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2020 National Book Festival Highlights: Colson Whitehead

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Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival! If you love storytelling or are simply curious about the world, you’ve landed in the right place. As a way into this vast — and vastly fascinating — festival celebrating “American Ingenuity,” we offer here a string of highlights that truly illustrate the resilience, intelligence and wit of this year’s authors. Please enjoy, and make sure to explore our full National Book Festival video collection and special limited-time content on the Virtual Festival Platform.

Time magazine dubbed him “America’s Storyteller.” He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for consecutive works, and the Library of Congress conferred on him its Prize for American Fiction – at 50, the youngest person ever to receive the award.

The writer could be none other than Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer-winning “The Underground Railroad” (2017) and “The Nickel Boys” (2020), as well as other acclaimed works. In “The Nickel Boys” Whitehead dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

This video, recorded for the 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival, begins with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who confers the Prize for American Fiction on Whitehead, noting that “he is that rare writer of literary fiction whose works are also bestsellers – a testament to his talent for communicating to anyone who cares to listen.”

Whitehead spoke with Marie Arana, literary director of the Library of Congress, for this exclusive interview. At one point, Arana turned to the subject of race, a theme in much of Whitehead’s work.

“I have some books where race is important and some books where race is not important at all,” said Whitehead. “But race does define so much of my experiences in life, and I’m glad that I can address it…. If I can find different ways of talking about race, or history and [New York] city … I think I’m doing my job.”

Whitehead also participated in a Q&A session with his readers during the festival. You can hear that session (and Q&As with select other authors) on the Virtual Festival Platform (Go to “Stages” tab and select “Fiction.” Click on “Sessions” and select “Colson Whitehead”).

Videos from more than 120 fascinating authors are available on the platform’s various stages. From the Stages tab you can also view some of the presentations thematically, along the lines of “Democracy in the 21st Century,” “Hearing Black Voices” and “Fearless Women.” It’s a great way to hear how authors are addressing these topics through their works, both fact and fiction, while keeping in touch with current literature.

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival celebrates its 20th birthday this year. You can get up-to-the-minute festival news, highlights, and other important information by subscribing to this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the festival, too, by making a gift now.