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Trump’s refusal to be held accountable has made people embrace him: Paul Beatty

Man Booker winner Paul Beatty questions how much power the US President's office really has

Man Booker winner Paul Beatty at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Man Booker winner Paul Beatty at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout, which raises some difficult questions about race identity in America, about a country “pretending" to be integrated. The protagonist of the novel reluctantly owns a slave, and starts an experiment in segregating the town he lives in order to put in back on the map.

On the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is incidentally also the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new US president, both guest of honour, the poet Anne Waldman and Beatty made strong comments on stage about the new development in their country. While Waldman called the day the eve of the “terrible inauguration" and spoke about not wanting to live in such a dystopic world, Beatty, when asked whether he would watch the inauguration, replied in the affirmative, saying: “When an atomic mushroom cloud is in the sky, I want a good view."

In an interview with Mint Lounge, Beatty speaks about why he’s more voluble about the impact of Trump’s presidency now than ever before, and why he thinks the presidency, regardless of who’s in the seat, is losing its majesty.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Congratulations on the Man Booker Prize. What do prizes mean to you?

Obviously in terms of recognition, that’s nice. Personally, it’s nice to know that people appreciate what I am doing, what I write. I don’t write to be liked, but it’s nice to be liked.

You’ve often said that once you finished writing this book, you thought it was a good book. Are you always as confident about your writing? Writers are often filled with self-doubt.

Not really. I think I am a decent writer, but this one was different. I ran into a friend and I had just started writing the book. He said to me, y’know times are hard here, the world needs a big book. I don’t know exactly what he means by big, just in my head I went, ya I think I am writing a big book. It’s about a small world and a small mind, but I realised there was a bigger context. For me that was very different.

It’s not a conventional novel. I wanted to ask you about the genesis of it. To me, it seems to be a bunch of conversations you were having with yourself.

Everything I write is the same; I always have these disparate notions and ideas. And for me, the challenge is what’s going to be my narrative through all of this, how can I touch on all of this? I just know they belong in the same book. That neighbourhood, I wanted to do something in that neighbourhood. I love the idea of trying to explore segregation in a contemporary context. It took me a long time to figure out how to do it. But I knew where I wanted to get to more or less in my head. The hard part was starting. I was at a dinner party and there were two lawyers there and they were talking about some case, and I went ‘holy smokes, the Supreme Court, that’s where it’s supposed to start.’ So once I knew where the initial start was, I think I just kind of knew where I was going.

Have you been mulling over this idea of a segregated contemporary world for a while?

Not really, but maybe. One of it is, most places are pretty segregated. They just kind of pretend that it’s a fact of life that these things happen naturally. I personally don’t agree with that. I don’t agree that segregation is like the physics of water, people find their levels naturally, I think people get steered to separateness. One of the things I have heard for years, when I was little, was ‘oh African-Americans were better off under segregation, we were independent, more this and more that.’ I don’t think I believe in it necessarily but at some level I heard it and went ‘what would that look like now.’ We use all these historical references and we pretend that was then and this is now. For me, this stuff always bleeds over in time; it doesn’t go anywhere. For me, it was to use these words and these labels that we think we know what they mean. I just kind of try to sort of make all this contemporary to some level. The time of the book is kind of fuzzy, you don’t know exactly when it is, but that’s the point. It can be 20 years from now, 20 years ago, 20 years sideways, I don’t know what that means.

People still believe they were better off segregated?

I don’t think it’s a big line of thought, but I think some people do. I’ve been reading all this stuff about how there are these eight multi-billionaire, men whose combined wealth is equivalent to half of world’s. It’s insane. Then this article, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, there are places on the planet where people had more nutritional sustenance 500 years ago than they have now. That was really interesting to me. Because we think technology, systems of government, all these things, will create a better life for everyone. But there’s something about that, what progress is, that’s for me really interesting, and how we render it, articulate it, to what extent it is progress about self interest, just the way people think and talk about it that for me is interesting.

Speaking of the genesis of the book, there are several references to Obama’s presidency in the novel, and things somehow seem to take off from this.

He’s supposed to be the symbol of something. Just at a hypothetical level, what are we talking about? One of the things is, I said this thing about people making people feel good about themselves. And there’s a part of him that makes people feel good about themselves. It’s not like they can and time will tell. I’m old, and bitter—I’m not that bitter, but I’m very cynical. But y’know, it’s like what happens to the world, to kids, all these young people today who grow up and oh, America has a black president, they spend a big part of the affirmative years where America has a black president. I remember when he first got elected, I was pitching a TV idea, I was talking to a producer and he was a huge Obama supporter. He’s a white guy, and he says to me, oh Obama, he’s so smart, he’s smarter than I am. Then he said to me, how many white people do you know that would admit Obama is smarter than I am? He thinks he’s giving me some kind of compliment, but what he’s really saying is there’s one black person on earth who’s smarter than me, and that’s this guy.

