The Freedom to Create: An Interview with Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty is the author of four novels—The White Boy Shuffle, Tuff, Slumberland, and The Sellout, published in 2015—and the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. His most recent novel, The Sellout, opens with a black man on trial at the Supreme Court for reinstating slavery and segregation. In an ingenious, still-racial satire (as opposed to post-racial, as many reviewers have described it), the main character, Bonbon, grows weed, sells artisanal watermelon, and tries to preserve the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, Los Angeles. Apogee editors Alexandra Watson and Cecca Ochoa sat down with Paul Beatty to discuss.

Alexandra Watson: I went to your reading at McNally Jackson, and whenever I’m at a reading I look around to see the demographics of the audience–

Paul Beatty: And no black people. How come there were no black people there? I mean, I didn’t invite any…

AW: In the scene you read, the humor revolves around the idea of a “Nigger Whisperer,” Bonbon’s father, a psychologist whose role in the community is essentially to talk black people down off the ledge in moments of crisis. I was wondering if you were thinking about the response of the audience, the white audience, as you were reading?

PB: I read the same passage for Bookforum at the New Museum, and it wasn’t until I finished, that I realized that were no black people in attendance. Out of 200 some odd folks, it was me and the security guard. And he, poor soul, had to be there. I’m reading aloud, in public about a Nigger Whisperer. Anyway, it’s made me think about Dave Chappelle talking about hearing a white guy laughing at one of his bits in the wrong way, or in the wrong timbre. Whatever happened, it made him question what he was doing. I’m always questioning what I’m doing… Is this too fucked up?… Why aren’t there any black people here?… I don’t answer the questions in any direct way, that’s too much pressure to put on myself. But I try to deal with the issues in my own way. Hope that what I’m doing, writing, reading, whatever, will spark folks to venture to places they might not otherwise go, both inside and outside of their headspace. When there are “non-whites” at the reading, I’m like, cool. Same as when some “non-blacks” “non-Asians” show up to a reading at The Studio Museum or an Asian-American Writers Workshop panel. Cool. But I’m not begging for any particular group to show up, just very thankful when they do. I hate reading, so it’s hard to ask someone to come to an event when I’m so reluctant to be there myself. But I’m glad when folks show and I’m glad when they laugh. I don’t necessarily need or want to know why—it’s nice to know that someone’s listening.

AW: One thing about the humor in The Sellout is that it has multiple layers. In the “Whisperer” scene there’s the line that Kilo G is “hallucinating high on his own supply and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s brooding lyricism.” If you are familiar with Alfred Lord Tennyson then it works on one level, if you were familiar with gangsta rap, then it works on another.

PB: I don’t think anybody’s gonna throw rocks at me. But I didn’t really think about it until I was reading, and then I went, oh… With that section, I’m more worried about—well, curious about—what black people will think. I think about it, and then I think, this is what I’m gonna read: I’ll get over it, they’ll get over it. But I definitely noticed.

Cecca Ochoa: Still, you say you are worried, or more worried, about what black people will think. The book opens with the protagonist, Bonbon, “dangling from the end of [his] legal rope” on trial, in the Supreme Court. The black Justice says to Bonbon, “Racial segregation? Slavery?… let’s get this hanging party started!” I wondered if that opening was in some way meant to address the potential backlash.

PB: I don’t know if this is going to answer your question, but it took me a long time to figure out how to start. I knew what the main character was gonna do, but I didn’t have a beginning. I was at a dinner party in Berkeley, and the couple hosting were two lawyers. They started talking about some general courtroom procedural stuff, and I thought, oh of course, that’s how it has to start—in the Supreme Court. And then, of course, I still had to start again.

Clarence Thomas is an easy target somehow. I mean he just fits perfectly. He’s really symbolic of the debate over affirmative action. The question of competency. Is he competent? Are they competent? What merits competency? Who determines it? All types of shit. I don’t have a problem mocking him—or the whole system—but especially him. And that whole trial, it’s a good—not exactly a foil—but some kind of antipode to bounce shit off of.

CO: I remember you telling me that when you were working on Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, you had all these people who were gonna pick up the book, and then they saw the cover, which had a watermelon on it, and they backed out. Am I remembering this correctly?

PB: Yeah, that happened a couple of times. It was more the mainstream stuff, like Essenceand Ebony, who wanted to do stuff and then they saw the cover and they were like no, no. Then I was on Tavis Smiley—only because of the cover of the book—and we had this contentious discussion, ‘cause he’s a fucking idiot, but I was too timid to just fucking yell back. I wish I wasn’t. There was some backlash against that.

