I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
People have whispered his name to me in hushed tones, and I was once verbally chastised for not having read everything by him. Nevertheless, or maybe because of such incidents, Beatty’s been on my radar for years. Initially a poet when he released his first collection, Big Bank Take Little Bank (New Café Poets, 1991), he carved out a comfortable niche of fans who followed the mercurial spoken-word scene of the Nuyorican ’90s. Grudging recognition ensued. However, his second poetry collection, Joker, Joker, Deuce (Penguin, 1994), hushed all his naysayers, and helped to earn him the moniker poet from some of the toughest cultural-cum-literary critics in town. But it was his first novel, the highly erudite, superstylized, and humorously bleak work, The White Boy Shuffle (Henry Holt and Co., 1996), that bought to him a number of fans as dedicated to his writing as they are legion.
I’ve been searching for an opportunity to see exactly what makes both Paul Beatty and his work tick for quite a while, and under the auspices of the publication of his recently released second novel, Tuff (Knopf), I finally got the chance. Tuff concerns the trials and troubles of one Winston “Tuffy” Foshay: a 22-year-old time bomb, an East Harlem boy who is quite, as Beatty’s first sentence states, “different.” So different, in fact, that he runs for a New York City Council seat not because he really believes in the power of the American political system, but because he thinks it will spare him the headache of a soulless, dead-end job. Tuff is a careful blend of humor, politics, and pathos. Be advised, however, that what you are about to read is just a sliver of a conversation that swung both high and low, from academe to the alleys that run through it. A seat on the Paul Beatty express: words connecting L.A. to Boston, with layovers in Brooklyn, Berlin, and all points in between.
Rone Shavers Why don’t we start with your background: from L.A., to Boston, to Brooklyn. And now you’re in the East Village. So, what’s up with that?
Paul Beatty When I left L.A. it was time to go, and I went to college in the furthest place from home besides Maine—Boston. Got a grad degree in psychology. Then I went to New York to get my MFA in poetry at Brooklyn College. Then moved to East Harlem, and then down to the East Village.
RS Why psychology?
PB It didn’t require too much effort. And it was pretty interesting. It was cool studying things that you couldn’t really put your finger on but felt were true. If I’d been better in math, I probably would have done astronomy.
RS You spent seven years studying psychology. Why did you throw in the towel?
PB I don’t know exactly what happened. I was supposed to be getting my Ph.D. and it was bad; I really hated Boston. It was a stupid mistake to go to grad school at the same place I went for undergrad. It was just too familiar. And in some ways too easy to escape, because I knew everything. I had started writing, just fiddling around, but I was enjoying it. I was supposed to be teaching, and instead I was working through the writing, getting down all these weird ideas. So I figured, All right, this is what I need to be doing, and just left.
RS Have you lived anywhere else, other than the places I’ve mentioned?
PB I lived in Berlin for a while, for a year or so, in 1996. It was a very long year. I didn’t like it there very much.
RS Of course, now you have to say why.
PB I never got comfortable. Or, it took a long time to get a little comfortable there, at least in the circles I hung out in. Everything seemed forced to me. It was not my spot. I got an offer to do this grant for a year. They gave me some money and a beautiful apartment. You know, live there, eat for a year and see what happens.
RS A black man in Berlin. What was that like?
PB There are a few black men in Berlin, which is part of the problem. People constantly act like you’re the only black person in Berlin. There’s enough black men there that you shouldn’t be stared at.
RS What does being a black artist mean to you?
PB (laughter) It definitely doesn’t mean something that I can sum up. It means that people ask you what it’s like to be a black artist a lot.
RS Well, having read your first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, I had to ask. My view of it is, “Fuck it, I’m black—so?” But do you think people expect you to be the spokesman for your race?
PB Some people don’t expect you to be the spokesman as much as they make you the spokesman. People I knew to be very intelligent would ask things that they’d ponder like a curious seventh grader, “What’s it like to listen to black music with just black people around?” (laughter) They just cracked me up. This kind of stuff from some of the more supposedly forward thinking people.
RS I think it’s just like listening to music with people around. Let’s go back to Berlin—your lost year. Did you find it easier making art there? Were you writing poetry?
PB No, but I started Tuff there. Otherwise I didn’t do anything. I was catatonic for the most part.
RS You started Tuff in ’96? When did you finish?
PB Probably about a year ago.
RS And how does it differ from its initial conception? What were you originally thinking?
