ABOVE PHOTO: Colson Whitehead
Lynn Nottage, Tyehimba Jess and Hilton Als win in their categories.
By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK– 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. “Underground Railroad” was an Oprah Winfrey book club pick and critical favorite, which received the National Book Award last fall. This is the first time in more than 20 years that the same work has won both 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.
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.”
The history winner, Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” examines the events that unfolded starting Sept. 9, 1971, when nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. The work reveals the crimes committed during the uprising and its aftermath, who committed them, and how they were covered up.
Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan, was teaching her second class of the day when her cellphone awakened with a call from her book agent about the win. Her students burst into applause.
Thompson said she was most happy that survivors of the uprising and subsequent brutal crackdown were able to have their stories told after more than four decades.
“Beyond Attica, I’m hoping that it also shines a light on inside these correctional facilities, of which we have more in this country than any other country on the planet,” she said. “I hope it reminds us that the 2.5 million people that are locked up in a correctional facility are human beings.”
Mic.com reported Hilton Als, a theater critic for the New Yorker, won a Pulitzer Prize in criticism. His work often furthers discussions on the intersections of theater, race, identity, sexuality and class in the United States. This can be seen in his January 2016 review of the Broadway musical “Dream Girls”, which was one of the 10 pieces the Pulitzer judges reviewed.
The general nonfiction winner was Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which is set in Milwaukee and was praised by the Pulitzer board as “a deeply researched expose that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.” Desmond, who last month won a National Book Critics Circle award, said Monday that he hoped his book would illuminate both the severity of the crisis and the role of government.
“You look at a public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home,” he told the AP. “Both are government subsidized, but they don’t look anything alike. We seem a lot more willing to spend money on tax write-offs than on direct assistance.”
Hisham Matar’s “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between” won for biography/autobiography; the Pulitzer board said Monday that Matar’s memoir about his native Libya “examines with controlled emotion the past and present of an embattled region.” Tyehimba Jess’ “Olio” was the poetry winner, cited for melding performance art with poetry “to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity.”
The Pulitzer board gave the music award to Du Yun’s “Angel’s Bone” and called it a “bold” work which “integrates vocal and instrumental elements and a wide range of styles into a harrowing allegory for human trafficking in the modern world.”
Yun had just returned from a day of panels at The Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi, and her librettist Royce Vavrek texted her the good news, which arrived close to midnight for Yun. She said that it was great to hear after a day of learning “how to use art and make art… to advance cultural change” at The Culture Summit.
“I met a lot of people who work intensively with refugees and human trafficking, which was the top of my work,” Yun said. “We just had this intense conversation about how to really use art to affect policies.”
Mic.com contributed to this article.