Q & A with Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad starts with a realistic depiction of slavery and goes on to feature literal underground railroads and many other ahistorical elements. What was your intent in constructing this type of blended narrative, as opposed to straight-ahead historical fiction?
The book began with the question: "What if the Underground Railroad were an actual underground railroad... and every state it traveled through a different state of American possibility?" So from its conception, it wasn't going to stick to the facts. You pick the right narrative tool for the job you want to do, and straight realism wasn't going to cut it--the "facts" couldn't accommodate the "truths" I wanted to tell.
You make direct reference to Gulliver's Travels: "The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home." Except for the fact that Cora has no home, that seems to accurately describe Cora's journey from state to state--each posing its unique difficulties--over the course of the book. Did you deliberately pattern The Underground Railroad after Gulliver's Travels? If so, why?
I didn't start with Swift in mind, but it seemed if my character was going on a journey through different states/lands, the association that came to mind was, "Oh, you mean like Gulliver's Travels, Colson?" Is it also the structure of The Odysseyand Pilgrim's Progress? Maybe so. The structure of most adventure stories, a series of escapades? Most of the things Swift critiques and satirizes in his book are over my head--the religious and political scandals of Britain in the 18th century--but it was useful to keep Gulliver in my head when I was conceptualizing the book. Safe to say, there are fewer jokes in The Underground Railroad, and you're right that Cora has no home to return to between states.
There are ways that Cora's plucky but faltering escape from bondage can be seen as a metaphor for the African-American experience in the United States, post-emancipation. Cora notes: "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits." Many Americans today don't seem to understand that the African-American struggle didn't end with emancipation. Did you intend your book as a kind of corrective?
I'm not incredibly interested in what people do or don't know about history and I'm not out to educate anyone. But American history certainly is good material for a novelist, so lucky me.
For all its many trying passages, The Underground Railroad has moments of genuine hope. In books such as The Noble Hustle, you have hardly presented yourself as an optimistic individual. As a self-proclaimed anhedonic, did you ever have to make a conscious effort to avoid the nihilism and despair that often come hand in hand with meditating on terrible crimes?
If you didn't have hope you'd die--I think that ties Zone One and The Underground Railroad together. Even if it's an unrealistic hope. How to persevere in the face of disaster? As for keeping distance from the material... the deeper I got in the research, and the more I realized what I'd have to put the characters through if I wanted to be faithful to history, the more depressed I got. It was tough to write.
You write: "Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's head that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world." Am I wrong in thinking that lines such as these as well as well as certain aspects of Cora's personality are autobiographical?
I don't see myself much in Cora. I like poetry, but no, I'm not much of a churchgoer, that is true. If I had to name my most autobiographical book, it'd be The Colossus of New York, strange as it sounds. Without the filter of a character or a narrative, there's a bunch of me all over that book.
Did the choice of subject matter or protagonist require a major stylistic shift on your part? Would you agree that The Underground Railroad has simpler, more accessible prose as opposed to the dense, abstract language that characterized books such as The Intuitionist? If so, what is the purpose of that change?
Again, you pick the right tool for the matter at hand. The narrator of The Intuitionist is not the same as the narrator of Sag Harbor, and neither of them is the narrator of The Underground Railroad. The voice in the book came to me more quickly than it usually does when I start a book, and seemed to fit what I was up to. Since I do change genres and subject matter a lot, finding the right voice for each new project is part of the territory.
Your book foregrounds Cora but also features a few chapters from the perspectives of other characters, including the villainous slave catcher Ridgeway. How did you go about getting into the head of a man who, among other crimes, captures runaway slaves for fun and profit?
It's my job. If you're lucky, you're animating all your characters, big and small, so that they live and breathe in a realistic fashion. You take what you know about yourself, other people, the world, and use it make your characters real on the page. And you also make stuff up and invent plausible psychologies and hope it comes together.
The Underground Railroad examines a number of deeply held ideologies regarding the American Experiment, often in conflict with each other. Do you continue to find anything inspiring about the promise of America, if you ever did?
The American idea is certainly a fine one, even if we've botched its execution. I suppose things get better by degrees. Like, I'm not property. I have two kids, so I have to believe the world will start improving at a quicker pace.
Could you speak about the character of Homer, the odd black boy who drives Ridgeway's coach and serves him loyally? He is portrayed almost as demonic--does he represent anything in particular in your mind?
Homer's gonna Homer!'
When you've written a book about race, let alone several, you must know that in interviews, author events, etc., you'll be continually asked about one of the most difficult questions in American life. Do you ever wish you could simply say what you needed to say in your novel and have that be the end of it? Touching the third rail of American discourse again and again must be exhausting.
Well, there are only so many ways to phrase an answer, so that gets exhausting, but events are always a nice way to end the day. I'm lucky to have any readers at all, let alone ones that stick with me from book to book, so when people take the time out of their busy lives to come and see you, it's really fortifying.
You have such a heterogeneous body of work--any idea what's next?
I think it's going to take place in New York City in the 1960s--and that's all I can say! Trying different kinds of stories, with their different narrative strategies and problems to solve keeps the work interesting. Figuring out what makes this genre tick, compared to another type of story--it's scary but fun.
-Q&A courtesy of Shelf Awareness
The Barnes & Noble Review
By now you've probably heard of Colson Whitehead's sixth novel, The Underground Railroad. Soon after publication, it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club and quickly rose to the top spot of the New York Times bestsellers list. This must be something of an oddity: Oprah's blessing has compelled so many American readers to buy a literary novel about a runaway slave girl that the book has become a large- scale cultural commodity.
Whitehead must be satisfied and intrigued simultaneously. He is, after all, a superb novelist worthy of wide attention and a great "scholar" of the American language of advertisement and commerce i.e., capitalism. His novels seem to tell us: be wary of American hype and the way it can promote, beautifully and powerfully, bright emptiness and elegant trash. They're also saying: Hype can obscure or mask what is truly beautiful and powerful about the thing under spotlight. Behind the hype here is Whitehead working as master craftsman.
The Underground Railroad's fifteen year-old- protagonist, Cora, escapes from the Randall Plantation in Georgia. Running alongside Caesar, another fugitive from the plantation, Cora steals away to South Carolina. They ride there in a ramshackle railcar attached to a locomotive that runs through a dugout railroad tunnel several hundred feet below ground. Here, Whitehead turns the historical, figurative Underground Railroad, the surreptitious freedom routes, into a real freedom machine.
Throughout Railroad, Whitehead maintains his trademark dexterous, loose prose style while heightening its efficiency. Always adept at drawing fascinating scenes, his set pieces here come off with dazzling precision. Early in the novel, for example, when a young man named, Blake, a new slave to the Randall Plantation, tramples her prized garden and replaces it with a house for his dog, Cora understands that her response must demonstrate more than anger.
Her first blow brought down the roof of the doghouse, and a squeal for the dog, who had just had his tail half- severed . . . Her second blow wounded the left side of the doghouse gravely and her last put it out of its misery. She stood there, heaving. Both hands on the hatchet. The hatchet wavered in the air, in a tug of war with a ghost, but the girl did not falter. Cora's quick hatchet job is the opening clause of her message to Blake; she delivers the second clause with her eyes: "You may get the better of me, but it will cost you."
Cora also knows how to make her eyes inscrutable with vacancy: to be understood is to be found out, and the consequences of that are disastrous. Following James Randall's sudden death, his brother, Terrance, announces that their neighboring farms will become one plantation. Big Anthony, one of James's slaves, uses the upheaval of the transition to attempt an escape. When Big Anthony is captured, Terrance punishes him in a manner meant to shame the devil and Simon Legree.
Over two days, Big Anthony is tortured publicly. On the third day, he's "doused in oil and roasted," while Terrance's guests look on sipping spiced rum and he addresses the slaves of the newly conjoined farms. Laying out the new rules and performance quotas, Terrance moves through the group, making appraisals. When he turns to Cora, he slips his hand into her shift, cups her breast, and squeezes. In the moment, Cora doesn't move. "No one had moved since the beginning of his address, not even to pinch their noses to keep out the smell of Big Anthony's roasting flesh." In rapid succession, Cora detaches herself for the lurid spectacle, realizes "she had not been his and now she was his," and decides secretly and instantly to join Caesar, who has already approached her with a plan for escape.
With those scenes Whitehead establishes a brutal, vicious world wherein violence rises as easily as breathing. In this world, any bit of physical freedom is luxurious enough to seduce fugitives into lethargy. When Caesar and Cora arrive in South Carolina, they find themselves in a kind of parallel South, one in which they receive new names and positions with a labor and housing organization aiding runaway slaves. Life here is orderly and almost utopian by comparison to the suffering on the plantation. Offered opportunities for education, work, and money in an apparently serenely segregated new society, they come to enjoy freedom's pleasures. Of course, their confidence blinds them to potential trouble.
Cora takes a post in the Museum of Natural Wonders, performing in large-scale, live-action dioramas. The new museum displays a series of habitats illustrating critical events and scenes from American history, including "Scenes from Darkest Africa," "Life on the Slave Ship," and "Typical Day on the Plantation." In rotation with two other young women, Cora acts out these three vignettes during her workday.
