Paul Beatty is almost Socratic when it comes to pinning down the meanings behind words. If Socrates spent his time relentlessly (and somewhat annoyingly) questioning his fellow Greeks about what they meant by words like “justice,” “good, ” and “virtue,” Beatty tends to respond to most interview questions by claiming not to understand the word he’s being asked to pass judgment on.
“Whatever that fucking word means!” was Beatty’s reaction to a question on political correctness.
For context, The Sellout, which just won Beatty the Man Booker Prize, is the story of a black man, in an agricultural suburb of Los Angeles, taking on another black man as a slave and reintroducing racial segregation in his town.
The absurdity of the plot and the humour in Beatty’s prose has earned the book the label of “satire”. But that’s just another label the author is uncomfortable with.
On Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, speaking in front of a large audience, Beatty explained to Meru Gokhale, editor-in-chief of literary publishing at Penguin Random House India, why he feels satire doesn’t fit his work.
Beatty said, “I just write the way I write. People are so quick to put a label [on things].”
To expand on what he meant, he turned to an anecdote. While watching news on the TV the other day, Beatty saw a fake news creator shrug at the show’s anchors and say that the fake news he had put out was meant as “satire”.
“I don’t want to be a satirist. I’m very uncomfortable with the entertainment aspect of it,” the author concluded.
Beatty often answers questions by telling stories. Maybe he prefers evoking the feeling he felt by recreating these moments rather than simply telling his audience how he felt.
In an interview format, this is frustrating. Beatty simply refuses to offer his audience simple explanations. However, the same characteristic is part of what makes The Sellout so very good – the ambiguities and contradictions in his narrative and the hypocrisy of Beatty’s characters are what make the prose profound and entertaining.
It’s not that the author – known to be shy and reticent to talk about his work– is an unwilling interviewee; it’s more that Beatty doesn’t want to subscribe to labels whose meanings he is unsure of.
When Gokhale called him out on “evading labels,” Beatty agreed without a moment of hesitation.
“I do cringe from them.”
He talked about the feeling of “being boxed in about what things mean” and then added, “I write about the frustration of being lost and try to talk about issues differently than is being done through existing discourses.”
Again, Beatty sought help from a personal anecdote to explain the way he thinks about labels or language in general.
A few years ago, someone released a version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with racist terms like the n-word removed from the prose. While Beatty didn’t feel all that positive about going back and changing a classic text, a black friend of Beatty’s supported the move. He didn’t want to read to his children from books with the n-word in them.
In other words, Beatty’s friend didn’t want his children to grow up imbibing the racism present in the usage of the label. But simply not wanting it or erasing it from one narrative wouldn’t make it so.
“It’s interesting how people cringe from these things. I don’t understand bearing labels you don’t like. You’re trying to reconstruct your reality. Trying to always have the lens focused the way you want it and want to be seen.”
Seeing a chance to maybe, finally get Beatty to talk about his work in a straightforward manner, Gokhale steered the conversation about his writing style and the expectations of writing like a “black author” that Beatty so clearly worked against in his book.
Beatty had an uncharacteristically straightforward response to this. He switched from “labels” to “language” and explained how language is a good entry way into understanding the multiplicity of our identities.
In Beatty’s case, the way he speaks at home with his family, the rhetoric he picked up growing up in Los Angeles and then living in New York and the academic language he picked up going through college and graduate school are all significant parts of how he speaks and writes.
While the mix is natural to him, it definitely doesn’t fit any kind of stereotypical mode.
After the interview concluded, someone in the audience commented, “ I found him very frustrating.”
This is not untrue, interviews are usually places for authors to clarify their writing, not muddle everyone up by asking them questions (“How does my book translate in India?”) and raising more doubts about the labels we use to talk about everything.
The fact that Beatty is a difficult interviewee has something to do with our cultural reliance on labels, whose meanings we pretend to take as fixed, but know are highly contingent on context.
Beatty’s best response in the entire interview was for a question that had nothing to do with him or his book.
Asked about his impression of Donald Trump – it’s hard to name anyone else with a greater fondness for the constriction of labels – Beatty said, “Donald Trump is like an American dick pic.”
That’s definitely a label.