In Haunt

“How do you make a coherent self after experiencing trauma? How do we have a language for that?” reflected award-winning American author Colson Whitehead, during a packed-out in-conversation with DJ and fellow writer Dave Haslam at Manchester Central Library on the evening of Wednesday 28 August, part of a Manchester Literature Festival preview event.

In ConversationThe extensive audience was perhaps no surprise given that Whitehead– the author of six novels so far – won a National Book Award and The 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his story of life on the 19th century Georgia slave plantations The Underground Railroad, and his latest highly-anticipated novel The Nickel Boys was published just last month.

“It’s my first time in Manchester,” Whitehead remarked as the in-conversation began amidst the historic surroundings of Manchester Central Library’s performance space. “I usually spend Wednesday nights in my apartment weeping over my regrets… so this is a change.”

Whitehead is evidently a man of wit and insight– and with that, empathy: a want to connect human beings and their stories. A quality more crucial than ever in unstable times, some might say. Exploring under-covered stories is a key aspect of Whitehead’s approach as a writer – and something that has seen him not just encounter accounts of human perseverance and might, but also injustice, exploitation and brutality.

His latest novel The Nickel Boys faces these difficult themes head-on, based on accounts of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a real-life reform school in Florida that became infamously associated with the beatings, torture and abuse of power over youths supposed to be in its care. It was also heavily segregated for many years.

The Dozier School, which was set up in 1900 as a correctional facility for young people and operated for over a century, was eventually shut down in 2011. It was in 2014 that Whitehead first became aware of the cruelty and exploitation that had happened there, as nearly 100 deaths have been recorded at the school so far, and news reports revealed numerous unmarked graves. It is still unknown how many students died altogether.

Perceptive and aptly frank, interviewer Dave Haslam was quick to approach a central pressing topic of the book – and in no uncertain terms. His single statement rang clear: “It was institutionalised murder”.

“Yes,” said Whitehead. “There was on official grave for the school called Boot Hill – some of the kids buried there had died naturally. But in many other cases, there was evidence of homicide… and the terrible thing is that ultimately, we don’t know how many students disappeared. Kids’ bodies were dumped outside of the cemetery, in the swamp. Just recently, radar anomalies were discovered near the school site… it is possible that they are more unmarked graves.”

Telling the story of such a historic injustice is perhaps more pressing than ever, a point Haslam emphasised when discussing state sanctioned white violence on black youth in particular, and how segregation is part of this.

“In 2014, when I became aware of what had happened at The Dozier School, it was already a rough summer in America,” reflected Whitehead. “There was what had happened to Eric Garner, a black man choked to death by a white policeman, there were numerous accounts of police brutality incidents.”

Brutality is something that The Nickel Boys explores, its effect on young people, the impact of violence.  Colson also read an excerpt from the book, featuring lines profound in their presentation of terrible treatment, a time when ‘the combat served as a kind of mollifying spell’.

Whitehead’s concise, controlled accounts of violence and particular writing style was a point of focus from Haslam.

“In both The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, there is a lot of violence,” considered Haslam. “But you don’t present it in a Tarantino-esque way, so to speak, there are no exploding heads, there isn’t blood everywhere. Instead, it is more of a pared-down approach… without it losing its impact.”

Rather than a series of questions and answers, Haslam’s insightful reflections on Whitehead as a writer allowed for a fascinating exploration of ideas around how violence is depicted and what the literary form can bring to its representation.

“In terms of writing approach… you pick the right tool for the job,” reflected Whitehead. “Considering my earlier novel The Underground Railroad, there was fantastical element. But as well as that… it’s short and it’s focused – it doesn’t have to be embellished or sold, it speaks for itself. That’s the kind of style I have been influenced by.”

Whitehead went onto further reflect on the influence of authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and also Raymond Carver – a writer that Dave Haslam co-incidentally interviewed early in his career, aged just 23. Carver in particular is known for his concise, yet impactful style – similar to the approach Whitehead was aiming for:

 “In The Nickel Boys, it’s not the blood spattering on the walls that I focus on, but how such treatment affects the characters. The suspense before, the sound, the impact.”

Dave Haslam saw this in turn as an apt point to draw more closely on the narrative of The Nickel Boys itself. The story is based at the segregated reform school ‘Nickel Academy’, based on The Dozier School, and follows two black teenagers – Elwood and Turner – as well as the terrible conditions they face.

“I was thinking about the unimaginable goings-on in the book,” considered Haslam – putting the question to Whitehead, “If it hadn’t been backed up by the historical truth… it’s almost like: would anyone have ever believed such a thing could exist?”

In a reflection both intriguing as well as disconcerting, Whitehead detailed that he actually had to remove some of the historic details – such as one-armed staff member who would ferociously beat the boys – so not to look too farfetched. When the occurrences of reality seem almost surreal, this indicates the deeply disturbing origins of the story.

Another notable aspect of the book Haslam also invited reflection on, was when Elwood describes the best gift of his life as a vinyl recording of Martin Luther King.

It was then a profound moment when the same recording played out to a silent, reflective Manchester audience.

“The words of Martin Luther King, the points he brought up, gives Elwood a language,” Whitehead considered. “That we must believe in our souls that we are somebody.”

Whitehead then further reflected on the significance of setting the book in 1963 – during the height of Jim Crow, as well as the difficulties of writing and facing negativity within the novel:

“I had to face the existential fact that it’s a miracle I’m here – given the oppression of black people over time. Then in terms of The Nickel Boys… that was the first time I felt depressed when writing. Especially given the brutality of the story, the institution. But I had to follow through on the idea I had, the story of the boys. The last six weeks were particularly hard.”

A number of emotional tensions are indeed at work in the book, and this was elaborated upon by Haslam as the in-conversation drew towards its end.

“Perhaps one of the tensions is that of the concept of a ‘promised land’… that every step feels like it is provisional rather than permanent?” considered Haslam.

Whitehead’s response was both reflective and resonant:

“Narratives are full of people trying for a safe place. If you don’t believe there is a safe place, there is no way of going forward. That is why in The Nickel Boys I wanted to explore things such as – how do you make a coherent self after experiencing trauma? How do we have a language for that?”

 “We are now in a time where we have Conservative right-wing governments all over the world… our generation pretty much fucked it up. The young generation – how do they go forward? Hopefully the eight year olds of today can pick up the mantle and save us from ourselves.”

After the in-conversation and audience Q&A, Colson Whitehead and Dave Haslam also had their books available to buy – with plentiful copies of Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, as well as The Underground Railroad. Dave Haslam’s account of his time and experiences of Manchester, music and culture Sonic Youth Slept on My Floor was also available, as well as A Life In Thirty-Five Boxes, the first book in his ongoing 'Art Decades' series published by local publisher Confingo.

Manchester Literature Festival runs from the 4th - 20th October 2019. As part of the festival Dave Haslam will also be discussing ‘We the Youth: Keith Haring's New York Nightlife’ with Greg Thorpe at The Whitworth on the 17 October.

By Emily Oldfield

Photograph with thanks to Parvinder Sohal

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