Paul Beatty: from slam poet to Man Booker Prize

Allen Ginsberg introduced him to black poets; Richard Pryor taught him to parody things that matter to him; and he resists labelling of himself and his work

Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty: In The Sellout, the protagonist says that whenever he has to fill out the census he ticks the “some other race” box and writes in “Californian”, and this is pure Beatty

Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty: In The Sellout, the protagonist says that whenever he has to fill out the census he ticks the “some other race” box and writes in “Californian”, and this is pure Beatty

 

Paul Beatty was emotional when he accepted this year’s Man Booker Prize, promising not to get “all dramatic” and talk about how writing saved his life, “but”, he added, “writing has given me a life”. It’s not a life that’s familiar to many readers on this side of the Atlantic, with Beatty’s previous works well-reviewed but failing to make a major impact. Indeed, The Sellout – the book for which Beatty won the prize – was turned down by 18 publishers before being taken on by a small husband-and-wife press.

Beatty, 54, grew up in Los Angeles with his mother and two sisters. The figure of the absentee father – Beatty never knew his – is a recurring theme in his work. He moved to the opposite side of the country for his university education, spending seven years in Boston studying psychology, first as an undergrad, and then for a PhD which he eventually abandoned. By that time, he had begun writing, started to lose interest in teaching and had come to hate Boston.

Beatty had wanted to be a psychologist because, he says, “the thing we think is happening is very rarely the case”. Thought he set it to one side, the lessons learned as a psychology student continue to mark his teaching – he now gives tutorials in Columbia University – and his work (at the end of The Sellout he pays homage to academic William E Cross Jnr’s 1971 paper The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience).

Studying under Ginsberg

Beatty moved to New York and enrolled in Brooklyn College, for no other reason than “it was the only place I got in”. He scrambled a few poems together and was accepted. He had a horrendous first year. His basement apartment was crawling with rats and cockroaches, an experience that left him as out of love with Brooklyn as he had been with Boston, and one of his lecturers took him aside and told him that he should “probably think about quitting and doing something else”.

These experiences were counterbalanced by his second year, under the guidance of poet Lou Asekoff, who introduced him to the work of Ray Bremser. Asekoff gave Beatty the encouragement he needed and Bremser showed him how to start thinking about form.

In his third year, he studied under Allen Ginsberg, who was good at telling anecdotes but slower to realise that his students weren’t all essentially the same, and didn’t share a single, universal experience. What Ginsberg gave Beatty was access to black poets. There were no black lecturers in the faculty, and Ginsberg brought in the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and David Henderson.

Beatty as Slam Poet

Beatty was writing poetry exclusively at this time, delving into the world of spoken word performance and slam poetry. In 1990 he won a Grand Slam spoken-word contest in New York, and from there began to build up a reputation.

He published two collections of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991) and Joker, Joker Deuce (1994). This was the era of the Nuyorican Poets Café, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – a place which gained a reputation for zeitgeist poetry and multicultural audiences.

As Beatty saw it, the Café started out as a place people went to read poems but it became “a thing”, with even MTV turning cameras in its direction (there’s a YouTube clip of a young Beatty reading his poem, Old Yellar dreams of days when they wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie, that gives you a feel for the slam poetry and the café atmosphere of the time. When this all turned into “a thing”, it started to embarrass Beatty. The term “spoken word poetry” made him cringe, and he couldn’t stand people bandying terms like “integrity”.

It was around this time that “poetry got boring” and he began writing his first novel The White Boy Shuffle, which would be published in 1996. The White Boy Shuffle is a coming-of-age novel, with a comic conceit – the black protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman, is “street stupid”, and has to wise up when he moves with is mother from cushy Santa Monica to “the hood”. Kaufman will go on to be the fabulously successful author of a book of poetry called Watermelanin, and the story is framed as Kaufman’s memoir. It was well-received, but frustratingly for Beatty, just as he had been branded a hip-hop poet, now he was branded a hip-hop novelist.

And so he left for New York for Berlin.

Alone in Berlin

There, he began his second novel, Tuff, which he would work on for three years and publish in 2000. Beatty only spent a year in Berlin, “but it was a long year,” he said later. “I never got comfortable. Everything seemed forced to me.” Berliners stared at him, surprised to see a black man in their city. Beatty says that in during that time he was “catatonic for the most part”.

Tuff is the story of Winston “Tuffy” Foshay, 22 year old from East Harlem who loves Japanese cinema, escapes being killed by Brooklyn drug-dealers, and pledges to turn his life around by running for office. When he puts up his election posters, people think he’s a hip-hop artist with a group called “City Council”, and the press brands him a hip-hop populist…

Each of Beatty’s novels share a structural similarity: there is a well-thought out plot, but it often takes a back seat to digressions, and ultimately its resolution is unimportant. When asked about plot, Beatty says: “I think plot is very subjective. If a book’s about something you care about it, it doesn’t matter what tangents it goes on.”

Influences

Throughout his career Beatty has cited Richard Pryor as an influence, but he has also cited the social historian Studs Terkel, from whom he learned the power that tonal quality and the arrangement of a story can bring to a novel. From Richard Pryor, Beatty learned not to be afraid to parody things that were important to him, and to others. In The Sellout, for example, he criticizes - or teases - “shit that I really like, that I really respect on some level”, like the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King’s humourlessness. Beatty’s influences range from Italo Calvino’s to director Kenji Mizoguchi, with jazz, Voltaire, Chester Himes and Japanese literature all in the mix. “I love the details in Japanese literature,” he says, “and their movies which are much braver than ours. There are no climaxes. Americans are so tied to happy endings. We actually believe in the happy ending.”

For his entire career, Beatty has tried not to be branded one thing or the other. The hip-hop references have receded, but other questions have taken their place. To his chagrin, Beatty is always, first and foremost, a black man who writes. The New York Times reviewed The White Boy Shuffle under the headline “Black Poet’s Novel Aims the Joke Both Ways”, and its review of The Sellout put him in the company of Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock - not Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller.

Labelling

In The Sellout, the protagonist says that whenever he has to fill out the census he ticks the “some other race” box and writes in “Californian”, and this is pure Beatty. In Between The World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about how he was stung by the question “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” until he realised that the answer could be, simply: Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. The answer, for both Coates and Beatty, is not to divide writers and artists into census categories; the answer is the cosmopolitan wish that those categories need not apply in the day-to-day world.

Beatty has never sought to represent the whole experience of America, or of black America. This week, at one of the Booker press conferences, he said that he believes in simply having “a bigger shelf”, one happy to hold hundreds of individual stories, and not pining at the absence of all-encompassing Great American Novel.

Beatty doesn’t even want to be labelled a satirist. The Sellout has been billed as a satire, but that’s just not a label he wants to apply. Embracing any label brings with it the fear that he will limit what he is able to write. So Beatty is simply “a writer”, and The Sellout is simply “a novel” – and if you have to call it a comedy, at least – do him a favour – call it a tragicomedy.

The Sellout is published by Oneworld, £12.99

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