An Interview with Paul Beatty, Author of ‘The Sellout’
Sometimes the best way to critique something is to make fun of it, and this is precisely the method that writer Paul Beatty has employed in his fourth novel, The Sellout. Set in Dickens, California, the book follows a young, black narrator who attempts to save a fictional Los Angeles neighborhood by segregating it, eventually ending up before the Supreme Court. In whip-smart fashion, Beatty attacks race and the urban experience with his weapon of choice: humor.
In early April, I sat down with Beatty to discuss The Sellout’s inspiration, the art of satire, and the occasionally taxing experience of being a black writer.
When did you start working on The Sellout?
2009? Somewhere around then.
Like, late 2009?
Yeah, I guess so.
So post-Oscar Grant, the kid who was killed on the BART train in Oakland.
Post that or before that? What year was that?
That was New Year’s Day 2009.
Okay, when did the movie [Fruitvale Station] come out?
Fruitvale Station came out two summers ago, so July 2013. Anyway, it’s odd, and a little bit spooky, that the book came out around the same time as a lot of fucked up incidents regarding race relations in America.
That’s always happening though, isn’t it?
No, you’re absolutely right. But since Trayvon Martin’s death in early 2012, there’s been a cluster—or is it that just everyone’s paying attention?
I…[pauses]…I don’t know. I feel like people are paying attention a little more for obvious reasons, but these things have always happened. But [Oscar Grant] didn’t spark [the book]. It’s funny, because my girlfriend at the time was living in Berkeley, but that didn’t have anything to do with it.
Aside from history, what did spark it?
I think I had a good idea for the Hominy character. I had a good idea for that Farming neighborhood, which is kind of based on a real neighborhood in Compton. And I figured out that I wanted to start in the Supreme Court.
I’ll come back to the Hominy character, but are you aware of the Walter Scott shooting?
Sadly, I can’t keep the names straight. Which one is Walter Scott?
The video just came out last night—
—Oh, I saw the photo of him running [from police officers]. Where was that?
Yeah, I don’t know much about it. I literally just saw it on the news.
It’s funny, and I use the term “funny” very loosely, but I think that’s applicable to The Sellout. In the beginning, the main character’s father dies in a police shooting after he’s subjected his son to many social experiments. With Walter Scott’s death, the fact that it was captured on camera is likely the only reason why the officer was charged with murder and ultimately fired. Even though this represents nothing new, is it demoralizing that, as a black man, that’s the best you can hope for?
I was doing some research a long time ago at a library in New York, and I was going through these old newspapers from the 1930s. I wasn’t looking for it, but every other day, it was “three black men, three negroes, or three colored men shot running away from the scene of the crime.” And it just hit me like, “Oh my God, this so ancient.” No names, or [anything]. So it just hit me that I know this already, but how long this has been going on really hit me. So the book is based on something personal that I don’t really want to talk about, but it’s not even about making a point. It’s [about] doing it because the shit happens, and, for me, it was a good way of telling that story. Where his anger is coming from, and the lessons his father was trying to teach him in some weird, perverted way.
The characters names: “Bonbon,” “Hominy,” even “Cheshire” and the town they live in. How much attention should readers be paying to them?
Some of the names are clues to certain things, so I’m not going to say too much. As for the town, yeah, all kind of reasons for that. For Hominy, I don’t know if you’re too young to be a Little Rascals fan.
Oh, I’m well aware. I saw the remake that came out in theaters as a child, and, from my parents, I learned about the original television show and the racial issues.
See, I never saw [the remake]. But all of the characters had these names—Buckwheat, Farina, and Alfafa had these weird grain names. So Hominy is an extension of that.
Like hominy grits.
Yeah, there you go. Cheshire…means something [laughs]. What other names are in there? Bonbon? That’s from a funny story that a friend told me once, and I just thought it would be a very good, milquetoast nickname for the character to have. That’s funny, no one has ever asked me about the names before.
Because names tend to carry weight. Like Native Son’s Bigger Thomas. So I always find myself trying to figure out everything writers are trying to say, or wondering if I’m just overthinking or overanalyzing.
No, I don’t think you’re overthinking. If you had guessed, I would’ve been like , “Yeah, yeah. That’s it.” [Laughs] But it takes me a long time to come up with names. Even “Marpessa” —there’s this old Marpessa Dawn, and I had a friend named Marpessa who died. So most of them are there for a reason.
Is there a reason you depicted the Supreme Court as the DMV or a butcher’s shop?
