2016 National Book Award Winner, Fiction
James English, Chair of the judges' panel for the 2016 National Book Awards for Fiction, presents Colson Whitehead with the honor.
The Underground Railroad
(Doubleday/Penguin Random House)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Colson Whitehead: I wrote the book for myself, with the usual hope that if I wrote it well, others might get something out of it, too.
The Underground Railroad confirms Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of our most daring and inventive writers. A suspenseful tale of escape and pursuit, it combines elements of fantasy and the counter-factual with an unflinching, painfully truthful depiction of American slavery. Whitehead revisits the grotesque barbarities of our nation’s history in the interest of our common stake in freedom and dignity. He has given us an electrifying narrative of the past, profoundly resonant with the present.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the New York Times bestselling author of The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.
- TWITTER: @colsonwhitehead
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Interview by Lauren Wilkinson
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, tells the story of Cora, a teenage slave who runs away from a Georgia cotton plantation with a literate new arrival named Caesar. They board the Underground Railroad together, which in Whitehead’s conception is an actual railroad winding beneath the earth. Ridgeway, a ruthless slave catcher employed by her former master, pursues Cora through an alternate American South in which each state she journeys to is a different world, all of them terrifying both in their depiction and proximity to historical truth. It was a pleasure and an honor to chat with Colson Whitehead about this insightful and unflinching take on one of the most brutal chapters of American history.
Lauren Wilkinson: Can you talk generally about the work of depicting Cora’s emotional trauma, and how that depiction evolved as you wrote?
Colson Whitehead: I wanted the first section, the Georgia section, to be as realistic as possible. Before I started playing with reality and history I wanted to play it straight. For someone writing in 2015, when I was writing the book, one of the requirements for that is to be psychologically realistic. As modern people we have an idea of PTSD and what trauma does to people. And, of course, being in slavery means being traumatized every moment of your life, which does terrible damage to your personality and psyche. So if I’m going to have Cora escape and interact with people, her trauma’s going deform and determine the nature of all those interactions. Can she get close to people? How does she feel about love? How does she feel about herself? How does she feel about giving herself to somebody and taking someone’s love in return? That element of her portrayal really just comes from trying to make a psychologically realistic portrait of someone who’s been traumatized and enslaved.
LW: I may be projecting, but a recurring thematic element that I saw in the book was the performance of blackness and black experience for a white audience. Would you say this is a general preoccupation for you, or an idea that you felt you needed to work out in this particular novel?
CW: No, not really. Slaves were constantly under surveillance by their masters and by overseers, both black and white. Cora is an object on the plantation, so when she leaves it, part of her journey is to become a person. That means agency. So in the South Carolina chapter [where Cora is hired as an actor to portray life as a slave on a plantation], when she turns her gaze upon the white patrons of the museum, and in the North Carolina chapter when she’s trapped in the attic and watching the social commerce of the park [and observes a minstrel show that prefaces a lynching], watching the world, taking the world in becomes an act of agency.
LW: I read in another interview that you said technology appears quite prominently in your books.
CW: Some books, yeah.
LW: To me technology seemed like an important theme in this novel because I thought it pointed to a damning contrast: look at what we’re intellectually capable of on the one hand and on the other look at what we’re spiritually capable of, meaning how cruel we can be. Why is technology a topic that you keep returning to? And more specifically why was it a prominent theme in this book?
CW: I think technology is more prominent in The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, and I don’t see it as informing this book as much as it does some of my previous work. I’ve definitely mined elevators and trains for metaphors, used them to generate thematic material. But here I was trying to be more low key than I usually am about technological progress and how it shapes our lives. I could’ve gone on in terms of how the train works and who built it and all the sort of stuff that makes a fantastic creation more real, but I wanted to shy away from that and from spending ten pages traveling between sections. I really wanted the train to be more of a doorway or threshold from state to state, station to station. While I think the technology of the skyscraper in South Carolina is maybe one signifier, and of course the [forced sterilization and Tuskegee Syphilis Study-style] medical experiments are too, I don’t dwell too much upon them.
LW: Gulliver’s Travels is mentioned in the book and so I drew a parallel between it and Cora’s movement from state to state after her escape. Swift’s novel is an interesting and in some ways unlikely seeming frame for a story about American slavery. Can you talk about how you decided on it and how you knew it would work?
CW: After I came up with the idea of each state being an alternative America, I realized that the most natural comparison is to Gulliver’s Travels, which sort of became a convenient way to describe how each place would work. I’m not a big Gulliver’s Travels fan overall, but it did seem like an easy way to frame it for people. For me, in terms of the structure, Cora’s journey is Gulliver’s Travels, but it’s also the Odyssey, The Pilgrim’s Progress, reallyany kind of story where you have your hero or heroine being tested in a series of allegorical episodes on the path to their escape, enlightenment or coming home. That structure goes back pretty far.
LW: I personally found Homer [Ridgeway’s young black protégé] to be one of the most compelling characters in the book. I was curious if he was there from the start? Was he inspired by anything you’d read in particular?
CW: Homer is probably one of the more mysterious characters in the book. When people ask me about him I just say, “Homer’s gonna Homer.” I like the fact that he’s kind of elusive. In a broader sense, the master-slave relationship is very complicated. There were masters who would beat their slaves within an inch of their lives, yet would still think of themselves as father figures. As generous, paternalistic figures. There were slaves who were freed after the Civil War who stayed on the plantations to work because they knew nothing else and couldn’t conceive of leaving the place they called home even if it was a living hell. I didn’t want to over explain what’s going on between Homer and Ridgeway. I wanted it to point to those complex master-slave relationships.
LW: I think it does so very well. Was there any character (excluding Cora) that you found more difficult to write than others?
CW: I think they all came quickly except for Ridgeway. When I started writing I was working pretty quickly but I couldn’t really get his voice, so for a long time in between the Georgia and South Carolina sections it just said “Ridgeway TK.” I like to write about New York. I read Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom, which is about the Underground Railroad, specifically about the railroad in New York City. In it there was a lot of material about the war of legal strategy between slave catchers and abolitionists in New York and that gave me a New York hook. Once I had that, Ridgeway came pretty quickly. But before that it took me a while to figure out what he sounded like and what his philosophy was.
LW: My favorite scene, and the one I found the most profoundly sad, was the one from [Cora’s mother] Mabel’s perspective. I was curious about your favorite scene in the book and why?
CW: I guess I really like the last forty pages, from the final section of Indiana all the way to the end. Those three sections, Indiana, Mabel’s chapter, and the final trip on the railroad, are very meaningful to me. I’m always happy to finish, to wind up a book after working for so long. It’s satisfying when the dominoes start falling and you’re saying goodbye to different characters, and all the things you set up for hundreds and hundreds of pages are finally coming to fruition. I think the way that last forty pages are organized came off pretty well, so I can still go back and feel pretty proud about the ending sections.
Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel L’American is forthcoming from Random House and her fiction has appeared in several publications including Granta. She’s a 2013 recipient of the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writers Fellowship.