It’s been two years since Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Underground Railroad, a novel that acts as an alternate history about two slaves, Cora and Caesar, who seek freedom from the Georgia plantation they live and work in. They follow an underground railway network consisting of a train, secret routes and safe houses, till they can reach the northern states where slavery has been abolished. At the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, Whitehead, 49, isn’t one to go on about his work; he speaks succinctly and makes himself heard in panels where five other authors are asked the same questions.
In this conversation, he chats about his multi-award-winning book, shrugs off White guilt, and is looking forward to his new novel:
You grew up reading fantasy as a kid, and you’ve said that it wanted to make you write. Who and what were you reading?
I was reading Marvel comics, X-Men, Spiderman…
Who, as a journalist, never had to file a single story.
Haha! Actually, no, he was trying to get his pictures published so that he could pay his rent. That was my first acquaintance with the freelancer hustle, living cheque to cheque. But to go back to who I was reading, Stephen King’s The Stand and Carrie; writing stories about monsters seemed like a nice job. I also read Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Ursula K LeGuin. My earliest memories include watching The Twilight Zone on TV and The Underground Railroad is that kind of story too. Cora lives in reality, and then gets on a train and finds herself in an alternative world. Fantasy has always been one of the many tools we have to talk about reality.
What are the dangers of turning something metaphorical like an underground network of people into something mechanical and tangible like an actual train?
Cora goes through different worlds, from state to state, so the book is rebooting every 60 pages. If I had to think about a drawback, it would be that I was constrained by historical records. In the beginning, freedom for a slave means just to be in the north, and self-determination, love, and freedom of literacy, the chance to interpret the world through books and your own experience.
Caesar’s ability to read is significant in the novel and you use it to explore the power of the written word.
In some states, it was illegal to teach a slave how to read. In slave narratives, it’s always a big moment when somebody has learned to read, and gets that power and agency that was denied to them. In learning about the world, you gain a sense of self; it was important 150 years ago, and it’s important now. Denying people education is a way to keep a people subservient.
In recent years, there’s been some acknowledgment of White guilt in books such as The Help. What do you make of that?
(Shrugs) I haven’t read the book, but would a book written by a Black person about Black domestics in the 1960s, from their point of view, have the same success as the story of a White woman who has self-actualised after interactions with Black people? It’s two different stories about the same topic. Look at the movie The Green Book. It’s a story of racial reconciliation. No Black person will go see it, but it’ll make people feel good about themselves. Why not tell us the story of how the actual Green Book come about?
It took 16 years for The Underground Railroad to come out into the world. What took so long?
I had the idea in 2000, but I didn’t commit to it until 14 years later. I didn’t think I was good enough, or emotionally mature enough. I was going to write about a journalist and the new media age and I knew I could write that. But I didn’t know if I could write The Underground Railroad. Then I wrote it in a purely self-help way: do the thing you’re afraid of.
So, what was winning the Pulitzer like?
The success of the book allowed me to write full-time, and it put me in a really good mood for a year (laughs). If I found myself in a long line at the supermarket, I wasn’t getting stressed any more, I could chill out. My mood is back to the same misery now.
Your latest novel, The Nickle Boys, is out this summer. What’s it about?
It’s based on a true story and set in the 1960s. There was a reform school for boys called the Dozier School in Florida that took in non-violent juvenile delinquents, wards of the state. As it happens in places like that, there’s sexual, physical abuse, nobody believes you, and you grow up and you’ve been damaged. The book is about two boys, one is a big believer in the message of Dr Martin Luther King, and the other is an orphan, he’s more street-wise; they have contrary views of what happens in the world. Later, one gets out and the other doesn’t.