Writers’ festivals are strange institutions, often literature-adjacent rather than literary. Discussions tend to revolve around the idea of books rather than the books themselves: what a book means, how it was made, how the author feels about it. When we subject writers to interrogation before an audience, what is it we want from them? Too often, we act as if the book were a question and the author an answer. Such an approach is dangerous. A culture in which intellectual conversation cannot account for the complexity of literature will equally be unable to reckon with the complexity of things like language, identity, race. On Saturday, when a white Australian interviewer asked an African American writer why, given America’s vigorous policing of language and affirmative action policies, racial inequality continues to be rampant –‘I would expect that you’d find a highly racist society to have a highly racist language’ – Australia’s particular failure of cultural imagination was on display.
I watched Michael Cathcart interview Paul Beatty at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the top floor of a wharf in Walsh Bay, several hundred in the audience. Beatty was there for his 2015 novel, The Sellout, a book that deals with race and racism in the US – a satirical, tragic and cutting book, that grabs the reader by the shirt and says ‘Look at this’. Not so much a diagnosis as a description, its power is contingent on a willingness to weave horror and absurdity until the two are indistinguishable. It was also, unexpectedly, the first American novel to win The Man Booker Prize, which might go some way to explaining why Cathcart handled the book’s more confronting themes as if they were the vicissitudes of a relationship in an Ian McEwan novel.
You can listen to the interview yourself (despite my certainty, during the session’s immediate aftermath, that there was no way the recording would ever emerge). But take my word that being in the room was akin to watching Cathcart stroll unwittingly off a cliff, before proceeding to titter cloyingly at his own jokes about gravity, while accelerating towards the rocks beneath.
It appeared that Cathcart – the host of Radio National’s Books & Arts – interpreted The Sellout’s take-no-prisoners style as giving him permission to be politically incorrect. The first ripple of audience discomfort was prompted by his asking Beatty to explain the term ‘n*****-whisperer’ (from the novel) – a term that, in the context of the novel, hardly needs explaining – without censoring himself (he said it twice!). Beatty tellingly responded that this was a question he’d only been asked in Australia. Due to Cathcart’s apparent obliviousness, the burden of defusing tension was, of course, on Beatty, who wearily obliged, providing thoughtful, charismatic, and compelling answers, cracking jokes and, several times, inquiring as to whether Cathcart felt okay.
The hour’s most dread-inducing moment (although that, to be fair, is a big call) occurred when Cathcart asked whether ‘people become black’ or ‘learn what it means to be black’. Beatty, appearing stunned, replied ‘Did you become white? Ask yourself the fucking question, man … All you’ve got to do is substitute it; this is the thing I’m so tired of.’ Pushed to respond as to whether he had in fact become white, Cathcart parried with all the confidence of a man who hasn’t realised his sword is made of cardboard, saying:
No I didn’t learn to be white because I grew up in a totally white environment, I didn’t know anyone who was anything other than white. But I believe that in my life I’ve learnt to be white in different ways and I’ve become less interested in the notion of being white, so I think of myself just as a person [Beatty: ‘hmmm’]. So I think I have learnt not to be white, I think I’ve become a person who just thinks of Australia as one of the great diverse countries in the world and in a country in which there is a debate between the forces of racism on the one hand and the forces of tolerance on the other. And I will always affirm that we have in this country a capacity to heal old-world divisions and old-world hatreds. And that there is goodwill in the majority of Australians as they search for a way of being neither black nor white but of sharing a common humanity. I believe that we are an example to the world of what is possible.
Cathcart added the weak caveat that Australia must ‘name and own’ its history of racism, before being cut off by Gamilaroi man Trent Shepherd (The Guardian spoke with him), who heckled him for speaking superficially of healing on the day after Sorry Day, while Indigenous Australians continue to be so brutally mistreated by the state.
When Cathcart, a leading figure in Australian arts journalism, speaks like this, it is an example of Australian culture’s self-assured insistence that real racism only exists elsewhere. It reinforces the fantasy that our vaunted multiculturalism and the national obsession with the ‘fair go’ make Australian racism a blemish ready to be washed away, rather than a deep, still-present wound on our national character. To claim that Australians are pursuing a world beyond ‘black and white’ is not simply impolite or disrespectful; we are not, as The Australian would have us believe, forbidden from using racial slurs or talking glibly of transcending race in order to protect the sensitive. Rather, speaking like this betrays a profound ignorance of how our history has produced today’s racist society.
In his interview with the Guardian, Cathcart is described as being markedly different from his on-stage persona and is, he points out, a historian who has ‘written books about settlement and its legacy’. But this is only noteworthy in so far as it demonstrates the insidiousness of systemic racism. Cathcart may be well-meaning, but the display was grating and embarrassing, not least for being centre stage at what is supposedly our flagship literary event.
A cultural conversation that treats books as fodder for an effete tête-à-tête, or as objects with which we might better ourselves by wringing from them a teachable moment, is a cultural conversation that cannot productively engage with those outside it, those who have been marginalised. And culture-as-comfort further marginalises those already on the edges.
Cathcart took the occasion of interviewing a black American author to make him explain his race and nation to an overwhelmingly white, privileged, and distanced audience. Several times, he exclaimed that, despite straining to understand The Sellout, he still didn’t know exactly what it was. It didn’t appear to occur to him that that may not have been the purpose of the book; nor did it strike him that genre pigeonholing is the dullest and least productive way to read a book. A work of literature is not a conversation. A book is not reducible to a single takeaway point or taxonomic classification.
The interview’s most revealing moment came near the end, when Cathcart remarked that, ‘it seems this book is not a philosophy that’s been translated into literature, this is the statement.’ Here, he explained a prerequisite for any decent work of art. And this claim, in this context, can be made as if it were revelatory because of Australia’s lack of diversity within mainstream cultural criticism, something recent discussions have highlighted. If an interviewer is unable to engage a writer around questions of, for example, the emotional implications of a novel’s voice, or a work’s resistance to neat genre categorisation, it is unsurprising that the interviewer will find it paradoxical that a nation can present itself one way and behave another. It suggests a blindness to the world as a tangle of tacit aggressions and oppressions, and an incapacity to recognise that art portrays rather than cures these crises. This is both a social and literary failure.
So why was Cathcart thought to be the most qualified person for this job? When Beatty was occasionally left space to be smart and entertaining, it underscored how much more thrilling the interview would have been if conducted by someone else, say someone with first-hand experiences of racism. Many of this year’s headlining writers are people of colour. However, this diversity is of little use if moderators believe that the politics of race could be permanently resolved with the correct bon mot and a book or two.
As I left the session, I managed to get into an argument with a woman defending Cathcart’s performance. She believed he had handled himself superbly in the face of a difficult and aggressive interviewee. She took issue, in particular, with Beatty’s swearing.
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