PB It’s a little slower than I thought it would be—in terms of pace. I thought it would be a little more violent.
RS Yeah, there’s all that violent foreshadowing; he gets a gun in the first chapter. My first thought was the Hollywood reaction, “Okay, so now that he has this gun he’s bound to…”
PB No. He definitely is not.
RS East Harlem. How long were you there?
PB Four or five years. I found a nice cheap place and moved there. I just walked around the neighborhood. It was kind of like being back home, except I didn’t know anyone. You see all these heavy situations, and you know when to cross the street.
RS Did the dog thing in Tuff really happen?
PB No, I wouldn’t shoot a dog. I might know some people that would. But I used all that stuff. I was teaching up there, in East Harlem, and that was the first time that I met people in the neighborhood. Trying to get these kids to write was impossible, so I told a story of a shooting that I had witnessed. And a couple of kids in the class actually knew all about the incident: why the guy was shot, and who shot him. I saw it, but they knew stuff. So I got them to write around it—”Okay, you be the victim, dead on the street. You be the guy who shot him. You be the cop”—and write these pretend stories. At the time, I would go down to the East Village to go to the Nuyorican Café, but it was a good thing to live in East Harlem and not be tempted to hang out and get caught up in all that shit: writers being full of themselves, complaining all the time.
RS How did you hook up with the Nuyoricans?
PB A woman named Lee Ann Brown told Bob Holman about me. I had no idea it was the Nuyorican Slam. And before you know it, there’s a scene based around the Nuyorican readings. It was different then, because it was mostly poets and wasn’t as performance-oriented as it became. It wasn’t all one-note type stuff. And after I won the slam, Bob published my book. He did it under the auspices of the café, and that’s Big Bank Take Little Bank. At some point the performances at the Nuyorican started outweighing anything else, even the writing. It turned into one of these things where all the kids from NYU come down—
RS To see the minstrel show. That scene in The White Boy Shuffle where they begin conducting “Black Bacchanalian Miseryfests,” basically an open mike night in a local park, was that a reflection on the Nuyorican scene?
PB Yeah, a couple of things in that book are a reflection on the Nuyorican thing, but it’s mostly a reflection on poetry. I hate poets more than I hate poetry, the self-righteousness. There’s definitely a lot of that.
RS I wanted to ask about your progression from poetry to novels. What made you move into fiction—and are you still writing poetry?
PB I’m fiddling with a poem right now. We’ll see what happens. But it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve tried. Poetry got boring. I thought about my first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, for years. I had all these notes on it. And finally I got up the nerve to do it. And I enjoyed the process. The process is similar to the way I write poetry: ideas or language things come up, or somebody will say something and I’ll go, “This fits into a larger context in some way.” I go from point to point. I had this vague idea about two guys. One was going to be a sellout CIA agent and basketball was involved. But then I wrote this essay in which I talked about being young in Santa Monica, and that gave me the idea of how I wanted to start The White Boy Shuffle. It took off from there. And then I ignored the eight years of notes. Not totally, but they’re like building blocks to the final product.
RS And that’s how you work?
PB That’s how that one happened.
RS So, you wrote an essay…
PB It was supposed so be a Generation X type thing. Of course I’m a bit older than Generation X. It started off talking about me and my friends growing up in Los Angeles with no money, and how we dealt with gangsters and having an affluent neighborhood right next to us. It went into music and 40-ouncers, it wandered, as everything I do does. But it all hung together at some point. It came out in an anthology called neXt.
RS And why Brooklyn College?
PB It was the only place I got in. I hadn’t written anything before that so in basically two days I wrote some poems and sent them out. That’s how I ended up in Brooklyn. I didn’t have the best time in my life, but I learned a lot. It was hard. I’d never been to New York before. The first year I lived in a dark Brooklyn basement, with rodents.
RS The typical New York experience. Although, I live in Brooklyn, and in Tuff, you just outright diss it!
PB I hate Brooklyn. That’s something that me and my character have in common. All you hip Brooklyn people…I probably don’t hate it as much as he does, but it’s not my favorite place in the world.
RS Didn’t you study with Allen Ginsberg over at Brooklyn College?
PB Yep. He was my workshop teacher my second year there.
RS And was he very influential in your style, your development?
PB He told good stories because he knew a lot of people. He was able to talk about things that were important to him, central to his world but outside of it. He put together a good reading series at Brooklyn College and invited all sorts of poets, which was cool. I got to hear tons of people talk about poetry in ways that wouldn’t happen in the class.