CO: I’m curious about your take on this sort of reaction.

PB: I think that some African-Americans—like anyone else—are comfortable with having certain things satirized. So it’s ok to satirize ghetto life in some stupid movie, or for Chris Rock to denigrate “niggers,” whoever they are, but to satirize the intelligentsia, or the hardworking middle class, that’s a no-no. And for me, that’s the stuff I love satirizing because it’s so preachy. And I’m interested in what exactly makes people take pride in themselves. What exactly are they proud of?

AW: Like the Dum Dum Donuts intellectuals, founded by Bonbon’s father, which his father sees as a place for “information exchange, public advocacy, and community counsel,” but really is a place for quasi-intellectuals to give seminars based on questionable research.

PB: Those people have been bulletproof for a long time, and deservedly so. So for me, I can’t help myself. I’m satirizing myself. Everybody’s so protective, and everything’s supposed to be a certain way, and I get so tired of that, it seems too regimented. And I’m just too old, I’ve seen all of that too much. I don’t think it applies to only African-American lit, the whole safety thing.

CO: Certainly queer lit too, it can feel like there is a wall around what is “acceptable.”

PB: People are protective of these spaces that took a long time to be acknowledged. I understand that. We’ll see what kind of reaction The Sellout will have. Somebody told me that somebody at Essence loved the book. I’ll take that as positive. And many thanks to whoever that person is.

AW: I’ve never been to L.A. So reading this book, reading about the “agrarian ghetto” fictionalized in Dickens, I was transported in a way, and it felt like an alternate universe. Then I was talking to Cecca who has obviously been, and I was like, is it really like that? Does it feel like an alternate universe when you go there?

PB: I mean, L.A.’s weird. So there’s a neighborhood in Compton, it’s like zoned for farming. I don’t tell anybody that. That was another hard thing, ‘cause I didn’t want to use the actual name of the neighborhood. If you say Compton, you gotta deal with all this other bullshit that you can’t make up. But this neighborhood, I didn’t grow up there or anything, but I’d drive through there and see black people on horses—what the fuck? You see that in California, but you usually see it way out, or in really ritzy neighborhoods, like in the Palisades.

In Compton, they had these big houses, these gigantic fucking houses with huge backyards. People kept horses on their property, and goats, and cows. It’s bizarre, but I’ve seen it my whole life. Not every day, but every so often. I have a good friend who’s a principal in Compton, and my sister teaches in Compton. High school and middle school teachers always have crazy stories, especially in the inner city. My sister was telling me about how kids would come to her class with milk that they bought from their neighbor, straight from the cow. They buy it for a quarter. And people literally graze their little goats on the medians and shit. It’s not like it’s all over the place, but it’s there. And when I was thinking about that, I was thinking, I want to set the fiction in something like that. But it’s really hard to make this real place feel believable.

CO: The setting, not having known about this place in Compton, does have a sort of mythical quality. California is all farms, and even in the cities there are agricultural pockets. I met someone who works for the city of Oakland recently who was telling me about this push for more agricultural space inside the city. There was a wave of immigrants who were subsistence farmers, and they were like, this community garden thing is really cute, but we’re growing all of our food, so can we get something that we can actually use?

PB: California is still an agricultural place.

AW: Yeah, one part of the book we were both talking about was how Bonbon segregates the crops. It allowed for the metaphor of racial segregation to come through in a really interesting way. Actually, it’s made explicit: “I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.” I found myself often wondering if Bonbon is doing what his father, as a sort of radical intellectual, would have wanted him to do, or are the father’s experiments backfiring? Especially when you’re thinking about putting the plants in the place where they’ll get the light and the nutrients they need.

CO: I liked that part. It’s like Bonbon performs a sort of social agriculture. It made me really curious what you think of Darwinism.

PB: I believe in it. I’ve never read The Origin of Species or anything. I always find that really interesting. I had that one thing in the book about the moths. [“We’re the black moths in that classic evolution photo, clinging to the dark, soot-covered tree, invisible to our predators and yet somehow still vulnerable. The job of the swarthy moth is to keep the white moth occupied. Glued to the tree with bad poetry, jazz, and corny stand-up routines about the difference between white moths and black moths… It always bothered me that in those photos, the white moth was invariably higher up the tree trunk. What were those textbooks trying to imply? That despite being more at risk, the white moth was still higher up the evolutionary and social ladder?”]  That ubiquitous image that’s always in the textbooks haunted me somehow. Being taught natural selection in highschool fucked me up because, in a weird way, you’re led to believe that being black, being lower-middle class, pigeon-toed, and depressed isn’t very natural. When I was in college, there used to be a class called sociobiology.