One afternoon, as a group of white children examine her performance in the Ship scene, Cora returns their gaze, considering the "many inaccuracies and contradictions" in all the habitats and their effects on "the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting."
She's reminded of a young boy on the Randall Plantation who'd been trained to recite the Declaration of Independence. Though she doesn't understand all its language, she realizes that
. . . the white men who wrote it didn't understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land . . . Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. Cora's ruminations distill a central strain in African-American literary intellectual and political thought from Harriet Tubman to James Baldwin. In Between the World and Me, Ta- Nehisi Coates offers a version of this claim in his arguments about "The Dream," the advertisement-quality American placidity that thrives on the plundering of black bodies.
Whitehead gives Cora a voracious and capacious intelligence in this novel. Her psychological self is fully intact. She notices the world and digests it critically. Cora even notices that the dioramas make her the spectacle. Though she's not roasting alive, there's violence in the doctored, dishonest history promulgated in her museum performances. Her critique is affirmed when she comes to learn more about the way the outwardly benevolent South Carolina project ultimately plans for her body. The move from plantation to industrial modernity is not, as it turns out, a journey toward a straightforwardly better world.
But Cora's problems turn out to be even more urgent: a slave catcher named Ridgeway trails her in hot pursuit. Especially skillful and philosophical about his chosen profession, Ridgeway is driven to capture Cora because years earlier, he'd been unable to find and return her mother, Mabel, to the Randall Plantation. His repeat appearances in the story bring to mind a stray character out of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a personification of the chaos and brutality deeply embedded in American history.
When she learns that Ridgeway has arrived in the Palmetto State, Cora escapes to North Carolina, this time alone on the clandestine transport line. But North Carolina doesn't offer any comforts, only a more draconian race code and fresh spectacles of black dehumanization. During this sequence Whitehead openly improvises on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, tucking Cora away in an attic compartment. Through a peephole in the crawlspace, Cora watches the townspeople gather in the square for their weekly "coon show" and accompanying violence. At night, with her host, Martin, she discusses the contingent relationship between European immigration to the South and black degradation in and out of bondage. "Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room," Whitehead writes, "America remained her warden."
Cora makes it out of the attic and finds haven in yet another state, but she must free herself twice more before the novel's end. Each of the long sequences that cover Cora's experience in a new place - - South Carolina to Indiana is marked at its opening with language from wanted posters for fugitive slaves. The rewards are for $30–$50. In lieu of riffing on advertising or pop culture, Whitehead uses these posters to remind us that it's really American capitalism chasing after Cora.
In a late passage, Whitehead's omniscient narrator notes that an endless roster of black bodies have generated America's economy:
List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. The human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living . . . [O]n the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. Cora, like the other slaves, runaways, and free people of color we meet throughout The Underground Railroad, is as much a product of early American consumer culture as she is a producer of the materials cotton, rice, tobacco that become consumable goods. Whitehead recognizes this irony that black people have been products within and generators of American economy as central to African-American identity.
There are moments throughout the work when Whitehead invokes in his own voice Toni Morrison's lyricism or Edward P. Jones's oracular vision for his characters' futures, perhaps just to remind us that he knows the tradition that he's extending. There are touches of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, too. More important, The Underground Railroad emerges from Whitehead's specific oeuvre. He's developed Cora so that her fierceness and courage are evident to readers even before she imagines her own freedom she must come to learn her own mettle through trials. In other words, Cora is the mater familias for Whitehead's protagonists: Lila Mae in The Intuitionist, J in John Henry Days, the nameless neologician in Apex Hides the Hurt, Benji in Sag Harbor, and Mark Spitz in Zone One.
Strangely, Zone One resonates throughout The Underground Railroad from Whitehead's predilection for underground railway systems to the final, riotous scenes of mayhem in both works. Taking in the North Carolina town at dusk, Cora notices that "the whites wandered the park in the growing dark." To her eyes they are ghosts "caught between two worlds: between the reality of their crimes and the hereafter denied them for those crimes." Cora's description sounds like Mark Spitz describing zombies. What if we thought of nineteenth-century Southerners who found sustenance in lynching bees as skels and stragglers, rabid, flesh-hungry zombies and those beings caught between human life and zombification, respectively?
To me, the most startling realization about The Underground Railroad is that its successful sales numbers will mean that with each purchase, Cora will be born into slavery, endure the Randall Plantation, liberate herself, endure capture, ride the subterranean railroad into ever dangerous northern spaces, witness rampant murder, and limp in pursuit of freedom all over again, ad infinitum.
Walton Muyumba is an associate professor of English at Indiana University-Bloomington. He has written for the Oxford American and the Los Angeles Review of Books and is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.
Reviewer: Walton Muyumba