Paul Beatty's Booker Prize winning novel, The Sellout, is the fiction selected for reading at KRG in the month of May. KumKum and Joe were in Kolkata for a week and it so happened the Kolkata Lit Meet (Kalam) was on at the same time
They took the opportunity of attending a session at which the author was interviewed.
Sandip Roy (SR), author and interviewer, sat down with Paul Beatty (PB) for a chat. A few hundred people attended the evening session in the eastern lawns of the Victoria Memorial under a billowing shamiana, as the sun was going down behind the VM. While the conversation turned on several issues, including the election of the US President (Mr Trump), it was mainly about Mr Beatty's latest novel:
The cover shows Diogenes of Sinope, the Greek philosopher who, legend has it, went around with a lit lantern in broad daylight, saying he was ‘looking for an honest man’. In the book too there is a black man with white trousers and a pink shirt, and the reader will wonder what he is searching for.
KumKum gets a front-seat audience with Paul Beatty
(Beatty's wife, Althea Amrik Wasow, is behind KumKum's left shoulder)
(Beatty's wife, Althea Amrik Wasow, is behind KumKum's left shoulder)
Interview of Paul Beatty at Kolkata Lit Meet on Jan 25, 2017
Sandip Roy (SR), author and interviewer, sat down with Paul Beatty (PB) for a chat at Kalam. A few hundred people attended the evening session in the eastern lawns of the Victoria Memorial under a billowing shamiana, as the sun was going down behind the VM.
Paul Beatty & Sandip Roy at Kalam Jan 25, 2017
PB. I was relieved to be away from America during the inauguration of the President [Jan 20]. I was being wined and dined at the Jaipur Lit Fest [Jan 19-23 — see https://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/]
SR. Has it been weird?
PB. I am private person. It’s hard to find me in the political arena. [Elsewhere he has said Donald Trump is like a ‘dick pic that can’t be deleted.’ ]
I am encouraged how many people have been touched by my book [The Sellout]
SR. I believe there were 18 attempts to place the book with publishers before succeeding.
PB. I didn’t know any of that until I won the prize [the Man Booker Prize for 2016]. My wife and I were trying to figure out what the Man Booker prize was. One World who published it finally, rejected it earlier, until an editor there said, ‘ You have to publish the book.’
SR. The book came out in 2015 and it was five years in the making. Do people now say, ‘How topical!’?
PB. The book’s fate is like the Marx Brothers’ comedy Duck Soup which came out in the Depression era, didn’t make a splash then, but later events made it topically relevant along with other great war comedies like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
The manifestation [of the social situations described] may be new, the stuff itself is old.
SR. Is The Sellout satire?
PB. In a word, no. I am uncomfortable using that word. Lionel Trilling called Lolita the new satire. [Not only Trilling but one recalls Donald Malcolm in The New Yorker Nov 8, 1958: "The special class of satire to which 'Lolita' belongs is small but select, and Mr. Nabokov has produced one of its finest examples."
I am not trying to change anyone’s mind; only trying to give a buzz in your coccyx. [pronounced kok’siks]
SR. True but there is an uncomfortable truth and so you could term it ‘satire’.
PB. You can hide behind the word satire. I try not asking anyone to put me in that box.
KumKum with Victoria Memorial as the spectacular backdrop to the Kolkata Lit meet on Jan 25, 2017
SR. The opening line reads: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” In this connection I recall two pieces of advice I got from a desi friend when I went to study at a mid-western university in the US (SR is simpering with shame): 1) Don’t hold hands with another man, or you’ll be considered a homo. 2) Don’t rent in the eastern side of the town because that’s where the blacks live.
PB. I’m saying there’s racism in a post-racial world.
SR. As the novel opens with the protagonist sitting in the Supreme Court, smoking weed, and looking at the giant friezes on the ceiling of Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, etc he didn’t know why he is there.
PB. He is fighting racism with racism.
SR. His worker on the farm is a slave, a voluntary one called Hominy Jenkins. The protagonist who is only known by his surname, Me, is re-segregating his town which has fallen off the map.
Where did this story begin in our mind?
PB.All the answers I can give to such a question are fake. I was getting a Psych PhD and delved into the Identity of people, How do black people actualise themselves? I read a flow-chart in a book of psychology, it was a codification of consciousness. I didn’t agree with it at first. When people talk about racism, everyone is saying something different. On a Richter scale of racism, 2.5 is mild, and 7 is f***ing awful. We may be having such a tremor now.
SR. Did you have fun writing it?
PB. Somebody wrote a very PC (Politically Correct) version of Huckleberry Finn.
PC version of Huckleberry Finn removes the word ‘nigger’
However, my mom never censored anything from us. I am so thankful.
Protecting something from someone is infringing on someone else’s right to know and read.
There’s nothing I believe or disbelieve. But I am trying to work through it.
SR. Tell us about these characters in your book: 1. Hominy Jenkins, and 2. the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals
PB. People are constant but it’s easy to cause divisions.
Chinese Rocks (a kind of heroin) — niggers and everything else, fucking everything.
Public Intellectuals — constantly talking about blacks and being black, never talking to me, but at me.
There is an American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms, or "sellouts" who are not using their positions as powerful and popular figures in the black community and abroad to explode the reality of white supremacy continuing with discrimination against blacks. They are submissive, senile, slow in the book.
Little Rascals — a very racist TV show of the 20’s and 30’s with characters named ‘Buckwheat’ and ‘Sunshine Sammy’ who roll their eyes in a stereotypical bug-eyed way used to lampoon blacks.
Baraka — this was a mid 30s version of a black stereotype of an Uncle Tom, who would act so slow in understanding and action that he’d take 40 minutes to go fetch an object.
SR. Can you read a little from the book?
PB. (Taking off his specs to read)
“Hominy and I were in the row I’d dedicated to the tubers. Me on my hands and knees, checking the compost mixture, the soil density, and shoving russet seed potatoes in the ground, while he brainstormed suggestions for citywide discrimination and fucked up the one job he had, which was to lay the garden hose with the holes I punctured into it face up.
“Massa, what if we gave everybody we don’t like a badge and assigned them to camps?”
“That’s been done.”
“Okay, how about this? Designate people into three groups: black, colored, and godlike. Institute some curfew laws and a pass system…”
“Old hat, kaffir boy.”
“This’ll work in Dickens, cause everybody—Mexican, Samoan, or black—is basically a shade of brown.” He dropped the hose on the wrong side of the trench and dug into his pocket. “Now, at the bottom we’ll have the Untouchables. These are the people who are completely useless. Clippers fans, traffic cops, and people who have dirty jobs where they work with human and animal waste, like yourself.”
“So if I’m an Untouchable, and you’re my slave, what does that make you?”
“As a talented artist and thespian. I’z a Brahmin. After I die, I get nirvana. You come back exactly to where you are now, wallowing in cow shit.”
I appreciated the help, but as Hominy rattled on about the varnas and delineating his version of the Indian caste system as it might apply to Dickens, I began to figure out what my mental block was. I was feeling guilty. Realizing I was the Arschloch at the Wannsee Conference, the Afrikaner parliamentarian in Johannesburg in ’48, the wannabe hipster on the Grammy committee who in an effort to make the award more inclusive comes up with meaningless categories like Best R&B Performance by Duo or Group with Vocals and Best Rock Instrumental by a Soloist Who Knows How to Program But Can’t Play Any Instruments. I was the fool who, as topics like railroad car allotments, bantu stands, and alternative music were raised, was too cowardly to stand up and say, “Do you motherfuckers realize how ridiculous we sound right now?”
SR. What did you intend to achieve with this book?
PB. I try what I always do. I try to write a good book. Not that they sell very well. I’m going to go at my own pace. I don’t care. My girlfriend, sorry my wife, is going to slap me.
SR. Why did you write about a farmer riding to town?
PB. I forgot there were horses in the town of Compton outside LA. To commemorate the Watts riots in LA in Aug 1965 (34 deaths) I’d ride to those places. In Palisades my mom took me to see polo matches. Children would come to school with milk bought from a farm with a cow. There was a rodeo. All these absurdities in the surroundings of LA.
SR. The surname of the protagonist, is ‘Me’ and the law suit at the beginning of the novel is Me vs. People of the United Staes. A quick history of the family name:
His girlfriend in the novel knows him as ‘Bonbon’ which fits well in Kolkata where everybody has ‘good name’ and a ‘pet name’ or ‘daak naam.’ The latter is usually something like TunTun or JhunJhun.
Paul Beatty asked KumKum if that's her pet name or her ‘good name’ at the book signing
Paul Beatty autographed Joe and Kum's copy of The Sellout with the pet name of the protagonist in the novel, BonBon
SR. It was unimaginable that Mr Trump would win.
PB. For many this was quite imaginable, that someone authoritarian would be elected. I don’t know what is going to happen. The Arts will do what they will. The scary thing is Trump is trying to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts. If he does things that bring him success he could go on and on. There is a short story about New York city without the Twin Towers. Some zealots get committed on both sides. If the bully is perceived as a winner, lots of people will bow to him.
PB. In some places one would get shot, but I can live with my life.
Q. Has anyone inspired your poetry?
PB. A friend, Matthew Shipp, an American jazz pianist; Yasunari Kawabata, a Japanese novelist and short story writer, Kurt Vonnegut. There’s a lot of stuff out there that has influenced me.
PB. My mum tried to raise me as a Japanese for a while. I have a deep affinity for Japanese art.
I was once told by a literature professor when I said this that Japanese culture and Black culture are so ‘opposite’. And I wondered what does that mean?
PB. When you expand yourself with more things, it brings in more people. My sister (a playwright) told me about my novel: ‘People are smart, they’ll get it.’ Indeed how perceptive people are has been my education.
Q. You said you hate writing somewhere., etc.
PB. I do hate writing. I write only when I have something to say. I have a struggle. It is very hard. I take the act of writing very seriously. When you write, you have to write something people can’t ignore. Elsewhere PB has said: “It was a hard book for me to write; I know it’s hard to read. I’m just trying to create space for myself. And hopefully that can create space for others.”
Joe to PB. That was a marvellous opening line, “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” Did you have as a sub-text to be understood by readers, that on the other hand, American society has stolen everything from the black man?
PB. Thank you, man. Yes, that and many other things.