Colson Whitehead on labels in literature, wearing genre “drag,” and getting lost in New York.
Image courtesy of the author
Without Colson Whitehead, I would have left the song “Roxanne Roxanne” by UTFO consigned to the bins of electro and early hip-hop I abandoned years ago. Luckily, it was rescued in the pages of Sag Harbor.
Without Colson Whitehead, and Sag Harbor, I wouldn’t have written my first novel. There was something about its episodic structure, its well-timed comedy; instead of relying on aggressive signposting of jokes or employ “ker-azee” similes to get the laugh (as many “funny” books do), Whitehead simply offers quotable dialogue and brilliantly observed characters.
Colson Whitehead is funny. And he’s one of those brave writers that writers aspire to emulate because he never rests in any comfort zone: He flips genres, from noir to bildungsroman to zombie horror to history, while maintaining a steady voice, with those delectable turns of phrase, often mistakenly described as wry. It’s more than that: it’s knowing, it’s full of energy.
That’s Colson Whitehead for me. From The Intuitionist’s surreal study of spirituality and race, against the backdrop of elevator inspector cults, to his depiction of the horror and banality of living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in his latest novel, Zone One, and that Twitter account, lighting up with surreal pop culture jokes, well… that’s why this guy brings out the sycophant in me. He is a writer I envy.
I recently interviewed Colson as part of the Subaltern podcast, speaking with him over Skype about zombies, genres, race and New York.
—Nikesh Shukla for Guernica
Guernica: You’re often referred to as an African-American author. People still refer to me as a British-Asian writer, and I’ve always thought that it’s something I could shake off after a couple more novels. Do you wear the label of African-American author proudly?
Colson Whitehead: Twenty years ago, when I started writing, I didn’t define myself as an African-American writer. And then you write books and you’re focused on what’s inside your books, and that kind of term is generally used on the outside, by the critical establishment. These days I find myself wanting to avoid being pigeon-holed, ghettoized, held in a different category [than] other authors. And when people ask me if I’m a black writer, or just a writer who happens to be black, I tend to say that it’s either a dumb question or a question which happens to be dumb. I’m an African-American writer, I’m a lazy writer, I’m a writer who likes to watch The Wire, I’m a writer who likes to eat a lot of steak.
Guernica: Are there any ways in which the label is at all useful?
Colson Whitehead: When I was a kid, I’d go to the African-American section in the bookstore, and I’d try and find African-American people I hadn’t read before. So in that sense the category was useful to me. But it’s not useful to me as I write. I don’t sit down to write an African-American zombie story or an African-American story about elevators. I’m writing a story about elevators which happens to talk about race in different ways. Or I’m writing a zombie novel which doesn’t have that much to do with being black in America. That novel is really about survival.
Guernica: It’s not mentioned until quite late in Zone One that the character is black. It’s not something that drives the story.
Colson Whitehead: Yeah, on one level it’s not that important. The apocalypse is what I was thinking of. I’m not sure how the debate plays out in your country, England, but over here, once Obama was elected, there was a certain sense in which people said ‘Oh, so no one’s racist anymore.’ As if some magical spell had been cast and suddenly no one was racist here anymore. Obviously that isn’t true.
I think you’re only post-racial when you stop asking if you’re post-racial. When the Neanderthals stopped asking themselves if they were in a post-saber tooth society, that’s when they were post-saber tooth.
Guernica: I feel now that the ’80s are back in fashion in the UK, it’s almost like racism’s back in fashion too. The other day I was called a “Paki” to my face and my first reaction was that it sounded weird, because I hadn’t been called that since childhood. I think we might be behind American at the moment.
Colson Whitehead: I think the discussion here is very superficial. The recent American election campaigns showed this. There was race-baiting, and racially-coded language used by some Republican candidates. There are underlying narratives which are still pretty potent. I think you’re only post-racial when you stop asking if you’re post-racial. When the Neanderthals finally stopped asking themselves if they were in a post-saber tooth society, that’s when they were post-saber tooth.
Guernica: Although maybe that’s meta-post-racial, because they’re still talking about the thing that they no longer are anymore…
Colson Whitehead: [laughs] That’s true. We don’t go around saying, “Oh, I haven’t seen a saber tooth for a while.” I think it’s when we finally stop asking the question of whether we are or not in this place or that place—that’s when we’re finally done with it.
Guernica: Your books often have an allegorical element, but also span genres. I think you’ve probably done the noir allegory, the historical, the coming of age allegory, horror allegory… How do you decide where to go next, and how do you decide what to commit to with your projects?
Colson Whitehead: When you put it like that it sounds a bit perverse. I think I just don’t want to do the same thing over and over again, so on one level each book becomes an antidote to the one [that] came before. So The Intuitionist is very compact and linear, with a very strong plot, and the character is very repressed. I was really sick of that book when I was done with it. John Henry Days has a lot of different voices, a much bigger cast, has a lot more humor. And that allows me to just challenge myself: can I do a book that has less plot?; can I learn the rules of a horror novel, and adapt it to my own concerns about the world?; can I do a coming of age novel that doesn’t remind me of all the stuff I hate about coming of age novels? So I’m trying to keep it fresh for me. I’m just trying to not bore myself. And if I can do a detective novel, and if I can do a horror novel, then why do it again? To keep the work challenging I have to keep moving.
Guernica: And what’s next?
Colson Whitehead: I’m not really sure. I’ve been trying to take more of a break than I usually take. I’ve been making notes for something, and just trying to rest and read some books and hang out with my kid. Trying to get off the treadmill for a while.
