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Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi Share 300 Years of History in Two Compelling Novels


Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi chat with moderator Rukaiyah Adams at Wordstock 2016

Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi chat with moderator Rukaiyah Adams at Wordstock 2016

Courtesy of Literary Arts

Black bodies may be no more safe now than four years ago, pre-Ferguson, but black artists are cranking out wave after wave of works to call out inequality, and challenge us as we confront race and justice in this country.

Last month, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was given to novelist Colson Whitehead for his deeply affecting story, “The Underground Railroad.”

It’s a re-imagining of the clandestine networks some escaped slaves used to leave the South during the early 19th century.

What if, Whitehead posits, it really were an underground steam engine railroad, chugging along beneath the states? And could it ever take people far enough away?

“When I first heard about the underground railroad I pictured a literal network beneath the earth, like a subway,” Whitehead said. It was only after raising his hand in his 3rd grade class that he realized his mistake.

At Wordstock 2016, Portland’s Book Festival, Presented by Literary Arts, Whitehead told the audience he modeled parts of the book on Oregon’s history, as a white-supremacist stronghold.

Colson Whitehead at Wordstock 2016

Colson Whitehead at Wordstock 2016

Courtesy of Literary Arts

“You asked me to read from my book. I thought maybe I should read from the book or maybe from Oregon’s Constitution of 1859,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead laid out how he used the Railroad premise as a way for his protagonist, Cora, to sample a variety of cruel contradictions about free and slave states.

“I’m not going to stick to the facts of what happened,” Whitehead told the audience. 

“I am going to stick to the truth.”

The narrative takes us on a journey through states that have been tweaked to represent archtypes, almost in the fashion of Gulliver’s Travels.

Whitehead shared the stage with one of the year’s breakout talents, Yaa Gyasi. She’s the author of “Homegoing,” an astonishing, eight-generation chronicle of two branches in one family, Ghanaian and American. It brings vivid life the psychological wounds of slavery, afflicting entire generations.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi

Courtesy of Literary Arts

Gyasi, who came to America from Ghana as a 2-year old, wrote a novel that goes even further back in time than Whitehead’s, and chronicles a journey of slavery from Ghana to America, covering over 300 years of history.

“I wrote without an outline, but with a family tree,” she said.

Both novels lead the reader to questions about our own time — stop and frisk policies, income inequalities and police violence are mirrored in their work.

“Is there a place where we can be safe?… we are all trying to find that place where we can be ourselves, and be whole.”

Moderating the conversation was Rukaiyah Adams, Chief Investment Officer at the Meyer Memorial Trust (and, full disclosure, a board member for OPB).

Watch for Whitehead and Gyasi’s full conversation this fall as part of Literary Arts’ Archive Project, and mark the calendar for this year’s Wordstock, scheduled for November 4th.

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