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10 September 2023

Colson Whitehead’s Q&A: “In the US, we throw up statues of any old dimwit”

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author on Mark Rothko, Harrison Ford and tender baby-back ribs.

By New Statesman

Colson Whitehead was born in New York in 1969 and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His books include The Underground Railroad, which was adapted for TV by Barry Jenkins.

What’s your earliest memory?

I’m not sure, but it is probably depressing, a template for miseries to come.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, Han Solo, who’d do anything for a pay cheque. Now, Harrison Ford, who…chooses his roles solely on artistic merit.

What book last changed your thinking?

How about the first book? The Catcher in the Rye. I was 11 or 12 years old. Before I read it, I assumed if something was famous or popular, it was good.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I don’t. In my country, we throw up statues of any old dimwit, some racist politician of yore or treasonous Confederate general. Tear ’em down! If you need to put up a statue of a white person, pick a deserving one. Kurt Cobain. Meryl Streep. The dude who invented microwave popcorn.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

My shtick is tender baby-back ribs that have been in the smoker for a couple of hours, and exploring what it means to be human in a soulless, postmodern age. What do I win?

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

This is a white people question. “Oh, to have been at the Globe for the first performance of Hamlet!” I need modern technology, penicillin at the f***ing minimum, and also for things to be appreciatively less racist than they have been for most of human history. So: a fancy hotel in Vietnam – always wanted to go! – and last week.

What TV show could you not live without?

I owe my sense of irony and understanding of human weakness to a childhood diet of Twilight Zone reruns.

Who would paint your portrait?

Mark Rothko.

What’s your theme tune?

“Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot. It’s about a man with a fondness for big butts. The heart wants what it wants.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

As Sir Mix-a-Lot offered in his seminal work, “Has your girlfriend got the butt? Tell ’em to shake it, shake it, shake that healthy butt.” I did so, and was told in no uncertain terms that they didn’t appreciate being objectified.

What’s currently bugging you?

This whole thing we got going on, as a species.

What single thing would make your life better?

A cure for cancer. What kind of person would say, “Bring back the short-lived 1977 Richard Benjamin sitcom Quark, about interstellar garbage haulers?” An insane person who doesn’t understand the importance of a well-crafted Public Persona, that’s who. Never mind that seven episodes was clearly insufficient and NBC should have given the show more of a chance to find its audience.

When were you happiest?

The last day of that magical summer, you remember – the light just so, sea birds wheeling in their ancient grace, the surf pounding in an expression of eternal joy.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Deep down, I’m just a song and dance man.

Are we all doomed?

I think things are looking up. (Winks.)

“Crook Manifesto” by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet

[See also: The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very young of heart]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites