The men and women in this series will change how you think about business, music, porn, comedy, gaming and more. They’ve risked it all—even their lives—to do what they love, showing us what can be accomplished if we break the rules. Meet the Renegades of 2016.
Paul Beatty may be America’s most hilarious—and subversive—writer. In September, the Los Angeles native’s daring fourth novel, The Sellout, was short-listed for the prestigious 2016 Man Booker Prize. The gleefully unhinged satire follows the misadventures of one Bonbon Me, an urban weed and watermelon farmer whose father, a prominent psychologist and “Nigger Whisperer,” is gunned down by the LAPD. With the settlement money, Bonbon reinstitutes segregation, acquires an elderly slave and lands himself, stoned, before a baffled Supreme Court.
“It all starts with the language,” says the 54-year-old author (who was also the first-ever Grand Poetry Slam champion, in 1990). “That’s where all the latticework is for me.” Indeed, the thrill of The Sellout lies not only in Beatty’s delirious conceit but also in his virtuoso riffs that take bull’s-eye aim at race, class, pop culture and propriety in our supposedly postracial America.
“I get nervous when things don’t make people nervous,” Beatty says. “A lot of writers of color feel there are certain directions they have to take: what your point of view should be, who can do what, how positive it has to be. Somebody’s always going to tell you what it means to be a black writer, what responsibilities you have. Just trying to create some space is important to me.”
And that’s exactly what Beatty does, obliterating the boundaries of what is funny, what is profane and what is just so sad and unfixable that we can only laugh to keep from crying. There’s a bit of truth in every good joke, and perhaps in that truth we are able, after the laughs subside, to better see the world and ourselves in it.
How do you deal with the challenges of being a writer?
I don’t really believe there’s a point to anything, a purpose—not to the point that things don’t make a difference or don’t have meaning, but I just don’t care whether it does. So I think that makes it a little easier, takes a bit of the pressure off. Writing’s hard; it’s not very fun. Other writers will say the fun is in having done it, but even then there’s how do you deal with the recognition, whether it’s there or not, and how do you deal with failure. It’s all a fucking challenge.
One of the great pleasures of reading The Sellout is its language. It actually seems like you’re having a lot of fun, more fun that the average writer.
You can just do everything with language, you know what I mean? That’s what keeps me charged. How does this read; really just trying to capture the sentiment that I had in my head. I almost don’t want to talk about it. That’s the fun part, that’s the challenging part. It all goes together.
There’s still this notion that there’s only room for one fucker. It’s just, can we have a range? That’s all we’re asking for.
You use so many incredible, gleefully twisted phrases and neologisms—“Afro-agrarian,” “Allah ak-open bar,” “languid bojangle,” to name just a few—that are as thrilling as they are unsettling, and that often make you laugh and flinch at the same time. What audience did you have in mind when you were writing?
It’s about the dissonance. The word nigger is in this. The book is about what you can do and what you can say. [When I write] I’m doing some calculus, but I do it with every word. It’s not about what’s on the page, it’s about me and you having the conversation. The exegesis of the whole thing. I think there’s so much fun in not understanding. I heard Marlon James say it’s not his job to solve the mystery, it’s his job to render the mystery. And I love that.
I think about writing to this best friend who doesn’t really exist, or to this group of best friends. I just have to trust that somebody will get it. I don’t want to make it easy. It’s not like I’m trying to make it hard, but for me it’s not easy. For me it’s an age-old issue, between commercial and acceptability. I’m just trying to do what I want to do and get what I want to say out there.
What is it about the black-owned Chinese restaurant that makes it the “holy grail of racial equality”?
How come you can’t have LeRoy’s Twin Dragon? It speaks to possibilities.
At what point will you feel like you’ve succeeded in effecting change?
It’s something that I write about a little bit. When I think about change, I’m one of those people who are like, “Oh, nothing ever changes.” How people talk about change and progress I find really disturbing. It’s like, “Obama’s president and therefore the world is better.” Yeah, I can’t really answer that question. You get little things, like I got a letter from a kid—I’m not saying I changed him, but he was appreciative. I often think—I don’t know if it’s true—my books are hard to read on a couple of levels. I’m appreciative. I try to be unique and new. That’s really important to me.
I was at this book event. A guy came up to me—a pretty successful writer—and he was like, “Yeah, reading you when I was younger was so helpful to me because I realized I could just be myself.”
When he said that to me, that’s nice. It’s just that notion of, “How do I break out of this box?” There’s still this notion that there’s only room for one fucker. I think people really feel that, whether it’s true or not. It’s just, can we have a range? That’s all we’re asking for. The change is, the more people who are doing shit, even if I think 90 percent of it is bad, that’s still good. Even in that simple way, if there’s an alternative voice, or an alternative tone, I think that’s good. We need these things.
Meet the rest of the Renegades here.