Another understandably sold-out Edinburgh International Book Festival event was one of the last of the final weekend, the hotly-anticipated, Kirsty Wark, in conversation with award-winning author, Colson Whitehead. Renowned for his successful with The Underground Railroad, which not only saw him win the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, and if thats not enough, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And then on top of that, it was named by Barack Obama as one of the most important books of his presidency. So are we really surprised to witness Colson in packed-out room with his most latest offering, The Nickel Boys.

The Nickel Boys sees Colson Whitehead visit 1960s Florida, a period of American history fraught with racial tension, with bookish character Elwood Curtis at the core of the novel. Inspired by the Presidential election of Donald Trump and the right, Colson was taken to writing this novel, despite promising a less heavy novel than its award-winning predeccesor.

The Nickel Boys is set at a fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, dubbed Nickel Academy, inspired by the real life Dozier School, which he had heard about on Twitter in 2014. The school opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. The state of Florida ran Dozier as a reform school. After decades of allegations against the school for allowing the beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by guards and employees, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began an investigation of the claims in 2010, followed by additional investigations by the United States Department of Justice in 2011 and an ongoing forensic investigation by the University of South Florida, which began in 2012. The University of South Florida investigation discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by December of 2012, and has continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March 2019. It was high time this reality was invesitgated, explored and questioned.

Colson keeps his cool thourhgout the event, with a dry wit that keeps the audience giggling despite the nature of his content in The Nickel Boys. In reference to Trump, he exclaims, “weve had dumb presidents and racist presidents but none this dumb and racist.”

He is deadpan and succinct when it comes to dealing with questions, and there are plenty of them. A significant topic, and his first European-outing with The Nickel Boys, many were keen to discuss the provocative novel. One question was about the beauty of his prose, even when writing about these heavy subjects, there was a clear appreciation for his work in this theatre, that was evident. Racial tension is still underlying in todays society and you only have to look at who is in power to be aware of that. In fact, Whitehead discussed the “retrograde attitudes that have defined American history for hundreds of years…waiting for someone to activate them”.

A significant event with justice at the heart of it, it would appear that many were not disappointed with seeing Colson Whitehead at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.