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2 November 2016

Paul Beatty: “I invented a Richter scale for racism”

The Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sellout on satire, offence and why Donald Trump is “like a dick pic” that can’t be deleted.

By Tom Gatti

As he takes his chair opposite me at Foyles Bookshop in central London, Paul Beatty, the first American winner of the Man Booker Prize, chuckles at his own exhaustion. Dressed in jeans and a grey sweatshirt, he is soon apologising for rambling: “It’s like I’m high or something.” In his novel The Sellout a young man decides to put his home town back on the map – by the maverick means of reintroducing slavery and segregation. It has been described as a profoundly caustic satire (more on that word later) on race relations – but it is also a disquisition on identity, gentrification, history, advertising and citrus farming. It’s true that the 54-year-old Beatty – born in LA, living and teaching creative writing in New York – is not one for soundbites, especially after three days of non-stop talking. But, during our hour-long onstage conversation, his mind wandered to some surprising and illuminating places.

New Statesman: The Sellout is set in a violent, neglected ghetto where your narrator is able to ride around town on a horse and grow insanely delicious satsumas. What’s the relationship between the real LA and the version in the book?

Paul Beatty: The charter in the book [“Dickens shall remain free of Chinamen, Spanish of all shades, dialects, and hats, Frenchmen, redheads, city slickers, and unskilled Jews”] is based on the charter of this place called Compton: LA is a place where, to this day, the deeds to houses have all these racial restrictions of who you can rent to. There’s a section of Compton called Richland Farms which is zoned for agriculture – it’s ten blocks by ten blocks, with these really big houses – and when I was young, in the early 1970s, my mom would take me and my sisters to the Watts Parade every year. And we’d go through Compton and you would see black people on horseback, and you’d wonder, “What are people doing on horseback in the middle of LA?” I talked to my sister about it. She teaches in Compton, and she was telling me these stories about kids who bought their daily milk for lunch from next door – from the cow next door – for like 50 cents.

So I just started exploring the neighbourhood, and one day I turned the corner and there were 150 chickens in the middle of the street: I had to stop the car . . . but it’s LA, still. There are these gangs, the Crips and the Bloods; one wears red and one blue. There’s a section of Compton called Fruit Town, where all the streets are named after fruit. The Crips that live on Grape Street wear purple. So Compton is just weird.

What was the genesis of the novel? Was it this strange setting – or something else?

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There’s a TV series that everybody in my generation in the States grows up watching called The Little Rascals [filmed from 1922 to 1944]. Me and my friends would run home from school to watch it; it was shot in our neighbourhood a lot of the time. In The Little Rascals, there’s always a black male figure who’s the butt of 90 per cent of the jokes, but who’s also – usually – the smartest person in the gang, the most intriguing, kind of the leader. When I went to college in Boston, there was a retrospective of The Little Rascals. They were the uncensored versions, which I wasn’t prepared for. And I’m the only black person there. So there’s a scene where one character is cooking a shoe in a pot, and he’s sweating, and he wipes the sweat off his brow, and flicks his hand, and a black splotch goes on to the wall. I was like, “Damn!” It was weird to hear everyone laughing, and I had to figure out: how do I feel about all this? It’s this thing that I know is racist; then I found out it was really racist.

There’s another character from Hollywood film called Stepin Fetchit. He was the quintessential “coon”. He would talk really slowly, move really slowly – I can’t tell you how racist his portrayal was, but he was a huge star in the Thirties. I finally got around to watching those films: he’s really funny. You can see the comedic genius and you see him trying to figure out how to show some intellect in what he’s doing, but it’s so hard to do. I went to a reading once of a guy named Amiri Baraka and he was talking how revolutionary Stepin Fetchit was, because somebody would say, “Stepin Fetchit, move that pail of water over there,” and it would take him four hours to do it. And Baraka pointed out that only the most brainwashed, spineless person would pick that pail up and run it over there. Stepin Fetchit is giving himself time, giving himself space, giving himself as much freedom as he can within those parameters. And I was like, “Damn, that’s really smart”. And it just made me rework a ton of stuff, all this historical stuff that you’re not allowed to talk about, because it’s been erased. I also loved the idea, “Could I make these things even more racist than they were?”

So I came up with this idea. In The Little Rascals, there’s a line of guys: Buckwheat is the most famous. And then there’s a little guy named Buckshot, and if it goes according to plan he is going to be the next in line. In the mid-1940s, the racial climate in the US has changed. So who was Buckwheat’s understudy? Who was the next person who was going to be a star, but everything has changed? And that’s where I came up with the character of Hominy [a former ­actor who becomes the narrator’s slave].

When you were watching the Little Rascals as a kid, how was the racism processed or discussed – how did it affect your enjoyment of it?

