When Time magazine put Colson Whitehead on its cover a year ago, it referred to him simply as “America’s Storyteller”. It was an acknowledgment, not just of the extraordinary success of his 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, which won both the National book award and the Pulitzer prize for literature, but of his wider cultural impact.
Like Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, The Underground Railroad is a work of historical fiction that resonates powerfully across the years, shedding light on the roots of America’s contemporary discontents. Last year Whitehead followed it up with The Nickel Boys, which is just about to be published in paperback in the UK. Leaner and sparer than its predecessor and set in more recent times, it reinforced Whitehead’s literary status and, last month, won him his second Pulitzer.
It is an honour he shares with a select few others, including William Faulkner and John Updike. The description “America’s Storyteller” seems suddenly even more apposite. How, I ask, is he dealing with all this acclaim and the weight of expectation it carries with it? “It’s all very abstract,” he replies, “I am still capable of great bouts of melancholy and then, when I think about the second Pulitzer, it’s both crazy and it makes me very happy. I guess I haven’t really accepted it into my worldview as yet so it still seems very separate and yet very lovely at the same time.”
I am speaking with Whitehead over the phone. He is ensconced with his wife, Julie Barer, a literary agent, and children – a daughter, aged 15, and a son, aged six – in their second home in East Hampton, Long Island.
“I’ve been in lockdown for 12 weeks.” he says. “The early weeks were the worst in terms of the psychology of it. Then you get used to it to a degree and make your adjustments. But here we are, 12 weeks in, and we’re still figuring out the new reality. It’s still pretty uncertain.”
As we speak, the uncertainty of lockdown has been fractured by the protests that have erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It is, I say, an interesting time to be speaking to a novelist whose most recent narratives explore America’s racist history and its long shadow.
“Well, if you choose to write about institutionalised racism and our capacity for evil,” he says, “You could write about 1850 or 1963 or 2020 and it all applies unfortunately. It’s ongoing and it will be ongoing for many years.” He does not sound that hopeful about change. “Well, as I’ve been writing about it over the last couple of years, I’ve also been living with these periodic conversations about police brutality. They get very loud, and then grow quiet again, and then become louder when something else happens. In a way, that’s been my whole life, but especially over the last couple of years. So, just on a personal level, to have it become this immediate and to see it now affecting my kids’ lives in a different way has been exhausting.”
Rereading both his recent novels, it was difficult not to see the police killings as part of a continuum of embedded, and often violently expressed, racial injustice that has defined America more than any other single issue. In her introduction to the British paperback edition of The Nickel Boys, which she wrote before the violent convulsions of the past few months, Sara Collins notes: “This isn’t just a history lesson, not while we still have to assert that black lives matter, and not while [the characters of] Elwood and Turner are more likely to remind us of Trayvon Martin than Huckleberry Finn.”
Trayvon Martin was just 17 years old when, in 2011, while visiting his sister’s house, he was fatally shot by a white neighbourhood watch member, who found his very presence suspicious to the point of threatening. His killer was later acquitted of second-degree murder on grounds of self-defence. Since then, the number of black citizens killed by white law enforcers has multiplied against the backdrop of an increasingly riven American political culture in which race remains the defining faultline. Does Whitehead think the intensity of the protests may be the first sign, not just that people have had enough, but that real change will follow?
“The last five days [we spoke after the first wave of protests] have been pretty extraordinary in terms of how wide and how big the protests have been,” he says. “And, as somebody said online, ‘when was the last time 50 American states agreed on something?’ So, it’s definitely a precedent. And generally it’s good for young people to throw out what their parents’ generation are saying and doing. We’ve done a pretty good job of screwing up, so the less you listen to us the better. But, let’s see how long this can be sustained and what actually comes out of it. Hopefully it will translate to a better outcome in November’s election than the one we had four years ago.”
It sounds, I say, like he is willing himself to to be optimistic. He laughs ruefully. “In a way, I have to be optimistic. If I thought Donald Trump were to be re-elected again in November, I’d probably go insane. So, I have to think it won’t happen for my own sanity’s sake and for my children’s futures. One wants to be cautiously optimistic that these protests will make something happen, but also they might not.”
He pauses for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “Any kind of norm of decency has been ripped to shreds under Trump,” he continues. “And I think a lot of us are trying to find our way back to sanity. Hopefully we will collectively do that, but the Republicans still have six months left to wreak their devastation – or maybe even four years and six months. They are not out of office yet. Also, Trump is crazy, who knows what he will try to do? He can even refuse to go.”
Like its predecessor, The Nickel Boys is a fiction based on fact, in this instance survivors’ accounts of life in the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which was founded in 1900 and closed down in 2011 amid accusations of long-term abuse, including torture and murder. In 2012, a forensic investigation of the site uncovered 55 unmarked graves. “It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”
Tellingly, the narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the southern civil rights protests of the early-to-mid-1960s, which seem almost impossibly distant to the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, whose lives have been denuded of freedom and hope. Like Cora, the escaped slave in The Underground Railroad who is pursued by the relentless slave catcher, Ridgeway, their lives are defined by a system of state-sanctioned, structural violence that is all-pervasive, normalised and depends to a great degree on the collusive silence of a privileged white majority.
“In the Dozier School, you had the actual abusers,” Whitehead continues, “but you also have a system wherein all those in positions of power looked the other way. The Florida government didn’t follow through with an investigation, they didn’t fire the corrupt superintendent or the corrupt director. Instead, they let them stay in their jobs even though people were getting killed or disappeared.”
The parallels with contemporary American governance are telling; if anything, we seem to be travelling backwards under Trump. “Well, you have the police killings and you have a completely absurd leader who is totally shameless, and you put those two things together, and you get the totally ridiculous terrible situation we are in. We have a botched pandemic, we have a militaristic response to peaceful protests, we have unprecedented corruption going on behind the scenes It’s all happening at once in this horrible convergence and we are all witnesses to it.”
