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Colson Whitehead. Photo/Supplied; background/Getty Images

Why Colson Whitehead is 'America's storyteller'

Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead on why his novels about historic American racism aren’t written out of anger, his rising literary stardom and the influence of Sonic Youth.

On a page towards the end of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys, one of his main two teenage African-American characters is berating the other. Turner the street-smart eternal pessimist is scolding Elwood, his earnest, ever-hopeful, bookish friend who has hatched a plan to escape the Nickel Academy, the segregated reform school in 1960s Florida, which is their living hell.

Elwood has kept a written record of food deliveries to the academy, which are being onsold to local businesses by the bosses of the state institution for personal profit. Turner isn’t pleased: “What do you think they are going to do? Put you on the cover of Time magazine?”

“I did it to stop it,” Elwood replies.

Whitehead laughs down the line from London when the Listener reminds him of the passage. After all, when The Nickel Boys came out, Time did put the creator of Turner and Elwood on its cover. “America’s storyteller” was the headline.

He doesn’t remember writing that piece of dialogue. “I guess that just slipped my mind. It’s a strange turn of events, definitely.” It made it interesting there for a while on the streets of hometown New York. “For two weeks, I would walk by a newsstand and see my face between ‘Bikinis for summer’ and ‘Incarceration camps’ … And there was me in the middle.”

He laughs again that he was warned he might be bumped from the cover if news events dictated. “Like, if Trump gets impeached … So, what do I wish for – for Trump to get impeached or for me to be on the cover?”

Whitehead is talking from London during an author tour that will eventually bring him to next year’s Auckland Writers Festival. That day’s event was special, he says, because among the attendees was Thurston Moore, late of New York noise-rock band Sonic Youth. Whitehead has a custom of playing the group’s 1988 classic double album Daydream Nation – as well as Prince’s Purple Rain – while writing the final pages of his books.

“You know, I received so much from his art as a teenage fan and for him to read The Nickel Boys and come out was very moving for me. All four [band members] were so instructive in how to be an artist and how to be an artist in New York. How to be dissonant when you have to and how to keep it quiet when you have to.”

July 8, 2019, Time magazine cover.

In recent years, the noise around Whitehead has increased markedly – to the point Time made him, after James Baldwin, Alex Haley and Toni Morrison, only the fourth black writer to grace the cover. He became a literary star with previous novel The Underground Railroad, a tale of American slavery that employed magical realism, riffing on the idea that the railroad of the title was real, rather than a network to help escaped slaves travel north to freedom. Long-listed for the Booker Prize, it won him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the endorsement of both Oprah and Obama. It’s being made into a TV series by Barry Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of a Baldwin novel. The response to The Underground Railroad came as a surprise. “When I was writing it, I didn’t think that the book would have the kind of impact that it had. I was just trying not to screw it up, page by page, which is generally my method – I have a good idea, then I hope I don’t mess it up.”

But, once he handed in the manuscript, it was apparent the book might resonate. “All these people who’d worked with me for years were having this very strong response that I hadn’t seen before. It was apparent that it was really hitting people in a new and deep way, and so the Pulitzer was like a sort of culmination of months and months and months of people sort of reacting to the book in this very deep and heartfelt way. It was very gratifying, but also, when you’re writing it, you have no idea if people understand what you’re trying to do.”

The Nickel Boys is his seventh novel, and after The Underground Railroad, his second to confront America’s history of racism head-on. The 49-year-old New York-born Harvard graduate, who wrote for The Village Voice as he established himself as a novelist, has also written two non-fiction books, a 2003 collection of essays about the Big Apple, The Colossus of New York, and The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death, based on a magazine assignment to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. His earlier novels included zombie story Zone One – reflecting his youthful fandom of horror stories and movies and Stephen King – and Sag Harbor, a semi-autobiographical take on middle-class black teenagers coming of age in the mid-80s in the Long Island town where Whitehead spent vacations as a kid.

The Nickel Boys is based on the infamous Arthur G Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reform school that finally closed in 2011 after more than a century of subjecting its student-inmates to violence, torture, sexual abuse and murder. Archaeological studies have found evidence of nearly 100 bodies buried on the grounds, some remains showing shotgun pellets and signs of blunt-force trauma, malnutrition and disease.

Whitehead first heard about Dozier and its history as he was working on The Underground Railroad in the northern summer of 2014, just as the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police-chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island rocked the US. “It was a very rough summer. In the middle of all that outrage came this news report about a school in Florida … and the next day, the story was gone. I can’t say if I’d come across it six months before or six months later it would have stuck with me.”

By the time he was researching and writing it, Trump had been elected. “The story was compelling enough without him, but he was definitely the trigger to start writing it in 2017 as opposed to later. When he came into office, you do question your assumptions about American progress and question how far we’ve come in the past 30 years.”

His fictional Nickel Academy retains the name of Dozier’s “White House”, the building where staff meted out violence to students, dragged from their bunks in the middle of the night. “That metaphorical resonance I can’t outdo.”

The Nickel Boys begins with Elwood, a studious kid, who, inspired by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, is seemingly destined for greater things until he accepts a lift in a stolen car, gets arrested and sent to Nickel. There, he befriends Turner as he tries to figure his way out of the place. But there is no magic train to rescue them. Their story is a lean, propulsive, harrowing, thrilling 200-plus pages. It’s one of his shortest books. “I am enjoying compression and concision and the elegance of a very compact structure.”

Half of it was written in hotel rooms and planes as he travelled promoting The Underground Railroad. The final weeks of its creation took a toll, he says. Especially as he had absorbed the stories of many of those who were at Dozier, some of whom he had met before and after it was published. One lived a few blocks away in Manhattan. “He said he liked the book. So far, the former students have said they liked it. Perhaps they are being polite, but if the book captures even a fragment of what they went through, I think it’s successful in that way.”

Now, although he’s still talking about The Nickel Boys, Whitehead’s working on novel No 8. He’s still in the 1960s, but it’s a crime novel set in Harlem and, unlike its two predecessors, it gives him a chance to inject some humour. But that doesn’t mean America’s storyteller is getting less angry about America. Actually, he doesn’t think The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys are built on anger.

“Really, they’re just a clear-eyed assessment of where we are in terms of race and where history has brought us.”

THE NICKEL BOYS, by Colson Whitehead (Hachette, $34.99)

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.