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Novelist Paul Beatty pokes fun at how we talk about race in America

Paul Beatty’s new book “The Sellout” offers a satirical skewering of racial politics in America. Jeffrey Brown speaks with the author about not being afraid to say taboo things and the ways the U.S. is still segregated.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to the latest edition of the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    Paul Beatty's new novel, "The Sellout," takes an unflinching, at times comic look at race in America.

    Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with Beatty at Busboys and Poets, a Washington area bookstore.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, Paul Beatty, welcome.

    PAUL BEATTY, Author, "The Sellout": Thanks for having me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This is a thorough skewering through humor of racial politics today. And no one is spared. What set you off? What are you responding to?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    I'm just kind of responding to myself, I guess. It's not like there is some impetus that's like, oh, I have got to write about that.

    It's just stuff that I have been thinking about for a long time. And I just have been thinking about segregation for some reason, no — I think I had read something about somebody saying, oh, black people were better off under segregation. And I just went, oh, it would be so fun to try to see how segregation would work now, in a weird kind of guise.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So your character, nameless character, young black man, he tries to resegregate his city, in a sense.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In order to save it, right?

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Strangely enough.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    He doesn't know that he's doing that, and that the city is already segregated.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It is de facto — it is segregated.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    In many different ways.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, yes, as is much of our life today still.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Exactly.

    It's interesting in the book how acknowledging that you're being segregated changes your behavior a little bit.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But it allows you to look at every black piety, at every liberal piety. It's easy in a way to kind of skewer out-and-out racism.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you're doing — you are getting everybody.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes.

    I think it's — I'm not very pious about anything, fortunately, but I'm skewering myself first. I'm skewering things that I care about and things that are important to me and then just my own foibles. For me, it's just this stuff that I'm thinking about, like these absurdities in the way we talk about race, class, culture, education, politics.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What absurdities? What do we get wrong?

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    We get it all wrong. There's no right.

    And I think that is part of it, is, like, we think that there is this weird utopian endgame to life, not just racial politics. And for me, it's a weird way to try to live life. And it's not to say that we shouldn't aspire to those things. So a thing I have been hearing about lately is some people always say, oh, it's hard to talk about race. We can't have the discussion.

    I'm, like, well, what does that really mean? I don't understand what that discussion is and where this metaphorical table — you know, we have got to come to the table. I don't know where these tables are.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    So, yes, I get to set my own table a little bit.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At the same time, though, of course, these are very serious issues.

    In your book, the narrator's father is shot by police in an area around Los Angeles, and that's very real stuff.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But your approach is completely through humor.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes, through humor and through my own experience.

    So, like, the shooting is something that's sort of personal to me. It wasn't like, oh, people are getting shot, let me write about that. I'm really starting from myself, and I'm not starting from current events or what it is in the news or some "TIME" magazine sidebar about this stuff.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Are we too squeamish? I was thinking to myself, one of the problems I have even in quoting from the book is your very liberal use of the N-word.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right? We can't sit here and read it. We can't quote from it too much.

    Are we too squeamish? Are we just not talking honestly?

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    I think it's like — like, when I used to read poetry, people would bring me into like some high school to read. And I would say the F-word or something. And everybody acts so surprised, like, oh, I have never heard this word before.

    But they're saying it five minutes later. So I think there's a weird — there's this line between propriety and how we really speak and how we really think. And I'm just trying to have fun with that stuff. And you're talking about the word (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I can't say the N-word for it. I just even let myself say it because it's just so ridiculous.

    There is a part of the book where characters talking about Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." And that word is all throughout there. And this effort to erase that, and so it's weird. I'm not sure why we're trying to erase these things, why we try to use these euphemisms all the time. Like, what purpose is that serving?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is this kind of big satire hard to pull off?

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Yes, I don't try to be satirical. I just try to get what's in my head on the page.

    And that part is hard for me to do. It takes a long, long time to make it poetic, somewhat essayistic. And just I have a little bit of an agenda. That part is hard to pull off. And the book is about a big scope. I think everybody focuses on race, but it's about a ton of things, and it's because I just see these things as all interrelated and all interwoven in a weird way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And where does your sense, where does your love of writing come from or your need to write?

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    I couldn't tell you, because I can't say that I love writing, but I do love the satisfaction that it gives me. It's just — it's really basic.

    I'm glad I found — I found that late in life, and I'm glad I found it at all.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the new novel is "The Sellout."

    Paul Beatty, thanks so much.

  • PAUL BEATTY:

    Thanks for having me, Jeff. Thank you, man.

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