't a discussion. Some shit is just hard to talk about. I don't know what that means when people say, "How do we talk about it?" It feels like people want to have an opportunity to be accusatory. People want to get shit off their chest. In terms of people who feel the need for change and want change, it's a fucking discussion. I'm not sure why [people think] it's supposed to be easier.
What do you think about these past few years? Ferguson, Eric Garner…it seems like one ugly scene after another.
Police brutality is ongoing. For whatever reason, those cases are getting some attention, and I think being on video has a lot to do with it. I was researching something and happened to be sifting through New York papers from the early Thirties, and came across this stuff about three Negro men shot in Harlem after a burglary. I wasn't looking for this stuff; it was just in there. I couldn't believe how frequently I'd see it in print. This is age old. I don't think the cops are angrier than they've ever been, but that's not to say the mood of the country doesn't shift a little.
It seems like a problem that's not going to be solved.
The one thing that could be solved is some justice could be meted out. People could go to trial, at least. There is an aspect that can be addressed, which is prosecuting people.
Something that really stuck with me from the book was an exchange about reinstating segregation. The narrator's girlfriend says, "It's Los Angeles, the most racist city in the world, what the fuck you going to do?" A man answers, "That's some bullshit! And to be perfectly frank, I'm offended." What do you think about this kind of constant offense-apology offense-apology cycle we have going here? And about the nature of being offended in general?
The notion of what constitutes being offended is a little complicated — maybe not complicated, but fuzzy. The word "offended" covers a lot of ground on the I-feel-violated scale. We take offense at chewing with one's mouth open as well as, say, using an ethnic slur. While I like to think that it takes a lot to offend me, I don't personally believe people that people shouldn't feel offended. I just wonder what the context is. Can one be equally offended by someone's elbows being on the dinner table, senseless police shootings and the fact that Seahawks threw the ball on second and one?
What do you think of the movement toward political correctness?
If there's a movement, I missed it. I've never heard anyone say, "I'm doing this for the sake of political correctness." But if, for example, political correctness means trying to make curriculums multicultural, as in the case of Arizona public schools teaching Mexican-American history, I'm all for it. But what do we mean when we say that phrase? There are Americans who seem to be "offended" by Obama's mere presence in the White House, because that's a violation of their notion of what constitutes proper American decorum. A presidential afro is a huge no-no.
As used by the media, the term seems to be a euphemism for this deep-seated anger on the part of the some Americans, who are in a sense being "politically correct" because they're aren't articulating what it is they're really upset about, because to do so would be "politically incorrect." But I don't believe in banning the use of certain words, terminology or books for the sake of "political correctness," because it's not the letters or the phonetics that's the problem — it's the application, the intent. In other words, I think one has to be careful of calling the white-robed KKK horses in The Birth of a Nation racists. Although I have known dogs that only barked at black people.
There's a heartbreaking moment in which Hominy is attending a college screening of Little Rascals movies, and a white kid wearing a fedora says, "That's non-ironic blackface...that's not cool." He asks what blackface is, and when the white dude tells him, he says: "Oh, we didn't call it blackface. We called it acting."
I don't think the discrepancy between how one lives and how one believes they live is a dissonance limited to white folks. I'm guessing you're white, which is why you ask. But though I seem to be playing one in this interview, I'm not a white liberal, so I can't answer your question. I just have to remind you that the rest of us have the freedom to be as full of shit as anyone else. And while we often act like it, neither moral rectitude nor moral turpitude is the bastion of any one group of people. Though it'd be nice if we stopped acting that way.