In a lot of ways, The Sellout – the novel that won Paul Beatty the 2016 Man Booker Prize – is about dissonance. Exploring the gap between how we perceive ourselves and how others see us is not a new literary trope by any means. But there isn’t much out there that takes an unapologetic, even an unflattering approach, to how we think about the societal and institutional pressures that we experience.
We all may know how we’re supposed to feel about constructs like race, gender and class but somewhere in the depths of our subconscious, or conscious mind, we all probably have politically incorrect thoughts that we are trying to parse through, overcome or defend. It’s this confusion – of figuring out how you feel about not only your own identity as an individual but also your larger place in an institutional structure and how all of that comes together in the ways you interact with others – that for me, forms the crux of The Sellout.
In a nutshell, the novel follows an unnamed narrator, fondly called Bonbon by those around him, as he takes on another black man as his slave and reintroduces racial segregation in an agricultural suburb of Los Angeles, called Dickens. In addition to the segregation, Bonbon also takes on the project of bringing back the town of Dickens – it seems to have vanished from maps, the signs marking its geographical boundaries are gone and it no longer seems to exist.
On the face of it, The Sellout doesn’t sound like a funny book but Beatty’s humour is ‘lacerating’ as the Guardian‘s review fittingly called it. It is full of astute observations about the trials of navigating a racial identity, coming up against other people’s competing narratives and the institutional forces at play in the United States. And all done through sentences that are sharply funny but can still leave you feeling somewhat uncomfortable about laughing at such politically incorrect fare.
In the book, Bonbon’s ideas of what it means to be black are contrasted with those of Hominy – an aged child actor who clings onto the fame of having acted in a really racist children’s programme in the 1920s and ’30s – who demands to be Bonbon’s slave. Then there’s also Foy Cheshire, a failed TV personality, who has been coasting on the wealth and fame of an idea he stole from Bonbon’s father (another man whose ideas about race differ wildly in some ways from Bonbon’s). While Bonbon spends weeks figuring out how to segregate the local school and progresses onto larger public spaces, Cheshire spends his time writing revised versions of books like Huckleberry Finn, which he retitles, ‘The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé’.
Beatty’s prose is so full of contradictions and confusion that it seemed natural to ask him about his relationship with writing – especially since it’s difficult to get him to talk about generalisable and vaguely defined terms like ‘political correctness,’ ‘satire,’ ‘identity’ and so on.
These are some excerpts from our conversation, conducted on the sidelines of the recently held Jaipur Literature Festival.
I love that the cover of the book actually says ‘satire’ but it’s a label that you’ve spoken out against. I was wondering, how has your relationship with the book changed since it’s come out and won the Booker?
That’s a really good question.
I don’t think it has. I mean it changes in the same way, as with everything I’ve written – it changes with time. It’s not with accolades or anything. It’s just me as the writer. When I read it, I go ‘I don’t even know what I’m saying there’ – which always happens. So it changes in the same way that everything does.
Usually when I write, I kind of forget everything that I’ve said. So I’m not a person who knows what page this is on and who said what.
I kind of write it and once it’s done I put it to bed [for] a little bit. I have a general impression of what the book’s about.
Did you revisit the book at some point? When you won the Booker, did you go back to see what it was about the book that won the award?
Oh no, no, I worked on it for so long, so.
What makes you revisit your books?
Every now and then, I’ll sort of be working on something else and be like, ‘Have I done this before?’ And then I’ll try to go somewhere, where… Yeah I don’t do it very often. But every blue moon, you know about, like, structure, about something like that. Every blue moon, but not very often.
You’ve got to read, I mean, especially when you’re on the tour. So I’m engaged with the book but just with these little parts – that almost feel false. Like, there’s so much in between that doesn’t… yeah.
That’s a really good question but it hasn’t changed yet. I don’t know, give me time. Maybe I’ll be like, ‘I hate this fucking book!’
In the book, there’s a bit towards the end where people are saying ‘race is hard to talk about’ or ‘it’s not talked about enough’ but the narrator, Bonbon, is thinking ‘well, no, it’s more that these people don’t want to actually say what they’re thinking.’
