In this episode of the Archive Project, Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi discuss the intersection of race and fiction. In his novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead explores a world in which the infamous Underground Railroad is not a euphemism, but a reality—a subterranean railroad system connecting alternate versions of America in each state along its route. In Homegoing, Gyasi tells the story of one family, spread over 250 years and split by the slave trade across two continents. Both Whitehead and Gyasi use fiction as a tool to get at larger truths about race, slavery, and their legacies in America and abroad. This discussion is moderated by Rukaiyah Adams.
“I didn’t have to force comparisons between law enforcement in 1850 and 2015; the language that I would use to describe my experience is the same way a slave would describe his or her experience with a slave patroller.” –Colson Whitehead
“For me, this book is so much about the fact that a lot of these things, a lot of these issues that we are dealing with in the present, particularly issues around racial justice…they don’t appear out of nowhere. There has been groundwork laid for them over the course of many, many, many years. And it’s important to kind of not take things out of context and just start to believe that we’re living kind of divorced from history. Because we aren’t.” –Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her début novel, Homegoing, was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award; was named a Notable Book by both the New York Times and the Washington Post; and was listed as “One of the Best Books of the Year” by NPR, Time, Oprah.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Esquire, Elle, Paste, Entertainment Weekly, the Skimm, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and BuzzFeed. She lives in New York City.
Colson Whitehead is the New York Times best-selling author of The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Institutionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. His most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, and the Heartland Prize. A Whiting Writers Award winner and a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.