An Evening with Paul Beatty: The Sellout (Monday 17th October 2016)

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Man Booker Prize nominated author, Paul Beatty, made a flying visit from America to London to talk to readers about his most critically acclaimed novel yet: The Sellout. Speaking to an audience at the Waterstones book store in Islington, Beatty delved way back into his childhood, sharing memories of his time in Los Angeles. He said: “I grew up in an integrated middle-class area of LA so I wasn’t consciously aware of my race until I found myself in other neighbourhoods such as the East Coast.” Beatty describes his first encounter with race as coming after his reading of Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings. He said: “When I read that book, it did not sit well with me because it almost felt as if it was a project. Perhaps I think too deeply about things. Like when I obsessed over the fact that all my family members excluding myself and my 2 sisters were all right-handed. Or the fact that communism in Germany was an experiment – which though well intentioned can be hard to accept when you’re the lab rat. Perhaps my background in psychology explains all my thinking.”

Education

Beatty remembers his school life with some interest. “I grew up in Santa Monica where it was all white. My sisters and I were the only blacks in elementary school. However, it felt normal because of the area in which we lived. So just imagine the weird culture shock we would experience when mum would move us to an all-black school! These experiences helped to shape who I am today and form some of the themes to be explored in my latest novel – The Sellout.” The book has been described as a great American satire on race and comes at a time when a lot is going on in the U.S. in terms of race relations as evidenced through the Black Lives Matter campaign as well as the election trail to succeed out-going President – Barack Obama. “This book is about my discomfort” says Beatty. He adds: “I’m not trying to make others uncomfortable. In fact, I use the word comfort in the book all the time. I love being lost and always often start writing from a place of discomfort.” Beatty was aware of this discomfort from an early age. He said: “When I first started writing it was because I wanted to. I was from the West Coast but went to school in the East Coast, so, in some ways I felt like an odd ball. There was always a struggle within myself to get my voice on the page. I wanted to sound unique, to write like me.”

Writing

Paul Beatty at the 2016 Man Booker Awards Ceremony

The first poem he wrote to his liking was what he describes as a long monologue to himself about an experience he had with a bully. He said: “I felt more strongly about this poem than some of my professors did. I remember one professor giving me a C+ for an assignment after which he told me that I’d be wasting my time in pursuing a career in writing, while another professor told me that people will learn to read you. But it was Professor Allan Gingsberg who, after reading my poem, said that he had liked it and encouraged me to continue as I had something special there.” 

Cultural appropriation debate

The writer speaks with Paul Beatty

When Beatty was asked where he stood on the whole cultural appropriation debate as derived from a speech presented by author, Lionel Shriver, he said: “I don’t believe in ownership. Basketball is not a black only sport neither is that the case in the hip hop genre of music. When you put it out there, it belongs to the world. However, on another level, there are things you like which you really shouldn’t. I find it fascinating the variety of ways in which people see the concept of blackness. For the black writer, there is almost always a burden to give a certain segment of the population an explanation for what you write, though I personally do not take this burden on myself.”

Room to fail

Man Booker Prize Winner (2016)

So having written three novels prior to his latest Man Booker Prize nominated book ▪ what’s next on the horizon for Beatty? With a wry smile he concludes: “Well, I wish I could have stolen the answer Colson Whitehead (author of The Underground Railroad) gave to this question. He said the shelves can never be big enough. I’m just giving myself some room to fail. When Colson said that, I was like, ahh man, I wish that was me (that said that). That’s just pure genius.”

▪ The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty (published by Oneworld) was on the night of Tuesday 25th October 2016 duly awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It is currently available from all major book stores.

2016 Man Booker Prize Winner: Paul Beatty

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

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Guardian Live Presents: Gary Younge – Another Day in the Death of America

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On a random day in eight U.S. states and during a 24 hour period, the lives of ten children were lost to gun violence. Saturday 23rd November 2013 was the fateful day in question and only one journalist would bring these harrowing stories to national attention – step forward The Guardian’s Editor-at-large – Gary Younge. Speaking to Guardian members at Guardian headquarters in Kings Cross, London, (on Wednesday 28th September 2016) The Guardian’s former U.S. correspondent shared his latest book, Another Day in the Death of America which uncovers the stories of these 10 young lives which failed to make the national news. 

The premise of the book

Did you know that an average of 7 children are killed everyday in America? If you answered ‘no’then one reason for this could be that often these type of stories do not make national news. In fact, stories involving children from poorer areas where there are high risks of gang violence often go unreported. Having investigated the issues which he brings out in his book, Gary suggests there is a question we must ask ourselves which is this: how do children end up in poorer areas in the first place and what is the root cause which leads to some of them joining a gang? – such questions which, by and large, are not given the time of day by many national news corporations. “There is a tendency within parts of the media to project stereotypes with regards to certain racial groups and classes of people,” says Gary. He adds: “Astonishingly a parent can be blamed for the death of their child simply because of the area they live in. Also the policing in the areas where these untimely deaths take place are either inconsistent or non-existent meaning that there needs to be more accountability and scrutiny of the American Justice system.” For Gary, The American Dream has become, for many people, nothing more than a powerful myth, for while it primarily promotes the idea of everyone succeeding and being treated fairly the reality is that there remain some serious challenges and disparities among the disempowered – those who live in less affluent areas and who are black or latino. 

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

The Children

Although there’s an argument which subscribes that the American Dream and the media both seek to empower and give a voice to the people and to do so without prejudice or bias, the bleak irony is that not all voices are being heard or fairly represented. Instead, voiceless communities begin to subtely assimilate an ideology and a voice that’s not their own. For example, during his questioning of the parents whose children had died as a result of gun violence, Gary found that many of them put the blame to everything the media would have you to believe such as teenage pregnancies and absent fathers – answers which when they came, felt to have been almost scripted. Rather interestingly though was the fact that among the parents Gary questioned were two single dads and none of them gave guns as being the reason as to the deaths of their children. So who are these 10 children you must be thinking? Well the youngest was Jayden Dixon (aged 9) from Columbus, Ohio, who was shot dead by his mother’s ex partner, Danny Thornton, in an act of revenge. 11 year old, Tyler Dunn, from Michigan, was tragically shot dead by his best friend while they played with what they thought were their parents unloaded guns. Edwin Rajo, 16, too was shot by accident. Simon Brightmon, also 16, was shot dead but disturbingly no one knew why. 17 year old, Stanley Taylor, was shot dead after an altercation with another guy at a petrol station. Pedro Cortez, Tyshon Anderson, Gary Anderson and Gustin Hinnant (all aged 18) were shot by individuals belonging to gangs, while the oldest teenager, Kenneth Mills Tucker (aged 19) was shot by a drive-by gang in a case of mistaken identity. None of these stories made the national news. Gary says, rather tongue in cheek, that: “When a dog bites a man, its not news but when a man bites a dog then that is news. However, we must ask ourselves who are the dog owners which determine what’s newsworthy from what isn’t?

Guns

For many American citizens its unthinkable not to have a gun in your possession – for many its just a normal way of life, therefore everyone must have one. Guns are seen not only as a powerful symbol of national patriotism and masculinty but are also kept in many family homes as a form of protection against intruders. Yet the irony is that after suicide, most people are killed by someone they know and of course these often involve the use of a gun. However, despite such reasoning, groups in favour of gun protection laws such as the NRA which take the view that it’s not guns that kill people but people who kill people are determined to repeal any attempts to change current gun laws. Gary feels that such strong sentiments are proving to be divisive among communities in America such as for example Black Lives Matter. “There are no two ways about it – guns were made to kill, pure and simple. Statistically gangs in possession of knives have proven to be less dangerous than those carrying guns. Also, despite the welcome introduction of gun safety classes by the government there remains a propensity among young people and particularly young men and boys to play with guns, the results of which are catastrophic.”

The Election

Gary then drew a gasp from Guardian members when he declared that “America is racist.” He said: “America is racist – not Americans but the country itself. There is an undeniable racial component to this weapon in a country where there are more ‘slaves’ than ever before needing to be controlled.” Gary validates this declaration by equating it to the fear of the other and the unknown as expressed during the presidency of Barack Obama. “Obama personifies a racial and cosmopolitan future; he is the son of an immigrant with a Muslim sounding name – characteristics which are whipped up in a media frenzy and used by opposing governments to strike fear, disillusionment and then ultimately hatred towards certain communities.” So, according to Gary, when the polls officially open next month (November) the choice between the two strongest candidates should not be taken lightly. He says: “While it is inconceivable to have a president who has strongly offensive views about women, ethnic minorities and who is prepared to pull the trigger himself if permitted, the alternative is the current government where unfortunately many of today’s gun problems have been under their democratic watch.” So in the end, Gary says the vote must go to the one who appears to offer the electorate the most hope for a better and fairer future for all people. He concludes: “There are two contrasting issues at stake here – our fears and our hopes. If Hilliary Clinton is to make history by becoming the first female President of the United States of America she must be forced and lobbied to do the right thing concerning guns for the sake of the children who are the leaders of tomorrow.”

Another Day in the Death of America (2016) published by Guardian Books is available now in all major book stores.

The writer with the author: Gary Younge

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

The Guardian Book Club with Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City

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There was a feeling during the 1980’s that the novel was dead. The golden and silver ages of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, respectively, had long gone as the search for the new Jack Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald of the literary world continued. Just as it seemed all hope was gone, a sudden wave of new and young talented writers would emerge to bring about what Norman Mailer would describe as a ‘bronze age of literature.’Among those writers to breakthrough were Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho (1991) and Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City (1984). 

Bright Lights, Big City (1984) by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City

Speaking to Guardian members at The Guardian headquarters in Kings Cross (6th September 2016), McInerney remembers what American life was like for him and other youth during the 1980’s: “New York was in crisis,” he begins. “There were growing levels of bankruptcy, problems in the stock exchange and a heroin and cocaine epidemic. It was also an age of rock music and night club culture, full of energy and diversity.” It was these experiences which McInerney drew on when writing Bright Lights, Big City and although now published some 32 years ago, the author feels that its a book which is routed in a time and place with timeless elements. He says: “During the 1980’s people were saying the novel was dead but I believe I helped to refute that argument. I wanted the prose in Bright Lights, Big City to reflect the drug consciousness and rock period I was familiar with. Today, people question this notion of high and low culture while back then down town New York, notably Manhattan, was a quadroon of performance, music and night club culture – I was merely looking for a literary equivalent.” 

Youth

McInerney was aged 26 when he wrote the novel and remembers it as a time of pain and confusion all too familiar to the youth of that age. “I struggled for years to write my first novel. It was about a moment when my life fell apart – I was fired from my job, my mother died of cancer and my wife left me. It took a while for me to revisit those events but they feature in the book.” As such, the book is semi-autobiographical with the minor characters drawn from different stages of McInerney’s life. It started as a short novel – the first three lines of which he wrote on a scrap piece of paper – which, in his words, “were the most authentic words I had ever written.” But the assumption that his book is merely just a reflection of the 1980’s is a claim he would clearly like to reject. “At the time, I didn’t think I was writing a book about the 1980’s but rather about my experiences during that time. Also, I was surprised by all the tags put on the book which seemed to suggest I was an advocate of yuppyism, cocaine and Ronald Reagan.”

Bronze Age

It took a while for the book to be well received by the US but now some 32 years later has been hailed as a classic as a growing number of young readers are rating it because of the resonance of its themes, which McInerney is clearly delighted by. “I think its still readable now because it has this timeless experience of the disaffected urban drug addicted youth which is also a feature in the work of my compatriot and friend Bret Easton Ellis. Therefore, a younger readership would get this, hence the book’s popularity today compared to yesteryear.”

Jay McInerney’s latest novel – Bright, Precious Days (2016) published by Bloomsbury is available now in all good book stores.

Labeled ‘King of the Bronze Age’ by Norman Mailer: Jay McInerney

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

Guardian Live: An evening with Ian McEwan (Monday 29th August 2016)

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When a novel has as its a narrator an unborn baby in the womb who happens to discover the murder plot of its father by its mother and uncle then you know that your on to an instant hit. This latest plot comes from Booker Prize winning author, Ian McEwan, from his latest short novel – Nutshell. The narrative’s murder plot comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth while the remaining themes of the narrative are derived from Hamlet. So, how did McEwan come up with such a crazy idea? “I am a huge fan of Shakespeare (this year marking the 400th anniversary of his death) and had been reading Hamlet,” says McEwan. He continued: “I had a bit of a day dream but then soon after, my first sentence came and from there I didn’t look back.” Speaking to a sell out crowd of Guardian Members at the Royal Geographical Society, McEwan, author of bestsellers like Atonement (2001) and The Children Act (2015) shared his thoughts on his latest creation and life work. 

In a nutshell

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The premise of Nutshell involving the unborn child narrator who quickly learns of his mother and uncle’s plot to kill his father is an interesting one. The mother is having an affair with Claude (the unborn child’s uncle) and together they devise a plan to kill Claude’s brother (the unborn child’s father) so that they can continue their secret relationship in peace. Unknown to the pair is the discovery of their plot to murder by the unborn child who is dead set on somehow putting a stop to their plans. In reference to these Hamlet and Macbeth inspired themes McEwan says: “Leaning on someone else’s plot allows you to be free to take the story somewhere else. This novel is preoccupied with notions of the self. Everything has to be heard and this narrator takes a privileged position in the narrative.”

Foetus talk

Guardian Live with Ian McEwan

McEwan’s highly interesting and unusual narrator takes readers on an almost detective like journey as he thinks of ways to thwart the plans of his cheating mother and uncle. Where he is similiar in character to Hamlet is in his obsession with himself along with his questioning of the world around him (albeit through the confines of the womb). McEwan explains this further: “Narrating from the foetus, the unborn child projects himself forward to an older age. Like Hamlet, he often has suicidal thoughts but also a strong sense of social justice while also being alarmed at some of the twists to be found taking place in intellectual life.” Besides fighting (in the womb) against his mother’s deadly intentions, the unborn child listens to the news she has playing on the wireless in the background from BBC World Service. 

On writing

McEwan addresses Guardian Members

Nutshell is a short novel – a form which McEwan readily admits he likes, as he can experiment and have more fun with it while also keeping true to some of its more serious content. For McEwan, a novel such as this, where the story is told from a character inside the womb and which enacts a plot from Hamlet is an idea that can only work in short story form because the stucture of it is so intense. As for writing in general, McEwan has no plans to stop any time soon: “I write everyday. If i’m not writing then I’m reading. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think a novella is hard to write because it places great demands on the writer such as in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The novel too, is a very personal form which makes it hard to write without giving yourself away. It therefore becomes partly an expression of who you are.” McEwan also had some valuable advice for those who struggle with writing, particularly school children: “I encourage writers, including children who struggle with it, to keep a journal, record what you do each day and from this you will begin to gather some useful ideas which not only shape your experiences but which will also help you in your writing.”

Final Act

Hollywood bound: The Children Act

Before leaving the jam packed auditorium to great applause, McEwan had time to reveal to Guardian Members the production of another of his novels into a potential Hollywood blockbuster: “The Children Act will be hitting the big screen soon and is being directed by Richard Eyre whom I’ve worked with before. So watch this space.”

Nutshell (2016) is published by Jonathan Cape and is available now in all good bookstores.

Ian McEwan

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip