Feels more at ease in India as no one asks me how it feels to be black: Writer Paul Beatty
Kolkata, Feb 6: Afro-American writer Paul Beatty, whose novel “The Sellout” — a scatter-gun satire on what racism has done to black Americans — saw him win the Man Booker, feels more at ease in India as no one asks him how it feels to be a person of colour.
“One of the things that’s so nice here is we are not starting from square one,” Beatty told IANS in a one-on-one on the sidelines of the just-concluded Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet here.
“I don’t know what that is,” the 54-year-old Los Angeles-born author continued.
“It could be me being brown, could be a bunch of stuff. But there is a nice comfort and I don’t find myself having to explain stuff unnecessarily. And (when) I do have to explain, it comes from a very genuine place (from the heart).
“I feel more comfortable here because no one says to me, ‘Paul what does it feel to be black’,” Beatty said, pausing often to gather his thoughts.
Beatty’s book, his fourth novel, is a hard-hitting comic take about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship and so on.
Asked about his views on humour, Beatty said the emotion is sometimes used as a tool to shield oneself from one’s own ugly reality and, in that way, everything that is funny and light is vulnerable.
“Sometimes you can use humour to shield yourself. So it’s everything else but yourself. So for me, things that are funny or good are very vulnerable.”
“This makes the creator vulnerable and the reader vulnerable at the same time. Then, there is that shared experience. But you’re both (reader and writer) vulnerable at the same time and not hiding necessarily, may be not completely honest I don’t know what that is, but you’re sharing something. I think humour does that,” Beatty said, chewing on his last line for some time.
Stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, known for his uncompromising examination of racism and topical contemporary issues, inspired Beatty a lot.
“I think a guy who is really important to me is a comedian named Richard Pryor. The way he spoke, his rhythm and then what he was talking about… a lot of comedians do, ‘you’re that and you’re this’, he (Pryor) did not do that. He would do, we are this. We are that”.
Beatty said he does not at times understand the concept of “we” in the US — and that resonates in his Booker-winning book where he uses similar tones.
“I am careful about pronouns. ‘We’ is not a word I use very often… It’s just because I am using it in a self-deprecating way. We are like stupid Americans, you know. Because, if I was in the States talking about this stuff, I don’t go ‘we’.
“I would say America is that, da da dada da….de facto I am a part of it, like in grammar, but in conversation I take myself out. Cos then it means something else to me if I say ‘we’ which here means something else to me,” he said.
To buttress his statement, Beatty referred to the issue of violence perpetrated by the police.
“They (Americans) would say, ‘why are we so concerned with the police violence’ and I would say ‘who are we’,” he said steeped in thought.
Veering to politics from literature, Beatty, while not going completely on the front foot in support of former US president Barack Obama, said at least he was rational — and not a war monger.
“Whatever Obama did, he was rational and not this unpredictable war monger (US President Donald Trump). At least there was some comfort in that.”
On the executive orders Trump signed barring the entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations and restricting entry of Syrian refugees into the US, Beatty said it’s unusual for him to see India scared.
“The problem is people get used to it very fast and then it becomes a danger. It’s also unusual for me to see a modernised country like India scared. They are scared of what America is (now).”