17/01/2017 HARDtalk


17/01/2017

Stephen Sackur talks to newsmakers and personalities from across the globe.


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said it left him feeling he belonged to the universe. It is time now for

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HARDtalk. Welcome to HARDtalk, I am Steven

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Sako. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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An adage that seems tailor-made for race relations in America.

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After eight years of a black President, amid a swirl

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of demographic and social change, black Americans still feel the bite

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My guest today is Paul Beatty, whose prize-winning novel Sellout

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is a devised satire to unpick the black American experience.

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It is funny and provocative but is it also fundamentally bleak?

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It seems to be optimism has always been seen as the default mood

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Reading the book, the Sellout which has caused a storm

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and won the Booker Prize, some would read it and think,

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gosh, this man has a very bleak world view.

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I don't think it is that bleak really, in a weird way.

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I think hopefully within the energy, there is a kind of something that

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The energy contained vicious humour and it is very

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funny but fundamentally, you have a book that is pretty much

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about race relations and the experience of being black

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in America today and it is not that different from the way it has ever

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been, including the era of outright slavery and segregation

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I can't say that, I am 54, I am not 254.

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So I cannot speak for how it is different.

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My life is different within 54 years.

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Barack Obama, when he talks as the head of the nation

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about race issues, he says, change has come and things

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are different and we are making progress.

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Good for him, he is the President and he should say that.

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He wouldn't say that if it wasn't true.

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We went through huge wars over stuff that wasn't true.

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I only speak for myself, not for everybody else.

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I just speak for myself, or I try to.

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So "we" is a word I don't use very often.

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Just from my perspective, I am not trying to send this message

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from the body politic black, it is just my perspective,

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It is Obama's job in a weird way and someone said earlier...

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The book is kind of about what is progress and what it feels

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You were talking about American optimism.

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It is kind of an optimism that is sort of spreading to world politics.

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Everyone is doing things the way Americans do.

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You have to be optimistic, I don't know if that is new.

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There has been all of these police shootings in the news in the States.

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I can't remember a time when there were not police shootings.

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You are someone who grew up in Southern California

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and I guess a defining moment for you was probably the Rodney King

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I don't know if it was a defining moment, these things happen

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and it was one of those things where it was...

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That was when the match finely ignites, it was that last straw.

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It was on tape and there was this thing...

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Obama was in the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History,

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He is flanked in the background by all this iconic stuff

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of the civil rights movement, photos.

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There is a black woman Robin Roberts asking him,

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she has a weird passion in her voice, wanted him to respond

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She asked him about a specific shooting where a guy has his hands

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up and it is all on tape and the police officer just shoots

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Obama equivocates, that's what he does.

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I think it is that equivocation that doesn't read as optimism.

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There is a sense of people wanting to hear an opinion, a passion,

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something beyond diplomacy in these things.

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They want to hear, hey, what do you think?

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They want to know what you really think and it is hard to read

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and it is one of those things where I remember when I saw it,

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I was not angry with him or anything but I was just like,

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yeah, that is the true power of the position.

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He is the Commander-in-chief, not the police chief.

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It's a weird thing about what this means.

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On HARDtalk a while ago, we interviewed Professor Cornell West,

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one of the great intellectual thinkers of black America today.

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Hopefully, he is just a great thinker.

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When he thinks about race and Obama, I am not sure he has ever used

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the specific word sell-out that you titled your book with,

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he basically says Barack Obama has sold out black Americans.

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It is weird, it is not an impulse behind that book but I wish...

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I don't think there was an author in this book, it was a funny book,

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like a phone directory of Uncle Tom's sell-outs

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You go through that book and it is every black American

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Some people will call Cornell West a sell-out for their own reasons.

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It is not like I am a huge fan of Obama, I think he has his faults.

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It is a hard thing to say because somebody is of a certain

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race or gender or something that, they owe that demographic

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It is that notion of, people should know better.

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It is the people who should know better, who sometimes are the most

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I am not calling Obama ruthless... I think if I

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was suffering drones, I would think he was ruthless

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but I am not saying I think he is an insensitive person.

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You picked me up when I described Cornell West as a leading black

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thinker and you said, look, he is a thinker,

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I think a lot of your writing is about identity and when it comes

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to being a black American, the degree to which your blackness

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The identity is shifting, it changes.

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I have a slight background and one of the identity things

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that was always interesting was, there was this kind of self

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actualisation when you reach this nirvana of consciousness and some

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of the book is based on a guy, a psychologist called William Cross

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I think it was from Negro to black consciousness.

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There was this ideal kind of black identity.

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It was fascinating and done with such care.

