Colson Whitehead: Elevating Nerd Culture
by Renee M Thorpe
Colson Whitehead is Ubud’s most talked-about American writer expected this year. Justifiably touted as one of New York’s hottest, hippest writers, Whitehead has his antennae trained on popular American culture, business, and media. Weaned on horror movies and comic books (evidenced by novels bathed in a touch of science fiction, composed with cinematic movement) yet educated at Harvard, he’s got his own very unique spin on what it is to live under contemporary corporate America’s own horrors and comedies.
His themes are time-honored, borne in the American novel tradition: the individual’s search for power and identity, and being true to oneself inside a bad system or society. His style is expertly wrought, vivid settings amidst a precise lexicon. More than once, this reviewer regretted not having at hand a dictionary, while reading one of his books from a beach chair or airplane seat. But it was no worse than missing a line at the movie theatre; Whitehead’s stories roll along like a thrill ride.
Laugh-out-loud humor (his Sag Harbor) or page turning mystery (The Intuitionist) always kept the reading fun and fascinating. His stories and characters follow the reader long after the final close of the cover.
From his native New York, Colson Whitehead gave us this interview.
RT: The father in your coming-of-age novel Sag Harbor was concerned with making his boys fight back against racism to the point of violence. Did your own father read the novel and comment before he passed?
CW: He didn’t, but I’m sure if he can look down from wherever he is, he’ll think (in my depiction of the father) he got off easy! He was in the civil rights generation, fought battles I didn’t have to fight. He fought racism in the corporate world, just as in school. He was one of only 9 African Americans at Dartmouth. My life was different. He was definitely concerned with making sure his boys could take care of themselves.
RT: That novel should ring true with anyone who spent their teenage years as expatriates. The protagonist Benji is concerned about missing out on what’s cool that year, with wanting to belong somewhere, and yet wanting to forge individual identity.
CW: This is the universal teenage experience. What is more cool? Less cool? How do you assimilate? What should you assimilate? It’s the usual things rebellious kids engage in, whether you’re Italian, Jewish, suburban, urban. Sometimes some 60 year old white woman will tell me she’s surprised that she could relate to Sag Harbor. Why bring baggage and get hung up in black identity? You wouldn’t say “I’m not a Greek warrior, yet I loved The Iliad!”
RT: Where, as an author, do you stand with nerd culture (fantasy role games, comics, films)?
CW: As a kid, I was a Marvel guy: Spiderman, X-Men, then later the seminal comic book Watchmen. These made me think and write in terms of the fantastic. After one of those school shootings, my mom said, “they played Dungeons and Dragons” and I said “well, I did for two years (laughter).” I liked staying indoors on hot sunny days and watching horror movies on TV or reading coming books. These things hold up now as fantastic landscapes for writing.
I think a lot of writers in my generation, including Junot Diaz and Colleen Gleason, grew up reading comics as enjoyment literature and we address our influence directly, pay homage to them. We are less shy about incorporating them and showing their influence; less hung up in the high and low culture argument.
RT: What inspired your novel Apex Hides the Hurt?
CW: I thought about the power involved in naming a square or a street. Who are these people who had that power? I’d read an article about people who name products. There are syllables chosen for their impact or connotations, like for Prozac. So that went into the book.
The protagonist (a nomenclature expert charged by civic leaders to rename their town) comes from the corporate world and sees this town being taken over by brands, like Starbucks. Its turn-of-the-century flavor is being replaced and repaved by corporations. Nowadays in America you can go to any mall in any city and see they’ve constructed it with the same bricks, the same layout, as any mall in any other city. The town of Apex is being sucked into a generic identity. So the story poses the possibility of opting out of other people’s systems.
RT: What are you working on now?
CW: My next novel is an expansion of research I did for an article on the World Series of Poker. I am a decent low-stakes Texas Hold ‘Em player. Attempting to play the game with the big guys is a worthwhile metaphor for the kind of journey a man makes in his 40’s, and I’ll explain the game to people who don’t know how to play. Research was a weird experience; I’d drop my daughter off at school and get on the bus to Atlantic City and engage in a kind of poker boot camp and then go back and pick her up the next day.
RT: You had to decline an invitation to appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
CW: Somehow, we sold far more copies than expected in Australia, of (flesh-eating zombie novel) Zone One. I don’t know what that says of the Australian psyche (laughter)! But I had a scheduling conflict. I am looking forward to coming to Bali. I have never been to that part of the world.
Colson Whitehead’s articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the New York Times. He has authored several books, and his first novel The Intuitionist was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award. His website is www.colsonwhitehead.com