RS So your first year in New York is awful: you’re living in a basement, there are rats and roaches…
PB And no one understands my poetry. (laughter) It was rough. I hadn’t written anything, but I had this vision which of course I couldn’t verbalize—I was trying all this stuff and the other students were like, “What the fuck are you doing?” Not all of them, but a lot of them.
RS I never actually read your first poetry book, Big Bank Take Little Bank.
PB It’s hard to find. I don’t think it’s even in print anymore. There are some good poems in it, though. I was trying to look for my voice, or whatever it is that you’re supposed to be looking for. And it took a long time.
RS So now, nobody understands your poetry.
PB My first workshop teacher sat me down and said, “Paul, you should really think about doing something else!”
PB But there were some other students who were encouraging. My tutorial person, Lou Asekoff, encouraged me the most. The first poem I wrote that I thought was good was me imagining this frustrated gangster just rattle on. It’s called “Zoobang.” Then I lost it on the train. I lost my knapsack. So I had to rewrite it, which probably helped, even though I’d rewritten it a bunch of times before I’d lost it. And so, finally I had a poem that I really, really liked. Even though I might not like it now, then I liked it. That was the last poem I read in my first-year class. And this one kid went on and on about how he didn’t understand anything in it.
RS Your typical workshop.
PB And so the next year, Allen said, “Bring in your best poem!” So I bring in “Zoobang” and read it again. And there was silence. Then people started dissecting it, and the person who hated the poem most the semester before—I didn’t say anything—the guy was going on and on, “This line is brilliant, blah, blah, blah.” And I was looking at him like, What the fuck happened in three months that made him do a 180? Because one of the things I had been dealing with was, who is your audience? How far do you go to appease your audience? All these things that most people deal with sooner or later. What seemed to have happened was this guy who used to hate my poem had been teaching some inner-city kids over the summer, and so some of the language and sensibilities had become familiar to him. Sometimes if you’re lucky enough, then maybe people come around to what you’re doing. Absurdity can be very authentic, in its own way.
RS Like Tuffy’s love of early Japanese cinema, and not martial arts movies.
PB He likes martial arts films. But he goes to see 400 Blows thinking it’s a martial arts movie, and lo and behold, it’s Truffaut. And he thinks, That’s a cool-ass movie! This kid’s expanding his mind.
RS There are a lot of Japanese references in your books.
PB Mostly because of my mom. She is really smart and very creative. It has something to do with reading a Buddhist book when she was 17. When we were little, she used to make us bow before leaving the house. She thought that was going to instill some discipline.
RS The White Boy Shuffle is about a kid living in Santa Monica who then moves to a less desirable neighborhood, and then goes on to Boston and becomes a famous poet. Autobiographical?
PB In terms of the more obvious things—mom and two sisters, L.A., New York. But most of it isn’t, 95 percent of it is made up. Tuffy is more like me, I think, than Gunnar Kaufman from The White Boy Shuffle.
RS Okay. How is Tuffy—
PB Don’t ask that—how is he like me?
PB Don’t ask that. We’re the same in some ways.
RS What about your dad? Both of your books and some of your poems deal with absentee fathers. Even when they’re there, they’re more or less not there. They’re definitely antagonistic.
PB I’m sure that comes from not knowing my father. It also comes from Peanuts. Charles Schulz dealt with parents by not showing them. They don’t have actual voices in the animated cartoons, but you can feel their presence throughout. I always thought that was real slick.
RS You weren’t trying to make some bigger social statement?
PB Yeah, but not really. There’s the one scene in Tuff where everybody is sitting around the table trying to save him. His mom is on the speakerphone—not there but there.
RS And his dad Clifford it there, more or less; it’s Clifford’s cronies staring Tuffy down, Really, the only person who remains a constant in his life is his self-appointed, East-Harlem-dwelling, Japanese-American “guardian,” Inez Nomura. Who is based upon a real person, the Japanese civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama. She actually held Malcolm X after he was shot at the Audubon Ballroom. Of all people, what made you choose her?
PB I don’t know when I first heard about her, it was a long time ago. I figured that there had to be tons of literature on her, and when I actually looked, there were only some news articles in an off-brand radical paper. For a couple of years I looked all over trying to find stuff on her. She was in some documentary that I could never get my hands on. But after all that, I finally met her.
RS You met her? Oh, wow!