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The central character in your book seems to reflect a bit

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The central character goes on to do absurd things

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like acquiring a slave, he is a black man and he gets his

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own slave and launches an initiative to segregate the local school

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In many ways, a very likeable character.

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In his own relationship with his father, he was used

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His father was trying to condition him to become the right

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My mother is beautiful, a super genius, I ask her everything

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Did she discuss with you how to live as a black person?

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Me and my sisters are all left-handed.

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No one in my family is left-handed other than us.

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We asked our mother about it and she said, I tied your right hand

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behind your back and so whatever left-handed is supposed

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It was that weird kind of experiment and she also raised us Japanese

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You don't want to get into this, believe me!

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My mum's a huge Asiaphobe is what I would call it.

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I might be misinterpreting this but the message

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of the book seems to be, you lacerate many of the tropes

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and stereotypes of black culture and black thinking and in a really

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In a way that frankly only probably a black person could.

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I don't think so, I don't think that is true.

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Hopefully it is the only way that I can.

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Let's talk about language, you spray cuss words through the book

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That is not street talk, I cannot let you get away with that!

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I don't know if you read it or not but it is not street talk, for me,

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the language is the whole thing for me.

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The book is about everything and we are talking about blackness

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and I am always thinking about what that is for myself

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For me, you know, my blackness is all cultural appropriation,

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you know, from where I grew up, from my Latino American friends,

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my Filipino American friends, you know.

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The degrees to whatever blackness is, it is all me,

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I just happen to be black, thank goodness, and I am not

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It is not just about the skin or things that are going to be

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on the black shelf in the library, it is everything.

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For me, it is everything and so the language is how

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I try to render that and so for me, the language is what you quote

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as street talk is the way I might talk to my friends which is not

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necessarily street talk but it is how we talk to each other

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because we have known each other our whole lives.

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I have an academic background, so it is some of that.

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What about, if I may, I am picking a specific

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because it is so emotive to so many different audiences

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in the United States and around the world,

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For me, it is a difficult proposition because we do not use it

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But everyone watching this will know what word I am talking about.

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The point is, when I said there are certain ways

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in which you write in which ways a white person couldn't write,

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This is HARDtalk, but you can't talk so hard, I guess!

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It is about offence as much as anything else, some

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Absolutely, there is no reason that they shouldn't.

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The word comes up in that book because Mark Twain uses it 200

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So it's not like only some people can use it.

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Mark Twain was writing in a different period.

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If white people use it today, they get hammered.

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But it is redolent of - well, you know - slavery,

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disrespect, total discrimination and prejudice.

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Just this point, for example, I read in the New York Times,

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the praise for the book was consistent and

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I read about a reading you did in New York City where the writer

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who was present said it was interesting because

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the audience was predominantly white and the author said it seemed

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to them that some of the audience didn't know whether to laugh or not.

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They were a little unsure of this territory.

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I don't think that necessarily has to do with race,

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I have read for black audiences, some laugh and some don't.

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I have won the Man Booker Prize, a huge honour.

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I did a thing at the Man Group in the States and a woman

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who was interviewing me was, like, "As a white person I wasn't sure how

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A colleague told me, well, why don't you start with maybe

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the book is funny, and that opened up some stuff."

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And I said, "Well, the person who told you that is also white."

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So everybody's bringing their own things and in securities

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I think I agree with you on some level.

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I think we have a hard time talking about grey areas.

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You know, we're really good with pontification,

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prognostication, but it's that grey stuff that for me is the most

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interesting stuff, the stuff where I'm lost and don't necessarily

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It's a book, it's not a memoir, it's fiction and some of the stuff

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I believe some of the time and some of the stuff I don't believe,

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In one way, just in terms of plot, it's a story that doesn't

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have the ending you might wish to have.

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There's this wonderful premise that the main character in the book

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is actually being taken to the Supreme Court

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You want to know at the end whether he's going to be found

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Is that because you don't believe in resolution in your books?

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I'll get my doctorate in psychology at some point,

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so there's a huge undertone in the book.

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So the book ends with a discussion of what closure is.

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I've been talking for a while about the book in person,

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"Do you ever see it getting better," I don't know what that is,

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I don't know what people want from closure because people want

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different things and I don't know if I believe in the construct.

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We were talking about President Obama earlier,

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and when he won the first go-round, I had a friend of mine who I've

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known for a long time and he had an American flag in his car,

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and I was, like, "Dude, what's up with the flag?

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"I'm not knowing you as a flag waver."

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He was, like, "Yeah, I kinda feel like America's

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And he said, "To us, to black Americans.

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I was, like, "Man, that's a huge debt!"