Yeah, I guess there’s a reason. It’s not like the Supreme Court is a ridiculous institution; they definitely make some ridiculous decisions, but it’s also part in parcel of how I feel about the system. Especially how it works in the book’s world, where [Bonbon] kind of wins the lottery to get his case heard.
Despite whatever his father tried to teach him, he still ends up in a courtroom, becoming a statistic. That really stood out to me. So, as far as satire, it typically involves lampooning something in a grand way for the sake of making a point. Like when you explain something to someone and they go, “Well shit, I never thought about it that way.” Typically, I’m all for being overly sensitive about matters of race because people have to be held accountable. Unless, that is, you’re going to catch them shooting someone on film. Why did you choose to apply the principles of satire to something as sensitive as race here?
It’s not like I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a satire,” it’s kind of just the way I write. Even when I wrote poetry, it was the same thing. It’s like how you said: I use funny in this weird way that some people see as flipped. It’s kind of just exactly how I operate. I try to ridicule myself and things that I care about, and hopefully that lets me get away with some other stuff. And, in a weird way, it really brings out how sensitive all this stuff is. How many ways—I don’t think there are a ton of ways to look at it—but people do perceive it differently. So it works for me.
With that said, how do you feel about the respectability politics advocates? In other words, the Don Lemons of the world.
Don Lemon…I don’t pay much attention to him. I know who he is, and I heard him say something on the radio once, but he’s just…there. And I saw this confrontation that he had in Ferguson with Talib Kweli.
Yeah, and Kweli got aggressive with him, but I understand why. I’m not a Don Lemon fan at all.
Does he have any fans? I mean, he must have some.
Yeah, he has some. I see him as every racist white person’s lone black friend. But the idea that we, as black people, need to check ourselves first so to be perceived differently—something that won’t happen, anyway—is such a lazy school of thought.
I don’t really understand that. I think you say what you have to say, when you have to say it, to whoever you have to say it to. I think you can get caught up in self-policing to a ridiculous point. There’s a really good movie—a play, actually—called A Soldier’s Story. You ever see it?
I have not. Who’s in it?
It’s really good. Denzel Washington, Adolph Caesar, and Howard Rollins. It’s set around World War ll, and it’s about the first black battalion, and there’s a murder. It’s a really good moral tale about who’s judging who, why and when. You really need to see it. That just movie just sums up how I feel about that so succinctly. It’s the old “let he who is without sin” thing, and it’s really easy to shout and be self-righteous without looking at yourself, or to pretend that you’re different from the next person. I just try not to subscribe [to that].
I brought up Don Lemon because I also want to talk about dumb intellectuals. People like him are anointed the voices for the black community, and it makes you question why they were given the throne. They don’t speak for all of us. Do you have any feelings about that?
That’s a hard question to answer. Leadership is a real thing. It’s a concept that exists, it has a purpose. But you’re kind of implying that there are these people that have been selected to speak. That happens—take Al Sharpton. Sometimes I like listening to Al Sharpton, sometimes I don’t. Like, when he was running for president, I thought he was great. I wouldn’t vote for him, but I thought he was great. But him as a civic leader? I have a lot of problems with him. Like, Al Sharpton “on the ground.” His television show? Yeah, I think he’s fine. This is just my opinion, but I think there’s always this person on the pedestal, and I don’t think there’s [malicious] intent for the most part, but I’m old, and I’m just so tired of being talked down to and preached at all the time. I remember reading Cornel West’s Race Matters book and this shit about “Oh, you have to wear a sweater, and you have to do that…” I know what he’s trying to say, but it’s just so infantilizing to me. It might be true, maybe we can’t afford mistakes, but you have to be allowed the room to make errors. There’s just this constant thing about how young black people should act and behave all the time, and I just throw my hands up at it. And it’s a little bit like gay Republicans, in a way. You know what I mean? Where there’s just so much going on, and so much dissonance happening. It’s part of life, but I have my feelings about it.
I want to talk about being a black writer. I write about everything because it allows me to hold the mirror up to society. Would you say that being a black writer is being both a gift and a curse? I can elaborate on that if you need me to.
