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The Wheeler Centre

Colson Whitehead  /  Race & multiculturalism

I don’t feel beholden to whatever role people are or aren’t imagining for me.

Colson Whitehead

There is only one living writer whose work has traversed the subjects of slavery, poker, commercial nomenclature and zombies. Colson Whitehead is audacious, inventive and utterly unpredictable. This singular voice in American literature joins host Michael Williams for a conversation about race and resistance in fiction.

No matter the subject, the acclaimed New York-based novelist always delivers strange and striking slants – often speculative or satirical in nature. His latest book, The Underground Railroad, won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and was chosen by one Barack Obama for his summer reading list. It recently won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Underground Railroad takes a real-life historical phenomenon – the secret network of subterranean routes used by African-American slaves to escape to free states in the 1800s – and adorns it with fantastical elements: locomotives and boxcars delivering the fleeing slave protagonist, Cora, to various surreal and nightmarish scenarios. It’s a novel about the hijacking of black narratives and the crimes at the foundation of the United States.

In this discussion, Whitehead talks about The Underground Railroad, his reluctance to being cast as a spokesperson in the media, his responsibilities as a person and as a writer, his compulsion not to retread old creative ground, and his hunger for new literary challenges.

Colson Whitehead — Photo: Jon Tjhia

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