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Bron Sibree interviews Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead on his novel The Underground Railroad

Published in the Sunday Times

Colson Whitehead sees a continuity in US history from the brutal days of slavery depicted in his novel to the Donald Trump present, writes Bron Sibree

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead (Little Brown)

Long before he won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his remarkable novel about a runaway slave, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead was renowned for his audacious, inventive novels that tackle subjects as diverse as elevator inspectors, zombies, or the Band-Aid industry.

They are often laugh aloud funny, sometimes darkly satirical. Yet the success of The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award, has, it seems, surprised even himself.

“Generally I’m sort of walking around in a very morose, glum sort of mood, but I’ve been in a really good mood for the last six months,” says Whitehead, who is renowned for his quick, deadpan humour off the page as well as on it. “So, despite my best instincts, I’m trying to enjoy it.”

The Underground Railroad is a heart-stopping interrogation of history and the nature of the American nation wrapped inside the story of Cora, a teenage girl born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia. Prefaced with the stories of her mother, who has, it seems, escaped, and her grandmother, who “died in the cotton”, the novel depicts the living hell that Cora has been born into with economy and power. From the moment Cora decides to accompany Caesar, a fellow slave, on a well-planned escape, the novel hurtles headlong into a series of picaresque encounters that transport you into 19th-century America. Deep into the cogs of a system so brutal that your first instinct is to turn away, yet the magic of Whitehead’s prose keeps you glued to the page.

Whitehead first conceived of the novel some 17 years ago, along with the notion of subverting America’s real underground railroad – a secret network who helped fugitive slaves escape from the slaveholding states of America’s South – from a metaphor into a literal subterranean railway. But he kept putting off the writing of it.

“For many years I didn’t think I could pull it off; doing that full reckoning with history and slavery seemed very daunting and, definitely, when I first had the idea I didn’t realise what sort of darkness and brutality I would end up dealing with.”

He attributes the tone of the novel, and much of the detail and language, to his immersion in famous slave narratives by Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs, as well as the accounts of former slaves who’d been interviewed in the 1930s by the US government. “People who were by then in their 70s and 80s and had been children and teenagers at the time of the Civil War,” says Whitehead.

“My narrator has the matter-of-fact attitude toward violence, and I got that from the slaves themselves. If your everyday existence is defined by brutality, when you describe what happened you don’t have to adorn or dramatise it. I tweaked things, I changed details, but there’s not much that happens in the book that didn’t actually happen in real life, in an altered form.”

Not that anything the Harvard-educated New Yorker discovered during his trawl through the archives came to him as a revelation. “It’s not news to me that it’s a pretty racist country,” says Whitehead, who sees the novel as a comment on history. “Whether you’re talking about American imperialism, Dutch imperialism or British colonialism – all those forces that defined the last couple of centuries – they don’t go away very easily. And when we elect a white nationalist to the White House who is drawing from the same sorts of ideas that defined American political thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries, then obviously all those dark energies … are still now defining our culture,” adds Whitehead. “It’s almost like they have just been waiting beneath the surface.”- @BronSibree

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