Ask Paul Beatty a serious question and his answer is likely to begin with a head shake and a thigh shake. Or a monosyllable that means nothing in any culture. Or, if you’re very lucky, “Yea, that’s a very good question” followed by several moments of silence. Followed by, “Yea, I dunno.”

This, of course, is surprising. Because one expects that a man who won a Booker Prize also possesses a modest ability to articulate opinions (Beatty won the Man Booker for his novel, The Sellout , in 2016.)

All Beatty’s two-dozen interviews at JLF 2017 are a symphony of uhhs and hmms. Look a bit closer and it’s easy to see why. It’s not because he’s distracted. Nor because he is being evasive. Beatty is a difficult interviewee because he remembers what few others do. That words can be potent. That adjectives, casually attributed, can become labels that undermine themselves. That words, heavy with context and use, mean different things to different people. So he speaks warily. Deliberately. Choosing meaningless sighs over spontaneity. Silence over wit.

A lot of what he says is non-committal. “I’m wary of those with absolute conviction in their views”, he muses. This love of ambiguity — of chasing away labels and absolutes — also explains why he has a problem with the word ‘satire’ to describe his book. “I’ve read the same page so many different times to so many different audiences. Sometimes I’m laughing. Sometimes I’m dead-pan serious. It depends on who’s out there, it depends on what mood I’m in. And I’m reading the same exact page.”

He’s currently obsessed with a YouTube video in which Vladimir Nabokov responds to a critic who considers Lolita a work of satire. (He mentions this video on two separate occasions.) “I was like, my god people thought that book was satire! It’s so funny. But lucky for something, that word has been washed away. No one associates that word with the book anymore.”

Dig deeper and it becomes apparent why this aversion for labels exists. Much of Beatty’s work — and therefore thought — is shaped by his (sadly, another label) identity as an African-American. The Sellout is a book about an African-American who is taken to Supreme Court for trying to bring back slavery and segregation in his neighbourhood. Currently, Beatty is working on an anthology of works by white writers who wrote about black lives. He isn’t ready to offer any insights from his anthology yet. He wants to wait till he has processed all that he has read. But he does talk about one reading in particular.

“A long time ago, I read a play. I don’t remember the name of the play, but I think it takes place in an ice-cream parlour or something. There’s a white guy and a black kid in the play. And in that play, the author goes way out of his way to talk about how smart the black kid is. He has an IQ of 178. And that’s the most racist thing I’ve ever read. In many ways, I’m more comfortable with a certain type of portrayal of black people, because at least it feels more genuine.”

I ask him whether The Sellout could have been written by a white man. “That question kind of angers me a little bit. Have you ever asked a white author whether a black man could’ve written it?” I haven’t. He continues. “As far as I’m concerned, only I could’ve written that book. And this is true for all books I’ve read. The things that make a book special, how they choose to tell the story, why they’re telling the story. Only the author could’ve written it. You know?”

What if he hadn’t won the Man Booker? I ask. Would he begin to think the book wasn’t good? “Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I did think it was a good book though.”

It’s when the cameras are turned off and recorders put away that Beatty begins to grin. He asks me about my life. What college was like. Whether I had read any Indian author who had written a black character. He tells me he likes Richard Flanagan a lot.

His wife, Althea, tells me about the 2016 Man Booker award ceremony. The journalists at the ceremony, she says, knew who was receiving the award that night. She (being a student of cinema) spotted a camera surreptitiously recording the two of them. Which is why she had a hunch he’d win. But she didn’t tell him. “I couldn’t get his hopes up, you know.”

Beatty is a generous listener. He chats freely with everyone who approaches him. His wife has twice had to herd away fans just so he will sit down and eat. Later that evening, beer in hand, he relentlessly teases me about some guy who got me a drink, as he holds his stomach and laughs. When it’s time to leave, he hugs everyone. Invites us to his home in California if we’re ever around. Gets into a car with Richard Flanagan — it looks like the beginning of a fruitful and happy friendship — and drives away.

It’s a testament to the brilliance of the man that he leaves us all just a little bit sad.

Sneha Vakhariais a Delhi-based freelance writer