Brazos Valley Reads: Pulitzer-winning author to peak at A&M

COLSON WHITEHEAD

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead will discuss his novel The Underground Railroad on April 9 as part of the annual Brazos Valley Reads initiative.

The department of English and the College of Liberal Arts proudly welcome Whitehead to discuss his novel at 7 p.m. April 9 at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center.

Whitehead’s talk, “Revisiting the Underground Railroad,” will include a question-and-answer session to be followed by a book signing at 8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. No tickets are required.

Barnes and Noble bookstore will have copies of The Underground Railroad for sale in its College Station store on Texas Avenue. It also will sell the novel at the April 9 event.

Brazos Valley Reads is a community reading program designed to encourage a shared cultural experience in the Brazos Valley. Founded by the department of English and now in its 15th year, Brazos Valley Reads continues to bring internationally celebrated authors to the Brazos Valley. Past authors include Geraldine Brooks, Julia Alvarez, Tim O’Brien, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, Tayari Jones and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Published in 2016, The Underground Railroad articulates the historical struggles of enslaved people in the 1800s to escape bondage through covert safe houses. The novel employs fantastic alternative history — the railroad is literal: an underground mode of travel involving a steam engine. However, the novel is far from fanciful in its treatment of the solemn historical realities of the slave-holding culture of plantations in the American South.

Whitehead took 15 years to write the book, not only carefully plotting the novel but making use of significant research, such as the many slave narratives held by the Works Progress Association. The conception for the novel first arose in the year 2000 when the author reflected on his childhood experience of being disappointed to learn there was not a real railroad involved with the complicated process of helping people escape slavery. At first, Whitehead backed away from completing the novel due to the daunting research and demanding structure. He turned instead towards other books that he wrote. Eventually, struggling with the research and structure necessary for the novel, he returned to the book in 2014 and achieved his creative goals.

The Underground Railroad’s structural trajectory follows the progress of Cora, a 15-year-old who escapes slavery in Georgia, as she moves from state to state trying to evade the slave catchers. Whitehead has compared his novel to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels because of how “the book is rebooting every time the person goes through a different state.” Readers are not mere tourists on a train passing through states, such as Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee; they encounter the courage and cruelty of an era of American history that haunts us all too clearly to the present day. With its well-developed characters, thorough immersion in the habits of thought and behavior of the American middle 19th century, and suspenseful plot that confronts trauma with unflinching focus and resilience, The Underground Railroad offers a powerful and fresh experience that is deeply relevant and rewarding to readers of literature.

The Underground Railroad has received critical praise from newspapers and magazines, such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The New York Times. It also has won popular acclaim through the word-of-mouth of many readers, as well as its selection for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club.

Whitehead’s novel has won several significant awards. Along with winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel also has received the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2017 Arthur C. Clark Award for Science Fiction Literature, the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the 2017 Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the Hurston/Wright 2017 Legacy Award. Whitehead’s novel is compelling both as a work of realistic engagement with struggles against slavery, but also as an imaginative and fantastic extrapolation of what might have been possible had the anti-slavery and abolition movements — in addition to their safehouses and rescues — indeed harnessed an underground railroad.

Colson Whitehead has published seven other books, and his eighth book, The Nickle Boys, comes out this July. See his website for further details on his life and work: www.colsonwhitehead.com.

Bringing Whitehead to Texas A&M has been a collaborative effort across campus and beyond. The department of English of Texas A&M University is organizing this event through Jason Harris — the Brazos Valley Reads coordinator — who has been assisted by the Brazos Valley Reads Committee.

Brazos Valley Reads has received generous cosponsorship from The College of Liberal Arts and the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research; the Office of Vice President and Associate Provost of Diversity; as well as support from the department of Communication; the department of History; the department of International Studies; the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives; the Interdisciplinary Critical Studies program; LAUNCH Undergraduate Research, Honors, and Learning communities; and Blinn College.

Jason Harris is coordinator of Brazos Valley Reads.

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