17/01/2017 HARDtalk


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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


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