Colson Whitehead on Art, Violence, and Villainy
Going deep (and laughing darkly) with the author of The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s celebrated new novel, The Nickel Boys, is the spare, serious work of a mature literary artist living in dark times. It’s the story of two boys, Elwood and Turner, at a reform school called the Nickel Academy, a fictionalized version of the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, where for more than a hundred years students were abused, raped, beaten — and scores of them murdered, their broken bodies hidden on the grounds. In 2013, the remains of 55 boys were discovered, and survivors are convinced that many more will be found. Jerry Cooper, the president of a support group of former students, told NPR’s Greg Allen in April, “We have, on a list, a total of 183 boys that cannot be accounted for, sir.”
In 2016, shortly after Donald Trump’s election, Whitehead won the National Book Award for his sixth novel, The Underground Railroad; it’s one of only a handful of books ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in the same year. His acceptance speech in New York concluded, “We’re happy in here; outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland. Be kind to everybody, make art and fight the power.”
But two and a half years on, it’s not so clear that there is, or maybe ever really was, an “in here” in which intelligent people — or people of conscience, or really, anyone — might be happy, or find a clear path to human progress. This pessimism is evident in The Nickel Boys, a book that bears unsparing witness to the world’s essential brutality.
So what it made me think about the most (aside from everything Frank Rich wrote about so compellingly in his marvelous review of the book) is the extent to which freedom is still possible, amid the perilous circumstances in which we find ourselves, and how it might be protected, and increased.
Whitehead spoke with me over the phone from his hotel in Atlanta. I opened by asking him about a key scene in The Nickel Boys, wherein Elwood is tricked into working very hard in order to win what turns out to be a salesman’s dummy encyclopedia with blank pages.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.]
GEN: The image that stuck with me the most in this is the empty encyclopedia. I grew up like Elwood did, as a person of color who fell in love with the world of letters and was sort of rescued by it. The empty encyclopedia is used to trick Elwood, but it also sort of points forward to the way in which the world of ideas, of books, is connected to an awareness of beauty in the world — the thing he loves is real. What does this say for us, right now? At a time when there are so many places — China, the Middle East, Eastern Europe — where you’re not allowed to read or write whatever you want. What is your book telling us about the purpose, and the future, of literature?
Colson Whitehead: I’m not entirely sure. I think in terms of maybe a glimmer of optimism, or a resounding endorsement of pessimism, it’s up to the reader… The encyclopedia, you know, it’s a very simple thing. It contains the whole world, and this elemental thing is denied Elwood. The world will deny him.
So, is the book pointing in a positive or negative direction? The encyclopedia is a democratic form of evolved world knowledge. And it should be open to everyone, of course, but it’s denied to Elwood — access — in a way that I think speaks to the [experience] of people around the world, whether they’re of people of color, poor people. It should be yours, and yet it’s withheld; it’s out of your reach. And I have the scene early on, to establish what Elwood is up against. There’s segregation in the south, racism in America, and then… hate.
GEN: I’m interested in the idea of what you can learn to want, despite everything. The people who are oppressing Elwood don’t have access to the same stimulation that Elwood gets from reading, from Martin Luther King, from the world of ideas. The access to that world is determined not only by political freedom, but also by a certain impulse to freedom of mind. What is that desire, that appetite, that makes some people conceive of or want that freedom, and others not even understand or see it?
Whitehead: Um, I’m not sure… [starts laughing] [both start laughing a lot] I mean, probably if we all got the same thing out of art, and beauty, we’d all be a lot better off. But, um… but we don’t.
GEN: We don’t.
Whitehead: Yeah, yeah.
[Honestly why are we both laughing? It’s that surreal feeling of your emotions all being plugged into the wrong sockets because things are so, so absurd, weird, beautiful, and also terrible.]
GEN: But I mean you’ve written this book — and the sort of aorta of your whole project seems to me to be like, look: This is, should be, available to everyone. Which I agree, but, a), what even is it, that should be available to everyone? And b) why do people who have access — nobody is stopping them — not even begin to avail themselves of it? So many of those with power and privilege, and, and yet not a shred of awareness or curiosity?
Where is your book leading me in this? There’s the tragedy of Elwood, who is so ready to make an amazing contribution had the door been open, and it never will be. There are all these people who are in the dark themselves, stopping him from ever getting near the light. And it’s… that’s where I stop.
Whitehead: Yes. And, you know… that’s the world. I can’t explain the sort of, deep sadness about people, and how we go through the world, and what we want from the world, and what’s denied us.
You know, I think in writing the book, I was confronting my own feelings of powerlessness and incomprehensibility about how the world works. And so, Elwood and Turner became sort of the two poles of how to be. And of course there’s a way in the middle, you know, an integration between the two boys, and their approach to life.
