Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” his celebrated novel about an escaped slave that combined liberating imagination and brutal reality, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Monday’s announcement confirmed the book as the literary event of 2016, an Oprah Winfrey book club pick and critical favorite which last fall received the National Book Award, the first time in more than 20 years that the same work won the Pulitzer and National Book Award for fiction. Whitehead, known for such explorations of American myth and history as “John Henry Days,” conceived his novel with what he calls a “goofy idea:” Take the so-called Underground Railroad of history, the network of escape routes to freedom, and make it an actual train. He wove his fantasy together with a too-believable story of a young girl’s flight from a plantation, reports The Grio.
Whitehead finished “The Underground Railroad” well before Donald Trump’s election but now finds parallels with the present.
“I think the book deals with white supremacy as a foundational error in the country’s history and that foundational error is being played out now in the White House,” he told The Associated Press on Monday. “When I was writing the book I wasn’t thinking about current events, but I think you have to look at it differently now.”
Other winners announced Monday also touched upon race and class, in the present and in the past.
Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” which won for drama, explores how the shutdown of a Pennsylvania factory leads to the breakdown of friendship and family, and a devastating cycle of violence, prejudice, poverty and drugs. The play marks Nottage’s Broadway debut and her second Pulitzer Prize. She is the writer of “Intimate Apparel,” ”By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” and “Ruined,” which also won the Pulitzer.
“I was looking at how poverty and economic stagnation was beginning to shift our American narrative and how a culture was crying out,” Nottage told the AP after her win Monday. “I’m very honored. I’m in a bit of a daze.”