I was bitterly disappointed to read this article about Paul Beatty’s interview with Michael Cathcart at the Sydney Writers Fest. It leaves me cold and embarrassed – how could the festival organisers get it so wrong? How could a middle class white guy be the right person for this interview (especially with some of the lack lustre questions and his use of the n-word?!? Dear white people, check yourselves! That is never ok!)
I was both grateful and excited the week before to have attended an event in Brisbane where Paul Beatty was interviewed by Wesley Enoch. Enoch is a playwright and artistic director. He has worked as the artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company and is currently the director of the Sydney (Theatre) Festival. He is of Murri descent and is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man.
I can see why Beatty can be thought of as a “difficult” interview subject. Enoch’s questions were wonderfully open, and gave Beatty lots of room to move with his answers. He answered lots of questions with “I don’t know” or “It’s not for me to say” but then was able to discuss his ideas in a way the audience seemed to enjoy (I know I certainly did) and Enoch was able to bounce off his responses to get the best out of the conversation.
Beatty spoke about his decision to write at the age of 25, and how he tried to put it off, but eventually he can’t help himself. He said “I write because I can’t fight.” Enoch mentioned that he felt a responsibility to the Aboriginal community and asked Beatty if he felt similarly. Beatty responded that he was a member of a bunch of communities and quoted Kafka: “What do I have in common with the Jews when I have nothing in common with myself.”
It seems more that Beatty doesn’t want to speak for anyone apart from himself. He said that he wasn’t writing to change the world – that was too much. He doesn’t believe that there is anything untouchable. He is not writing to be liked – he hopes people like his work but that is not what makes him create. Beatty mentioned that he had done slam poetry once, but found it off putting. He also mentioned that he feels people pick up books thinking of them as a “black book” or even “the black book” which is not the way he reads (and, I’m inferring, not the way he writes). Beatty revealed that one of his first pieces of fan mail was from a young Vietnamese man about his book The White Boy Shuffle who saw it as just like his own life.
When asked if it was a conscious decision not to name the main character of the Sellout, Beatty said “A little bit” and reflected that he’s not that good coming up with names. He also mentioned that the timeline of the book was unclear as he was wanting to give a sense of “this is how it always is”.
Enoch asked about the bringing back of slavery and segregation in the book, and the “heresy” that these things could have positive sides. Beatty spoke a little about his own experiences of segregation, and the difference between segregation and self-segregation (ie choosing to live in a community of like people vs not having that choice). Beatty mentioned that he had heard people say that blacks had it better under segregation with their own restaurants and so forth, to which his response was “Really?” Beatty also talked about the difference between being proud and not being ashamed or embarrassed. Not being ashamed or embarrassed allows you a space in which to be, he said, but pride narrows thinking.
To me, Beatty came across as humble, self deprecating and very real. For me authors are like rock stars are to most people, so I have a bad habit of being both star struck and tongue tied at signings, blurting inanities like “I think you’re amazing” and then being too embarrassed by my stupidity to say anything else. At the book signing afterwards, I found Beatty very easy to talk to, and he took time to chat with everyone in the queue.
I’m so glad that the Brisbane Writers Festival engaged Wesley Enoch for this event. Sydney, have a long hard look at yourselves.
Note: Enoch also mentioned the practice of “blackbirding” that had occurred in Australia’s past. Blackbirding was a practice of white people sailing around the local pacific islands, luring the indigenous people on board through trickery and bringing them back to Queensland to work the sugar cane fields. This occurred from the 1860s through to the early 1900s. You can find more information here and here.