That’s a tough one to answer. Being a writer is a gift and a curse. Being black? I don’t think it’s a gift and a curse. It depends on what situation you’re in. I try not to think about race and class that are really like, in a dichotomy, like gift or curse. Like it’s both, and it’s neither. I have a hard time thinking about that, even though I know exactly what you mean. The Sellout is at least trying to expand the space in the way we talk about it, and the way we look at these things. When I grew up, black pride was a huge issue. It came out of a lot of self-hatred—all kinds of shit. So I understood it, but at the same level, I don’t know exactly what pride means. I remember being in college, and a kid did something, and someone was like, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed.” I was like, “Why are you embarrassed?” and he was like, “He’s making us all look bad.” I was like, “He’s not making me look bad, he’s making himself look bad.” It’s that weird way people have been taught to think, and I just think that’s really dangerous. So gift, curse…yeah, it depends. There’s always this thing where there’s one black writer, so I think that’s a bad thing. It has nothing to do with the people who are writing, it has to do with the people who market, read, and sell the books. How do you think it’s a gift?
It’s a gift in terms of perspective. For example, I went to Howard University, so I can write about the HBCU experience where other writers can’t. The curse is that, often in my eyes, there is just one of us who’s permitted to “make it,” so to speak. Which leads right into my next question: Have you noticed competition among novelists?
Yeah, I guess that’s gonna happen. There’s some line in the book about how every black person in the room thinks he’s the smartest black person in the room. Not the smartest person in the room, but the smartest black person in the room. I think there’s a lot of that because people feel like they’re competing for that one slot. It’s kind of this self-preservation, ego maintenance or something. But as for the blackness as a gift thing, your gift is that you’re you. Being black might have something to do with it, but there’s going to be another black person who’s going to have a different experience than you. I think there are some general truths. I have this friend who’s a philosopher, and used to talk about how [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel had this thing called the master-slave dialectic, where the slave always knows more about the master than the master knows about the slave. So I think, in terms of being oppressed, regardless of race or however you want to define oppression, there’s some truth to that. In that sense, being black can be a gift. You see both sides of the rock, but, just in general, it can be and it can’t be.
There’s definitely a perception of there not being enough to go around, and some of us feel like we have to fight each other for that one spot.
I don’t have a ton of writer friends, but that’s just because I don’t really hang out with writers [laughs].
I’m the same way. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of color? I know some people are like, “Don’t do this. You don’t want this life.”
No, I would never say that. I don’t have any race-specific advice, but writers write. Pretty simple. The rest will or won’t take care of itself. It’s a hard thing to do, and a hard thing to accept—I know a lot of filmmakers who have never made a film, and that’s fine. But writers write. I teach every now and then, and had some students come to me like, “Paul, we want to be a part of the conversation.” They’re looking for this epicenter, and I’m like, “You guys are the epicenter.” You go back through time, and whatever group—these people did it themselves. [Your generation] is allowed to indulge in so many ways, so you guys are the conversation. You can’t wait for that stamp. I think there’s a thing now about young people in general where they’re always waiting for this stamp of approval. It’s beyond that, man. You just have to do it in whatever way works for you.
I’m in agreement. The best way to start doing something is to start doing it. Everyone’s route is different. Back to The Sellout for a second, as far as the wording in some places, I had to laugh at the description of “primates in cages” as presidential, because it made me think about the White House.
So that’s actually a true story. That really happened to me. I was at the zoo with my girlfriend at the time, and we were looking at this big ape, and this woman said, “Oh, he looks so presidential!” And I was like, “That’s because his name is Baraka.”
The way that people talk about President Obama is so disrespectful. I had a conversation with Paul Mooney — another guy named Paul; fucking hilarious, right? — and he went on about the level of disrespect shown to the president. But we know what that’s about.
I’m about to say some things that aren’t going to make any sense. It’s different now: There’s like a level of disrespect that I think is sort of healthy in a weird way, if you realize it. The positions aren’t as magical and omnipotent as we like to pretend that they are. So, in some ways, there’s just a general disrespect that comes along, and I think him being black has exacerbated that. But then he does things like—I mean, [Bill] Clinton played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. And it’s like, “Oh, I never knew the person running for president could do that.” Barack does the basketball tournament every year. There are other things that go into it aside from his color; there are choices that he feels he needs to make. Like he’s going to sit down and talk to Zach Galifianakis and Galifianakis is clowning the president. It’s kind of funny, but it’s a weird dismantling of the aura around the president. Sarah Palin was on Saturday Night Live, and I remember saying to a friend, “Wow, she’s like a coon on Saturday Night Live.” That’s how they used to drag out the black person and just pillory them, you know what I mean? So there’s a lot of things going on, but him being black definitely has something to do with it. There’s no doubt.
So I read that you said The Sellout means something, but you don’t know what, exactly, it means.
Yeah, but I wouldn’t even say if I did. I wrote the book for a reason, but there’s no mission statement.
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