MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Summer will be here soon, and with it Summer Reading, a chance to whittle away that pile of novels accumulating by the bed passed over in favor of instructions manuals, budget reports and tomes about the economy. Our first and admittedly early installment in our Summer Reading series is Colson Whitehead's latest novel "Sag Harbor." It's a coming-of-age tale set among a group of friends in a mid-1980s summer, in that predominantly African-American enclave on Long Island.
Whitehead's previous works have earned him a PEN Oakland Award, a MacArthur Fellowship - which many people call a genius grant - and he's been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. And he's with us now from our studios in New York. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. COLSON WHITEHEAD (Author, "Sag Harbor"): Howdy. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: This is your fourth novel, and you are very clear that it is semi-autobiographical in the sense that your family did spend summers in Sag Harbor and you did work in an ice-cream shop, as does your protagonist. Now, a lot of authors make these sort of semi-autobiographical novel their first outing and are criticized for it. So I was kind of wondering if this had been hiding in your drawer until you thought you could say, okay, people. Now I can write about something other than myself.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Oh, Lord, no. But because it is so common, I did not want to do it. Also, I wasn't equipped. I hadn't done a first person narrator before. And I didn't really know how to do until this book, my fourth book. So I needed the sort of maturity and time to figure out what I could use from my life and what to throw out, what makes useful art and what doesn't.
MARTIN: Now it is funny that you talk about maturity as a way to write about adolescence, because that is such an awkward time. I mean, I don't know anybody - who wants to be a teenager again? You couldn't pay me.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Lord knows. I mean, it's excruciating. But I sort of realized that, you know, let's try to do - like, not be self-conscious and just let it all hang out. And once I sort of realized that my horrible squirmings were pretty common - you know, every one hates adolescence - and if I just be truthful to that time, it'll work. It'll be painful, but it'll work. And maybe we can all laugh about it.
MARTIN: The culture of the '80s, it's almost a character in the book. I mean, who would have imagined that there was so much dramatic material to mine from New Coke, "The Cosby Show," "Roxanne Roxanne"? Did you cringe as you were revisiting these cultural touchstones, or was it like…
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Oh, no. I loved it, you know, each second of it, you know, trying to figure out what from the December of 1985 I could use. And luckily, New Coke was there, and "Roxanne Roxanne." So, you know, there are a lot of different weird cultural moments that I was able to unpack, have fun with, sort of tease out their sort of broader implications so that a New Coke is not just a New Coke. It's actually a horrible paradigm shift in this kid's life, and he has to come to grips with the fact that his world - yes, his world can change. So doing all the research with the music was, you know, incredibly fun.
MARTIN: Okay, speaking of which, I think we're going to play "Roxanne Roxanne" for you, just so that you can get into the mood.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: I would love that.
MARTIN: Here it is.
(Soundbite of song, "Roxanne Roxanne")
UTFO (Hip Hop Group): (Singing) Roxanne, Roxanne, can't you understand? Roxanne, Roxanne, I wanna be your man. Yo Kangol, I don't think that you're dense, buy you went about the matter with no experience.
MARTIN: Don't you want to get a Jheri curl now?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Oh, I think I'm going to get a track suit and a Kangol. I mean, I guess what I loved about UTFO, the folks who did "Roxanne Roxanne," is that they had these Village People-type characters. And so one was a doctor. The Kangol Kid just loved his Kangol, like that was his, like, aspect. And it was such an innocent time. And so part of what's great about writing about 1985 is that it captures early hip hop, before it becomes very commercial, before it becomes gangsterized, and it's very quaint and silly. And so it's sort of lovely to see hip hop in its early days again.
MARTIN: Some of the reviewers have noted your vivid analysis of such important terms as dag. Now for those who weren't around in the '80s, you helpfully define dag as the bitter acknowledgment of the brutish machinery of the world. I'm just wondering if I'm doing it justice. Can you, I think you should use it in a sentence.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Well, yeah. I mean, also, you need an audience. Like, if you stub your toe, we don't say dag. It's - dag is best when someone slams the car door on your hands and you go dag. And then someone else says that was cold. Like someone else - you need a witness to this tragedy. And so dag, that was cold is a sort of couplet that was very common.
MARTIN: There's another term that I'm sitting here debating how to describe. It's actually the nickname of one of the characters in the book, NP. And I'm going to pause here to issue a parental advisory, here, folks, because NP stands for…
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Not necessarily negro, please, but yes, nigger, please.
MARTIN: Okay. And I think, again, it has to be said. I'm sorry. I'm wondering people who've never heard this term used properly will understand how it is meant to be delivered.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Well, in the same way I'm explaining pop culture and the point of "Roxanne Roxanne," I am trying to have like helpful tremors about dag and negro, please. And so the character in the book is a clown. He's always sort of making up shenanigans, so that basically, whenever he says something, the only natural response is nigger, please. So it's like, you know, I went back to the party and messed around with that girl, and then I went back to her house and she gave me a Rolls Royce. Nigger, please.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: And so it sticks, and you think that the kids think that they've made it up, but actually, his mother ends up calling him that, too, in a sort of horrible moment.
MARTIN: When they're shocked to discover that a parent - it's like, you know, discovering that parents actually have body odor or something, that they're people. Oh, my goodness. You know, mom is actually using this term. It's this moment of shock. I'm wondering, though, if you should have enclosed a CD with the proper use of these terms that…
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, I tried to pick good moments to use in readings. And so I have a whole - there's a thing where I analyze cursing patterns, profanity amongst these teenagers. And so when I do a reading, I have a little chart and I have a helpful pointer, and I point out how to use these terms correctly. And so, you know, since I do really enjoy the more humorous parts of the book, I try to find funny things to use in readings. And so there'll be some of that.
