The Africana Studies Institute partnered with the Creative Writing Program, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, English Department, History Department, Humanities Institute and Office of the Provost to bring the #1 New York Times bestselling author Colson Whitehead to UConn Thursday. Readers of his popular books “The Underground Railroad,” “The Noble Hustle,” “Zone One,” “Sag Harbor,” “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days,” among others, filled the seats, aisles and back of Konover to hear him speak.
Assistant Professor Sean Forbes introduced Whitehead by giving an overview of his diverse array of books. These books range from stories about African Americans escaping slavery, elevator operators and now one about juvie, “The Nickel Boys,” which came out this past July. As Whitehead’s writing career progresses, it seems as if he wins every literary prize available, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award for Fiction. When Forbes finally brought Whitehead to the podium, the packed auditorium erupted in applause.
Whitehead greeted his audience with a great sense of humor, joking that most Thursday nights he’d be stuck in his apartment crying over his regrets. He then plunged into his life’s journey to book writing. He talked about his love of Stephen King, his college desire to write and his college inability to do so. He said that it was only after college that he got his chance to write for a literary magazine called “The Village Voice.” It was through his job there that he finally began writing fiction like he had always wanted to.
Whitehead said his first book had been about a Gary Coleman-type child star, and that to his surprise, no one wanted to publish it. Retelling this story prompted him in playing McArthur Park’s “Someone Left My Cake Out In the Rain” for about a minute, wordlessly. After he listed each publishing house that had rejected him and asked them why they left his cake out in the rain.
The extent of rejection slips he received caused him to rethink his writing career. His description of why he couldn’t do any other career, even the ones appropriate for his slender, effeminate hands, garnered more laughs from the audience than most comedians that come to UConn usually get. Realizing he was scaring off young writers, he reminded them that even if earthly publishers don’t like their work, someone on another planet might.
Whitehead said he got his idea for “The Nickel Boys” from a newspaper account. His past novels had come out of an odd variety of inspirations, such as zombie dreams and a woman who asked him whether or not someone had investigated the cave-ins in the Underground Railroad. When he had first come up with the premise of “The Nickel Boys,” it had been during the series of instances of police brutality in 2014 that had sparked Black Lives Matter. It was then that he read a newspaper article about the unmarked graves found behind Dozier School for Boys, and shortly after finishing the “Underground Railroad,” he realized he needed to write “The Nickel Boys” to work his way through Trump’s America.
Whitehead read a segment of “The Nickel Boys” in an even, intriguing tone, captivating his audience with his every word. Based on this short passage alone, it was clear that this new book is just as captivating and well-written as his former award-winning novels.
“I thought it was powerful,” Ajhanai Newton, a doctoral student in sport management, said. “I think the analysis made between the physical event that actually happened in Florida and hearing these stories, especially as a black person, and seeing someone tell these stories in a way that’s connecting fiction with nonfiction and the power and history behind it is just breathtaking.”
After his reading, Whitehead jokingly said he is debating between two ideas for a new book: A romance based during the Russian Revolution and a science-fiction set in the Star Wars universe. He said he hopes to answer some of those unanswered questions from Star Wars, like why R2-D2 doesn’t have a voice box when they clearly have the technology.
“No [I won’t buy his books], just because I’m not interested in that kind of style, but I definitely like how he read it,” Emily Tang, a first-semester chemistry major, said.
Whitehead continued to be hilarious during the Q and A. One student tentatively asked why so many negative adjectives were used to describe Connecticut in “Zone One.” Whitehead laughed and explained that he figured in the zombie apocalypse there should be a shitty place that’s shittier than all the other places, and New Jersey seemed too obvious.
“I thought it was really brilliant,” Newton said. “I actually have never physically read any of his books, but I’ve heard of him and I’m in a political science class where we were instructed to go so I came. And I am now excited to go buy a few of his books and actually read them.”
Whitehead ended the night with a piece of advice for aspiring writers in the audience:
“Read, read and read to find out what kind of writer you want to be and write, write and write to find out what kind of writer you actually are.”
Photo courtesy of @whatshouldireadnext Instagram. Thumbnail photo courtesy of @les_livres_ Instagram.
Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.