On Friday, April 6th, Colson Whitehead visited St. Andrew's and presented a talk and a reading to the School community. One of America's most widely acclaimed writers, Whitehead is the author of eight works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, and the essay collection The Colossus of New York. His most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, which charts the journey of a runaway slave named Cora, won both the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
Whitehead's talk, which was peppered with humor and pop culture references, and offered insights into his own journey as a writer, initially caught many students off guard, and the Q&A that followed, filled with clipped answers to a number of inquiries about authorial intent, challenged students' presumptions about the extent to which an author must engage with his audience.
"My initial response to Whitehead's talk and Q&A was frustration," said V Former Ann Yancey Bassett. "But I came to appreciate his succinct explanations. Whitehead said he didn't intend to start conversations with his book; he wrote it mostly for himself. This left me with the impression that he'd already done all the hard work—he poured his heart and soul into each page—and the novel held a unique purpose for him. While his beliefs and feelings about slavery and race are ingrained in his writing, he cannot spoon feed the answers and their significance to his readers; that's the work that's left to us."
"It felt surreal to sit next to an author whose book I've delved into so deeply," said V Former Sharon Williams, who also attended a sit-down dinner with Whitehead. "Getting to meet him made the ideas we've discussed in English really come to life." Williams went on to say that she loved and appreciated Whitehead's talk specifically because it was so unlike the traditional lectures she'd previously attended at SAS. "Mr. Whitehead didn't want to simply give away the book's meaning, because it's our job, as students and readers, to interpret the book and do what we will with our impressions. His talk also made me realize just how important The Underground Railroad really is—how much the novel's messages speak to African-Americans even today. There is a constant struggle and realization of identity that we face every day due to the history of this nation."
Piper Ackerman, another V Former, echoed some of her classmates' sentiments, and found a particular profundity in Whitehead's unwillingness to explain his book's overarching themes. "During the Q & A, it became clear that Whitehead wasn't just going to tell us the answers to our questions; we'd have to do the work of answering them ourselves. We asked about specific moments or his intentions behind a common theme, and he'd respond by asking what we, as readers, thought the answer was. In this moment, I realized that the author of a book intends for their reader to ask questions and explore different answers on their own and that we were asking all the right questions but asking the wrong person."
In a conversation with Whitehead after the reading, and after he had generously remained onstage and signed over 400 copies of his novel, Whitehead told Dean of Teaching and Learning Elizabeth Roach, who organized Whitehead's visit, that students often struggle with ambiguity. "If your students can learn to embrace ambiguity," Whitehead told her, "that's the best thing you can teach them."
Roach, who called Whitehead's talk "brilliantly crafted," appreciated the author's message as well as the manner in which he delivered it. "He was jarring us, in a way," Roach said. "That's what he does. That's what The Underground Railroad is. The novel engages what narratives we bring to literature, to our historical past, to a speaker who is an African-American man writing about slavery. That in itself, and what Whitehead does with his humor, is a way to subvert our expected narratives of people and of literature, and of the history of this country."
Whitehead's visit marked the latest in a series of prominent writers coming to St. Andrew's. Other recent visiting authors have included Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Junot Diaz, novelist and short writer Julie Orringer, author and "The New Yorker" staff writer John Seabrook '76, and Pulitzer Prize finalist Nathan Englander. Next year, the School will welcome Jesmyn Ward, whose most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, won the 2017 National Book Award.