When I read that, I started to read the entire book in that way. As a response to that kind of attitude. Is that what you were going for?
Yeah, somebody else before you was saying ‘yeah, we don’t talk about caste’ or ‘we should talk about it but we don’t’ and we hear the same thing in the States more or less – ‘We don’t know how to talk about race’ and ‘people should be able to say what they want.’
And I was like, ‘Okay, what would that really look like?!’
Do you think that The Sellout kind of shows you what that may look like?
Yeah, a little bit, maybe. The Sellout is sort of an expression of my cynicism. It’s like ‘what are you really saying here?’ and ‘What do you really want to say to people that you’re not saying?’
Just a guess on what that would be like.
I was, and am, still kind of baffled by the erasure of Dickens in the first place. And why Bonbon wants to bring it back. What made you include that as part of the story?
I think it’s, it’s partly that there’s a sense of what LA looks like. What these communities look like. The history of black Americans in Los Angeles. Shrinking population, never big in the first place, but shrinking. So some of it was that.
But there’s the idea of… in LA these neighbourhoods are disappearing in a weird way and being recast and renamed just for effect.
And there’s a sense of what southern California is supposed to feel like and places like Dickens aren’t just supposed to be there. But they make up a big part of what southern California is.
So the erasure – by just the simple removal of some signs is there – but it’s also… You know, in the same way as in the book, part of it is that people like Foy are trying to erase a certain legacy of blackness. It’s also the same geographically. They’re trying to erase that. It’s like, ‘we don’t like that’ and ‘this doesn’t represent what Los Angeles is about.’
So there’s a little parallel there that some people are going to see.
But then on another level, like for Hominy, if people don’t know where the place is, they’re not going to be able to find it.
You’ve talked about writing being really hard for you.
I wish I hadn’t said that.
You wish you hadn’t said that? Why?
Because. It’s just hard. There’s no… yeah.
I was listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates on Longform the other day and he was talking about how writing never gets easier because you’re always dealing with something different or you never feel like it’s going to be good enough or there’s always something.
Yeah. I guess that’s there. I don’t deal with that part. For me, it’s just the act of writing is hard. Just the complication of language. That’s the process, not so much the reception… that stuff I don’t worry all about that much. Just the process is hard.
What’s your process of writing?
I just try to create the space and the time and the motivation. You just have to clear everything out. Take time to go back and forth between the music, the TV and the computer all day. It takes me a long time. At some level, I just started treating it like school assignments – ‘I’ve started this, I gotta finish this.’
It’s hard for me, at least, to articulate this psyche… it’s hard to articulate dissonance, in a weird way. Because there’s so many contrapuntal things happening at the same time. So it’s hard to do.
That’s basically what the novel is.
Yeah. So it’s hard to do.
And it’s hard for me to figure out what’s that… I mean, this is a little bit like what Ta-Nehisi is saying. For me, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what the tone will be for the book, that’s going to allow me to do all that.
It’s fucking hard! It’s hard.
It’s hard to write something that you like. Isn’t it? I mean, you know, you write.
I don’t look at what I write.
See? You’re smart. But it’s hard. It just is.
Is that what you’re telling your students?
That it’s hard? I do. The very first class I ever taught – I haven’t been teaching that long – it was the first thing that was out of my mouth: ‘I hate writing.’
Then I had some students come up to me after class and they said ‘Oh, I can’t believe you said that’ but they were kind of, in a weird way, glad I said it because they went ‘Woah, yeah, this is hard.’ … ‘I’ve got to invest.’
What are some of the challenges of teaching and how do you teach your students?
I don’t have one thing that I do.
But part of it is, is that I get them to try to listen to themselves. Because it kind of can help them figure out what their aesthetic sense is.
What does that look like?
They (the students) have to write fiction and they also have to write these prosaic kind of responses. The thing – I oftentimes find – is that their responses are beautifully written! And their fiction is very halting. And I go, why can they do this but why can’t they do that?
