For the last five spring seasons, the Library of Congress has featured an event curated by its Prize for American Fiction winner. The purpose of this event has been to highlight some aspect of the winner’s work and, through it, show how fiction helps us better see the world and each other. With events such as “Fiction, Faith, and the Imagination” with Marilynne Robinson, “Stories from a Fallen World” in honor of Denis Johnson, and “Climate Change, Nature and the Writer’s Eye” with E. Annie Proulx, our winners have showcased fiction’s great range and depth—the way it connects to all aspects of our lives as well as the space it gives to voices we may otherwise never hear.
We’re excited that our latest prizewinner’s spring event goes in a whole new direction—and it came to us fully-formed, too. When we queried Colson Whitehead about his spring event, he responded with a description, a list of its other participants, and even a title! The result is “Pop Life: Literature and Culture,” to premiere Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m ET, on the Library’s Facebook page and its YouTube site. The event will be available for viewing afterward on those sites as well as the Library’s website. We hope you will tune in to hear Colson talk about pop culture with his longtime friend Kevin Young—an award-winning poet and essayist, as well as the poetry editor of The New Yorker and the new director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Pop culture guru and bestselling author Isaac Fitzgerald moderates the event and keeps things moving. Colson and Kevin talk about their books, including Colson’s “Underground Railroad” and Kevin’s “To Repel Ghosts,” and in the process they make a dizzying number of pop culture references—from “Silence of the Lambs” to reality TV; “Growing Pains” and “Meet the Boss” to Spalding Gray, Spiderman, and Queen Latifah; John Hughes movies and Jean-Michel Basquiat to “Buhlo͞one Mindstate,” the first issue of “Luke Cage,” and the 1978 “Lord of the Rings” animated film.
Most powerfully, Colson and Kevin talk about their friendship and support for one another, from the first moment they met and noticed their matching outfits to the ways in which they gave each other permission—to take on a “tone poem” like Colson’s novel “John Henry Days” or pulling apart a manuscript to make “Jelly Roll” and “Black Maria,” two of Kevin’s poetry collections. Listening to them both during this recording, I thought of how their friendship—built during magical epic road trips, solidified through years of support and encouragement as well as friendly competition—brought them both to the place they are now.
Speaking of place, there’s another event to tell you about—and another way Colson Whitehead has expanded the scope of our prize. On Monday, March 29, at 4 p.m. ET, the Library of Congress will broadcast “Colson Whitehead’s New York,” featuring our winner in conversation with Rocco Staino, the director of New York’s Empire State Center for the Book. The event will premiere on the Library’s YouTube site and will be available for viewing afterward on YouTube and the Library’s website. It kicks off a new series aimed at highlighting the nationwide network of state Centers for the Book affiliates, following the establishment of the national Center for the Book at the Library of Congress in 1977. These state centers, in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, promote literacy and reading as well as celebrate their great writers. And what better way to honor that work than by featuring Colson, a born-and-raised New Yorker who only left for college and then came back to stay! The conversation covers his upbringing and gives us a little tour of his “New York”—including Sag Harbor—and connects to his fiction and nonfiction about his home. Rocco and Colson also talk about the Empire State Center’s Writers Hall of Fame, which inducted our prizewinner—along with former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson—in 2018. And the two reminisce about important landmarks and moments such as the garbage strike of 1975 in New York City, which Colson wrote about in “Nickel Boys,” and Rocco lived through, or Big Olaf’s in Sag Harbor, where Colson worked when he was young (and which made it nearly impossible for him to eat ice cream!).
Together these events will give viewers a strong sense of Colson’s life and work, and how the two connect in powerful ways. We hope you watch both, when they are broadcast or afterwards on the Library’s website—and we hope you come away as inspired to read everything Colson has written, as we felt!