Books How to Swear Like an African-American Teenage Male, Circa 1985
posted by January 15 at 17:53 PMon
Last night’s Colson Whitehead appearance at Benaroya Hall was a fun and funny time. I forgot my camera, so I wasn’t able to get a picture of Whitehead’s fabulous suit, which appeared brown from a distance but kind of glowed olive green and gold upon closer inspection. (After the talk, Whitehead proudly discussed the source of his suit’s light-diffracting power: cheapness. He said that it cost “like ninety dollars” and it felt like it was made of some sort of polyester/plastic blend.)
The framework was basically a “Who I am and how I came to be” sort of deal, and, after an initial fakeout story (“I was born a poor black boy in Mississippi…I can still recall how we were all out on the porch a-singin’ and a-dancin’…”) Whitehead relayed the facts (born and raised in Manhattan, grew up reading comic books and sci-fi, desperately wanted to become the “Black Stephen King and write The Black Shining and The Black Salem’s Lot,” got a job at The Village Voice until he wrote his first novel and, um, then we all woke up in Benaroya Hall, the end.)
And then Whitehead read from his untitled next novel, which probably won’t be out until some time next year. “I wish I could tell you the plot, but nothing happens,” he said, looking kind of pained. Unlike his other novels, which range from outright sci-fi to weirdly spare symbolism-rich fable-things, it’s going to be an autobiographical sketch of his upbringing, kind of along the lines of the brilliant first half of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (which is not to be confused with the wretched second half of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude.)
Using a visual aid, Whitehead explained the construction of N-verb insults among friends from his youth: (Pop-cultural reference or general insult) + (verb ending in n’) + (the words “bitch,” “motherfucker” or “nigger”.) Some examples: “You George Jefferson-lookin’ motherfucker” or “You Members Only Jacket-wearin’ bitch.” For additional flavor, Whitehead said, you could add “You fuckin’” before the insult, and close the whole thing by saying, “…with your monkey ass.”
The high point of the evening for me came at the end of the (rather weak) question and answer period, when someone asked (in reference to the Richard Ford-spitting-on-Whitehead incident I wrote about in this week’s Constant Reader) whether Whitehead had, in his thirties, reconsidered his distaste for Richard Ford’s writing, particularly the Frank Bascombe novels. After a delicious pause, Whitehead said that there are lots of people who enjoy reading novels about “male menopause,” and that there’s nothing wrong with that, and that it’s great that they never have to wait very long for “The next Frank Bascombe sequel to be churned out.” The laughter was both strong and uncomfortable for the Seattle Arts and Lectures crowd, which does quite a bit of worship at the altar of literary celebrity.
And then there was nothing left to say, so we all left.