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Colson Whitehead to participate in Zell Visiting Writers Series at 'U'

By Julia Kline, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 31, 2013

Colson Whitehead has got some serious style. His latest novel, “Zone One,” is packed with unexpected metaphors and dazzling descriptive power. It’s a highbrow, digressive rumination on class, consumerism and the meaning of modern existence. Oh, and it’s got zombies.

Not many writers could successfully interweave bone-splintering, limb-rending gore and musings on post-modern ennui, but Whitehead does it with aplomb.

Rackham student Henry Leung stated very succinctly why he will be attending Whitehead’s Janey Lack fiction reading on Jan. 31.

“Because he’s cool.”

That seems to be the consensus. In 2009, Esquire magazine called Whitehead “The Coolest Writer in America.” And that’s not even one of his most impressive accolades. His 2001 novel, “John Henry Days,” contains intersecting American narratives and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2002, Whitehead received a MacArthur Fellowship, an award that proclaimed him a “genius.”

The Janey Lack series is part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series, which is run through the University’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. What differentiates Janey Lack from Zell is that writers in the former are selected by the students.

Each year as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series, students choose one novelist and one poet to give a craft talk, followed by a more general reading. The program is run through the University's Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.

Rackham student Joshua Kupetz said he has been reading Whitehead’s work for 10 years. A chapter of his Ph.D. thesis deals with themes of technology and identity found in Whitehead’s 1999 novel, “The Intuitionist.”

Kupetz, who said he has read all of Whitehead’s novels and the vast majority of his assorted articles, recalled his first experience reading Whitehead’s work.

“I remember being captivated, by not only the language and the writerly craft that Whitehead has, but also with the breadth of the intellect in the writing,” Kupetz said. “He’s really a luminary in American literature, so it’s thrilling to have him come to Michigan and spend some time with students.”

Megan Levad, assistant director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing said students and faculty are equally excited to hear Whitehead speak.

“We’re all interested in his play with the genre,” Levad said. “Colson Whitehead is particularly good at honing in on what’s going on in pop culture and popular fiction and bringing his literary, dark, philosophical way of understanding our contemporary moment to that.”

The purpose of the craft talks is to have the students carry on conversations with writers who are currently creating and publishing.

“Every program invites writers, but they don’t do it so intimately as we do it here,” Leung said. “It’s really easy to access these writers. It’s really easy to get to know them and have a casual conversation with them and learn to speak with them as people, not just as celebrities.”

Although the craft talks are geared toward writers, both the talk and reading are open to the public, meaning students and literature fans alike are welcome to rub elbows with MacArthur genius and certified cool guy.

The craft talk will take place at 2 p.m. in the Hopwood Room in Angell Hall. His fiction reading will follow at 5 p.m. in the Helmut Stern Auditorium at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.