Paul Beatty: Freedom to Create

Alexandra Watson and I talked with Paul Beatty about his new book The Sellout for Apogee Issue 5. Read the full interview on Lithub here .   Below I've excerpted my favorite part..

PB: When I wrote White Boy Shuffle, there was this radio thing with Terry Gross. They never used it because I just got so angry. She kept asking me what’s real, what’s not? I understand the question, but there’s something about the way she phrased it that really shut me off. When she said that to me, I thought, she’s not even trying to make a fucking effort. Afterwards, I realized she kind of does that to everybody at some level. But I used to have this thing where it seemed like for a lot of writers, especially writers of color, everything had to be personal. Everything had to be autobiographical. To me, I’m like, are you kidding me? Is that the only story that you have the authority to tell?

There was one student at Columbia who was Asian, and he used to go off on all the other Asian writers. I just liked to listen to his arguments. There was one girl who didn’t want to write about anything Asian, she didn’t want anything to do with that. It doesn’t matter to me, but I’m always really curious, why?

I think you have to have the freedom to write anything you want. Like anything. No one can tell you what the fuck to write. But I do find it weird when people are like, I don’t want to write about Asian shit because it’s going to put me in a box, or my books aren’t going to sell. That’s a weird reason to do something. I don’t write not to say shit, I write to say shit.

AW: Maybe the questioning from Terry Gross stemmed from the idea that you can only write what you know…

PB: They want it to be autobiographical. Everybody’s trying to push writers somewhere, and so I try and push back. It trips me out how quick some people are to assume a writer has no imagination or narrative jurisdiction that extends beyond their implied experience or orientation. “Black ghetto kids can’t like Ozu. No fucking way.” The word that springs to mind, and it’s totally, flippantly misapplied here, is “lebensraum.” A vile word and inhumane concept, but I mention it because I tend to go to extremes for no good reason. In some fucked up way, it reminds me of the selfish and irrational sense of entitlement we often have about our space, be it ideological space, physical, or imaginary. So often people read in ways that notions and characterizations that impinge on one’s “comfortable living space” are just erased and dismissed. Maybe Manifest Destiny is a better term. I’m not trying to equate segregation to annihilation and genocide, but I’m fascinated with, as a friend recently put it, “the totality of evil.” And we sometimes read and respond to texts like we’re leading a wagon team, claiming our rightful land, our space, our entitlements. We go to illogical extremes to justify, reclaim, hold on to, and expand our “space.” Literary space, racial, whatever, it’s space that often exists only in one’s mind. But we can’t always deal when presented with the thing we can’t imagine… we’re so quick to disregard what it is we aren’t comfortable with… I’m not making any sense, but I try to be cognizant of what it means to stretch my elbows.

AW: I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with the anxiety of speaking from a perspective that you know little about or something. Especially for white writers, I think it’s difficult to take the risk of embodying or speaking for a perspective they don’t live.

PB: Having anxiety is ok, though. I am working on an anthology of non-black people writing about black people. It’s been going on forever, and everybody’s always doing it.

AW: From way back?

PB: All kinds of shit. Old Testament. Middle Ages. The Renaissance. If there is one, what’s the unifying perspective? What has changed about blacks as character, subject matter, phenomena, as other, as same, as symbol? It’s interesting to read and try to figure out why and when certain characters feel real, feel black, and why they don’t. It isn’t a matter of the portrayals being racist or not. Sometimes the most venal and myopic depictions read as black. Not because the burr-headed, pitch-black, white-toothed, surprisingly intelligent, begrudgingly human characters remind me of myself or of black folks in general, but I know what it’s like to be viewed through that lens. To see myself through the prejudicial eyes of another, through the pages of Heart of Darkness, Othello, or Huckleberry Finn, feels very familiar. The folks, the “niggers” they describe, don’t exist, of course. But I know who these writers and thinkers think they’re looking at. Me. So in a strange way sometimes these pictures, sensibilities, and characterizations—while completely fraudulent—feel very fucking real because I’m so used to it.

I’m reading The Help. One thing I can say is that every single contemporary book that I’ve read thus far has the word nigger in it somehow. But that could also result from my taste. Still, it feels a little bit like these books are literary excuses to say that word. It might not be true, but I haven’t figured it out. But when authors take these risks, to write about the other, sometimes it feels formulaic, sometimes it feels forced. The bitter, jealous, and curious undertones of the writing don’t bother me very much, neither do the fanciful narratives. But it’s hard to make your subject matter feel fanciful and at the same time not feel forced, formulaic or pandering… I read Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing, about a black family and they are all opera singers, real musical and all this stuff. For me it’s really interesting how he tries to make the characters seem black beyond stating their races. There’s first-person pointing to color, and oh my mom has an afro and that sort of thing, but there’s also: what do the characters talk about, and when do they talk about it… it’s interesting actually. I’m having fun. It’s exercising one’s freedom I suppose. Though I don’t know too many writers of color who write books that have nothing to do with whatever their ethnic background is. Yeah, I don’t know.