Brooklyn Boro

Colson Whitehead, Lynn Nottage tackle race and power at Brooklyn Book Festival

September 17, 2017 By Kathryn Cardin, Managing Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From left: Johnny Temple, Lynn Nottage and Colson Whitehead in conversation at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity. Eagle photos by Kathryn Cardin
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Manhattan-native Colson Whitehead joined Brooklynite Lynn Nottage for a talk-de-force at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday. The two Pulitzer Prize winners spoke about their careers with moderator Johnny Temple, publisher and editor-in-chief of Akashic Books, as well as what it means to be a New Yorker and American alike.

Festivalgoers packed into St. Ann and the Holy Trinity on Montague Street, the same church where Nottage’s great-grandparents were married in 1911, to hear the talk.

“When I come here, it really feels like I’m home,” Nottage said of the worship house.

Whitehead, who has written for The Village Voice and The New York Times and who won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel “The Underground Railroad,” has been a supporter of the Brooklyn Book Festival since it began 12 years ago, Temple told the crowd.

Nottage, whose plays, including “Sweat” and “Ruined,” have graced Off-Broadway stages, has had her work described as centering around “morally ambiguous heroes or heroines, people who are fractured within their own bodies, who have to make very difficult choices in order to survive,” the festival’s website reports.

Both Whitehead and Nottage discussed at length the power struggles and racial oppression in America throughout history and currently and how these issues have influenced their work. Nottage spoke about how it was important to “sustain the complexity” of black characters in her writing as a reflection of real life, and Whitehead discussed the need for all people to transcend cultural limits in order to learn about each other.

As African-American writers, Whitehead and Nottage’s works often examine the climate of racial politics in the U.S. and what it means to be black in different areas of the world. Each spoke about tackling stereotypes and also perpetrating them in order to prove points through their writing. One audience member asked whether they found it hard to write from perspectives that were not inherently their own.

“It’s your job [as writers] to step out of your race, class, gender,” Whitehead said.

While the current political climate in America may be uncomfortable, both writers took the time to discuss some of the movements happening across the country.

“Removing monuments will end the conversation that needs to be had,” Nottage said about recent calls to remove Confederate statues from public places. Instead, she proposed that sheathes be put over the monuments, so that the issues surrounding them continue to be discussed instead of detached entirely.

“We need to teach the Civil War correctly,” Whitehead added, saying that the conversation Nottage was referring to starts in schools.

At one point, Temple asked both writers to read from one of their works.

Nottage chose “Ruined,” a play about women struggling during the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The audience audibly gasped when she read a monologue detailing rape, family neglect and child murder.

Whitehead read from “The Underground Railroad,” an alternate history novel that sets the Underground Railroad as an actual subway train and follows slaves’ journeys through it.

Many fans in the room posed questions to Whitehead about his award-winning novel, and both he and Nottage spoke about what music they listen to when they write, and how it relates to their characters’ development.

After the talk, people filed into a small room and immediately formed lines to have their books signed by the writers. Some scrambled to buy books last minute, but most brought their own from home.


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