“In writing the book, I was confronting my own feelings of powerlessness and incomprehensibility about how the world works.”
And so I, I’m wondering, and, I don’t have any definite answer, unfortunately. [laughter]
But, I’m just a novelist. [increasing laughter]
GEN: Solve life! Solve life, now. [both laughing really hard]
Ahhh. Okay… I wanted to ask you about education. You described yourself in an interview as “a diligent student.” That so much made you what you are, I think. And I fear that the chance at that kind of upbringing is diminishing for poor children, and for children of color, now. I often think that of the many villains in Washington, the worst must be Betsy DeVos, the education secretary who’s evidently determined that her job is to prevent education. So… how do you see your relationship, as a writer, to education, and specifically to the education of disadvantaged people, and young people of color?
Whitehead: You know, all of my books are sort of eccentric, and come out of my strange preoccupations, and fantastic literature… Comic books and science fiction are what made me want to write. I think that comes out in The Underground Railroad, which has that fantastic structure. So, I really am just trying to figure out the world in my own way. It’s like I’m creating a world for myself; I don’t know who will come to my books. I don’t know what people will get out of my books. I’m just trying to figure my own way out in the world.
That said, you know… as a writer, if you can find the right combination of words, you can also invite people in on your journey. And in this or that book people do come along, some others they don’t. At least for me, being a writer is putting my own self on paper. And then, finding that right combination, to invite people along for the ride.
I’ve been delighted that The Underground Railroad has found a great reception [in schools]. I’ve been traveling a lot, speaking at high schools and colleges. I always think of, like, that one person, or two people in the audience, who might be incredibly strange — a 16 or an 18-year-old who might see something in my work, and think, “Oh! — maybe I can strike out on my own path. The world has different things you’re supposed to be, or want, and I don’t agree with them — and here’s this weirdo up on stage who’s saying, ‘You can be strange and weird too. And go for it.’”
And so… I don’t know what the larger impact of the different books will be. I hope that there’s somebody out there like me. Who came to Marvel Comics or Ralph Ellison or García Márquez at an early age, and reads this or that work of mine, and thinks, oh, maybe I can do that, too. Despite all the ways my parents, my community, my school — all the different ways that they’re trying to make me not be myself.
GEN: Yeah. What was the last thing that you read that made you feel that way?
Whitehead: The thing that’s occurring to me is Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, the novella about Japanese immigrants to America. She wrote the book over ten years, it’s really compact and perfect… sort of exercises, almost. There’s no narrator, they’re not totally linear, they jump around. It sticks to her own idiosyncratic idea of what her work should be. It’s nice to open one of her books and realize — this would never have occurred to me! And you know, it’s so perfectly done.
[I like] being startled, in the first moments. Being startled, and then recognizing myself in a piece of art.
GEN: David Foster Wallace wrote really movingly about that with respect to Cynthia Ozick, how utterly different from him she was and yet he immediately developed an instantaneous fellow-feeling, a closeness to her, from reading her work. Which sounds simplistic, but it isn’t, it’s worth repeating forever. In The Nickel Boys as well, there’s just this immediate, intimate human connection the reader gets with Elwood, who’s at such a distance and yet so completely — you know, strange and yet familiar.
Also, it’s really quite striking, how stripped-down your language has grown in this book.
Whitehead: I think — you know how there’s like an exuberant encyclopedic mode in American fiction. You know, let’s say Thomas Pynchon, Walt Whitman and, uh, the Melville of Moby Dick. And then the sort of stripped-down minimalist, like Denis Johnson.
I was reading some shorter novels and novellas, kind of to see how people do it. And I came back to Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. There’s all these kinds of ways of getting at human tropes. Sometimes it’s postmodern pyrotechnics, and sometimes it’s a sort of cunning simplicity. And I think that’s what I was trying for — to figure out how to do a compact novel. And it seemed to work for Elwood and Turner.
GEN: Yeah, it does. There are a lot of bad guys in this book, and they are beyond minimalist. This mode is not necessarily one that would ordinarily appeal to me, the so-called “flat character” with so few attributes. But in this book, it’s just magical how they don’t seem that way. Why not? What is your concept of the bad guy, in this book?
Whitehead: Well… I’ll give you an example of the violence — the horrific scene of Elwood’s whipping. I think the tension in that scene comes from our awareness of how he is perceiving it, and not so much the actual physical description of what’s happening.
It’s waiting… it’s waiting for his turn. It’s hearing the other boys before him. And I think what’s not there is very eloquent. The violence in this book and in The Underground Railroad sort of speaks for itself, and doesn’t have to be dramatized for the reader… and doesn’t need the kind of elaboration that I might have done in a different book, or earlier [in my career].