It’s just what he means to people. How does that shape how they see themselves? It’s interesting to me. I don’t have an answer to it or anything but the general assumption that he’s here and that makes things better. Margarat Thatcher was prime minister—did that make things better for women? Just these weird things about how people think. And I think they make things better for certain types of people. But it’s how wide do you want to cast that net of that progress? I don’t have an answer to that, but obviously it’s something new, something that people thought would never happen, so it means something.

There’s a comedian in the States named Chris Rock who has a good quote, where he goes, Obama’s election wasn’t a symbol of black progress, but a symbol of white progress. That’s an interesting way to look at it. In the States, police violence is in the news now. There’s a new Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC about African-American history . I saw a black reporter interview Obama in this “black" museum and she’s asking him about police shootings. And there’s this one shooting on tape and it’s obviously the cop is in the wrong. Obama starts equivocating. He doesn’t say anything. And she’s asking about this one specific thing and he won’t say. There’s a weird kind of thing about how much power does he have, and is it his job to care about this stuff? It’s an interesting thing, we assume that the position, the power means a lot. One of the things that’s interesting is how the nation probably thinks about the presidency is really changing, the position itself, regardless of who’s in it.

How so?

I don’t know yet. I think a part of it is how powerful is the job? Some of it is personality driven. I don’t want to say the person is a figure head; its more than that. But we have these expectations and how real are they? Of course these are old questions. But there’s something about the job and the majesty of that job that’s changing. There’s less romanticism about the job, less romanticism about the country. A part of the book is about who is accountable for what. More of the thing that America is grappling with is its sense of accountability. It kind of started, for me, with the Iraq war. There hasn’t been any accountability. Or the Wall Street crisis. There hasn’t been any accountability. Trump runs and says all this stuff and nothing makes any sense. But he’s never really held accountable. And somewhere the brashness and the refusal to be accountable has made people embrace him. It’s interesting to me.

You’re questioning how much power the president really has, so all this fear, apprehensions about Trump becoming the president, does it matter then?

I wouldn’t say that. Of course it matters. How it will matter I have no idea. But it’s like the book, the kid’s father, he’s a pyschologist. He tries to make his son accountable at a certain level that the son is not comfortable with. He’s like you’re black, you’re supposed to be XYZ and the son is not comfortable with that. I wish I had these declarative statements to make on these, but I don’t. The weird things about Trump is that whether it is true or not, people are really seeing a clearly drawn line. And for a lot of people, that line was not always so clear. People are uncomfortable, it feels like sometimes, they may have to take sides. Or beyond taking sides, I’m going to cast my ballot to do this. I think sometimes people are feeling, oh it might require some extra effort on my part to make this democracy work, whatever it is supposed to be. People are nervous about that.

I noticed that before Trump was elected president, you withheld comment about him, you didn’t want to, as you say, make declarative statements. Today, seems to be different.

Not really, some of it depends on who asked, depends on what mood I was in. I am not a prognosticator, I am not a pundit. It is easy to go, oh this is a sign of XYZ followed by this. Some of that is maybe stuff I would say with my friends, but I wouldn’t say in public. It’ because I don’t want to be flippant about it necessarily. I can be humorous about it, but I don’t want to be flippant about it.

Why are you a writer?

As you know, I am not a very good talker. I’m not very good in public. I am fortunate enough to find something that really gives me satisfaction like nothing else that I do. That’s why. I like language.

This is something you’ve known pretty early on?

It’s something I never admitted to myself, because no one encouraged me to do so. As I got older, I found myself reading differently, Reading more poetry, thinking about life differently, thinking about literature differently. It started to mean more to me somehow. And I was getting my doctorate in psychology and then I realised it’s what I want to do. I was talking to a friend , and I said to her, I want to start writing. And I just start started doing it. It wasn’t something I did as a child, but I realised it’s something I always liked doing, and was fairly decent at it. I never knew it was an option for a while really.

So, the concept of integration, the reading from your book is everyone is living a falsehood? It is hypocritical, a farce.

Absolutely. Life is like that. I think for most people life is very often hypocritical. It’s oftentimes not what we think it is. Sometimes you just need to see yourself in it from another context. It’s one of the things I learned from psychology, There are so many perceptions happening at once. It’s kind of shifting. One of those things really made me realise what my centredness was about. My centredness is here, but it’s often somebody else sees it in a completely different way that may be accurate but I just don’t know it about myself.

This reads like such a complete book about America. Do you have anything left to write about?

I hope so, Someone said that to me after my first book, and that was four books ago. So hopefully, we’ll see, time will tell.

Are you working on something now.

No, not now.

Does that worry you?

Not at all. I am tired.

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