“Humor is vengeance.”

by Roanna Gonsalves

The first time I heard the line “Humor is vengeance”, something surged in my brain and my body. I understood its outside as well as its inside, the pitter pat patter of its near perfect dactylic feet, the subatomic particles in its electric charge. Hunting it down, I found it in the second part of Paul Beatty’s Introduction to Hokum: An anthology of African American humour (Bloomsbury, 2006).

I knew what Beatty meant by “Humor is vengeance.” I’ve channeled his words to explain my own work in The Permanent Resident, a collection of short fiction published in November 2016 by UWAP. The book opens like this:

I broke up with my boyfriend because he was repeatedly unfaithful to me. So I left Bombay and got myself a job as a copywriter in Dubai. I was restless there, surrounded by real gold, fake snow, and men who looked but would not leap. (The Permanent Resident) [1]

My work is sometimes laced with irony and satire rather than slapstick comedy or laugh-out-loud humour. This may sound like I’m trying to distinguish my work, which has table manners, from the ‘crassness’ of comedy which equals literary death. On the contrary, this is an admission of weakness rather than a show of strength. Comedy is extremely hard to do well, and even though I would have loved to have been able to pull off the literary equivalent of a great pie fight, all I could muster in this book was an attempt at swapping forks for knives. But I understood the liberatory potential of laughter implicit in Beatty’s words.

When you laugh at something you no longer have a fear of it. It’s a way of getting back at something that oppresses you. It’s humour directed at an outside world that may seem like it’s “all teeth and acid bile” as the main character in my story “Cutting Corners” describes it. It’s a way of being Shylock but knowing how to play the game of the dispensers of mercy. It’s a way of embodying the Old Testament but without baying for eyes and teeth.

Beatty’s words may also be a way of acknowledging that minority / oppressed communities are effervescent with laughter too, whether or not it is directed at an outsider—laughter full of inside jokes that can be like glue in a scattered diaspora or decimated community. This is not a new idea. Beatty says, “the defining characteristic of the African-American writer is sobriety—moral, corporeal, and prosaic…” Indigenous and dalit writers both have been resisting the pity narrative for some time.

Beatty, who won the Booker in 2016 for his novel The Sellout, places the words “Humor is vengeance” at the end of a layered introduction to Hokum, an introduction that takes no prisoners. I was not surprised with Bill Cosby being a suitable target. But even Maya Angelou is not spared. He says,

For a black child like myself who was impoverished every other week while waiting for his mother’s bimonthly paydays, giving me a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the educational equivalent of giving the prairie Indians blankets laced with smallpox or putting saltpeter in a sailor’s soup. I already knew why the caged bird sings, but after three pages of that book I now know why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage, so he can wallow in his own misery… (Beatty in Hokum)

Humour, then, is sweet vengeance upon the expectation of a cloying earnestness in literature. It is a political act. It is a resistance to being locked-in by the navel-gazing, identity-crisis-ridden narrative that oscillates between cultural cringe and cultural explication that is often expected of literature about the experience of being a minority / an oppressed group.

Ultimately, I think humour is vengeance at its best when focussed on the self. It is a release valve, a pressure cooker whistle to let off steam and stop the pot, or the earth, from exploding. As Beatty says, “Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting.” I think the out-breath of Beatty’s words mimics the moment of purgation from within the self.

Photo by Drew Collins
Photo by Drew Collins

In “Dignity of Labour”, another of the stories in The Permanent Resident, a petrol station attendant experiences a liberatory moment through prolonged laughter shared with a taxi driver who has come in to the shop to pay for her fuel at shift’s end.

And as Donna signs the credit card receipt that Nina pushes in front of her, and Nina is wiping tears from her eyes, the tail end of the previous laugh brings on another unstoppable bout. Nina remembers the last time she laughed like this. It was at her grandmother’s funeral, when someone irrelevant cracked a stupid joke. … Her feet are sore now but the laughter has cracked open her body and the light is coming in.

This is laughter shared by two women, one white, one not. At this point, they are not laughing at anyone nor are they laughing at themselves. Perhaps theirs is a post-truth laughter. It is dredged from the soul. It is rock-bottom laughter, nothing-to-lose laughter, from the other side of fear. It is, I think, laughter that enables freedom.

[1] Yes I am an effnik writing about effnic stuff, but no, this book is not autobiographical.


Roanna Gonsalves is an Indian Australian writer and academic. Her series of radio documentaries entitled On the tip of a billion tongues, was commissioned and first broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN in November and December 2015. It is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through its multilingual writers. She received the Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award 2013, and is co-founder co-editor of Southern Crossings. She is the author of The Permanent Resident a collection of short fiction published by UWAP in November 2016. See roannagonsalves.com.au