The home straight of the Booker Prize inevitably prompts reminiscing about past winners. Old favorites are revisited, subjectively marked undeserving winners are scoffed at anew to stroke one’s own overinflated ego, and the anticipation of celebration or scorn ramps up as the wait for the identity of the fiftieth edition to the imperfect list of acclaimed novels nears an end. In case the golden anniversary of the coveted prize was not a special enough occasion, a literature laureate was a notable absentee during Nobel Week—the biggest literary casualty of the important, necessary, and overdue Me Too movement—ensuring that the Booker’s spotlight will shine brighter globally. Even the predictable column inches filled to decry the prize being open to American writers for the fifth successive year—de rigueur in England when, half a decade on, the derision should be passé—cannot dampen spirits.
Paul Beatty became the first American winner of the Booker Prize, with the absurdist, darkly comical The Sellout. Written before the world turned upside down and inside out, overtly flouting the laws of decency and humanity on a daily basis, the novel has become a seminal, indispensable work since that win in 2016. “‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green, or purple.’ We’ve all said it. Posited as proof of our nonprejudicial ways, but if you painted any one of us purple or green, we’d be mad as hell.” Yes, this is a book unashamedly about race. The protagonist of the first person narrative dives head first into the treacherous terrain of racism in the US (and, by extension, the West), actively renouncing the hypocrisies inherent to the veneer of equality amongst all races.
A black farmer with a penchant for marijuana owns a slave who embodies the white supremacist stereotypes of the lazy, uncivilised black race, reinstitutes segregation in his destitute town that has been left behind by the institutional racism of the American system, and finds himself in front of the Supreme Court for violating the constitution. Beatty embraces the powerful symbolisms of race wars. The book is an eloquent thought exercise, and he expertly stitches a patchwork quilt of his interwoven ideas about racism in contemporary America. He opens the story with its climax, and unpacks the conceptions, perceptions, and convictions that lead to the case of Me v. The United States of America, thus literally putting the self-aware reflective analyses in the dock. The bench hearing the case predates the paleoconservative, misogynist takeover of the Supreme Court under the current Republican administration, and Me’s lawyer is more colorful than anyone who has seen the inside of the hallowed chambers entrusted with defining and defending American values. Beatty, however, remains relevant, his eminently quotable novel about “racism in a post-racial world”, prescient, not just for the US, but the world.
The Sellout is uniquely in danger of being read now through the lens of the rise of the far right in global politics, which in the West is synonymous with white nationalism and supremacy. While it is true that great literature transcends epochs to be of all times, their importance and greatness enhanced by the layers added by new readings and interpretations, the central tenet of the novel gives the lie to exceptionalism by stating that it has always been like this. “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you,” says Me. The abolition of slavery and Jim Crow and the civil rights movement did not end racism. Extrapolated, the corollary that imperialism and oppression did not end when colonialism did—as evident from the continued romanticization of empires and valorisation of the white civilising mission—is an irrefutable truism.
Alarmingly, it is not only the West that is oblivious to this as the white man makes his last entitled stand, but the upper, uppermiddle, and middle classes of the East are similarly guilty. That this obvious fact is glaringly overlooked prompts Beatty to avoid sanitization, in both his unminced words and the actions of his protagonist. To assert this, he writes: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
“Silence can be protest or consent, but most times it’s fear,” writes Beatty. He breaks that silence with this piercing, hilarious, philosophizing novel, challenging his Eastern counterparts to resist by doing the same.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a fiction writer and poet. His debut short story collection, Yours, Etcetera, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2015.