The way I put it when I was writing it is: What can I leave out? And what do I have to put in?
GEN: Mmm. Growing up, I was taught that in order to make violence comprehensible in art, you have to humanize the perpetrator in some way, or give some oxygen to the possibility of redemption, even of the worst person. But in the last couple of years, now that we’ve been subjected to this really crazy episode in history, my thoughts on this have shifted. You know? Because Elwood is waiting for the beating. And that really is all that matters. The oppression is just what it is, and it’s not going anywhere. It has no texture, the attacker is not “interesting.” Clearly we’ve been analyzing violence in this country the wrong way. As you suggest in your book, it doesn’t end; it seems that every way of looking at violence so far has been incorrect and unproductive.
Whitehead: I totally get what you’re saying, I mean… In my work, I think about it in terms of what the book needs, or the story needs. Ridgeway — the slave catcher in The Underground Railroad — I think he gets his page time, where we see him as a child and as a young man, forming his ideas about the world. And I think that’s one way of doing it.
But Elwood and Turner, I wanted to stay with them, and not the motivations of the various terrible characters they encounter. Ultimately, it’s about them. So before I started writing, I knew that Spencer wouldn’t get his ten-page chapter.
In terms of where we are as a country… We know who Donald Trump is. But who is the eight-year-old in the concentration camp, taking care of her five-year-old brother, who steps over the border, and then is immediately thrust into this hellscape? Who is that person?
GEN: Exactly. I think that’s the step forward. Man, I really do. Especially now, watching this president — who never stops insisting that the cameras be on him all the time? — it’s just really revolutionized my whole concept of attention. The power of withholding it.
“We know who Donald Trump is. But who is the eight-year-old in the concentration camp, taking care of her five-year-old brother? Who is that person?”
Whitehead: We don’t learn anything new about Trump, day to day. Whereas we knew, you know, two days into the administration — we knew who he was. There’s no mystery there. There’s a deep — a terribly wounded person who will inflict pain in as many ways as his attention span allows, from day to day. There’s nothing new to learn about him. But the ripples and reverberations of his policies touch so many different people, and who are they? They’re all of us, I guess.
GEN: So this is where I’d meant to go when we started talking about Elwood. He just naturally had the awareness, even as a little kid, of the possibility of liberation. The spark that he immediately picked up from comic books, but from everywhere. The spark of life.
When Elwood and Turner are doing community service, they’re forced to be accomplices to this terrible crime of stealing. But even so, “the sudden majesty of everything” appears to him in that section, and it’s completely legitimate and earned, a beautiful description… the beauty of the world, of life, is available to this brutalized child, Elwood Curtis, in a way that it’s not to his oppressors. The thing that Martin Luther King represents to him, the possibility of transcendence. And this awareness is a real, permanent thing we can feel exactly the same way now.
Whitehead: Well, I think he does have that spark, I think… he’s a miraculous person. And… and then of course the world recognizes it, and has to eliminate it.
Whitehead: [laughs a little darkly] I think that’s how the world works. You know, anything miraculous and beautiful in the way that he is will be sought out and earmarked for destruction.
GEN: And yet, here we are, though! Why are — Why didn’t we get destroyed? [laughter]
Whitehead: Well, we’ve been — you know? — we’ve gone from nihilism to possibility, and I think that’s what the book is about.
GEN: The tenderness of the relationship at the end, between Elwood and his lady, has a redemptive and touching quality that is almost absent elsewhere in the book. Her ability to listen and suffer and commiserate with what’s happened to this person she loves seems rooted in the fact that she herself hadn’t ever suffered in anything like the same way. Can you comment on that relationship?
Whitehead: I think in some ways, you know, she’s the reader. In the way she thinks about his trauma. You know? It overlaps, in terms of the racism in her life and her own struggles. It’s a much deeper thing that he has experienced, and so she has to reach out, because she loves him, to understand it. And, so, they do overlap and they don’t overlap.
Most people who read this book have not been through what Elwood and Turner have gone through, but hopefully you can see yourself in different moments in who they are. And, then, in terms of who Elwood is at the end, you see him in the 1970s, where he hasn’t been able to process what happened to him as a child. We see his progress in these different scenes; he’s been horribly distorted by what happened to him.
And he has to figure out — is he capable of loving someone else? Can he allow himself to be loved? Can he find some place of refuge, after running for so long. So I think there’s that overlap too, between him and Cora in The Underground Railroad; you can leave the plantation, you can leave the Nickel Academy, but then how much closer are you to knowing who you are, or developing emotional freedom of loving yourself, loving others. It’s not just getting past the boundary or the property line. It’s… discovering a different kind of territory and making it yourself, you know, mile by mile, or year by year.