Colson Whitehead and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah joined us in the Hague last night to talk about writing and racism in America. Pulitzer Prize winner, Colson has just published his 6th novel, ‘The Nickle Boys’ in July this year and was recently hailed as America’s storyteller by Time magazine. While Nana has just released his first collection of short stories, ‘Friday Black’, to wide acclaim. Representing two generations of African American writers, this was the first time these two appeared together on stage. Both are highly eloquent speakers whose frequent mix of humour and anger are deeply powerful, on both stage and page.
Colson Whitehead’s dry, sometimes caustic sense of humour is simultaneously urbane and disturbing. He tells us that he wanted to write from a young age – ‘it seemed like a cool way to make a living.’ The young Colson particularly liked science fiction and horror genres. He tells us how he dreamt of writing, ‘The Black Shining’, referencing Stephen King’s seminal horror story later made into a film with Jack Nicholson. He describes his parents as ‘very straight’, they hoped the young Colson would go on to become a lawyer or a vet or similar. But Whitehead is sanguine in his summary of his struggles and success as a writer – ‘there were times when it didn’t go well and I was broke. But there was nothing else I wanted to do except write,’ he says, shrugging.
Whitehead’s love of horror and gothic genres played an important part in his first widely acclaimed novel, The Underground Railroad. Written in ‘the happier, Obama days’, the novel includes fantastical elements that allow him to make links between black American history and the eugenics of the Nazi regime in Germany. Colson explains that he sees fantasy as a spectrum which one can adjust according to the story you want to tell. Magic realism he explains, would be closer to the realism side of the spectrum while a zombie horror story would be on the opposite end. In The Nickle Boys, Whitehead takes an almost journalistic approach to his story. He describes his writing as a telescope that simply revealed stars that were already there, there was no need for him to invent new ones.
This is perhaps an unusual metaphor given the real life tragedies that the novel charts. The book focuses on the Nickel Academy, based on the Florida School for Boys, a reform school that functioned for over one hundred years (1900 – 2011) in spite of periodic investigations into abuse, mysterious deaths and neglect cases. ’The guilty go unpunished and the innocent suffer’ Colson states bluntly with reference to this story. He explains that his desire to tell this tale of horror, set in 1960’s Florida, stemmed from a need to highlight how little society cares about poor people, especially poor black people. Although the state of Florida has now issued a formal apology, no financial reparations have been made and Colson is not hopeful of this happening anytime soon.
The Pulitzer Prize winner admits that if he is happiest at home, ‘When I leave the house there are so many people,’ he tells us blandly. Colson admits that he kept planning to visit the school buildings in Florida but kept finding reasons to put it off. Finally, Hurricane Michael took care of it by destroying large parts of the premises a year and a half ago. He admits that he feels too much sorrow and rage to go to speak in Florida just yet, although he has received many invitations. In Colson Whitehead we sense there is a man who has dedicated his life to writing about painful, difficult issues and the price is his own struggle to remain positive in the face of it all. ‘We’re kind of a fucked-up species, and I don’t see that changing any time soon’ he tells us. Perhaps this is where the new generation has an important role to play. In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, we find a more cautiously optimistic perspective.
Asked why he writes, Nana explains that from a young age he ‘became suspicious of material things’ because experience taught him that these things could be taken away. ‘I wrote because no one could take that away from me.’ He also mentions his mother’s influence on his life, describing her as ‘an old Ghanaian woman who is a huge part of every part of my life’. Growing up in Spring Valley, New York, Nana was at college when the Trayvon Martin murder occurred. The opening story of his collection, The Fickelstein 5, is inspired by this event as is one of his later stories, Zimmer Land. The latter is a theme park named after Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, and is a place where white people can go to act out brutal fantasies against people of colour. Written pre-Trump, these stories are now seen as less absurd and surreal than when they were written.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah explains that he wants to use fiction to ‘expand the collective imagination’. By this he means using his writing to question entrenched systems, those that are seen by most as the ‘default settings for our society’. He includes capitalism, sexism, racism, poverty, injustice and incarceration in this category. Although Nana’s stories frequently use dystopian themes, horror and violence, he is hopeful that these ‘strange, crazed’ tales will galvanize readers into action. Both Colson and Nana clearly see their role as writers as bringers of truth and enlightenment although the manner in which they choose to convey their messages are as varied as they are entertaining. Perhaps denial is ‘an important glue keeping us all together as a society’ as Whitehead wryly maintains, but both he and Nana are surely among those working hard to counter these tendencies. Souwie Buis 12th September 2019
Photo by and © Michael Lionstar