PB I had run into her at a lecture on the internment camps. I love the way she carries herself. She came to my book party for The White Boy Shuffle, which was very cool. And I love her sense of dedication and service. She seems genuine, one of those very few people who are just open.
RS One of the unsung heroes.
PB There are a lot of unsung heroes, and she’s definitely one of them. Being from L.A., the communities—I don’t know if it’s the same now, I haven’t been there in so long—but people act like the communities are so disparate and they’re not. They overlap. It’s like the name Gunnar Kaufman in The White Boy Shuffle. People always ask, Why did you give him a Swedish name? I did it for a reason, but it’s not so much of an anomaly as we make it out to be. And if it is an anomaly, it doesn’t have all the ramifications we expect because it’s the reader’s issue and not the character’s.
RS Back to Yuri Kochiyama—you’re taking a historical person and extrapolating on her life. Does that make you feel weird at all?
PB A little bit. But since I don’t know her very well, I can just make it up. Maybe that’s unethical, but I don’t think so. I can do what I want without feeling guilty. She’s the Inspiration. I know very little about her personal life.
RS So it’s not her in any real way?
PB No, I would never say that. It’s kind of like Bugs Bunny’s relation to Brer Rabbit. Bugs Bunny is obviously based on Brer Rabbit.
RS You know, I’ve never read The Tales of Uncle Remus, or seen Song of the South.
PB They are hilarious, unbelievable. I finally read them a few years ago. Supposedly, a white journalist [Joel Chandler Harris] listened to all these guys telling stories at the railroad yard and transcribed them. Brer Rabbit is Bugs Bunny’s blackface predecessor—always bucking the system and fooling the master and everybody else, including the turtle.
RS Brer Rabbit is a trickster.
PB Yeah, and so is Bugs Bunny.
RS You’re a trickster as well.
PB In some ways. But that’s what we think about every black man who’s ever done anything.
RS No, it’s definitely hide and seek with you. Let’s talk about Tuffy—Winston Foshay—and Smush. One of the big rumors going around is that Tuffy is loosely based on the late rapper, Biggie Smalls.
PB Where did you hear this from?!
RS Word on the street.
PB Get out of here! God, that’s so weird. You’re making this up, right?
RS No way.
PB This is how I imagine it: he’s like me, another friend of mine, and this person that I imagineBiggie Smalls to be. Maybe the real Christopher Wallace, more so than Biggie Smalls. But I love Biggie Smalls’s music. And I love my friend. They’re both intelligent, serious cats. There’s one line in Tuff where he’s talking about the dog, “Nah, that dog is leashed for its own protection.” And I remember reading some Biggie Smalls’s interview in Vibe where he’s making a video with a panther. And everybody’s like, “Oh, Biggie, stay away from the panther!” Add Biggie’s like, “Man, that panther is lucky he’s chained to that post.” I love that attitude, he’s twisting the thinking with that clever bravado.
RS Most of your characters seem to twist the thinking. On a certain level your characters are stereotypical, but then you implode that.
PB It’s a way of looking at things from the inside out that I really appreciate. I know black people fairly well—I hate to make a big generalization like that—so I’ll say I know my friends fairly well, and that’s something that we do all the time. You have to be a critical thinker in order to survive. I appreciate that. It’s an unmeasurable intelligence, but a lot of people have it.
RS That’s why I brought up your character Smush. For a while I was a little uncomfortable with him because be seemed stereotypical. But in other ways he seems almost Shakespearean.
PB I regret this a little bit, but he’s a reaction to people using disabilities and abuses as obstacles—woe is me, and all this other bullshit. And it has a little bit to do with Taffy’s size; he casts a shadow because of his physical size and it’s charismatic effects. In creating Smush, this guy who has every affliction known to man, I created a foil for Tuff. Besides, when I was little, I wore leg braces. Cripple motherfuckers of the world unite!
RS History and the past in your work, is that a subtext? There’s Gunnar Kaufman’s genealogy, Tuffy’s father Clifford is an ex-Black Panther and a poet—what are you trying to explore there?
PB The links, how everything changes yet stays the same, which I believe to a certain extent. How parts of history fade in some ways, but still continue.
RS When you say things fade, do you mean this notion of a personal history versus a greater social history, how people get swallowed up?
PB If you talk about Tuffy and his dad, this ex-Black Panther—part of the problem that Tuff has in the book is that his dad is famous. Everybody else knows his father better than he does. And he has some of his father’s characteristics; he’s not a fighter, but he’s not somebody to be pushed around.
