Paul Beatty in conversation with Meru Gokhale
By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
American novelist and hip-hop poet Paul Beatty took the literary world by storm after winning the 2016 Man Booker Prize for The Sellout, a scathing and hilarious novel on racism in America. Marking his debut at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, in conversation with Meru Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief of Literary Publishing at Penguin Random House in India, Beatty shared his thoughts on comedy and controversy, history and racism, poetry and fiction, and of course, Donald Trump.
Beatty began by reading a passage from The Sellout to the enraptured Front Lawn audience. Reading in his rich baritone, he captured their attention with the very first sentence: ‘This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.’ The book, which continues to challenge and break stereotypes throughout, was rejected 18 times before finding a publisher.
The Sellout went on to make Beatty the first American to win the Booker. ‘I write from a place of discomfort. So it feels good to see that a book as difficult and challenging as this gets recognition.’ Beatty discussed how subscribing to political correctness can potentially do more harm than good, both in terms of creative freedom and life in general, saying that he always urged his students at Columbia University to trust their voice: ‘Readers pick up on what you are interested in.’
Beatty has, in the past, expressed his displeasure with The Sellout being labelled a ‘satire’. While he conceded the necessity for classification, he challenged the idea of reducing a book to a genre: ‘It can be a shotgun, it doesn’t have to be a sniper.’ Insisting that he did not write with an agenda to change a reader’s mind, he added, ‘I don’t want to be a satirist. There is an entertainment aspect to it I’m uncomfortable with.’
The Sellout has a cast of quirky characters with mysterious motivations. Among them is Hominy Jenkins, an African-American who volunteers to be a slave of the novel’s protagonist of the same race. Speaking about the concept behind the character, Beatty observed that people always ‘equated suffering with nobility’ and he wanted to counter that notion. ‘I have always been fascinated by the idea of a masochistic slave who enjoys taking a beating,’ he said. Another character, Foy Cheshire, was inspired by a friend’s essay about a re-written version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which substituted racial slurs with aggrandizing words. ‘I found myself bumping against what I was supposed to say and how I was supposed to say it. So I tried to challenge that.’
Perhaps no session with an American author can be considered complete without their thoughts on US President-elect Donald Trump. Keeping consistent with his distinctive sarcasm, Beatty took several digs at Trump, including, but in no way limited to: ‘In a world of assholes and quasi-assholes, Trump has his own political correctness.’ When asked if he would watch Trump’s inauguration ceremony, he quipped with mordant wit, ‘Well, if there is a mushroom cloud in the sky, I might as well have a good view of it.’
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill