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26 October 2016

Paul Beatty: “Thank goodness for cultural appropriation”

The 2016 Man Booker Prize goes to caustic American race satire The Sellout.

By Tom Gatti

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a blistering satire on race relations and contemporary culture, has become the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize.

Video: watch Paul Beatty in conversation with NS culture editor Tom Gatti at Foyles

At the prize ceremony at the historic Guildhall in the City of London last night, Beatty – flanked by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and the chair of judges Amanda Foreman – looked shocked and at times close to tears as he gave an emotional and meandering speech.

“I can’t tell you guys how long a journey this has been for me,” the 54-year-old author said. “I don’t want to get all dramatic and say ‘writing has saved my life’, but writing has given me a life.”

The novel, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in New York earlier this year, was described by the New Statesman reviewer Philip Maughan, as a “masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go”. The Sellout begins with the narrator (who goes by the surname “Me” and the nickname “Bonbon”) facing the US Supreme Court for attempting to reintroduce racial segregation and slavery as a way of putting his hometown of Dickens, a neglected “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles, back on the map.

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In the book’s prologue, Me wanders through Washington, which he sees as a “concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds”:

“All it takes is a day trip through Georgetown and Chinatown. A slow saunter past the White House, Phoenix House, Blair House, and the local crackhouse for the message to become abundantly clear. Be it ancient Rome or modern-day America, you’re either citizen or slave. Lion or Jew. Guilty or innocent.”

Beatty grew up in Los Angeles, studied creative writing and psychology, and published his first book, a volume of poetry, in 1991. Three novels followed: The White Boy Shuffle (1996), a comedy about a young black man’s transformation from outcast to messiah; Tuff (2000) and Slumberland (2008), which follows a DJ in search of a mysterious jazzman in Berlin.

Beatty told the BBC this morning that The Sellout “is in a large part about how we look at progress and what that really means, and how we’re so quick to point to something like Barack [Obama]’s election as a sign of progress, which it is. Chris Rock has a really good joke – that it’s a sign of white progress not black progress, which is an interesting way to look at it.”

In her pre-announcement speech the historian Amanda Foreman argued that “telling writers what is and isn’t allowed is once again all the rage”: “Governments do it because they can, pressure groups do it because they feel entitled, even marketers do it – not because they’re evil but because they fear taking risks.”

Beatty picked up the theme of free expression when he mentioned the recent row about cultural appropriation, sparked by Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September: “Anybody can write what they want,” he said. “But people get to say what they want back to you, and that’s not censorship. It’s also important to note that cultural appropriation goes every direction. It’s not about whites appropriating this, it’s about everyone appropriating everything – and thank goodness, I would have absolutely nothing to say if that wasn’t the case.”

Since the rules were changed in 2014, the Booker Prize, worth £50,000, is now open to any book written in English and published in the UK (previously only British, Irish and Commonwealth authors were eligible). This year marks the second consecutive win for the independent imprint Oneworld, who also published A Brief History of Seven Killings by the Jamaican novelist Marlon James. Founded in 1986 by husband and wife team Juliet Mabey and Novin Doostdar and originally focusing on non-fiction, Oneworld has in recent years developed its fiction list to encompass “intelligent, challenging, and distinctive novels that sit at the intersection of the literary and the commercial”.