That’s a good question. Well, if somebody called you Buckwheat, you knew that was an insult. And as you get older, you realise all the other sexist kind of stuff in there, some of it was almost kind of paedophilic  . . . So I was trying to ask: what do you know when? When do you come to these realisations? And when did they, as people, come to these realisations?

You edited an anthology of African-American humour called Hokum, and in the introduction, you recount the story of the first joke you were conscious of hearing. It’s a racist joke and you’re the butt of it.

It wasn’t just me. I used to buy these books back then; they would cost 75 cents and have titles like 1,001 Polack Jokes. I remember, in college, hearing people tell nigger jokes, and I’d be like, “Tell me that joke, what’s that joke?” just to get a sense of what the lay of the land is. I had a section of white friends that would kind of forget I was there for a second, and tell these jokes.

The Sellout is plastered with the word “satire” all over the cover, and I know you’re not wholly comfortable about that.

For me, that word’s really tied to being an entertainer. I saw a Mark Twain documentary about his career, and, you know, for so much time, he just had to pimp himself out as a satirist, get up and do his act. And I remember reading [the screenwriter and director] Preston Sturges talking about the dangers of being seen as a satirist. So I don’t hate the word, but I try to resist it, because it’s so limiting. And I think it also locks you into a time period: this is relevant then and not necessarily relevant now. So I’m trying to avoid some of those things. Whether I can or not, I don’t know.

The idea of bringing back segregation and slavery feels outlandish. But actually, in the book, the narrator gets there by logical degrees. Was it important for you to take this idea very seriously and ask how could a person and a community get to this place, and what might that mean?

When somebody says “satire”, you think “Oh, it’s funny” and stop there. But you don’t ask yourself questions like what you’re just asking: “Oh, so what does this mean?” It’s a way of not having to talk about some of the sadness in the book, some of the hurt in the book, some of the frustration in the book.

One review of The Sellout used the word “impasto” – layering – which chimed with my reading of the book, in that you’ve got several layers – some comic, some tragic – all sitting on top of each other. This also seems to allow you to hold up and examine contradictory opinions at the same time.

Do you know this graphic novel series [set during the Holocaust], Maus, by Art Spiegelman? I love both those books. I taught this satire class the past year, and I gave them Maus and asked, “Hey, what’s funny in this?” And each found something else funny. Sometimes somebody else would find it completely offensive: “You can’t go there! I can’t believe he said this about his father!” In one cartoon panel, you feel this way, but on the next one, or three ones down, you’re just somewhere else.

And a thing that was really important for me in this book was hearing Rebecca Solnit talk about the book she was writing about San Francisco based on these maps, and I was thinking, “Oh, yeah, this book is really about navigating LA from this central spot, but the sense of how your identity changes from place to place”. Growing up in LA, for me, you feel that all the time: “If I cross this street, I’m at risk of this. If I cross this other street in another direction, I’m at risk of this”. I think about my friends: we weren’t from some terrible neighbourhood, but we had this weird, deep shame, so we would lie and say, “Oh, no, we’re from Cheviot Hills,” which is this affluent suburb, literally one block over.

Paul Beatty after accepting the Man Booker Prize, October 2016. Photo: Getty

You mentioned Twain. In The Sellout, there’s a group of black intellectuals who meet in a doughnut shop. One of them is ­rewriting American classics, so ­Huckleberry Finn loses all racial slurs and becomes The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and his Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as they go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit. That’s not so far off the truth, is it? People really have attempted to rewrite these texts.

A friend of mine wrote this essay where he was in favour of having these things – I don’t know, “abridged” isn’t the right word . . . softened. And he was talking about how he loved this book but had a hard time reading it to his kids, because his kids are post-racial and blah, blah, blah. Something about that just really didn’t sit right, you know? It’s easy for me to say, because I don’t have kids, but for me, it’s always really ­important to know how people felt in the moment. I want to know, because it really carries over. There’s a part of me that loves [the 1915 white-supremacist film] The Birth of a Nation because it’s just unabashed. It’s like, “I’m going to take this nation’s id” – even though they think it’s super-ego – “and I’m just going to put it out here, and it’s going to be the most popular movie ever made.” It’s not healthy. It’s so hard to watch. But it’s like bad monster movies, because the hand always comes back from the grave. And everybody acts shocked. But you know the hand’s going to come up from the grave – you’ve seen this, it’s happened for four hundred years, the hand comes up from the grave.

I did a reading once at a small college, and I was talking to some students afterwards. There was a young black woman there, and she was saying they had Fried Chicken Fridays at the college, and she was like, “I love fried chicken, but there’s no way I’m eating some fried chicken in front of all these white kids on Friday,” you know? You want some chicken but you can’t eat it. For me, that’s a really good illustration of just the layering of bullshit that you have to deal with in life.

When you accepted the Man Booker Prize, you made a comment on cultural appropriation. Could you explain your take on it?

