Distinguished author discusses creative writing in annual social justice lecture

Acclaimed author and two-time Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner Colson Whitehead recently delivered the Center for Social Concerns’ Annual Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C., Lecture. The annual lecture was established in 2009 to “highlight justice issues and themes related to the common good.” Though Colson’s lecture touched upon these issues, it was largely characterized by his lighthearted description of his writing process. But despite this generally humorous tone, Colson concluded his talk speaking about how issues surrounding racial justice have motivated many of his writing projects.

The event was held in the Decio Theatre in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, October 3. Suzanne Shanahan, Executive Director of the Center for Social Concerns, gave the opening address for the event. Following Shanahan’s address, Provost John McGreevy introduced Whitehead as “one of the contemporary world’s most distinguished writers.”

Whitehead is the author of 11 books, most notably two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. McGreevy lauded The Nickel Boys as a “powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity, and redemption.”

Once Whitehead took the stage, he soon had the audience laughing at stories and jokes from his childhood and early adolescence. “I was born and raised in Manhattan,” said Whitehead. “I was a bit of a shut-in. I would have preferred to have been a sickly child but it didn’t work out that way. I always like it when you read a biography of someone like James Joyce and it says he was a sickly child and forced to retreat into a world of imagination.”

Maintaining an informal tone throughout his lecture, Whitehead brought listeners back to his days as a student and rising author. He told the crowd that he wrote two “five-page epics” for entrance into creative writing classes while at Harvard University. “I was turned down each time,” said Whitehead. “Looking back, I was very depressed at this rejection, but I think it was good training for being a writer.”

Whitehead also spoke about his time after college writing for The Village Voice, while living in New York. The Village Voice was the country’s first alternative weekly newspaper, highlighting journalism without a commercial aim that seeks to express marginalized points of view. Shortly after his stint in journalism, Whitehead began to write his first novel. 

This first novel, titled The Intuitionist and released in 1999, was inspired by a special of Dateline on NBC. According to Whitehead, the special featured testimony from an elevator inspector who highlighted the dangers of escalators. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be weird if an elevator inspector had to solve a criminal case?” quipped Whitehead to an audience amused by Colson’s unusually straightforward description of his writing process. 

Whitehead then went on to discuss some of his other novels and the inspiration behind them in similar form. Zone One, a novel that features a post-apocalyptic wasteland and zombies, came from nightmares Whitehead experienced as a child after watching The Evil Dead. 

The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s 2011 novel for which he was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize, stems from an idea that he had worked on for a while. He recalled, “I came across a reference to the Underground Railroad and remembered how when I was younger, I thought that was a real train. You know the word was so evocative and then my teacher explained how it actually worked. But I thought that wouldn’t that be a cool idea for a book?”

“It seemed like such a good idea,” Whitehead continued. “I knew if I tried it back then I would have screwed it up. I thought I wasn’t a good enough writer. I thought if I had more experience, I definitely could pull it off in the technical sense. If I was more mature, I might be able to pull it off if I saw the world and had some Hemingway-esque adventures.”

However, Whitehead told the audience, “Periodically, it’s good to remind yourself that sometimes the scary idea, the one you’ve been avoiding, is the one you should be doing.”

Whitehead concluded his lecture in a much more somber tone by discussing his second Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Nickel Boys. Based upon Florida’s Dozier School, a reform school known for abusive practices, The Nickel Boys was inspired by Whitehead’s desire to “know what kind of stories the black side of campus would tell.”

In the summer of 2014, news stories about the Dozier School emerged in the national media. Whitehead related to the audience how that was “the summer [when] Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner was choked to death by a policeman in Staten Island.”

“And with the rise of cell phones, everyday acts of violence against black people were being recorded,” Whitehead continued. “But the devices weren’t picking up a sudden spike in incidents. They merely recorded the standard level of brutality.”

“If something is happening in one place, it’s happening in other places as well. If there was one Dozier, then there were dozens of places like this, where the same tragedies are unfolding. And maybe it’s not a reform school, but maybe it’s an orphanage,” said Whitehead, who went on to discuss similar cases of abuse at homes for unwed mothers in Ireland and indigenous schools in Canada. 

When reflecting on The Nickel Boys and the injustices that inspired him to write, Whitehead said, “The writer’s job is to find the right word so that other people can see the world the same way you do.”

Madelyn Stout is a senior from Tallahassee, Florida, studying political science and English with a minor in constitutional studies. When she’s not arguing for Florida’s superiority as the best state, she can be found reading at least three different books around the lakes, with coffee, or on random benches across campus. For book recommendations or Florida man stories, email her at mstout2@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Center for Social Concerns Facebook page

Subscribe to the Irish Rover here.

Donate to the Irish Rover here.