Colson Whitehead grew up Arch Colson Chipp Whitehead, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the third of four children: two older sisters and a slightly younger brother. His parents were both successful professionals who ran an executive recruiting company and sent their children to private schools.
In his 2009 novel, Sag Harbor, which he later described as more modest and personal than his other books, Whitehead writes: “The elementary school we went to required us to wear jackets and ties, so we did… We had one blue blazer and one beige corduroy jacket apiece, rotated over grey slacks and khaki pants.”
He recalls, too, how he and his brother were once stopped on the sidewalk by a curious old white man, who inquired “if we were the sons of a diplomat. Little princes of an African country. The UN being half a mile away. Because – why else would black people dress like that?”
From an early age, he was a voracious reader, mostly of comics, science fiction and suspense: Rod Serling, Ursula K Le Guin, Stan Lee, Stephen King. In a piece he wrote for the New Yorker in 2012, Whitehead described his younger self as “a bit of a shut-in”, admitting that while other kids played in Central Park, he “preferred to lie on the living-room carpet, watching horror movies”.
Speaking to Time magazine six years later, he recalled his solitariness in much starker perspective, explaining that he and his brother, who died in 2018, would retreat into comics, video games and fantasy fiction to escape his father’s alcohol-fuelled mood swings. “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper,” he elaborated. “His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” Whitehead also described his father as being “apocalyptic in his racial view of America for good reason”.
While not quite that extreme, Whitehead, one senses, has inherited his father’s pessimism. “I want to believe things will change, but then terrible things happen that convince me otherwise. He tells me at one point: “But, you do have to remain hopeful and believe that things will get better or what’s the point of going on?”
Despite his relatively cosseted background – private school, summers in Sag Harbour in the Hamptons – Whitehead too has inevitably experienced America’s casually racist policing at first hand, but passes it off as hardly worth talking about. “It’s always there,” he says, wearily. “In terms of being picked up by police, everyone who is black has had that experience to the point where it’s not even that interesting. That’s been my acquaintance with white law enforcement since I was a teenager, and it was my parents’ experience and my grandparents’ experience.”
Does that possibility make him question the efficacy of fiction to actually change anything? “Politicians don’t read,” he replies bluntly, though famously Obama, admittedly the exception, enthusiastically endorsed The Underground Railroad. “In terms of legislation, the people who might be moved by a work of art and then be further moved to enact some law, are not usually the people who read or listen to music. On an individual level, art elevates and nourishes and revitalises, but in terms of legislation it is a long time since the novel had that centrality in the culture in America.”
As a teenager, Whitehead listened to post-punk and new-wave music. I ask him how he first got into it. “I remember my sister would come home and start blasting Gang of Four and Liquid Liquid. That whole ’78 to ’84 post-punk wave. So I soaked that up and then, when I started going to clubs like CBGB and Irving Plaza, I was seeing bands like Sonic Youth, the Fall, Butthole Surfers and Big Black.”
He says he still listens to the music of that era, and was, in fact, doing so just before I called him. His daughter recently discovered the Cure on Spotify. “It’s kind of weird,” he says, chuckling, “but, hey, hopefully new wave will never go away and people will be playing bad synth-pop 50 years from now. That would be great.”
Whitehead has just finished a new book, which he describes as a crime novel set in Harlem. That’s all he will say about it. He does tell me that, if he writes “eight good pages over five days, that’s plenty”. Has being in lockdown impinged on that routine or even afforded him more time to write? “Well, the first six weeks I was not doing any writing at all. It was all about making sure the kids were all right and everyone was in a good mental state. Then, I thought maybe I can work for an hour or two a day and it was really hard getting back in the groove. But, hey, the books aren’t going to write themselves. The way I think about it is, what if I got struck down by plague or lightning? I’d rather finish the book than not.”
In 2011, having published four very different novels, including his critically acclaimed debut, The Intuitionists, Whitehead actually wrote a pandemic novel called Zone One. It is set in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic America struggling to rebuild itself in the wake of a contagious virus that had turned humans into flesh-eating zombies.
Had he known back then what he knows now, I ask, would he have written a very different book? He cracks up laughing at the idea. “Well, to borrow a joke that was doing the rounds on Twitter a few months ago, I really didn’t realise how much toilet paper was going to be an issue in the apocalypse. So, the answer is yes, I would have definitely made it more mundane and boring than I did.”
He laughs some more, then turns thoughtful. “There were a lot of small absurdities amid the psychological horror of the pandemic – people fighting over supplies in the grocery store, subway drivers having to breathe in the same air that their passengers were breathing out. That’s the stuff of plague fiction. Then, there’s the perversity of coughing in someone’s face to ridicule them because they’re wearing a mask and you’re not.” He sighs. “These are the kind of irrational things that, as a writer, you couldn’t really think up. The strangeness of human nature outdoes you.”
He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”
For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.
“In the last two weeks of writing The Nickel Boys, I felt very exhausted and down,” he says, having given the question some thought. “That was new to me. The Underground Railroad was also rough, but it didn’t affect me in the same way. I had a lot of affection for Elwood and Turner. Two years before I had had the idea that set them on their course and now it was coming to an end. I remember that, when I finished the book on the July 4th weekend of 2018, I just turned off Microsoft Word and turned on XCOM. I played video games for six weeks. I just vegged out. It definitely helped.”
He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”
It is in attempting to answer those questions, that Colson Whitehead has become America’s storyteller for these troubled and turbulent times.
• The Nickel Boys is published in paperback by Little, Brown (£8.99) on 30 June. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
Source: The Guardian