By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Paul Beatty writes for himself. But since becoming the first American to win the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for his novel The Sellout – a bizarre, comical yet profound take on racism – he has become a global phenomenon. Beatty’s uncanny sense of humour, deep insight, and witty remarks on writing, political correctness, and everything under the sun (including Donald Trump) earned him thousands of new fans at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Official JLF Blogger Arjun Bhatia had the opportunity to talk to him about his motivation to write, his thoughts on social change, the impact of The Sellout, and what it means to be a writer.
You have said that you write from a place of constant discomfort, that you don’t write to change people’s minds, and that you wrote The Sellout because you had gone broke. So if writing is uncomfortable, financially discouraging, and not something you do with a purpose of making social impact, what is it that motivates you to write?
I enjoy it, man. It gives me satisfaction. Writing gives me leeway to make fun of myself. It also makes me think about what it means to be comfortable or uncomfortable; to question what’s behind that kind of aspiration. To me, comfort is a matter of having enough space: physically, mentally, space to express myself. The Sellout is a lot about this character trying to create a space for himself, metaphorically but also geographically. That’s something really important to me. And it has always been so but I am much more cognizant of it now.
The Sellout makes plenty of cultural and historical references that a lot of readers would not be able to understand. While it is a hilarious read, it requires a fair bit of effort on the reader’s part. Wouldn’t greater accessibility to the content help in appealing to and sensitizing a much larger readership? How much, if at all, do you think about the reader while writing?
Nah, I don’t write to be accessible. It’s something I learnt, although I guess I knew it in the back of my head. Personally, I am a hard person to get to know. Once I was part of a panel at a book festival in Brooklyn. The first question was ‘Why do you write?’ And the woman who spoke before me went, ‘I write to create a community, to welcome people in… I want to share an experience…’ That kind of stuff. And I was like, ‘Man, I don’t do that!’ I push people away, immediately. But in doing that I try to leave the door ajar and almost dare the reader to come in. And if you do come in, it’s not going to be easy necessarily; it isn’t for me. So the accessibility thing is not important for me.
If I trust myself enough, then anything I do is going to be accessible. If I read… who’s a writer that I like… [Yasunari] Kawabata – Japanese writer who I love – he’s not worried about me, making something accessible for me. I am not worried about my reader. Doing research and reading more is a part of how we grow. And you know, beyond India, I get the same reaction in the States: from Blacks, Whites, Latinos. They go, ‘Yeah man, shit! I didn’t know anything you were talking about!’ But I love not knowing. I love being lost. I love learning. It’s not like I don’t want people to read my work. But I trust myself that people who want to read it, will read it. I hope.
I read that you have an interest in stand-up comedy and claim that ‘being offended’ is not an emotion. Considering stand-up comedy allows one the relative freedom of being politically incorrect and often conveys a social message while being entertaining, what do you make of it as medium for social change?
I don’t think you can call any one medium a medium of social change; it all works in concert with a lot of other things. So for me, an important literary voice – I take him as a literary influence because he was such a beautiful storyteller – was a comedian named Richard Pryor. It’s not like he was about social change, but he advanced what comedy was. He just spoke in a language that I found poetic. His insights were so smart. What social change has come through, what he has done has come in relation to a bunch of other stuff. Social change is not why I do comedy or why I write. These things might be byproducts of what people do.
There’s a writer I admire a lot, who writes for bringing social change. But when I hear that, I get uncomfortable, but that’s me. And I have students who ask me, ‘How do I change the world?’ Well, it’s a big task. I tell them that the thing you can do is write about a world in flux, a world that’s changing and wants to change. You can write about a guy trying to figure out how to change the world. You can render this without saying, ‘I am going to change the world.’ I get nervous when people start saying that. But some people do that. And some books have impact. Some comedians have impact, be it personal or societal. So Richard Pryor – he expanded the way people converse, just by the words he used and his subject matter. And that’s real change. That’s social change. Changing the way people communicate is obviously a big part of something.
So is it uncomfortable or annoying that people ask you about social change, when you are someone who just writes for himself?
Yeah… it is. But I understand where it comes from. And it’s not like the book doesn’t touch on these subjects. But the book touches on… the fuck are we talking about. (laughs) So yes, there is a level of discomfort. But sometimes my response is predicated on the degree to which I think the person asking the question really cares about that question. Usually it’s a question by someone who wants to be in a better place, who wants things to change. I understand that. There is nothing wrong with that.
The protagonist in The Sellout refuses to celebrate Barack Obama’s presidency as a triumph for African-Americans. What would be such a triumph?
Woah, I have no fucking idea. (laughs) None. I think it’s dangerous to look at any people as a lump. Because a triumph for one person is going to be a defeat, a backward step for somebody else. So I don’t talk like that. I don’t think about triumph and defeat as a Black man. I am concerned about these things but I interpret them for me, not for me and everyone else. So I have no idea about this.
So when you write, you are just a writer, not an African-American writer?
I am an African-American writer. I have no problems with that. But I am neither writing for African-Americans, nor am I writing as their voice. I write for myself. But I am an African-American writer.
There is so much insecurity and panic regarding Donald Trump’s presidency. What do you think is going to actually happen to immigrants, African-Americans, and other concerned communities?
It’s more a question of what might happen to the United States as a country. Whatever happens to African-Americans, immigrants, women, or the LGBT community – see you can’t talk like that, because when something happens, it happens to everybody. It’s dangerous to say, ‘It is happening to that person and not to me.’ Because by saying that you have made some decisions. So I am not comfortable talking like that.
Sometimes you know that a person is evil; you have a sense of the evil that they are going to do. It’s like one of those things where you try to be ready for anything, but it’s going to be something that people don’t anticipate. Sometimes you go, ‘Oh he is so stupid. Whatever he wants to do can’t happen.’ But… I don’t know what’s going to happen. I am encouraged by the fact that people are being vigilant, doing what they can to prevent the things that they are fearful of happening, and voicing their frustration and sense of intolerance for his actions, rhetoric, and behaviour. But what he might do… I have no fucking idea. And if I did, I would never say it in public. (smiles)