There’s a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin called Topsy, and it’s this insanely ridiculous portrayal of a young black slave. I’m doing an anthology of writing about black people by non-black people, to see has it changed. So I just recently read a book about a woman who gets bequeathed another young black slave, and it’s so similar to this Topsy thing.

I read that Lionel Shriver speech on cultural appropriation, and she’s talking about people putting on Mexican bandito moustaches, and I understand what she’s saying, but she compares it to – “Oh, people put on lederhosen and all these other things”. But there are some positive and negative connotations; there’s some historical precedent for all this other shit that’s deeply negative, deeply hurtful, and something that people make money from. And it’s just not the act of costuming yourself; there’s much more to it than that, and for her not to acknowledge that is just too easy. But, at the same time, I totally support the idea that anybody gets to write whatever the hell they want. I wish the playing field was more equal, but it’s not. And the other thing is: cultural appropriation is more than just white artists appropriating culture. It goes all different kind of directions. I said the other night, if it wasn’t for cultural appropriation, I would have nothing, you know?

I think when I read that speech, there was some headline on it that said something like “Calling something racist is censorship”. That’s not censorship, that’s just somebody coming back at you with some shit that you don’t want to hear. But you put it out there, you have to deal with it. I put it out there, I have to deal with it. Not everyone’s going to read my book the way that I want it to be read. You could easily read it as some right-wing kind of “Let’s go back to slavery” thing, and some people don’t really see that I’m completely criticising that.

The book ends with a sketch of the day Obama was inaugurated.

It’s not Obama: it’s “the Black Guy”. But that’s one of my favourite sections in the book, actually. The book has this psychological framework, and so that bit’s called Closure – and of course, there’s no closure. And it comes with a real story about a friend of mine who, when Obama was elected, drove up to my house. He had this American flag waving out of his car. And I’ve known this guy for a long time; we’re very good friends. I was like, “Dude, what’s with the American flag?” And he goes, “Yeah, you know, with Obama’s election, I feel like America’s paid back its debt.” And I was like, “To whom?” He said, “To black people.” And I just went, “Dude, America’s f***ed over a lot of people, you know? What about the Native Americans, what about the f***ing Californian condor . . .” But it’s this weird ledger that we have: “This guy’s here – this erases this.”

I remember people saying, “Oh, Obama’s going to make this better,” and I was like, “No, you’re going to show up for the job interview, and they’re going to go, ‘you’re not Obama’”. One of the most racist things anybody’s ever said to me happened as I was pitching this TV show about a band of white skinheads. I met with this producer, and Obama had just been there, and he was like, “Oh, Obama, I love Obama, he’s great. You know what? Obama’s smarter than me.” And he goes: “How many white people do you know that would admit that Obama was smarter than them?” and I thought, “This motherf***er is saying that every other black person born ever on Earth except for Barack Obama is dumber than he is. But he doesn’t know he’s saying that”. One of the things psychology has taught me is that some fundamental shit does not change about how we think.

Has the Donald Trump phenomenon surprised you?

Trump is like this dick pic that they’ve let out. It’s like, “Yeah, this is who I am, this is who we are – oops, I’m sorry, I can’t take that back!” He doesn’t come out of nowhere. What it does show is that these guys have real support. It’s not so different here: Trump brought Farage to Mississippi for a reason. There’s a lot going on, and it’s not just Western Europe, it’s the Philippines, it’s workers in South Africa killing other migrant workers, because they think they’re taking their jobs. So it’s a thing happening.

I think the scary thing is that there isn’t a counter to it. People laugh off Sanders, and watching Hillary at the Democratic convention was like watching the Republican convention when Reagan was running. She never said anything about poverty – because to say that means all this other stuff. And so, for me, that part is sad.

There’s a guy named David Duke who ran for Governor in Louisiana in 1991; he was literally a head of his chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. David Duke got 60% of the white vote, but 3% of his support was black. And I remember watching the announcement with my friend and him going, “Who are these people?” That’s the thing I’m saying, with Trump, it gets me thinking: why? What’s in it for you?

When I was in school, I was studying social psychology and everybody was like, “This is racist, this is racist, that’s racist, this is racist,” and I thought, “I don’t even know what that means any more.” I used to work at this place called Trader Joe’s in California, and I remember this kid and I were filling the beer fridge and a black woman walked by – and the kid nudged me and said, “Do you think she’s pretty?” And I thought: “Three thousand women come in that place every day. What is he doing?” At the time, I was trying to come up with a Richter scale of racism and I was like, “Maybe that’s a Level 3 thing.” But sometimes that 3 is f***ing hurtful.

I grew up in California: a little tremor can upset you more than a big earthquake, in a weird way. Little tremors add up. They also signal that a big tremor’s coming. 

“The Sellout” is published by Oneworld

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind