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said it left him feeling he belonged to the universe. It is time now for
HARDtalk. Welcome to HARDtalk, I am Steven
Sako. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
An adage that seems tailor-made for race relations in America.
After eight years of a black President, amid a swirl
of demographic and social change, black Americans still feel the bite
My guest today is Paul Beatty, whose prize-winning novel Sellout
is a devised satire to unpick the black American experience.
It is funny and provocative but is it also fundamentally bleak?
It seems to be optimism has always been seen as the default mood
Reading the book, the Sellout which has caused a storm
and won the Booker Prize, some would read it and think,
gosh, this man has a very bleak world view.
I don't think it is that bleak really, in a weird way.
I think hopefully within the energy, there is a kind of something that
The energy contained vicious humour and it is very
funny but fundamentally, you have a book that is pretty much
about race relations and the experience of being black
in America today and it is not that different from the way it has ever
been, including the era of outright slavery and segregation
I can't say that, I am 54, I am not 254.
So I cannot speak for how it is different.
My life is different within 54 years.
Barack Obama, when he talks as the head of the nation
about race issues, he says, change has come and things
are different and we are making progress.
Good for him, he is the President and he should say that.
He wouldn't say that if it wasn't true.
We went through huge wars over stuff that wasn't true.
I only speak for myself, not for everybody else.
I just speak for myself, or I try to.
So "we" is a word I don't use very often.
Just from my perspective, I am not trying to send this message
from the body politic black, it is just my perspective,
It is Obama's job in a weird way and someone said earlier...
The book is kind of about what is progress and what it feels
You were talking about American optimism.
It is kind of an optimism that is sort of spreading to world politics.
Everyone is doing things the way Americans do.
You have to be optimistic, I don't know if that is new.
There has been all of these police shootings in the news in the States.
I can't remember a time when there were not police shootings.
You are someone who grew up in Southern California
and I guess a defining moment for you was probably the Rodney King
I don't know if it was a defining moment, these things happen
and it was one of those things where it was...
That was when the match finely ignites, it was that last straw.
It was on tape and there was this thing...
Obama was in the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History,
He is flanked in the background by all this iconic stuff
of the civil rights movement, photos.
There is a black woman Robin Roberts asking him,
she has a weird passion in her voice, wanted him to respond
She asked him about a specific shooting where a guy has his hands
up and it is all on tape and the police officer just shoots
Obama equivocates, that's what he does.
I think it is that equivocation that doesn't read as optimism.
There is a sense of people wanting to hear an opinion, a passion,
something beyond diplomacy in these things.
They want to hear, hey, what do you think?
They want to know what you really think and it is hard to read
and it is one of those things where I remember when I saw it,
I was not angry with him or anything but I was just like,
yeah, that is the true power of the position.
He is the Commander-in-chief, not the police chief.
It's a weird thing about what this means.
On HARDtalk a while ago, we interviewed Professor Cornell West,
one of the great intellectual thinkers of black America today.
Hopefully, he is just a great thinker.
When he thinks about race and Obama, I am not sure he has ever used
the specific word sell-out that you titled your book with,
he basically says Barack Obama has sold out black Americans.
It is weird, it is not an impulse behind that book but I wish...
I don't think there was an author in this book, it was a funny book,
like a phone directory of Uncle Tom's sell-outs
You go through that book and it is every black American
Some people will call Cornell West a sell-out for their own reasons.
It is not like I am a huge fan of Obama, I think he has his faults.
It is a hard thing to say because somebody is of a certain
race or gender or something that, they owe that demographic
It is that notion of, people should know better.
It is the people who should know better, who sometimes are the most
I am not calling Obama ruthless... I think if I
was suffering drones, I would think he was ruthless
but I am not saying I think he is an insensitive person.
You picked me up when I described Cornell West as a leading black
thinker and you said, look, he is a thinker,
I think a lot of your writing is about identity and when it comes
to being a black American, the degree to which your blackness
The identity is shifting, it changes.
I have a slight background and one of the identity things
that was always interesting was, there was this kind of self
actualisation when you reach this nirvana of consciousness and some
of the book is based on a guy, a psychologist called William Cross
I think it was from Negro to black consciousness.
There was this ideal kind of black identity.
It was fascinating and done with such care.
The central character in your book seems to reflect a bit
The central character goes on to do absurd things
like acquiring a slave, he is a black man and he gets his
own slave and launches an initiative to segregate the local school
In many ways, a very likeable character.
In his own relationship with his father, he was used
His father was trying to condition him to become the right
My mother is beautiful, a super genius, I ask her everything
Did she discuss with you how to live as a black person?
Me and my sisters are all left-handed.
No one in my family is left-handed other than us.
We asked our mother about it and she said, I tied your right hand
behind your back and so whatever left-handed is supposed
It was that weird kind of experiment and she also raised us Japanese
You don't want to get into this, believe me!
My mum's a huge Asiaphobe is what I would call it.
I might be misinterpreting this but the message
of the book seems to be, you lacerate many of the tropes
and stereotypes of black culture and black thinking and in a really
In a way that frankly only probably a black person could.
I don't think so, I don't think that is true.
Hopefully it is the only way that I can.
Let's talk about language, you spray cuss words through the book
That is not street talk, I cannot let you get away with that!
I don't know if you read it or not but it is not street talk, for me,
the language is the whole thing for me.
The book is about everything and we are talking about blackness
and I am always thinking about what that is for myself
For me, you know, my blackness is all cultural appropriation,
you know, from where I grew up, from my Latino American friends,
my Filipino American friends, you know.
The degrees to whatever blackness is, it is all me,
I just happen to be black, thank goodness, and I am not
It is not just about the skin or things that are going to be
on the black shelf in the library, it is everything.
For me, it is everything and so the language is how
I try to render that and so for me, the language is what you quote
as street talk is the way I might talk to my friends which is not
necessarily street talk but it is how we talk to each other
because we have known each other our whole lives.
I have an academic background, so it is some of that.
What about, if I may, I am picking a specific
because it is so emotive to so many different audiences
in the United States and around the world,
For me, it is a difficult proposition because we do not use it
But everyone watching this will know what word I am talking about.
The point is, when I said there are certain ways
in which you write in which ways a white person couldn't write,
This is HARDtalk, but you can't talk so hard, I guess!
It is about offence as much as anything else, some
Absolutely, there is no reason that they shouldn't.
The word comes up in that book because Mark Twain uses it 200
So it's not like only some people can use it.
Mark Twain was writing in a different period.
If white people use it today, they get hammered.
But it is redolent of - well, you know - slavery,
disrespect, total discrimination and prejudice.
Just this point, for example, I read in the New York Times,
the praise for the book was consistent and
I read about a reading you did in New York City where the writer
who was present said it was interesting because
the audience was predominantly white and the author said it seemed
to them that some of the audience didn't know whether to laugh or not.
They were a little unsure of this territory.
I don't think that necessarily has to do with race,
I have read for black audiences, some laugh and some don't.
I have won the Man Booker Prize, a huge honour.
I did a thing at the Man Group in the States and a woman
who was interviewing me was, like, "As a white person I wasn't sure how
A colleague told me, well, why don't you start with maybe
the book is funny, and that opened up some stuff."
And I said, "Well, the person who told you that is also white."
So everybody's bringing their own things and in securities
I think I agree with you on some level.
I think we have a hard time talking about grey areas.
You know, we're really good with pontification,
prognostication, but it's that grey stuff that for me is the most
interesting stuff, the stuff where I'm lost and don't necessarily
It's a book, it's not a memoir, it's fiction and some of the stuff
I believe some of the time and some of the stuff I don't believe,
In one way, just in terms of plot, it's a story that doesn't
have the ending you might wish to have.
There's this wonderful premise that the main character in the book
is actually being taken to the Supreme Court
You want to know at the end whether he's going to be found
Is that because you don't believe in resolution in your books?
I'll get my doctorate in psychology at some point,
so there's a huge undertone in the book.
So the book ends with a discussion of what closure is.
I've been talking for a while about the book in person,
"Do you ever see it getting better," I don't know what that is,
I don't know what people want from closure because people want
different things and I don't know if I believe in the construct.
We were talking about President Obama earlier,
and when he won the first go-round, I had a friend of mine who I've
known for a long time and he had an American flag in his car,
and I was, like, "Dude, what's up with the flag?
"I'm not knowing you as a flag waver."
He was, like, "Yeah, I kinda feel like America's
And he said, "To us, to black Americans.
I was, like, "Man, that's a huge debt!"
