Sunday, July 15, 2012

Where you stay: Colson Whitehead & the Matter of Where Novelists Live

Colson Whitehead books
Despite the prevalent theme of migration in the histories of African American life and literature, it's worth noting that one of our leading contemporary writers, Colson Whitehead, has stayed put for much of his career. Whitehead was born and raised in New York, and when you read his works, it's evident that he was and remains a New York writer.

[Related: Where You Stay -- Amiri Baraka & the Matter of Where Poets Live]

Whitehead's recent New Yorker article "A Psychotronic Childhood" details his experience watching horror movies, but the piece also offers notes on the writer's moves to different locations in Manhattan. As an adult, Whitehead has lived, for the most part, in Brooklyn.

Newspapers and magazines have published several articles focusing on the many accomplished writers who live in Brooklyn, adding to the allure of the borough as an it place for literary artists. Whitehead is regularly mentioned in those articles. In addition, his writings appear in New York-related anthologies such as Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, Brooklyn Noir 2, and Central Park: An Anthology.

Relatively few novelists seeking to have highly successful careers have the luxury of living in the area where they were born and raised. Throughout much of history, many major black writers moved to large cities from smaller towns. Langston Hughes came from Missouri and Kansas; Zora Neale Hurston from Florida, Richard Wright from Mississippi, Ralph Ellison from Oklahoma, and Toni Morrison from Ohio. They all lived in New York during defining moments of their artistic careers.

Whitehead's first novel The Intuitionist is set in a seemingly fictitious major metropolis that is likely New York City in disguise. John Henry Days is primarily set in a southern town, and one reason the visiting protagonist feels out of place is because he's from NYC; the same goes for the unnamed protagonist of Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt. His collection of essays The Colossus of New York is a powerful ode to the city. Sag Harbor is largely set in a summer get-away right outside of the city, and Whitehead's latest book Zone One is a zombie novel mostly set in lower Manhattan.    

Despite the importance of New York City in African American literary history, Colson Whitehead is one of the relatively few major black novelists who was born and raised there.

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