Colson Whitehead
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Literary Arts

Colson Whitehead

Past Event: Monday, January 14, 2008

At Benaroya Hall — S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium

Sponsored by Hoffman Construction Company of Washington.

Incisive wit, big ideas, and a serious grasp on storytelling constitute a strong opening hand for any good writing, but Colson Whitehead holds a few more cards.

His voice is seriously fresh, whip-smart, dry, melancholy, fluid, and full of light. His fiction is flush with eccentric characters spinning through mundane realities and regular guys and gals manhandling questions of social and psychological import. In his essays and criticism, Whitehead puts his opinions up front, dispensing with conventional throat-clearing and formalities, breaking the rules only because he knows them. His irreverent tone in his TV column for The Village Voice sees Norman Mailer standing behind him, and his love for the neighborhoods of his hometown in The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Chapters (2004) remembers E.B. White’s masterpiece Here Is New York.

Whitehead’s journalism has appeared in NewsdaySpinVibe and The Village Voice (where he was a pop culture critic for a couple of years writing about books and music and, eventually, television), The New York TimesNew York MagazineGrantaHarper’s, and Salon. His first novel, The Intuitionist (2000), won the Whiting Award for young writers with exceptional promise and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. The story of Lila Mae Watson, “the first colored woman in the Department of Elevator Inspectors,” who closes her eyes and detects mechanical troubles by “communicating with the elevator on a non-material basis,” examines the physical and philosophical nature of social progress. A writer for The New York Times Book Review concluded, “Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, but if there’s any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead’s should be heading toward the upper floors.”

Whitehead followed his debut novel with a stunning second: John Henry Days (2001). The book’s protagonist is journalist J. Sutter, who is sent to cover a festival dedicated to the 19th century folk-hero John Henry. Riffing on the Industrial Age and the Digital Age, the two times in recent history that time has been sped up so much that our conception of the world has fundamentally changed, Whitehead continues to explore the theme of identity in story and history. Winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, John Henry Days established Whitehead’s place in contemporary American letters. He received the MacArthur “genius” grant the following year. His most recent book, Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), follows the nameless protagonist—a successful nomenclature consultant—on a job to rename the fictitious town of Winthrop. A post-modern spin around history, identity, and language—in language, of course.

Whitehead graduated from Harvard College in 1991. “The people who influenced me a lot in college,” he said in an interview, “when I first started reading the non-Dickens kind of Victorian novel of manners they foist on you in high school, were people like Ellison and Pynchon, stuff like that. Basically, I like the kind of sprawling American books that talk about the culture.” Basically, the kinds of books he has come to write. A native of Manhattan, Whitehead now proudly lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Excerpt from Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)Isn’t it great when you’re a kid and the whole world is full of anonymous things? He coughed into his sleeve. Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it. All those flying gliding things are just birds. And etc. Once we knew the name of it, how could we ever come to love it? He told himself: What he had given to all those things had been the right name, but never the true name. For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, beneath the skin we gave them.

Constellations wheeled around him, lit up under the auspices of the electric company. He stood beneath them in this mess, limping around the valley of the names. Star watchers were f***ed. There were too many stars in the sky to name them all. They were bright and keen, but had to make do with letters and numbers—B317, N467, T675—until they earned their names.

Until then, anonymous and barely there at all.

A name that got to the heart of the thing—that would be miraculous. But he never got to the heart of the thing, he just slapped a bandage on it to keep the pus in. What is the word, he asked himself, for that elusive thing? It was on the tip of his tongue. What is the name for that which is always beyond our grasp? What do you call that which escapes?

Selected WorkApex Hides the Hurt (2006)The Colossus of New York (2004)John Henry Days (2002)The Intuitionist (2000)LinksFor more information on this speaker, please visit

Author’s website

A review of The Intuitionist

A review of John Henry Days

A review of Apex Hides the Hurt

Event Details

Benaroya Hall — S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium

200 University Street
Seattle, WA 98101

View directions.

