Colson Whitehead discusses his new novel, The Underground Railroad

From an interview with Electric Literature
Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s gripping new novel, we are introduced to a metaphor made manifest: an actual railroad, underground. A literal and literary engine for his incredible inquiry into slavery, humanity, and the true nature of America. When Cora is invited to leave, to escape the plantation where she has lived her whole life and take the titular train north, she climbs down the rabbit hole and through different states, both geographical and psychological. She runs through a world fueled by cruelty, ambivalence, and every so often, kindness. And we see this world with sober eyes by the light of her unsentimental telling.

When discussing this book with a friend (you will want to discuss The Underground Railroad, immediately and urgently), our conversation turned to another novel, Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D’Aguiar. In that book, the Zong, a slave ship headed for America, is overtaken with illness, and the enslaved men and women are thrown overboard. The protagonist, Mintah, manages to somehow lift herself from the water and climb back aboard the ship, perhaps buoyed by ghosts, or death. The middle passage is reframed through a fantastic and surreal lens, much in the way Whitehead reframes the metaphor of the railroad. These crossings — one headed towards slavery, and one towards freedom — are also somehow crossings-over, passages through time, and through the irreal. The journeys take on a particular and uncanny power. At a station stop in Whitehead’s novel, Cora stares into the abyss of the terminal, wondering where the railroad ends, where it begins: “As if in the world there were no places to escape to, only places to flee.”

Hilary Leichter: There’s something irresistible about the central metaphor to your book: an underground railroad that is an actual railroad. Sometimes it feels like descending into Hades, and sometimes it feels like the New York subway system — there’s one stop decorated with white tile. The railroad is a kind of character in the book. How did you go about bringing it to life? Where did the metaphor start?

Colson Whitehead: It came from that idea from childhood where you first hear about the underground railroad and think it’s an actual subway. That was my first association, when I was seven or eight. And then of course I’m not the only person — if you check Twitter for “underground railroad” you’ll find high school kids making fun of their friends: “Sam thought the underground railroad was an actual railroad!” So this sort of image stays with people. It’s majestic. Cora’s on the train a couple of times in the book and I wanted each station to have a different character. Sometimes it’s just a hole in the ground, sometimes it’s a nicely appointed place to wait, with tables and a candelabra, and wine. Sometimes the train is a great locomotive, sometimes it’s a boxcar, sometimes it’s a handcart. In trying to find a variety of experiences for Cora, I tried to come up with these different subterranean scenarios. [Read More]


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