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Q&A: Colson Whitehead


by Stephen Becker 1 May 2009

Guest blogger Walton Muyumba, a professor at the University of North Texas, sends along this recent interview he conducted with author Colson Whitehead. The author of Sag Harbor will be the guest of honor at tonight’s Art & Letters Live event. If you would like to attend, e-mail me ([email protected]) and I will get you […]

CTA TBD

Guest blogger Walton Muyumba, a professor at the University of North Texas, sends along this recent interview he conducted with author Colson Whitehead. The author of Sag Harbor will be the guest of honor at tonight’s Art & Letters Live event. If you would like to attend, e-mail me ([email protected]) and I will get you on the list.

After using satire and comedy so affectively in your earlier novels, why did you choose to set that approach aside in Sag Harbor?

Colson Whitehead: More important than satire is humor, a sort of cockeyed view of the world.  Each book has a different way of allowing me to make jokes about the world.  I grew up on Richard Pryor and George Carlin, and their love of veering between the tragic and the comic.  When I got to college I started reading writers like [Samuel] Beckett and [Thomas] Pynchon . . . or Ralph Ellison, I found a new way of channeling that impulse.  While I am poking fun at the structures of business, racism, the government, and mass media to varying degrees in different books, I’m always trying to capture the horrible and the beautiful at once.  In Sag Harbor I’m talking about a teenage boy, I’m talking about the horrible and the beautiful in his day-to-day experience.  So it’s pop music, it’s a minimum wage job, hanging out with his friends, so the structure and content of the story is shaping how I’m talking about the culture.

Was it difficult to shift away from the jocularity of John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt to Sag Harbor‘s sentimental, un-ironic celebration of 1980s culture?

C.W.: There’s the sort of easy pop culture reference that makes everybody laugh.  And then what I’m trying to do is use ’80s pop culture to illuminate Benji’s character and a certain way of looking about the world.  So when I am talking about New Coke and Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show, I’m trying to find the emotional truth in these things as opposed to an easy reference.  In terms of being sentimental (it gets a bad rap), but I think that it fits the tone of the book.  If you look at The Colossus of New York [Whitehead’s book-length essay about New York City] that sort of strain is there in my love of the changing city, what is still here, what is gone, and what remains, and that sort of shifting palimpsest of the city street.  I think that accent is brought to the fore because I’m talking about a single character, Benji Cooper, and he becomes the focus for all these things.  But I think it is there in the earlier fiction, but it’s maybe not as obvious.

So in Sag Harbor, location (home) and personal identity are beneficially linked?

C.W.: The change self, the changing home, and the interplay: the dissolving border between yourself and the place in which you live.  The city is you and you are the city.  Benji’s Sag Harbor and Sag Harbor is he.

Do you imagine that Barak Obama’s election and presidency will affect your discussion of race and African-American culture in the future?

C.W.: I’m out of sync with what’s going on the world.  I started Sag Harbor five years ago, and blackness in the world has changed.  In terms of where the country will be in five, six, 10 years . . . who knows what I’ll work on next and how it will fit into some sort of larger conversation about what it is to be black or what it is to be American.  I have no idea what I’ll do next, so I have no idea how the changes in the world will feed it, impede it, or transform [my writing].  And it is sort of refreshing not knowing what I’ll do next.  I don’t have the perspective and knowledge of what I’m actually going to be doing in the future to answer that.

You’ve been very successful early in your career.  What motivates you as a writer?   And how will you maintain that focus as you develop your next projects?

C.W.: I want to make good art and want to help people understand the world more.  I hopefully have something to contribute and in my books I can help people see and engage the world in a new way, given my perspective.  I think the difficulty in finding a new project comes from learning something so different, like in Sag Harbor.  I feel like I’ve done a certain kind of cultural work say in Apex Hides the Hurt or John Henry Days, and I have to find a new way of talking about how I feel about the world.  So, that will come in time.  If five years go by and I’m stuck, I’ll start to get distressed.  But for now, I’m glad Sag Harbor is done and I’m enjoying the fact that people are getting it.  You never know what’s going to happen to them once they hit the bookstores.  I’m very fortunate that people seem to be responding to Sag Harbor.

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