Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, comes to Canisius

By Abby Wojcik

Assistant Features Editor

Throughout the school year, English and creative writing students have been reading Colson Whitehead’s most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, in preparation for his appearance as part of Canisius’ Contemporary Writers Series. This past Tuesday, March 20, he visited campus to discuss his novel and writing in general at two different events: one in Grupp for a Q&A with students and one in Montante for a reading and book signing with the public. At each, Whitehead displayed his knowledge on writing and literature with his witty personality and humor.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad has one several awards including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2016. It is a historical fiction novel about a girl named Cora who has ben a slave her entire life. She goes on a journey to escape on the underground railroad, which, in the novel, is a literal railroad. It is a metaphor playing with history and opens a discussion about this time period and what people really know about it.

The idea for this novel came to Whitehead at an early point in his career; however, he felt that at that time he was not ready to write this story.

“It seemed like a really good idea,” Whitehead said to the audience of Canisius students in Grupp. “But I knew if I tried it back then I would have screwed it up. I was sort of a gen XZ, thirty-year-old douchebag, not very mature, and it seemed I wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off and if I wrote some more books I might be able to execute it in a way it deserved. I was very immature and I thought if I was older I might become wiser and be able to pull it off. I think also I was scared. I didn’t want to deep dive into the history of slavery that the work would require.”

He explained that his book ideas started being about subjects he knew well and was comfortable with, and he realized, “I’d been avoiding this book about the railroad and dealing with slavery for so many years, that it seemed like the hard project, the one I don’t know if I can do, should be the one I should attempt,” Whitehead said.

The structure of this novel goes back to many classics such as Gulliver’s Travels and The Odyssey. The character Cora travels through various states in America and each one represents a different “state of American possibility,” giving her several allegorical tests. Whitehead examines other incidents in history such as Nazi Germany and medical abuses of African Americans, and he asks readers to think about how those oppressions relate to the brutality of slavery. This choice was made possible by the fantasy aspect of the book. With the use of a fictional railroad, Whitehead was able to incorporate more issues than only the one at the specific time and place his book occurs.

Whitehead wanted to be a writer since his childhood because of his love and fascination with comic books and Stephen King. He spent time working as journalist for the Village Voice and his first novel, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999.
“I think I became a writer by failing. There was nothing else I could do that would make me feel whole or give me the same amount of pleasure as being a writer,” Whitehead expressed. “I think I became a writer when I realized even though no one was actually interested in what I was doing, I just had to keep doing it.”

He gave advice to the aspiring writers in the room, telling them to keep doing it, learn from mistakes and successes, and to write what you want, but to also write what you are avoiding or afraid of. “It’s okay to write a bad story and learn from it,” he said.

In the context of his own story and the work being highlighted at Whitehead’s Canisius events, it is a factor that many other stories exist about slavery and the underground railroad; however, Whitehead countered this point by saying, “People say there are a lot of slavery stories, but there’s only like ten percent of the stories we have on World War II. World War II was six years and slavery was centuries, but no one ever says, ‘Another story about Dunkirk?’

“In terms of being intimidated by what has come before, no matter what you’ve written, whether it’s about slavery or WWII or family relationships, what keeps me sane is realizing no matter what you’ve done, someone smarter and more talented has already written about it before you in human history. So don’t worry about them, just trust that you have your own perspective that you can bring to the story.”
Whitehead was very personal with the audience, saying “Howdy” at everyone who raised their hand to ask a question, making candid comments and jokes, and being very nice in general.

The Underground Railroad has been picked up by Amazon to become a TV drama series written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight. Whitehead expressed he is interested to see his story play out in film because “There’s stuff that works on the page that doesn’t on a screen.”

Having Colson Whitehead come to Canisius is thanks to the Contemporary Writers Series, which the Canisius community is so lucky to have, bringing us several unique, accomplished writers every year. The next Contemporary Writers Series event will feature Bao Phi, author of two poetry collections, Sông I Sing and Thousand Star Hotel. He will be at Canisius on Thursday, April 12, 2018. To keep this amazing privilege going, all interested writers and readers are encouraged to make an effort to read the writers’ work and attend the events. They are fun, educational, and a great opportunity to meet and mingle with fellow literature enthusiasts.

 

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