Transportation & Parking

This event will be held in the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, the largest event space at Benaroya Hall. 

Benaroya Hall is located at 200 University Street, directly across Second Avenue from the Seattle Art Museum. The public entrance to Benaroya Hall is along Third Avenue.

By Car

  • From Southbound I-5
    Take the Union Street exit (#165B). Continue onto Union Street and proceed approximately five blocks to Second Avenue. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Northbound I-5
    Exit left onto Seneca Street (exit #165). Proceed two blocks and turn right onto Fourth Avenue. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Union Street. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Northbound I-5 via Westbound I-90
    Take the 2C exit for I-5 North. Follow signs for Madison Street/Convention Place and merge right onto Seventh Avenue. Turn left onto Madison Street. Proceed three blocks and turn right onto Fourth Avenue. Continue four blocks. Turn left onto Union Street. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.

By Public Transit (Bus & Light Rail)

Benaroya Hall is served by numerous bus routes. Digital reader boards along Third Avenue display real-time bus arrival information. For details and trip planning tools, call Metro Rider Information at 206.553.3000 (voice) or 206.684.1739 (TDD), or visit Metro online. The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, served by light rail, has a stop just below the Hall (University Street Station).


The 430-car underground garage at Benaroya Hall provides direct access from the enclosed parking area into the Hall via elevators leading to The Boeing Company Gallery. Enter the garage on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street. Maximum vehicle height is 6’8″. ChargePoint charging stations are available for electric vehicles. Visit the Benaroya Hall website for event pricing.

Parking is also available at:

  • The Cobb Building (enter on University Street between Third and Fourth avenues).
  • The Russell Investments Center (enter on Union Street between First and Second avenues).
  • There are many other garages within a one-block radius of Benaroya Hall, along with numerous on-street parking options.


Open Captioning is an option for people who have hearing loss, where a captioning screen displaying the words that are spoken or sung is placed on stage. This option is present at every event at Benaroya Hall in our 2021/22 Season.

Closed Captioning is an option for people who have hearing loss, where captioning displays the words that are spoken or sung at the bottom of the video during an online event. Captioning is available for all online events; click the “CC” button to view captions during the event.

Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) are devices that people with hearing loss use in conjunction with their hearing device (hearing aids or cochlear implants). Benaroya Hall has an infrared hearing system, which transmits sound by light beams. Headsets are available in The Boeing Company Gallery coat check and the Head Usher stations in both lobbies.

Sign Language Interpretation is available upon request for Deaf, DeafBlind, and hard of hearing individuals for both in-person and online events. To make a request for interpretation, please contact us at [email protected] or 206.621.2230×10, or select “Sign Language Interpretation” from the Accessibility section during your ticket checkout process and we will contact you to confirm details. Please note: we appreciate a two-week advance notice to allow us time to secure interpretation.

Wheelchair Accessible Seating and Accessible Restrooms are available in all sections at our venues, and our venues are fully accessible to ticket holders with physical mobility concerns. Among other features, Benaroya Hall has designated parking spaces adjacent to elevators in their parking garage. Elevators with Braille signage go to all levels within the Hall. To reserve seating for a specific mobility concern, you may select “Wheelchair Accessible or Alternative Seating Options” during ticket checkout, and we will contact you to confirm details. For more details on their accessibility features, click here.

Guide and service dogs are welcome.

Gender neutral restrooms are available.

We are pleased to offer these accessibility services at our venues, and they are provided at no additional cost to ticket holders. Please contact us with any questions and feedback about how we can be more accessible and inclusive. Our Patron Services Manager is available at [email protected], or Monday-Friday from 10:00am – 5:00pm at 206.621.2230×10.

For more accessibility information, please head to If you would like to make accessibility arrangements you do not see listed here, please contact our box office or select “Other Accommodations” from the Accessibility section during your ticket checkout process, and we will contact you to confirm details.