One of the things that makes writing hard is that sense of ‘Oh I have to write a story’ and there’s all this other pressure and all these ideas about what makes a story. That, for me, are personal.
Part of the point of listening to themselves is – they can hear themselves articulate what’s important to them. And listen to how they articulate.
I’m not trying to articulate their orality with their story but this thing of just, ‘Hey, this is how I talk about this stuff. Now let me think about what I write and how I’m going to go from here to the page.’
Sometimes it’s really simple. If you ask them ‘Why? Why did you do this?’ Sometimes they don’t know but they need to think about why.
How has your writing developed over time? Because you’ve talked about starting with poetry and then moving away from that into novels.
I try not to think about it. If I think about it, it’s stultifying for me, a little bit. Cause instead of looking for that road that I’m going down already… it’s like [planning] this bridge that I don’t want to exist just yet.
It’s just that reflection and pedagogy are so bound up when it comes to writing. So I was wondering if that’s something you think about.
In the way that I’ve been talking about my students. Since I’ve been teaching… it’s a little scary but, I’ve also started to formulate my own schema of how my work [has developed] – the lattice that my work is built on. It’s not like I didn’t think about this but I didn’t think about it so concretely all the time.
Now THAT you’re not getting out of me! So how’s my writing changing? It just changes because, you know, hopefully I’m getting better.
Does something change stylistically or…?
Yeah. Because every book is different. I’m different, I’m older. In one sense, I’m still the same person. But I’m much more comfortable with the discomfort I feel.
I think I’ve started with this thing of… I don’t know, I was going to say ‘not having to explain’ but that’s not what I mean… I think, one thing I think about is – to what extent I’m going to pander and not pander and what does that mean for me. And I’ve just got more comfortable with that and I’m not even worrying about that (pandering).
That comes out in the book. By the end of it, when Bonbon is saying ‘I’m so scared of saying all of these things or thinking all of these things.’
Yeah, I think this is going to sound odd, a little bit. When I think about it – in a weird way, I’ve stopped pandering to myself. Stopped trying to write… it’s not any different necessarily but… I don’t know how to explain it…
The way that I felt about it, when I went to college in the States, was that I had this racial identity thrust upon me that I’d never thought of – this idea of “be a woman of colour”. Taking on new identities is a really exhausting process.
God, that’s so good to ‘be a woman of colour.’ That’s so good.
And I felt that the book addressed all of those things but in a totally different context and way. And there was this anger in the book that came out a lot of times.
Yeah, sure, sure. I think for me, it was. You know, the Booker had all these preamble kind of ceremonies in the lead up to the big award and the moderator asked me, ‘So Paul why are you so angry?’
And I don’t necessarily mind that question but I was like –’Why am I the angry person when you got this other book about a guy who’s a serial killer?’ You know what I mean? You have this other book about a woman who’s killing this kid and driving around… all these kind of angry books but my book’s the angry book?
I mean it’s just so weird, that’s the stuff I don’t think about it till much later. I know that I’m angry, or something, but it takes me a long time to figure out why.
We started with this ‘pandering to myself’ thing. It’s almost like it just really just… It’s about myself. It’s not, you know… it’s… I don’t know how to say this to somebody else, but you know, it’s all a step. You were talking about how my writing’s changed.
There was a poem that I wrote. It was me just kind saying all these evil things – not evil – but these mean things that people had said about me. My friends teasing me and all these other things. And I wrote this long… It’s one of my favourite poems actually, that I’ve written – but it’s all about myself. It’s completely just breaking down, in an honest way, where I was at – as a writer. And I remember finishing that poem, not immediately, but a little after. When I think back about how much that poem freed me up, to just really just, … in a weird way – I’m going to use a word I don’t use very much – but to be vulnerable. I was like ‘Yeah, no one can say anything harsher than what I’ve said about myself.’ Maybe they can but… I had fun with it. It wasn’t trying to break myself down with self-criticism or anything.
When I think back… Man, it really freed me up! And I’ll continue hopefully to just get freer and freer and freer.