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I'm not trying to put everything on equal footing but there's

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Native Americans, there's the environment, there's

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But it's interesting when someone feels like that debt has been paid

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I want to come back to that big canvas.

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It's not just about race, there's so much going on in today's

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America and I want to know what you're thinking

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about and writing next but before that, there's one other thing

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about your writing that fascinates me.

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People have called you a satirist, I think you prefer the word

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Whatever the right word is, you find ways to make really

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Is there anything that for you is off-limits,

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in terms of getting entertainment, a laugh, comedic value?

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I don't think about it being off-limits.

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I think, "What's this narrative I'm trying to tell."

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Language is so important, and I think there are things that

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can be read on the surface as, like, I've violated some sacred trust,

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Everybody has the right to use whatever language they want to use.

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If somebody feels like they don't have that, that's on them,

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I'm not trying to say it's equal and a level playing field,

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So, yeah, why do it if something's off-limits?

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For you, the Civil Rights movement isn't off-limits,

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some of the great heroes of black freedom movements.

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Could you imagine writing a funny novel about,

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So, yeah, my first book is about that.

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So, yeah, I don't think about that stuff very much.

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It's not like I'm that sensitive that other people might think

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about that but as much as I can I try to be considerate

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about what I'm talking about and how I'm saying it,

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I'm sort of mocking them, but these are things I care very

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deeply about and are things that I respect.

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I think in the same sentence, in the same joke, I think that

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And I start by ridiculing myself, whether it's apparent or not,

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that's the person I'm picking on because I'm really trying to test

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myself and where are my boundaries and stuff like that.

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Bringing it back to the United States today,

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Obama's leaving office, the next president is going to be

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You didn't know that when you wrote the book.

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It's a fascinating take on modern America but America's sort of had

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another shift and another lurch since you wrote it.

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How are you feeling about the United States of today?

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Some people are pleased as punch, I'm not one of those people.

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I feel in a weird way similar to how I always feel,

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which is very cautious and very pessimistic.

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your perception of the world isn't all about race,

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but nonetheless in the switch from Obama to Trump,

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there are some people in the Civil Rights movement

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and politics saying this is a disaster for minorities.

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This is a guy who ran a whole identity-based campaign.

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There's a thing for me, there's kind of a white self-hatred

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It always feels like it's 1913 to me.

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I know a lot of people are trying to compare it to feeling

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like the late 1920s and '30s with all the nationalism,

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but I'm going earlier somehow, that weird...

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Archduke Ferdinand match hasn't been struck that's going to send

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the world into a weird kind of chaos.

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This guy was chosen for a reason, people feel a certain way.

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You know, there's an image that they want to project,

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there's something in how they see themselves and how the country sees

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them, they want him to be that figure and that face of something

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Yeah, preaching this retroactive, out-and-out antipathy

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Scary, does it make you feel alienated from your own country?

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I'm not a person who's ever felt like this is my place,

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I live there, it's my home, but I'm not a person, like...

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I kind of know that it's not this place that was designed for me.

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But it's my home so I have to make it work.

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Its job supposedly is to make it also work for me,

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so these things are happening in concert.

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On the show we've had different, sort of, voices from the black

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We've had Al Sharpton on not so long ago and representatives

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from Black Lives Matter, there are approaches to protest.

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What's your take on how best to achieve change

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I don't have a take on it, it's something I always am imagining

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in these books but for me my take is just to write, that's what I do,

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I get nervous when people tell me how to think,

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it's one of the things about this election that's made me nervous.

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People are so comfortable being told how to think because in a weird way

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These things make me nervous, I'm always nervous.

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I've learned that I write from a point of being uncomfortable,

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from being apprehensive but sometimes when I write

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there is a sense that I'm unfettered and much more bold on the page

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That's interesting you say that because on the page you're fizzing

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with energy and you go to places a lot of people wouldn't go,

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I'm a kind of boring, inert person here.

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I'm intrigued to know where you're going to take the spirit that's

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I have stories that come to me over over time,

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I have a couple of ideas, I don't know exactly

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Are they going to be about contemporary America?

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One of them actually is and the other one might not be.

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You opened up with this thing of the more things change the more

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One of the nice things is, you know, my first novel's 20 years

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old and some guy recently wrote a review of that first novel

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I think good art does that hopefully.

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A final thing, and I can relate to this, you once said that writing

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is hard, in a way you hate writing, but you can't stop doing it.

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There's nothing that gives me the kind of satisfaction of writing.

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so I don't want to throw it away just yet.

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Paul Beatty, thanks so much for being on HARDtalk.

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We got some topsy-turvy weather conditions across

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