Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Fagan Kuhnmuench, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Paul Beatty about his book The Sellout (Picador), which is the National Book Critics Circle Award fiction winner for the 2015.
Paul Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout, is a painfully hilarious and caustic satire about an urban, black farmer in Los Angeles, named Bonbon. Home schooled under the tutelage of his father, a social scientist whose methods are about as questionable as his ethics, Bonbon is subjected to years of racial hazing and extreme exposure therapy. This racial “education” becomes eerily relevant after his father is brutally slain by police, and Bonbon’s hometown of Dickens, the black enclave of Los Angeles, is effectively gerrymandered, gentrified and redlined out of existence. The vanishing border of Dickens devastates the population in peculiar ways, and despite all his efforts to salvage his neighborhood and identity, Bonbon draws the ire of the nation and becomes the defendant in a Supreme Court case after he unintentionally becomes a slave owner and a segregationist. But is he a traitor to his race, or a savior? Bonbon decides the only way to achieve self-determination is to put Dickens back on the map, literally. I had the great pleasure to speak with Mr. Beatty at a coffee shop on the Lower East Side, days before the National Book Critics Circle’s award ceremony. - Fagan Kuhnmuench
Fagan Kuhnmuench: Your character, Hominy Jenkins, is Dickens’ most famous resident, that is he was until Dickens ceased to exist. Hominy is a former child actor who, unable to cope with his lacking identity and relevance, forces his servitude unto Bonbon. Who or what was your inspiration for creating this character? Was he a composite of people?
Paul Beatty: I am a huge Little Rascals fan. Me and my sister talk about it all the time and we talk about the impact of the black Rascals (Stymie, Buckwheat) and their interesting leadership roles, but at the same time being the butt of the jokes, but then they were so engaging. At some point I came up with the idea, something popped into my head about Buckwheat's understudy, and then this I just ran from there. There was a kid, this rascal, he was in some of the later ones, I think his name was Buckshot or something like that, was he the next in line? I don’t know. I just came up with Hominy. There was also a guy that lived on my block (in LA) who started the Black Stuntmen's Association, but he was an actor and when me and my brother were little we'd run over there because he'd always promise us roles in the movies, so there’s some of that in there. He was part of our lexicon.
FK: With the deterioration of black neighborhoods, what do you find is the most devastating aspect of losing “cultural privacy” to cultural commercialism?
PB: I don’t think it’s necessarily devastating. For me there’s no such thing as cultural ownership, if there ever was. I think some things get mined deeper, and some people benefit from having mined these gems whatever they are; I don’t think there's ownership in the sense that the creativity is finite. People will always be on some new things. There’s still, like with the Chris Rock monologue. The whole "Chris Rock eviscerates Hollywood" blah blah blah, but then in my little circle it was a completely different reading of the situation. He was in an impossible situation and it was not what he signed up for. He stuck out his commitment because that was important to him. What I want is not what he wants to deliver. It’s hard.
FK: You make multiple references to black actors and musicians throughout the novel and their cultural relevance; who would you trust to portray your characters onscreen and what would be an apt theme song for The Sellout?
PB: Chappelle needs to be in there somewhere. America Ferrera could be the principal. She’s a good actor. I don’t know who would be Marpessa. Regina King maybe? I don’t know the kids name, the kid that played Eazy E in the Straight Outta Compton movie. He’s fantastic in that movie. As for a song, maybe The Pharcyde’s “Drop.”
FK: Your iconoclasm not only targets the venerated institutions of racism, but also the self-proclaimed beacons of the black community that carpetbag from one cause to another, grandstanding on the the yoke of black struggle to the masses for their own gain.
PB: (Laughter). I'm not in a position to call somebody an Uncle Tom, because someone could fling that right back at me, I’m not saying that. And I'm not saying those people don't care, I’m just making fun of it. I’m thinking of Foy, for me, one of the things I struggle with is that there are always a certain class of folks that are always the butt of the jokes, and I’m just trying to turn that around. Hypocrisy goes every direction, including at me, I try to start with my own hypocrisy, to the extent that I know what it is. You know, when people throw tear gas, I’m just trying to pick up that canister and throw it back, and that’s all that is.
FK: Why did you focus on Foy Cheshire’s, Cosby-esque, revisionist history of the black experience?
PB: And that’s something I feel strongly, people are so uncomfortable with things that are negative and ridiculous and racist and mean, I’m just not an erasure person. I think you lose a lot and build up a false sense of who you are and where you come from without having to deal with all that stuff. I'm not saying it’s healthy or productive, but it’s easy to dismiss that kind of stuff. Hominy for me, in part he represents black comedy, black thespianism, black thought, intellect that people just brush aside. I remember going to an event once, Amiri Baraka was talking about Stepin Fetchit, he was the iconic black buffoon in the 30s and 40s, the embodiment of all sloth dimwitted, slow moving, black male stereotypes, Baraka talked about this character as a fucking idiot, but he's the smartest guy in the room. Because only an idiot goes to tote the bail for a quarter and runs. He shuffles, takes his time, gives himself the maximum amount of space; that's something I’ve never forgotten. For me it ties in the way that psychology teaches me how to look around and underneath, it’s such a brilliant example at how shortsighted we are at times.
FK: Who, with regard to social critique, are your biggest influences?
PB: A lot of it is my friends, they say smart things. (Laughter) That's a good question. A lot of books really stayed with me, Harold Cruse, even stuff I didn't really agree with, like Angela Davis, I don’t have a person that is a beacon, but I have episodes and names and anecdotes that are very important. They aren’t things I necessarily agree with but I think about them all of the time. Like the Baraka story. Or when I was in school I heard Angela Davis speak, and she made this real vociferous speech about political correctness and how people don’t have the right to use certain words around you. And it was weird because I half disagreed with her, but I always go to the point where I don’t want anyone to tell me what words I can say, but I want to be considerate, then decide if I want to use these words. I try to use everything I say with a purpose, knowing that it can be taken in what I consider the "wrong" way. I understood where she was coming from about being respectful and not debasing people, but then there’s that censorship part that I’m uncomfortable with. I think everyone is always looking for these straight lines, but life doesn’t work like that.
It’s funny because I’m teaching this class out in LA, and I’m trying to get my students to think about place and identity and how it affects your story. Is the place just a backdrop to your fiction? So I started with this Rebecca Solnit, Guillermo Gomez painting map of SF where they are pointing out different places in SF and talking about who they are in each place. I’m here, in this coffee shop, "I’m this person, in this taqueria here, and I’m this person."
I remember doing another interview on the radio, and somebody said that "doing blackface is bad" and I remembered this skit on SNL where Billy Crystal is doing this Negro leaguer in blackface. And I thought it was so funny and so smart, and I’ve only ever talked about it to my friend Darryl. He heard the interview and we talked about why THAT one was ok, and he said "because you could tell there was a genuine concern and care, even if it was racist as hell." I’m not offended by that at all. I’m not saying it isn’t offensive but that’s different than these kids doing "Compton Cookout.” For me there's no solemn thing. There’s no ownership for me. Part of being an artist is to share. Part of sharing is for people to steal. People get inspired. No one owns these ideas, that language.
Paul Beatty is the author of the novels Tuff, Slumberland and The White Boy Shuffle, and the poetry collections Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He was the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. He lives in New York City.
Fagan Kuhnmuench is an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction) candidate and a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He did his undergrad at the University of Washington. He is currently working on a darkly comedic novel that explores gentrification, writer's block, and consumerism through the lens of the burgeoning New York Hardcore punk/ skinhead scene. He is also an illustrator and works on videos for his site gnarlyheadache.com.