In Toulouse, Colson Whitehead will tell the picturesque Harlem about his mother’s childhood
the important thing
Colson Whitehead will be in Toulouse on Saturday, January 14, at the invitation of the Ombres Blanches bookstore, to present his great novel, “Harlem Shuffle”, a thriller, comedy and fierce critique of everyday racism.
This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently. “Harlem Shuffle”, published by Éditions Albin-Michel, is the latest masterpiece, funny, cruel and terribly moving, of the American writer Colson Whitehead. A rich story rooted in Harlem from 1959 to 1964, this novel recounts with irresistible verve the small tricks of Ray Carney, a loving family man, caring husband, and competent furniture dealer. The petty deceptions of this “no bandit, just a little crook” guy will change when his cousin Freddie – a mischievous prankster – offers him to rob a hotel in Harlem… As was often the case with Colson Whitehead, whose previous novels “Underground Railroad ” and “The Nickel Boys” were awarded the Pulitzer Prize (only four of them achieved this feat – which means the importance of a native New Yorker in the current American literary panorama), a small story meets a big one, and the third third of the book dives into the riots in New York in June 1964 – which foreshadowed those who recently set the United States on fire.
How did the story and characters in “Harlem Shuffle” come about?
They were gradually fueled by my love of heist movies, like “Ocean’s Eleven” or Kubrick’s “The Murders,” and my desire to return to New York, which has been the setting for many of my novels. I finally became interested in the world of fences: how they manage to present a flawless facade… behind which unpleasant things often happen!
Ray Carney is a furniture salesman, but his condition as a black man in America in the 50s and 60s prevents him from accessing a better situation. Have you experienced this frustration?
No, I can’t say that. In any case, the racism of the 1950s has nothing to do with today. Ray’s father is a delinquent; I know many people of color around me who hold very important positions. Unfortunately, the news often takes us back to the sad times of the civil rights struggle…
Ray is not a sweet idealistic dreamer: he is pragmatic and just wants to settle his family in a quieter neighborhood of Harlem…
He wants his piece of the American dream. He strives for social ascension, but everything around him drags him down. His American dream is not really denied to him, but very hard to reach, touch it with a finger.
After “The Nickel Boys” you return to New York, and Harlem is a character of its own in the novel…
After two books, “Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys”, far from Harlem, the city where I grew up is really at the center of the book and I took great pleasure in studying New York from the 50s to the 60s. The biggest compliment came from my mother, who grew up in Harlem and told me she found the places and atmosphere of her childhood.
The riots of June 1964 happened five years before you were born. What research and testimony did you collect to be so close to the historical truth?
I read a lot of newspapers from that time, especially the New York Times. I spoke to many journalists and consulted countless periodicals, especially regarding furniture and place dictionaries, such as the famous Hotel Theresa. For the lingo of the time, William Burroughs books like “Junky” were very helpful to me.
What do you think about the Black Lives Matter movement? Is this a sign that America is not missing anything or is it still sick?
This is an interesting question, but a difficult one to answer. The case of George Floyd meant that now every white person who kills a black person should be held accountable. Nevertheless, the year 2022 records the highest number of police brutalities. We think the situation is improving… but you only have to wait five minutes to hear about another black man’s murder…