I'm not trying to put everything on equal footing but there's
Native Americans, there's the environment, there's
But it's interesting when someone feels like that debt has been paid
I want to come back to that big canvas.
It's not just about race, there's so much going on in today's
America and I want to know what you're thinking
about and writing next but before that, there's one other thing
about your writing that fascinates me.
People have called you a satirist, I think you prefer the word
Whatever the right word is, you find ways to make really
Is there anything that for you is off-limits,
in terms of getting entertainment, a laugh, comedic value?
I don't think about it being off-limits.
I think, "What's this narrative I'm trying to tell."
Language is so important, and I think there are things that
can be read on the surface as, like, I've violated some sacred trust,
Everybody has the right to use whatever language they want to use.
If somebody feels like they don't have that, that's on them,
I'm not trying to say it's equal and a level playing field,
So, yeah, why do it if something's off-limits?
For you, the Civil Rights movement isn't off-limits,
some of the great heroes of black freedom movements.
Could you imagine writing a funny novel about,
So, yeah, my first book is about that.
So, yeah, I don't think about that stuff very much.
It's not like I'm that sensitive that other people might think
about that but as much as I can I try to be considerate
about what I'm talking about and how I'm saying it,
I'm sort of mocking them, but these are things I care very
deeply about and are things that I respect.
I think in the same sentence, in the same joke, I think that
And I start by ridiculing myself, whether it's apparent or not,
that's the person I'm picking on because I'm really trying to test
myself and where are my boundaries and stuff like that.
Bringing it back to the United States today,
Obama's leaving office, the next president is going to be
You didn't know that when you wrote the book.
It's a fascinating take on modern America but America's sort of had
another shift and another lurch since you wrote it.
How are you feeling about the United States of today?
Some people are pleased as punch, I'm not one of those people.
I feel in a weird way similar to how I always feel,
which is very cautious and very pessimistic.
your perception of the world isn't all about race,
but nonetheless in the switch from Obama to Trump,
there are some people in the Civil Rights movement
and politics saying this is a disaster for minorities.
This is a guy who ran a whole identity-based campaign.
There's a thing for me, there's kind of a white self-hatred
It always feels like it's 1913 to me.
I know a lot of people are trying to compare it to feeling
like the late 1920s and '30s with all the nationalism,
but I'm going earlier somehow, that weird...
Archduke Ferdinand match hasn't been struck that's going to send
the world into a weird kind of chaos.
This guy was chosen for a reason, people feel a certain way.
You know, there's an image that they want to project,
there's something in how they see themselves and how the country sees
them, they want him to be that figure and that face of something
Yeah, preaching this retroactive, out-and-out antipathy
Scary, does it make you feel alienated from your own country?
I'm not a person who's ever felt like this is my place,
I live there, it's my home, but I'm not a person, like...
I kind of know that it's not this place that was designed for me.
But it's my home so I have to make it work.
Its job supposedly is to make it also work for me,
so these things are happening in concert.
On the show we've had different, sort of, voices from the black
We've had Al Sharpton on not so long ago and representatives
from Black Lives Matter, there are approaches to protest.
What's your take on how best to achieve change
I don't have a take on it, it's something I always am imagining
in these books but for me my take is just to write, that's what I do,
I get nervous when people tell me how to think,
it's one of the things about this election that's made me nervous.
People are so comfortable being told how to think because in a weird way
These things make me nervous, I'm always nervous.
I've learned that I write from a point of being uncomfortable,
from being apprehensive but sometimes when I write
there is a sense that I'm unfettered and much more bold on the page
That's interesting you say that because on the page you're fizzing
with energy and you go to places a lot of people wouldn't go,
I'm a kind of boring, inert person here.
I'm intrigued to know where you're going to take the spirit that's
I have stories that come to me over over time,
I have a couple of ideas, I don't know exactly
Are they going to be about contemporary America?
One of them actually is and the other one might not be.
You opened up with this thing of the more things change the more
One of the nice things is, you know, my first novel's 20 years
old and some guy recently wrote a review of that first novel
I think good art does that hopefully.
A final thing, and I can relate to this, you once said that writing
is hard, in a way you hate writing, but you can't stop doing it.
There's nothing that gives me the kind of satisfaction of writing.
so I don't want to throw it away just yet.
Paul Beatty, thanks so much for being on HARDtalk.
We got some topsy-turvy weather conditions across