In which Sarah and Rebecca attend a lecture by Colson Whitehead in Houston
Colson Whitehead, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for fiction for his novel The Underground Railroad, visited Houston on March 21, and new Lodestone team member Rebecca and I had the opportunity to attend his talk and reading. The event was sponsored by Brazos Bookstore and Rice University’s Humanities Research Center as part of its 2016-2017 speaker series on urban landscapes.
Before I (Sarah) say anything else, I want to interject that Colson Whitehead is funny. I knew that he has a sense of humor from reading his essay on writing that was published in The New York Times, but I was surprised at how much I laughed that evening. He peppered his talk with wry humor and self-deprecating jokes, such as "Tuesday is the day I usually sit in my apartment and cry about my life choices. But this is better!"
Reflecting on his talk, the main point that I took away was the value of persistence. He began by summarizing his writing career and how he came to publish the works that he was going to discuss that evening, The Colossus of New York and The Underground Railroad. If you spend any time reviewing Whitehead's list of works, you'll notice that it spans a variety of genres. His early influences were Stephen King novels, comics, and television shows like The Twilight Zone. As a child, he imagined himself writing the black versions of these stories, and it was in 5th grade that he first decided that he wanted to be a writer. But Whitehead wasn't writing yet, even in college. At Harvard, he applied for a writing class but was rejected, which, as he joked, helped him internalize rejection early. He was offered a job at The Village Voice, a news and culture paper based in New York City, where he worked from 1991-1996. It was there, Whitehead said, that he learned how to be a writer. He specifically recalled writing pieces on Growing Pains and Who's the Boss? This led to further writing assignments, and he finally felt that he was ready to write his first novel. It was met with multiple rejections. He likened the experience to the song "MacArthur Park," which he actually played for the audience (and sang along with a line or two). (I will fully admit that I had to look up this song afterward, and, because I wasn't familiar with it, this entire portion of the talk went over my head. I'm a millennial; what can I say?) His delivery was comedic, of course, but he made the valid point that art is similar to baking, in that the artist gathers all the ingredients and makes an entirely new creation, but it's not always accepted and ends up “left out in the rain,” as the song says. The multiple rejections caused him to question his ability to write, and he considered what he should do instead. He said that his doubt was temporary, though, since he couldn't imagine doing anything else, so in the end he just got back to work.
Most published writers stress the importance of persistence, but what struck me about Whitehead's attitude toward self-doubt was the simple conclusion to get back to work. It expresses his confidence in his vocation as a writer and the idea that I've heard from other writers: if this is the work you're driven to do, then keep writing and don't give up.
For the reading portion of the evening, Whitehead chose to share his essay about New York City, “Lost and Found” (titled “City Limits” in his book of nonfiction, The Colossus of New York). If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do so here. Whitehead joins a crowded parade of writers penning “impressionistic odes to the city,” but this exploration of memory, loss, and identity as they relate to the places we inhabit is especially powerful because he published it soon after 9/11. Yet he makes few explicit references to that day, and even the microscopic lens he trains on the scenes of his personal New York has a certain universality to it, so that you also consider the ways in which your own city becomes yours even as it’s constantly changing.
Whitehead’s second reading came from his latest novel, The Underground Railroad, which re-imagines slaves’ historical route to freedom as a literal subway system, of sorts, passing through different states of American possibility à la Gulliver’s Travels. Full disclosure: neither of us have read the novel yet, so I can’t offer any meaningful commentary on this passage as it relates to the overall story. However, I (Rebecca) was struck by Whitehead’s comparison of the slave-catcher Ridgeway to his blacksmith father. Each generates heat in his chosen profession, though only one creates useful tools while the other forges the far more destructive iron of human bondage.
The evening ended with a brief Q&A session, during which Whitehead revealed that a TV mini-series adaptation of The Underground Railroad is in the works (yay, I think?). He also answered a question about chronological writing: of course, historians are generally bound to a more rigid timeline, but a novelist blending historical events with fiction has greater freedom in story layout. Whitehead explained that he kept his non-linear plot oriented by identifying certain juxtapositions in character, situation, or setting, then aligning them so as to “allow those collisions and surprises to come along” in the narrative to create meaning. In hindsight, I recognized this in the excerpt he read; the flashback to Ridgeway’s father doesn’t disorient the reader because his vocation offers insight into Ridgeway’s own character, different though the two may be.
As you can see, Colson Whitehead isn't short on comedy or valuable insight. It was a lovely evening, and we look forward to exploring Whitehead's work, perhaps with a book review or two!