AW: Sounds creepy.

PB: It was really racist. I think it had traction in the mid 80s, late 90s, when people were trying to prove that people of color were less intelligent and all this other shit, and they were trying to ground it in science. I don’t know what made me take that class, that was the worst class. They tried to use some of the concepts of evolution… it was all garbage.

AW: One of the things I loved most about the book was the way history folded onto itself. So it makes sense that, rather than slavery and segregation being something in the past, you can kind of see through the present page to the past. “There’s always someone getting whipped or stopped and frisked.” Our reality now is not just a straightforward thing, there are dimensions. It’s anachronistic in a lot of ways. Our world is anachronistic. When we look at farms in California and see migrant workers working for the wages that they do, slavery is not that far behind us. Or when we think of technology and how modern day slavery generates those things.

CO: There was that line, “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on.”

PB: I lived in Germany for a long time. There are a lot of similarities between being black and being German. It includes all this baggage. I always felt that people of my generation, they were so burdened by history. And people a little older were like, everything’s over, this is done. People think there’s a line, that we’ve moved past it. But it still happens. There’s no right or wrong. The thing that always gets me is when people say, They should know better. You’re black, you should know better and be able to identify with these people. But it doesn’t work like that.

AW: I recently read a profile of Angela Merkel in The New Yorker. It talked about how the German project is to straight-on acknowledge the past. Thinking about that in relation to American history, I think we have a conflicting relationship with actually confronting the past. Foy Cheshire, one of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, is rewriting all these American classics to be African-American classics. And The Sellout says something like, just by changing “nigger” to “warrior,” doesn’t mean you’re gonna get rid of the past that comes with it.

PB: People are so uncomfortable with shit. I was listening to Amiri Baraka speak, and he was talking about this old black character. On one level it’s the most offensive, ridiculous caricature of what a black American was at that time period… slow, completely stupid. And Baraka goes, only a fucking idiot is going to jump to it and move for twenty-five cents an hour. The character is actually trying to define his very limited space. And I was like, oh my god, that’s fucking genius.

CO: I am curious about the character of Hominy. In The Sellout, he is a retired Hollywood actor, whose career was built off of playing some of white America’s most bigoted portrayals of black America. He is the one who forces Bonbon to take him into slavery and he’s the one who sparks Bonbon’s foray into social segregation. He also begs to be whipped and Bonbon takes him to a Dominatrix. It reminded me that I’ve read somewhere that Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired the fantasy of sexual slavery in white America, and was one of the origins of BDSM in the States, as sick as that sounds.

PB: Life is crazy. I remember when I was in grad school, there was an older black guy, really smart, and I remember we were talking about Gandhi and MLK, and how you get these packaged versions of these people, especially them. He said Gandhi used to beat his wife. And it made sense to me instantly, because like where does all that violence go? When you suffer that, it has to come out somehow. Not necessarily in violence, but it’s not like water. It makes me think about how people process, how they handle all this shit. I don’t have a philosophy, like this is my maxim that I live by.

AW: Bonbon says, if we could just have a motto, we’d be able to gather together and know what we’re fighting for.

CO: You need a motto.

PB: That’s exactly it.

When I wrote White Boy Shuffle, there was this radio thing with Terry Gross. They never used it because I just got so angry. She kept asking me what’s real, what’s not? I understand the question, but there’s something about the way she phrased it that really shut me off. When she said that to me, I thought, she’s not even trying to make a fucking effort. Afterwards, I realized she kind of does that to everybody at some level. But I used to have this thing where it seemed like for a lot of writers, especially writers of color, everything had to be personal. Everything had to be autobiographical. To me, I’m like, are you kidding me? Is that the only story that you have the authority to tell?

There was one student at Columbia who was Asian, and he used to go off on all the other Asian writers. I just liked to listen to his arguments. There was one girl who didn’t want to write about anything Asian, she didn’t want anything to do with that. It doesn’t matter to me, but I’m always really curious, why?

I think you have to have the freedom to write anything you want. Like anything. No one can tell you what the fuck to write. But I do find it weird when people are like, I don’t want to write about Asian shit because it’s going to put me in a box, or my books aren’t going to sell. That’s a weird reason to do something. I don’t write not to say shit, I write to say shit.

