Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead calls Sag Harbor his ‘autobiographical fourth novel’, distinguishing himself from most novelists

The Knowledge

Colson Whitehead calls Sag Harbor his ‘autobiographical fourth novel’, distinguishing himself from most novelists, who do the autobiographical novel first. It tells the story of Benji, a well-to-do black kid from Manhattan who leaves his private school city life every summer to hang out with family and friends in Sag Harbor, an African-American encampment in the midst of very white Long Island.

Set in the mid-’80s, the novel follows Benji, his brother Reggie, and an assortment of friends such as NP (short for ‘Nigger, Please!’) as they make the awkward crossing between tween-age and teenage, going for first kisses, slogging it out at crappy summer jobs and trying to avoid the encroaching realities of their messed-up families.

Fans of Whitehead’s deeply funny and imaginative novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days and Apex Hides The Hurt – rife as they are with satirical wit and sterling prose – won’t be disappointed. But here too is the personal touch of a writer looking back and finding the past still very much alive.

Why write an autobiographical novel now?
When I was starting out I was too self-conscious to leave any explicitly personal traces in my work. Everybody does a first novel that has an autobiographical aspect. It was the mid-’90s and there was this wave of Gen X novels, slacker stuff, and why do that cliché? So my main impulse with my first book, The Intuitionist, was to be different and weird and not do what I saw as being obvious. Hence a novel about elevator inspectors. I’m older now, less squeamish about having overt aspects of my experience in my books. Since I try to make each new book different from the ones before, it seemed like it was time to do some-thing I hadn’t done.

How hard was it to reconstruct the mid-’80s in such lush detail?
It was all good fun, doing that anthropology of the time, trying to figure out which bits of pop culture would best serve Benji’s story. ‘La Di Da Di’ or ‘Roxanne, Roxanne’? These were very, very important considerations. High stakes! Digging into all that early hip-hop, post-punk and new wave brought back a lot of memories, which led to further avenues of research.

To what extent are things that happen in the novel – the BB gun fight, people loafing on the beach, the ice cream store called Jonni Waffle, the particular characters of Benji’s friends – based on real experiences you had?
I wish I could have put people I know in it, but frankly we’re not that interesting, not necessarily character-worthy. The set-up comes from my experience. I grew up in New York, and would go out to Sag Harbor every summer. Our parents only came out on weekends. I did work in an ice cream store, and that experience feeds the atmosphere. But did I, like Benji, have an ambiguously racist encounter with my boss and then try to sabotage his business during a blackout in retaliation? No.

Have your friends or family who knew you when you were a kid read the book? What do they think?
My friends haven’t read it yet, as far as I know, but my family read it and liked it, and I’ve heard from some people who lived in Sag Harbor during that period, and they have appreciated it. I wanted to salute the town and its neighbourhoods, and I think that affection has come across, even to people who weren’t living in the black part of the town that I write about. We all had the same haunts, even if we had different perspectives on them.

You take your own family out there now. What remains of what was there when the novel is set? Is it a very different experience?
I’m an adult, still beset, but now by different things. Main Street has been pretty Hamptons-ified. We rent my aunt’s place for a few weeks, and cook up some meat. It’s mellow.

Did you have braces when you were a kid? How much of Benji’s shyness about his braces is based on your own life?
I did have braces. No one’s asked that before. I tried to avoid the huge, life-changing events that you expect in coming-of-age novels. Spoiler alert: Benji getting his braces off is high drama!

Will you do a reading in Sag Harbor?
I’m doing a reading at Canio’s, the venerable local bookseller. I remember when I was in college I bought a copy of New York On $5 A Day – from the ’50s – and a book of critical essays on Nathanael West there. Old man Canio squinted and asked me, ‘What are you, a writer?’, and I was scared because no one had accused me of such a thing before. And look what happened.
Sag Harbor is published by Doubleday. Dhs85, available to order from Magrudy’s.

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