Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead visits Williston

  • Colson Whitehead speaks to students at Williston Northampton School on Dec. 10, 2021.  JOANNA CHATTMAN 

  • Colson Whitehead speaks to students at Williston Northampton School on Dec. 10, 2021. JOANNA CHATTMAN

  • Colson Whitehead speaks to students at Williston Northampton School on Dec. 10, 2021. JOANNA CHATMANN

Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2021 12:54:08 PM

EASTHAMPTON — It isn’t every day that a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author mouths the words to Donna Summer but students at Williston Northampton School had such an opportunity.

Colson Whitehead, author of 10 books, including, “Nickel Boys” and “Harlem Shuffle,” spoke to hundreds of students on Dec. 10 as part of the school’s Writers’ Workshop Series.

During his talk, Whitehead touched upon his experience with rejection and played an excerpt from Donna Summer’s version of “MacArthur Park” from an iPad. Glancing upward, he passionately mouthed the lyrics to the 1977 remake and ended by thrusting out his hand outward and belting at the crescendo with a high-pitched: “OHHHH, NOOOO!”

His depiction was welcomed with applause and laughter, to which he responded with: “The song poses an enigma: who left the cake out in the rain and why? ... It wasn’t until I started getting all these rejection letters as I sat around in my underwear watching reality TV that I finally got what the song, ‘MacArthur Park’, was about,” he said. “MacArthur Park is an investigation of the artist’s journey. I had gone to a lot of trouble gathering all the ingredients and when I was done, someone had gone and left my cake out, in the rain.”

Whitehead continued reciting the lyrics of the chorus, slowly, for dramatic effect and then directed the lines to publishing companies like Knopf Publishing Group and Houghton Mifflin Publishing Group, asking, “why did you leave my cake out in the rain?”

He further detailed some memories from his upbringing that led to becoming a writer and his adoration for horror icon Stephen King and how he wanted to become the author of a Black version of King’s “The Shining” or “Salem’s Lot.”

He also spoke of the reach and impact that books may have on the world.

“You’re not even a gnat trying to catch the attention of an elephant,” he said. “You’re a microbe in the butt of a gnat trying to catch the attention of the elephant.”

In college, Whitehead wrote and submitted two, five-page stories to audition for creative writing classes but was turned down. In the end, he said it didn’t matter if people didn’t like what he was doing because writing was a part of his DNA.

“I knew there was nothing else that would make me whole or happy,” he said. “Looking back, I guess it was good training for being a writer because when you’re a writer, no one wants to read your crap. Everyone hates you. And if you internalize that hatred early, you’ll be prepared when you go out into the world.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, for students enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop class, the trimester typically involves the study of a visiting author, culminating in a master class and community-wide reading, said English teacher and Visiting Writer Coordinator Sarah Sawyer.

Williston’s Writers’ Workshop Series has been held for more than 20 years. The idea behind the series is to bring celebrated authors to campus to teach, share insights on the writing process, and inspire the next generation of writers. Past presenters have included New York Times best-selling author Wally Lamb and Irish-born journalist and novelist Calum McCann.

Previously, Sawyer said that upperclassmen had read Whitehead’s 2016 historical fiction, “The Underground Railroad.” In the book, Whitehead tells the story of Cora, who escapes the shackles of slavery from a cotton plantation in Georgia via the Underground Railroad.

The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction and was a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller. It was also adapted into an acclaimed Amazon original series this spring.

This past year, students in ninth- through 12th-grade read Whitehead’s novel, “Nickel Boys.” The 2019 book is based on the story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that had a reputation for rapes, torture and even murder of students by its staff.

With a text that touched on such a difficult subject matter, Sawyer said that it posed a great opportunity to collaborate with the entire English department to handle more difficult conversations.

Funding for Whitehead’s visit was from an anonymous donor to be used by the English department for professional development.

Dyson Haaland, a junior boarding student from Silver Springs, Maryland, said that Whitehead’s art has helped him and other people of color to digest not only what is going on in racial turmoil in the world, but in the immediate Williston community as well.

“For me, having a story to the narrative of a Black voice helped me to connect with something very prevalent in my life and I hope that everyone else can have that experience,” he said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com

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