Introductions: Colson Whitehead
March 8, 2018
On February 15 at Benaroya Hall, Colson Whitehead—the Pulitzer Prize-winner with a taste for the fantastical—delivered a talk on his latest, The Underground Railroad. SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey introduced Colson for this 2017/18 Literary Arts Series event, which included a Q&A with Seattle writer Stephanie Stokes Oliver.
By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director
In Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead’s exquisite portrait of the agony of being a teenager and finding yourself endlessly awkward and out of place, the narrator says:
“My father announced his approval by singing along or muttering, ‘That’s just common sense,’ depending on the song or stump speech. Is it any wonder my dreams were troubled? Ease and disquiet weaved in and out of reception, chasing each other down, two signals too weak to be heard for more than a few moments.”
Such a beautiful image of ease and disquiet weaving in and out of reception – a line I continue to think about, and also a lovely characterization of Colson Whitehead’s beautiful, complicated novels – whether he is exploring the worlds of adolescence, elevator inspectors, zombies, or the Underground Railroad. His stories and his characters illuminate systems and power and privilege and racism in ways that not only leave us – or, I should say, me – feverishly turning pages to find out what happened, but that also trouble our dreams, staying with us in lasting ways, in our waking days.
Colson Whitehead is the author of six novels, a collection of essays, and a nonfiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker. His novels include The Intuitionist (a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), John Henry Days, which won the Literary Lions Fiction Award, and Apex Hides the Hurt, which won the PEN Oakland Award. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. His most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, was a New York Times bestseller, and was picked by Oprah for her book club and President Obama for his summer reading list.
The New York Times called it a “potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery” and “a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.” It traces the journey of Cora, a young woman who escapes from slavery only to find terror manifesting in new ways in each state she arrives. He writes of Cora’s grandmother, “Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention.” And later in the novel, Cora herself says of the plantation, “There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.”
Colson Whitehead’s brilliant and unforgettable stories teach us all to pay attention, to surface and see histories of unfathomable violence and cruelty. And also of resilience and bravery. To imagine, to keep track. Colson shared with an assembly of students at West Seattle High School this morning that it is a story that took him almost twenty years to find the courage to face and write. We are all so lucky that he did.