Guernica: Do you view your work as allegorical, in a sense that it’s commenting, at one level, on the concerns of the time in which it was written?
Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist and Apex Hides The Hurt definitely have their allegorical gestures, and I’ve never really thought about Zone One in that way but I think just having characters moving across a wasteland will always seem allegorical to some. That sort of aspect is more or less present depending on what I’m trying to do in each book. I like the way that elevators in The Intuitionist allowed me to do a kind of cultural critique. I think the critique of social systems plays out differently in Sag Harbor. And I think each book has its own way of accommodating my concerns, whether it’s about race, America, technology, the city. Zone One allowed me to talk about the city in a certain type of way [that was different from], for example, The Intuitionist.
Guernica: Did Zone One cause any backlash among zombie nerds?
Colson Whitehead: It’s funny. When I started that book I felt I came from a very sincere place of zombie love. I’m from the first generation that had the VCR, so in Junior High before I started going out I spent my weekends renting horror movies. Watching those was a way my family bonded. So first and foremost I wanted to salute Romero’s work and post-Apocalyptic movies I’d seen as a kid. I felt like people who liked that kind of stuff would embrace it, and that the so-called literary establishment, whatever that is, would be a bit more reluctant, or snobbish. And actually, I think people who read my previous books embraced Zone One even if they’d never seen a horror movie or read a horror novel. And the gore hounds who are like ‘How come he’s just wandering around thinking the whole time?’ obviously want more action. But I kept all my trademark boring parts in the book.
I was wearing realist drag in the same way that I have worn detective drag or horror drag in my other books.
Guernica: With a few zombie films like 28 Days Later, I understand certain zombie fans got upset that the zombies in the movie were able to run…
Colson Whitehead: I guess I think the world’s big enough for all kinds of zombies. You can have yours and I can have mine. I think by going with slow zombies in Zone One I maybe have been asserting my own kind of zombie snobbery, but I don’t begrudge the youngsters their tackling, running, jumping zombies.
Guernica: Your books often make your readers laugh. What is it that makes you laugh?
Colson Whitehead: I guess just people being people. Stepping back and observing the absurdity of our daily interactions. I talked about watching horror movies as a kid, but I also grew up watching the movies of George Carlin and Richard Pryor at an early age. So I think in my fiction there’s a kind of cultural critique of what they’re doing. And if I can accommodate my sense of humor in my books I’m glad. John Henry Days, which has a lot of different kinds of jokes in it, was a nice relief to write. Sag Harbor is funny, I hope. As I get older and write more books I’m definitely allowing the humorous side of my personality more rein in my work.
Guernica: One of the reasons Sag Harbor interests me is that lots of writers write a coming of age story as their first book. But you had a body of work established and then wrote Sag Harbor, which is quite a straight coming of age tale, and it seemed to get more attention than the previous novels.
Colson Whitehead: That novel is my take on a traditionally realist genre, the coming of age novel. I was wearing realist drag in the same way that I have worn detective drag or horror drag in my other books. And I think by avoiding certain expectations of plot and a certain kind of narrative satisfaction I’m doing my own kind of version of it.
Guernica: There’s a sense in which each chapter of Sag Harbor contains its own discrete story, is its own episode.
Colson Whitehead: Yeah. I don’t think the chapters can stand alone, they work best in concert, but I did want each chapter to have its own self-contained topic that it was concerned with, as if they were mini essays on summer, or being a kid, or finding your voice. And I wanted to be true to the rhythms of summer by not packing the book with too much action. My character Benji is a bit smarter on Labor Day than he was at the beginning of the summer, and that’s the most that the majority of us can hope for as we go through life. I slowed down the action and thought about what happens in each day.
Guernica: The book also came across as an ode to Hip Hop. Do you still listen to that kind of music?
Colson Whitehead: Not so much with new Hip Hop. That book took me back to ’80s music, and I’ve kind of been stuck in a nostalgic ’80s Hip Hop, post-punk groove ever since I wrote it. I’m not really up on what’s new. I’m still listening to Run DMC twenty-five years later. In the same way that the baby-boomers in America were forcing ’60s music and Motown down our throats, now people of my generation are forcing Tears For Fears and old Hip Hop upon others.
Guernica: New York is such a prevalent backdrop to your work. What do you love about the city? Are there things you love that visitors now won’t discover?
Colson Whitehead: Well I guess just what it was like to live here in the ’70s. It was so dirty, you were constantly on guard from predators, and it’s so cleaned up now that thinking about how it used to be with the danger and the garbage and buildings on fire. I didn’t have to do that much research to present a post-apocalyptic New York in Zone One because I basically grew up in that New York. That old New York is gone, and that’s one thing that’s undiscoverable now but I explore in my fiction. Another thing I love about New York is getting lost but not worrying, just wandering and wandering, knowing that there’s always a subway only ten blocks away in any direction. There’s always a new neighborhood to discover, a new place to lose your bearings in, and yet however alien it seems you can escape. You can always get a cab. All of life’s problems can be solved by hailing a cab.
Colson Whitehead is the author of the national best seller Sag Harbor and the novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Apex Hides the Hurt, as well as The Colossus of New York, a collection of essays. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.
Nikesh Shukla is the author of Coconut Unlimited and short stories that have appeared on BBC Radio 4, The Guardian, Book Slam and the Best British Short Stories 2013. The Subaltern podcast—where a neurotic author talks to other authors about their neuroses, interests, writing and whatever else—can be downloaded for free. Nikesh is on Twitter: @nikeshshukla