RS He’s a samurai. (laughter)
PB Well, in some ways he is. A passive samurai. I think he sees himself as a samurai. He is moral to people that he cares about. You were asking earlier about how the book changed from its inception. Have you read Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi? The books open similarly. I was going to base Tuff a little bit more on that book than I did. In the end, it’s really not based on the book at all. But they’re the same story. Poor samurai finds the way of the warrior, and learns how to write poetry.
RS I can’t place your influences.
PB They’re all over the place.
RS Well, cartoons are obviously one. Why don’t you rattle them off?
PB Richard Pryor, blues music, jazz music, Voltaire. My friends are a big one. I love the details in Japanese literature, 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.
RS Your endings are all rather ambiguous.
PB Yeah. This one’s happier than it should be.
RS For the first 50 pages I thought, This is going to be a morality tale, where somebody ends up dead in the street. What does gambate mean, by the way?
PB It pretty much means, “hang in there.”
RS Going back, your poetry is very controlled, in terms of form. It seems that your novels are a lot looser.
PB Oh, really? (laughter)
RS You disagree?
PB I haven’t looked at the poems in a long time, but they’ve always felt loose to me. People have gotten used to things that aren’t so linear. For me, the process of writing prose and poetry is similar in the way I keep track of things in my head. To say this is probably bad fiction etiquette, but a lot of great fiction follows poetry. In poetry you can use a word or a phrase, or the way you line up two lines to go from one thought or an episode to another. In fiction, it’s more of how you go off into a tangent and come back. I guess the techniques are different, but the fact that I do them both makes them seem similar. I go off into these long histories; I stop the story and say who this person is. I just read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I was supposed to have read years ago. And I was like, “Oh, Twain does the same thing. I’m not the first to stray off topic.”
RS Who are you drawing from now?
PB The obvious influences are Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut. They’ve influenced the way I read and look at life. So that also influences the way I write.
PB By trying to be vulnerable and not be afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero. In real life, the antihero wins and does the right thing just as much as the hero.
RS Let’s talk politics for a bit. In both novels, your characters are political, almost in spite of themselves and their apathy.
PB Yeah. That’s true. People use apathy as a sense of innocence: It wasn’t me; I didn’t vote; I didn’t do that; I don’t care. But you’re still caught up in it at some level. You can’t disassociate yourself from what’s going on around you. And it’s interesting to see how far people will go. That’s a test. How far you will go when people push you, or you push yourself. Spencer is a good way of addressing that. Here’s a guy who is very apathetic on some level, but he’s earnest in his apathy. And even though he associated himself with Winston for the wrong reasons, he stays in there till the end. And he stays true to his apathy. Unlike Winston’s dad, he doesn’t have this set political agenda. Winston is 22-years-old and feels he needs guidance, something he hasn’t gotten from his father. So he gets Spencer, who is not like him on the surface, but they have something in common.
RS Spencer becomes a big brother to Winston Foshay for all the wrong reasons, and then he just disappears. What happens to him?
PB People come into your life and maybe alter the course of how you live, but then they fade out. It’s like having some medallion of a saint to keep rubbing. People, or events, or whatever—come into my life all the time and change me, but I don’t hold onto them. And that also happens in my writing process: they come in, they’re important for a second, then I dump ’em.
RS They’re disappearing catalysts.
PB A psych professor of mine once said that I was a person who noticed people other people don’t notice. I used to do all this group process stuff and try to make sure that everybody got heard.
RS Your characters are people you normally wouldn’t expect to see in novels. And the language in your books is such a mix of high and low.
PB A lot of things are a mix of high and low, but people just don’t say it. This high and low thing shifts. Maybe Shakespeare was the Spielberg of his day. But this high and low thing is bothering me. I know exactly what you mean by it, but it’s one of the things that I always hate, how people don’t see commonalities between things that they think are different. I think hip-hop and Greek classics are very similar—they’re both grand and religious and heroic. There are so many double entendres in the vernacular—everything means something more than what it is on the surface. The first time I heard a criticism from someone of note, it was this fairly well known poet who said, “Well, Paul, I like his poetry,”—somebody told me this—“but he doesn’t know whether to be street or intellectual.” Something ridiculous like that. In one sense I was flattered, at least she sees that both things are in there. But the idea that you have to be one or the other—what shit.
Rone Shavers is a writer, editor, and MFA candidate in creative writing at the New School. He just completed his first novel, The Black and Tan.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee