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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