Wednesday 23 August 2017

Booker prize winner: 'That kind of xenophobia has alway been there. Anger’s just made it more visible'

Last year Paul Beatty became the first American to win the Booker with his disturbing race-relations fantasy. He talks to our reporter about how racism was far too entrenched in the US to be changed significantly by the Obama's election

Contrary streak: Paul Beatty's The Sellout jolts liberal readers out of their comfort zones. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Contrary streak: Paul Beatty's The Sellout jolts liberal readers out of their comfort zones. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

Paul Beatty is tickled pink. I have just shown him a YouTube clip of Jimmy Rabbitte's motivational speech in The Commitments, the one that begins, "Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe," and ends, "So say it once, say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!"

"That's great, man, look at their faces," the Californian novelist enthuses as he borrows my pen to scribble a note.

"Maybe I can use it. You know, this idea of blackness as representing the bottom - that's something I've come across once or twice before."

In fact, Beatty recently signed up to edit an anthology of writing about black people by non-blacks, aimed at finding out how much has changed since the days of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. It is easy to see why he was given the job.

Last October he became the first ever American winner of the Man Booker Prize (until 2014 it was confined to British, Irish and Commonwealth authors) for his novel The Sellout, a hilarious but disturbing fantasy about race relations that comedian Sarah Silverman hailed as "like demented angels wrote it".

Starting with its deeply provocative first sentence ("This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything"), The Sellout jolts liberal readers out of their comfort zones.

The narrator is a pot-smoking, African-American farmer who has been brought before the US Supreme Court after making a former child actor his slave and trying to reintroduce segregation in his Los Angeles town.

"A lot of people have called The Sellout a satire, but to me that word conjures up images of Mark Twain in a seersucker suit," Beatty says. "I don't have any particular message or target, you know. I just wanted to describe a world that I think is pretty timeless.

"Many years ago I did a reading with a woman who said, 'I write to bring us all together so we can have a common experience.' Well, I kinda do the opposite. I leave the door just a little bit ajar and it's up to every reader whether you want to follow me or not."

Although landing the Booker has hugely boosted both Beatty's profile and bank balance, he admits to finding fame something of a burden.

"I'm really a loner, almost a recluse," he smiles apologetically after sitting down in a Dublin hotel bar and ordering a Coke ("not Diet Coke, fat Coke").

"I refuse to get involved in social media and I don't even have a phone. There's always a big part of me that's dying to get back to my desk."

Above all, Beatty says that he feels like an outsider in his own country and can never see a cosy consensus without wanting to kick it.

"When I'm in a room and sense that everyone is thinking the same thing, it just makes me nervous. I even refuse to sing 'Happy Birthday'."

If The Sellout reveals anything about his worldview, it is that racism in America has become far too entrenched to be significantly changed by the election of just one black president.

"As soon as Barack Obama won in 2008, a good friend of mine started flying the US flag out of his car. I asked him why and he replied, 'Well, I feel like the country has finally paid its debt to African-Americans'.

"I thought, man, it is not that easy - you know, Native Americans, Japanese-Americans and a whole bunch of other people might feel their debt needs to be paid, too."

By the same token, Beatty's attitude to the rise of Donald Trump is one of weary resignation rather than horror. "Don't get me wrong, I think the guy is completely vile," he says. "After seeing him pull out of the Paris Agreement [on climate change], I realised just how much damage he's going to do. I teach creative writing at Columbia University and some of my students cried when he got elected.

"But if you're 55 like me, you know that this kind of xenophobia has always been there. It's just that last year it became a little more visible again because the country is so damn angry and frightened.

"People tell me The Sellout is really topical, but I started writing it long before Trump even announced he was running - for me, it's simply about the way America is and probably will remain for a very long time."

Beatty is a fan of Chris Rock, so I quote one of the African-American stand-up's most shocking statements: "There ain't a white man in this room who would change places with me, and I'm rich!"

"That's a good line," the author responds. "It's probably about right."

Doesn't he find that more than a little depressing?

"Yeah, but is this really news to anyone? Let me tell you a story. Back in 2008, I pitched a film idea about skinheads to a white producer who told me, 'I really admire Obama, he's actually smarter than me'.

"So, using that logic, this guy thought he was smarter than every other dumb n****r in America. That's the kind of tone-deaf mentality you're dealing with so much of the time."

Raised by a single mother in Los Angeles, Beatty suffered from depression during his teenage years and felt desperate to escape. He studied psychology at Boston University, an experience that "taught me how to listen to myself listen... notice what gets into your head and what doesn't".

He is currently considering an invitation to appear on the US version of Who Do You Think You Are, but worries that its producers "might want me to cry on camera".

Beatty began his literary career on the slam-poetry circuit. He was a founder member of the hip-hop influenced Nuyorican Poets Collective and once performed his work on MTV, but then showed his contrary streak by leaving just as the group became popular.

"It was full of self-righteous people who thought they were being politically radical," he recalls, "and I wanted no part of that."

Since then, Beatty has ploughed his own furrow, publishing two poetry collections and four novels that were critically acclaimed (especially 1996's White Boy Shuffle) but never troubled the bestseller lists until now. Before the Man Booker cheque for £50,000 came along, he was by his own cheerful admission "pretty broke".

Asked if the award will put added pressure on his next book, he replies: "No, because I'm so slow. I work really hard at my writing because more than anything else, I want it to be original.

"Whether you like it or whether you don't, nobody writes quite like me. So there's probably going to be another five Booker winners grabbing your attention before I come around again."

Beatty got married last year, an experience that he says forced him to become a little less introverted. His new wife has been accompanying him on promotional tours around India, New Zealand and other diverse cultures, all of which he found extremely educational.

"The Sellout is like a Rorschach test, really," he muses. "Everyone seems to look at it and see something a little different."

When the follow-up finally arrives, however, Beatty fans should not expect it to be any more optimistic.

"Oh no, things can definitely get worse," he laughs.

"Every time I look at the world, I feel like we're on the brink of some terrible catastrophe. For me it's like the clock stopped in 1913."

The Sellout is published by Oneworld

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