MARTIN: And it's interesting, because you talked about this being an innocent time, and of course subsequently, there's been this big discussion about the N-word and whether it's appropriately used and whether, you know, cultural leaders like yourself should pave the way in eliminating this word from our vernacular. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Well you know, I mean, in my case it's hard, and so I can't say that we didn't use it because we did use it. I certainly - you know, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old, and you know, I don't use it in the house. I don't use the N-word around her, and times have changed, but if I didn't put it in the book, I'd be lying about how we used to talk, and how we used to be with each other, and how the word can have a different sort of meaning in this different context.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Colson Whitehead about his new novel, "Sag Harbor." It's the first in our summer reading series.
And it is - the book is funny and painful in parts. You know, there's the realization that your parents' marriage might not be, you know, what it seems. There's that whole drama around fitting in or not, which in this novel is made even more poignant because it's the whole African-American prep school boys in an all white school.
You know, and the crises are, you know, first kisses and bad haircuts, but the crises are not, you know, getting shot, you know, or getting jumped into a gang. Is part of what this novel does is let people know that there's another reality of black adolescence that isn't "Boyz n the Hood"?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: I mean, that's part of it. I mean, I knew that I had a unique story, and I didn't know if anybody had written about Sag Harbor, the town in the Hamptons I was writing about, the black community there.
So I had free reign to make the story my own. In terms of there not being any shootings, or we find a dead body, or there's a big fire, a lynching, I wanted to avoid the traditional coming of age melodrama. I want it to be, like all of our summers, most of our summers, just sort of we're .001 percent smarter at the end.
We have all these hopes that by Labor Day we'll be a new person, but those sort of personality changes are very incremental, and so I was forced to find the drama in small moments and sometimes ridiculous moments, like getting his braces off, or getting your first crappy minimum wage job, and what do you do with this fried chicken smell that's on you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Getting to one of the sections that's painful to read, when you talk about, like, the small moments, is a moment when Benji's father - the protagonist is Benji. Actually, I want to call him Ben, because one of the issues is he wants to be called Ben, but he somehow can't escape Benji.
But Ben's father does not like the way his son reacted to a perceived racial slight at his school, and it is a very painful scene. Do you want to tell us about it?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: In the scene, Benji is one of the few black kids in an all white school, and one of the schoolmates drags his finger down Benji's cheek and says oh, it doesn't come off, the brownness. And his father gives Benji a lesson in how to respond to the racism in the world, and how to stand up for himself.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I say what happened?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Sure, sure, sure.
MARTIN: What happens is his father starts slapping him, and the lesson was, you know, don't let yourself be treated this way, but it's complicated, isn't it? Because Ben doesn't really understand what he did wrong.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: No, yeah. I mean, it's about when the parents sort of come in, and they sort of come in very slowly. I take my time in sort of revealing who they are and what they're like. He's coming to understand things about the world and things about himself and things about his family, his parents, but he can't really admit - so far, he can't really admit them to himself, and he doesn't have a handle on them.
So his sort of cluelessness about what it is to be a boy or a man, a black boy or black man, what it is to live in this kind of household, ends up being part of the drama, and so the reader is sort of pulled along with his slow discovery of what's going on in the house around him and in the world around him.
MARTIN: It is interesting because it's not in your face. The whole - I think there might be some people who would be surprised that the father, who is clearly a professional, because they couldn't afford their lifestyle if he were not, would be so adamant about his son standing up for his identity, as it were, right? Basically encouraging his son to throw a hand I think might be a surprise to some people.
Because you know, I'm sorry, middle class parents, prep school, it's always use your words, use your words. That's not the way to solve conflict.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Right, right. But you know, in the sort of panorama I'm trying to describe, there are well-off black people going back three generations, first generation college. Sort of all sorts of types find themselves in Sag Harbor, and so in the case of Benji's father, he grew up working class and sort of clawed his way to the top, and he is now part of this very bourgeois black community among some of the same people who wouldn't let him into their club in high school or college.
And so, you know, there's a great sort of variety of African-American experience. It's North, it's Southern, it's urban, upper middle class, working class, and part of the fun in the book or some of the artistic challenge was getting all these different sorts of people together in one summer, and seeing how they rub against each other.
MARTIN: And obviously you're aware of all this talk of a post-racial America and a political context. Do you think that Benji, Ben, is kind of part of the first post-racial, if there is such a thing, generation?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: You know, post-racial is the big buzzword. You know, some serious things have gone down the last six months that have been very startling, and so we do feel that we're on the threshold of a new era, but I don't like to get too sort of Pollyannaish about it.
I grew up in the '70s, and I had a different experience with what it is to be black in America than my parents and my parents' generation, and I hope that, you know, good things are in store for my daughter. And we are making progress in different ways, but I think if we just looked at a pile of Obama's hate mail, we know that, actually, you know, we have a ways to go.
MARTIN: Well finally, thank you for the book. Thank you for your time. I wanted to ask you, as you are starting off our summer reading series, I wanted to ask what do you read in the summer? What are you planning to read or re-read? Do you have any titles that you want to recommend?
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Sure. I mean, I always catch up on my reading in the summer, so Nathanael West, "The Day of the Locust." I think West has a nice way of dealing with pop culture and larger cultural concerns while having a, you know, compelling sort of personal story. "Drown" by Junot Diaz. I like its structure.
It's short stories, but they are sort of linked, and over the course of the book, you get the main character's life, and so I sort of see it as a novel, but it's very compartmentalized, and I think "Sag Harbor" has that same sort of structure, where there's not a really strong plot, but we're following a boy through different sort of self-contained chapters.
MARTIN: Colson Whitehead. "Sag Harbor" is his fourth novel. It is available now, and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Colson Whitehead, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Thank you. It was a lot of fun.