Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel The Underground Railroad took 16 years before it saw the light of day. The American author first thought of writing the story in 2000 but felt he wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off. He decided to wait. When it was finally published in 2016, the inventive and sensitive historical novel about Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and her escape to the North, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In Whitehead’s hands, the Underground Railroad – as the secret network of escape routes and safe houses for black slaves was known as in mid-19th century America – becomes a physical train. Through the brutality of Cora’s life on the plantation and her harrowing yet fiercely tenacious quest for freedom, chased at every step by a terrifyingly cruel slave catcher, Whitehead presents a damning portrait of a period of American history.
Reading about the horrors of racial violence in the book, it’s hard to miss the parallels to present-day America, particularly the brutality of law enforcement. In North Carolina, as Cora hides in the attic of a house, Whitehead writes: “Free blacks carried proof of manumission or risked being conveyed into the clutches of slavery; sometimes they were smuggled to the auction block anyway. Rogue blacks who did not surrender could be shot.” In another incident, evocative of public shootings such as in Charleston, North Carolina in 2015, a room full of black people is attacked by a whooping group of white men with guns.
“It’s not something I have to hit the reader on the head with, it’s there,” Whitehead told Scroll.in at the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he was speaking about his novel. “Reading slaves and free men writing about being stopped by slave patrollers...the language they used about being interrogated is the same language I’ve used when I’ve been stopped by police or handcuffed for being black in the wrong space at the wrong time.”
The unwavering sharpness of the novel has led to an upcoming screen adaptation by Barry Jenkins, the award-winning director of films such as Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Also coming out later this year is Whitehead’s newest novel, The Nickel Boys, the story of two boys sentenced to a reform school in 1960s Florida, when anti-black laws were still in force.
Excerpts from an interview with the author:
You’ve said in the past that as a kid you were disappointed to find out that the Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual train, and that’s how you depicted it in your book. Was there more to that decision than the joy of being able to play with reality that fiction gives?
There’s no sort of rule about what I can write. I’ve written books that are realistic and books that have some sort of fantastic element. For me, having made the metaphorical train into a literal train and having each state that Cora goes through be an alternate America had a lot of different possibilities. I could make my own narrative about how America came to be. That childhood fantasy gave me the opportunity to make my own story out of it.
What does writing about a certain period in history through the lens of fantastical fiction allow you or readers that strictly historical narratives do not?
The book I just finished, The Nickel Boys, is a straightforward historical narrative. It takes place in the ’60s. By having a fantastic structure to The Underground Railroad I could have my own reckoning with history, take something that happened in 19th century, something from the 20th century like the Holocaust or eugenics and move them around and put them in conversation. There’s an advantage to rejecting chronology and there’s also the pleasure of taking reality and getting your own story out of it, as in The Nickel Boys.
One of the characters in The Underground Railroad says to Cora, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails”. You, of course, imagined an actual underground train for this novel. The railroad is involved in your second novel, John Henry Days as well. Is there something about the rail network in America that interests you strongly?
You know, I write about technology. In The Intuitionist, it was elevators. In John Henry Days, I was thinking about the railroad as it actually was. I was trying to explore how technology changes our culture, our idea of ourselves. An elevator enables the city: we run out of land and we start building up. The railroad connects us: East coast to the West coast. I was comparing that to the internet – the information superhighway – how does late 1990s internet culture parallel the connections of the railroad 100 years earlier.
Strangely, with The Underground Railroad, the train is actually the least important part. I spent only about 10 pages down there. It’s only to get Cora from place to place. So the train functions differently in the two books. But I guess if you broke it down, 20% of my novels have railroads in them so I’m not sure what that means!
I am curious about why you chose to have a woman be your primary character. Did you always imagine it that way when you first started thinking about the novel?
Slavery is terrible for both men and women. But the female slave has a different dimension of horror. You’re supposed to have babies, because that means more property for your master. They aren’t yours, they belong to somebody else. And I thought that was worth exploring. I thought the mother-daughter dynamic between Cora and Mabel was a fruitful avenue for her psychology. And I had a bunch of male protagonists in a row so I wanted to mix it up. By writing about different characters who aren’t like me, I find different ways of telling stories and not doing the same thing over and over again.
There is so much violence inflicted on Cora by so many characters but it doesn’t feel gratuitous at any point. Is that something you were very aware of during the writing process?
Well, it’s not exploitation. It’s hopefully as true a depiction of slavery as I can do. People died on the plantation, they were brutalised. Terrible things happen to Cora and the people she runs with and that’s what it was. And hopefully, that’s not gratuitous. It’s not exploiting the violence and sexual assault to terrify and titillate. It’s an important part of the story so it had to go in.
You read a lot of historical slave narratives for this book. Was immersing yourself in them so wholly exhausting and emotionally draining?
Once I started writing, it wasn’t. I did all of my emotional heavy lifting when I was realising what I would have to put Cora through in order to be realistic, and realising my own family’s history with slavery, you know. It’s a miracle that I’m here. That this or that ancestor wasn’t killed in the Middle Passage across the Atlantic or on the plantation and they somehow survived to have children. It was very hard.
And it was very hard following the book up with The Nickel Boys. I was very exhausted by the depictions of the institutional terrors of the plantation and the juvenile delinquents incarceration system. When I finished The Nickel Boys, I played video games for six weeks just to get my mind off it.
Part of what is so affecting about the book is Cora’s slow move towards potential happiness, including romantic happiness. It’s something she’s not even open to in the beginning of the book and she almost has it towards the end but it’s taken away yet again. Was that hard for you to do?
By the end, on Valentine farm and when we find out what happens to her mother, it all happens in 15 pages. Right after that section, there’s a runaway slave ad that’s for Cora. It’s basically me apologising to Cora. It’s not a runaway slave ad that actually exists. The last line of it says “she was never property” and that’s really me apologising to my fictional character for all the terrible things I put her through.
Are all the rest of the runaway slave ads in the novel historically sourced?
Yeah, they’re all from newspapers in North Carolina. I’ve changed words here and there but 95% of each one is real.
You write in the book at one point about a plantation owner, that “cotton had made him a slave, too”. Did you use such a strong word with its historical connotations to emphasise the capitalistic underpinnings of it all?
You know, slavery is inextricable with capitalism. You made people into commodities. The slave system makes America into the economic engine that it is and whether you’re the slave catcher, the master, the slave, the guy in the newspaper who writes the runaway slave ads, you’re enmeshed in that system. Writing in 2015, which is when I was doing this, it’s hard to separate capitalism from slavery in the American state.
You write at several points in the book about black people in difficult situations turning on each other: “White men eat you up but sometimes coloured folk eat you up too”. Do you think a lot of narratives of that time tend to focus on depiction as one cohesive whole?
I’m not here to do a publicity campaign for the character of black people. There are black villains and black heroes, white heroes and white villains and that’s the variety of human characters. It’s not my duty to make every black character a perfect human being. We’re all flawed and we sometimes rise to the occasion and we sometimes don’t.
Do you find any such response from the publishing industry or a certain reading ecosystem that tries to deny a complete exploration of humanity for characters who have been historically oppressed or are from a minority group?
Yes, definitely. I never felt that. My first book is about elevator inspectors, that’s not a realistic depiction of how black people live. I think that was very true in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s when there could only be one black writer that got attention. So Richard Wright is replaced by Ralph Ellison is replaced by James Baldwin. Toni Morrison comes and the black female writer is valued and gets a lot of attention and black male writers are angry that Toni Morrison has been elevated.
Writing in the late ’90s and now, I don’t have that burden of representation. The media is pretty racist but does make small steps where I don’t get asked dumb questions like “Are you a black writer or a writer who happens to be black?”. Like Philip Roth would have been asked whether he’s a Jewish writer or a writer who happens to be Jewish. We represent ourselves. There’s no one black community, there’s no one Jewish community.
Are you closely involved with the screen adaptation of the book?
Just a few conversations to clarify things. But I’m not a filmmaker. It’s one thing to put it on the page and another on the screen. But I’m very excited. Barry Jenkins is a very talented guy and his ideas for different parts of the book have been very exciting.
We spoke about avoiding being gratuitous about the violence while writing. With a visual adaptation that becomes a whole new challenge…
You know, I had to interview him [Jenkins] before I gave permission. So I asked him if there are any other slave movies that he’s looking to for inspiration. He said, “Slave movies? No no, I’m thinking about PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master” and I was like “Okay, you got the job!”
Some of your earlier books have engaged with race and history as well but The Underground Railroad is the most sweeping depiction so far, of how prevalent racial violence was and how slavery functioned at a certain time. For The Nickel Boys as well, you put aside a book set in the present to work on it. Is that digging into history something you’re actively feeling the need to do in our present moment?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I think it made sense, in the fall of 2016, to write something I was engaging with – what was happening in America – for me to try and make sense of how we could elect someone like Donald Trump. But I write about race, I write about pop culture. Sometimes I’m thinking about what’s going in the country and sometimes I’m not at all.
What has the Pulitzer meant to you? Has it tugged at parts of your writing brain and been a distraction in any way?
Well, it put me in a better mood for a year. If you ask me whether it’s hard to follow up? As opposed to the “easy books”? (laughs). It’s always hard. One book is hard because you’re broke, another is hard because you’re depressed. Writing The Nickel Boys was hard because I was travelling so much and usually I like to be in one place and have six months free when I’m not teaching. So I had to learn how to write in hotels and on trains and on planes. After I finished The Underground Railroad, I could have just travelled or I could get back to work, which is what gives you pleasure.