Asking the Author


Whitehead on PBS

In music it seems that the identity of the artists carries enormous weight on the music being produced. I think much more so with music than with poetry. The artists background (i.e. race, gender, origin) has massive weight on whether their music is considered “good”. The fact that poetry is generally fiction seems to be a given to most. But often, in music an artist is judged upon whether their music is realistic and factually based; and if not,they are criticized. I would ask Whitehead if he sees the artist as a more necessary part of looking at music than the author in poetry?

At this point in his novel Sag Harbor, the question that I would want to ask Colson Whitehead would be “Have you ever written, or attempted to write, poetry at some point in your career?”, primarily because of his first two pages of Sag Harbor. I am a huge fan of the structure of his novel, particularly because he introduced the narrator Benji two pages into the novel, not right from the start. Colson’s introduction about “getting out” and the following paragraphs as well reminded me a lot about poetry. The way he flowed from sentence to sentence, using descriptive imagery about non-related elements, but connecting everything indirectly, as if the only way to figure out Colson’s primary intention was to break each paragraph, sentence, and word down, seemed to read like poetry in my opinion. I also had to re-read these first two pages a few times just to get a clear idea of what Colson wanted to say, and that also reminds of poetry in my opinion.

The question I would most want to ask Colson Whitehead (to this point at least) is:

“What’s the best insult you’ve come up with and why?”

Without knowing the guy I can say that I feel like this is a question he would appreciate because it is informal and will probably take him back a couple years. Also, I would get the privilege of being the recipient of Colson Whitehead’s favorite insult, which may or may not scar me. For life.

While reading Sag Harbor I could not help but notice Whitehead gives information in a scatterbrained way.  For example, in many of the chapters I cannot give exact summaries because so much information is given, the plot is diluted.  At times this effect makes it hard to follow the book and brings a sense of confusion and stagnation of the plot.  I am probably not yet deep enough into the novel to connect this writing device to the meaning of the book but I would love to understand why he writes in information in a diluted way.

What was the primary inspiration for writing a piece such as Sag Harbor, and where did you find the ability to discuss racial contexts sarcastically yet so smoothly? This is the question I would ask Colson Whitehead because I think it inquires a lot about his writing style. Although we have not read his other works, I’d also be interested to see if he uses the same sarcastic style and cynical undertones while allowing comic relief. I am interested to hear about Whitehead’s childhood experiences and how they may tie into Benji’s lifestyle in the novel. I think Whitehead’s writing style is unique in more ways than one, in that it has the ability to talk about dark themes in such a light context, and I am eager to learn how he came to terms with black oppression and furthermore how he was able to express it in his writing.

Considering what we’ve been talking about with Yeats and Plath, I’d like to know what his stance on the authorial intention is. Does Colson Whitehead think that an author should have control over his/her work? For instance, what side would he, as an author, take in the Ted Hughes vs Frieda Hughes publication of Ariel? Along the same lines, I wonder how Whitehead views his works. Does he see any of his life and experiences in them? Does he think that readers and critics should look for the author’s experiences in his/her works? This is similar to Yeats; if Whitehead did place some of his experiences into Sag Harbor, what’s his stance on aligning the text and the author? Does he agree with Formalist critics?

I am interested to ask which form of writing he believes is most effective. His new york times articles were sarcastic and he used long nicknames to get his point across. However, while his novel employs some of this writing styles, the satire is toned down and he’s telling a story rather than analyzing his experience. I would ask which tone/voice he most prefers writing in? Which one attracts the most readers?

After break, we get to meet Colson Whitehead!  Such an awesome opportunity deserves awesome, thoughtful questions?  Now that you’ve read some of Whitehead’s essays and gotten into Sag Harbor–and now that you’ve been honing your skills, vocabulary, and thought processes as a literary thinker for seven weeks–what questions do you want to pose?  These questions will clearly go beyond off-the-rack type factual questions (e.g., “Where were you born?”) and instead try to put Whitehead in conversation with the issues we’ve been discussing in class.  Ask away!