Sydney Writers’ Festival: Colson Whitehead, ‘The Underground Railroad’

Colson Whitehead appeared at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival to discuss his latest book, The Underground Railroad.

The brilliant novel saw Whitehead take out the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. It tackles the dark issue of slavery, following the journey of an enslaved woman named Cora as she makes her way through ‘the Underground Railroad’, a network of safe houses through which runaway slaves were smuggled to safety.

I’m a huge fan of the novel, so listening to Whitehead in conversation with Pamela Paul was fascinating. He explained why he introduced a speculative element in The Underground Railroad — each state that Cora passes through in the novel acts as an alternate vision of America. This device that enabled him to engage with a number of historical conversations and periods. Whitehead also discussed his writing process more generally, discussing the endless revisions — a thousand tiny drafts — that it takes to arrive at a final, polished product.

The Q and A portion of this event was also illuminating, but for a less positive reason. Despite the fact that Whitehead and Paul discussed this issue, audience members still felt the need to ask questions that amounted to what Whitehead described as, ‘Ask a Black Guy Stuff’. While this was a disappointing level of engagement, Whitehead handled the off-key questions — one of which was the groan-inducing, ‘Is it socially acceptable to use the word “black”?’  — with grace and humour.

A number of references were made to Whitehead’s other novels — he has quite an impressive oeuvre — and I’m definitely looking forward to reading his zombie novel Zone One after hearing him hold forth on the psychological significance of zombies as a metaphor for betrayal by those closest to us.

In all, this was a great, lively conversation about a fascinating book from a brilliant author.

– Vee
Vee is a Sydney-based writer/editor. When she’s not out and about, she can usually be found drinking coffee and pretending to work on her new novel. @VeeNaidoo

The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs 22-28 May 2017. Read our guide for the top picks.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Image credit: Zeitgeist Media Group.