Author Colson Whitehead visits campus

McCaulay Singer-Milnes

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Colson Whitehead, a writer known for his critical, yet humorous commentary on American society, is coming to Whitman College on Thursday, Nov. 18 as part of the ongoing Visiting Writers Reading Series.

Whitehead, who grew up in Manhattan and attended Harvard College, writes fiction, essays and reviews. Though his  work spans various genres, the themes and styles present throughout his collection of works often are in dialogue with one another.

“His first novel is often considered something called ‘afro-futurism’; it’s a kind of alternate reality, maybe science fiction,” said Assistant Professor of English Christopher Leise. “His second novel is very much like that of Don DeLillo: it’s kind of [a] historical fiction or historiographic fiction. He really thinks about the ways in which history is packaged by contemporary society and how we understand ourselves with respect to our pasts.”

How Whitehead’s latest novel, “Sag Harbor“, varies from his other works will likely be a topic of discussion during the reading series.

“‘Sag Harbor’ is the first work I have read of his and it has been described very differently from his other works, such as ‘The Intuitionist’ and ‘Apex Hides the Hurt’, for its autobiographical nature and similarities to a ‘coming of age’ novel,” said senior Allison Munn. “[However], a consistency I found in his works . . . is his tendency to create professional, affluent, black characters as opposed to the traditional slave narrative that is so often seen from [African-American] authors.”

Whitehead’s novels have the ability to draw students outside of their Whitman experiences, asking them to consider aspects of life which may be unfamiliar to them.

“I think it’s fair to say Whitehead’s work speaks to a far wider community than just Whitman . . . and that is why it should be particularly interesting to Whitman students,” said junior Philip Hofius. “Whitman prides itself on fostering students who are able to look outside the classroom to be educated and to apply what they’ve learned, and Whitehead is a perfect example of this.”

According to Leise, Whitehead’s work engages a wider audience than just college students because it often makes critical commentaries on contemporary American society as a whole.

“[Whitehead’s work is] relevant to Whitman as much as it’s relevant to the larger fabric of American society,” said Leise. “He is an incredibly astute commentator on the influence of prepackaged or idiomatic thought on everyday life; he is incredibly observant, and yet has ways of making very particular experiences meaningful to a pretty broad audience.”

Whitehead’s novels have been topics of study and discussion in multiple English and creative writing classes on campus.

“‘The Intuitionist’, a book we’ve read in Modern American [Literature], is an allegorical novel about the ways ideological frameworks, be they racial, spiritual, or ethical, tend to force us into ways of reading the world which create meaning without contemplation of further possibilities,” said Hofius. “I think reading Whitehead closely will necessitate a change to the way you perceive yourself without completely disheartening you.”

According to Munn, students reading his work for the English senior seminar class have found his work interesting as well.

“Our seminar class of five students has really enjoyed ‘Sag Harbor’. While it recounts the protagonist Benji’s summer experiences of 1985, it puts darker and heavier material, like Benji’s abusive father and racial segregation, into a book that’s just funny: you can’t read it without laughing,” said Munn.

Leise chose to teach Whitehead’s works for various reasons.

“I think he’s very funny,” said Leise. “His work is really intelligent and subtle, and so it leads to a wide ranging and really interesting conversations in class, with a lot of different reactions.”

Colson Whitehead will speak in Maxey Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 18 at   7 p.m.