Pulitzer win­ner tours China

Col­son White­head ex­plains how New York, post-trau­matic stress and a long ges­ta­tion helped shape his lat­est award-win­ning novel. Mei Jia re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at mei­jia@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Col­son White­head, this year’s win­ner of the Pulitzer Prize for fic­tion, who is on his first book tour in China, says he finds Bei­jing’s roads too broad to make walk­ing around en­joy­able, but Shang­hai, like New York where he grew up, is an in­cred­i­ble place to walk around.

“I love cities. They’re fas­ci­nat­ing,” he tells China Daily at the ho­tel where he is stay­ing in Bei­jing, a few hours be­fore he joins poet Xi Chuan for a talk on the theme of cities.

“A city is sort of a cal­en­dar,” White­head, 47, says. They chron­i­cle their res­i­dents’ lives and emo­tional his­tory by, for ex­am­ple, “map­ping a nice meal in Man­hat­tan, or the cor­ner where I broke up with my ex”.

For his novel The Un­der­ground Rail­road, which has won mul­ti­ple awards since it was pub­lished last year, White­head wanted to weave his home­town New York into the book, which was not that easy since it is set in the 1850s and tells the tale of Cora, a slave who makes a bid for free­dom from the Ge­or­gia plan­ta­tions us­ing the un­der­ground rail­road.

“I man­aged it with the main vil­lain, Ridge­way. He is from New York,” he says.

The novel is his sixth, and, in his words, it has had “quite a year”. It was a New York Times best-seller, won the Pulitzer and the 2016 Na­tional Book Award for fic­tion, and it has been trans­lated into 40 lan­guages. The Chi­nese ver­sion was pub­lished in 2017.

It also got rec­om­men­da­tions from Barack Obama and Oprah Win­frey.

The New York Times said he “told a story es­sen­tial to our un­der­stand­ing of the Amer­i­can past and the Amer­i­can present”.

And the Pulitzer com­mit­tee gave the book the award for its “smart meld­ing of re­al­ism and al­le­gory that com­bines the vi­o­lence of slav­ery and the drama of es­cape in a myth that speaks to con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica”.

The Un­der­ground Rail­road refers to a net­work of se­cret routes es­tab­lished dur­ing the early-to-mid 19th cen­tury to help the African-Amer­i­can slaves es­cape to the north­ern states or Canada.

White­head first con­ceived the idea of the book some 17 years ago, but he waited un­til he was fi­nally ready to be­gin writ­ing it.

White­head spent a long time do­ing re­search for his skill­fully struc­tured story. He read the 2,300 first-per­son ac­counts of slav­ery col­lected by the Fed­eral Writ­ers’ Project in the 1930s, vis­ited a his­tor­i­cal plan­ta­tion site in Louisiana and re-read clas­sics such as Toni Mor­ri­son’s Beloved.

“There’s al­ways a writer that is smarter than you and has done the writ­ing you wanted,” he says.

His re­sponse is al­ways to write some­thing that speaks to him.

“I was go­ing to have to write about life on a plan­ta­tion, my im­pres­sions of how peo­ple re­act in such sit­u­a­tions,” he says. “That meant I couldn’t write a plan­ta­tion scene that didn’t in­cor­po­rate what we know as trauma, the ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple who have sur­vived geno­ci­dal vi­o­lence such as the Holocaust.”

Writ­ing a book in 2015, there was a plenty of ma­te­rial avail­able on post-trau­matic stress, and how a per­son’s psy­chol­ogy is deformed by in­cred­i­bly bru­tal ex­pe­ri­ences.

Although Cora, the main char­ac­ter of the book, stands out as be­ing brave and able to act, White­head de­picts some of his other slave char­ac­ters in a lesser light, they gos­sip and abuse their fel­low suf­fer­ers.

The book’s trans­la­tor Kang Kai says the more “hu­man” char­ac­ters are one of the book’s at­trac­tions.

Liang Hong, a lit­er­ary critic from Ren­min Uni­ver­sity praises the book for be­ing “well struc­tured and told, re­veal­ing a mul­ti­fac­eted his­tory”.

White­head was born in New York in 1969. He grew up in Man­hat­tan to a well-off fam­ily and grad­u­ated with a BA from Har­vard Uni­ver­sity’s English de­part­ment in 1991.

He was an avid reader from child­hood and his years at Har­vard strength­ened the lit­er­ary in­flu­ences of James Joyce and Thomas Pyn­chon. He started out as a jour­nal­ist at the Vil­lage Voice, where he found some space for writ­ing fic­tion.

But although his work has now been rec­og­nized with many awards, he has had his own strug­gle to get where he is now. His first draft for a novel was re­jected by 25 pub­lish­ers and he fi­nally dropped the idea, and his par­ents re­peat­edly urged him to “get a real job” un­til his first novel was pub­lished.

“I’ve been writ­ing for 20 years. And I have books that didn’t sell copies,” he says.

But writ­ing of­fers him the most joy, and he’s now en­joy­ing his days of writ­ing, trav­el­ing and oc­ca­sional teach­ing.

His next book is set in Florida in the 1960s, and he is tak­ing his time to fin­ish it.

“Some­times I’ ll take a nap and then write a page, and then take an­other nap and fin­ish an­other page,” he says.

“My daugh­ter once asked if I had a job, and I replied we have food to eat so I’m work­ing.”

Cook­ing is his only hobby be­sides writ­ing. His first cook­book was about Sichuan food, which a friend’s mother brought back from China in the 1980s.

“It’s nice to fi­nally have the orig­i­nal ver­sion since I’m here in China,” he says.

There’s al­ways a writer that is smarter than you and has done the writ­ing you wanted.” Col­son White­head, nov­el­ist


Col­son White­head’s novel TheUn­der­groundRail­road (below) won the Pulitzer Prize and the 2016 Na­tional Book Award for fic­tion. The book has been trans­lated into 40 lan­guages.

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