AW: Maybe the questioning from Terry Gross stemmed from the idea that you can only write what you know…

PB: They want it to be autobiographical. Everybody’s trying to push writers somewhere, and so I try and push back. It trips me out how quick some people are to assume a writer has no imagination or narrative jurisdiction that extends beyond their implied experience or orientation. “Black ghetto kids can’t like Ozu. No fucking way.” The word that springs to mind, and it’s totally, flippantly misapplied here, is “lebensraum.” A vile word and inhumane concept, but I mention it because I tend to go to extremes for no good reason. In some fucked up way, it reminds me of the selfish and irrational sense of entitlement we often have about our space, be it ideological space, physical, or imaginary. So often people read in ways that notions and characterizations that impinge on one’s “comfortable living space” are just erased and dismissed. Maybe Manifest Destiny is a better term. I’m not trying to equate segregation to annihilation and genocide, but I’m fascinated with, as a friend recently put it, “the totality of evil.” And we sometimes read and respond to texts like we’re leading a wagon team, claiming our rightful land, our space, our entitlements. We go to illogical extremes to justify, reclaim, hold on to, and expand our “space.” Literary space, racial, whatever, it’s space that often exists only in one’s mind. But we can’t always deal when presented with the thing we can’t imagine… we’re so quick to disregard what it is we aren’t comfortable with… I’m not making any sense, but I try to be cognizant of what it means to stretch my elbows.

AW: I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with the anxiety of speaking from a perspective that you know little about or something. Especially for white writers, I think it’s difficult to take the risk of embodying or speaking for a perspective they don’t live.

PB: Having anxiety is ok, though. I am working on an anthology of non-black people writing about black people. It’s been going on forever, and everybody’s always doing it.

AW: From way back?

PB: All kinds of shit. Old Testament. Middle Ages. The Renaissance. If there is one, what’s the unifying perspective? What has changed about blacks as character, subject matter, phenomena, as other, as same, as symbol? It’s interesting to read and try to figure out why and when certain characters feel real, feel black, and why they don’t. It isn’t a matter of the portrayals being racist or not. Sometimes the most venal and myopic depictions read as black. Not because the burr-headed, pitch-black, white-toothed, surprisingly intelligent, begrudgingly human characters remind me of myself or of black folks in general, but I know what it’s like to be viewed through that lens. To see myself through the prejudicial eyes of another, through the pages of Heart of Darkness, Othello, or Huckleberry Finn, feels very familiar. The folks, the “niggers” they describe, don’t exist, of course. But I know who these writers and thinkers think they’re looking at. Me. So in a strange way sometimes these pictures, sensibilities, and characterizations—while completely fraudulent—feel very fucking real because I’m so used to it.

I’m reading The Help. One thing I can say is that every single contemporary book that I’ve read thus far has the word nigger in it somehow. But that could also result from my taste. Still, it feels a little bit like these books are literary excuses to say that word. It might not be true, but I haven’t figured it out. But when authors take these risks, to write about the other, sometimes it feels formulaic, sometimes it feels forced. The bitter, jealous, and curious undertones of the writing don’t bother me very much, neither do the fanciful narratives. But it’s hard to make your subject matter feel fanciful and at the same time not feel forced, formulaic or pandering… I read Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing, about a black family and they are all opera singers, real musical and all this stuff. For me it’s really interesting how he tries to make the characters seem black beyond stating their races. There’s first-person pointing to color, and oh my mom has an afro and that sort of thing, but there’s also: what do the characters talk about, and when do they talk about it… it’s interesting actually. I’m having fun. It’s exercising one’s freedom I suppose. Though I don’t know too many writers of color who write books that have nothing to do with whatever their ethnic background is. Yeah, I don’t know.

I just finished a book, The Nazi and The Barber, I can’t stop talking about it. It was banned in Germany for a long time. So it’s satirical, I haven’t quite figured it out. It’s about the Holocaust from the perspective of a guy who was in the SS, an executioner at a concentration camp, and he escapes any kind of war crimes by becoming Jewish. There’s an interesting uncomfortable way of him looking at Judaism, of self, of Germany, of genocide. It’s very frank.

AW: Then you can imagine the critics asking questions about who the author is.

PB: Right, and in a weird way, should it matter?

CO: You said you believe people should write about whatever they want to write.

PB: I think so. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. Or, that it’s bad. But you have to have the freedom to create, room to grow and to experiment. It’s hard to do. Harder than ever. I don’t know, I am really curious about what people are going to say about The Sellout.

CO: You don’t have long to find out.

PB: Nigger whisperer… Yeah, I wrote it.

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