Just last month, Ta-Nehisi Coates was in his kitchen, peeling and cutting carrots that his wife had brought from the farmer’s market. Now he’s putting The Water Dancer – the novel that marks his literary fiction debut – out into the world. One of those things makes him very nervous.
[Disclosure: I’ve known Ta-Nehisi for years and he was a consultant on the Rise of The Black Panther miniseries that I wrote for Marvel.]
Chances are, if you know Coates’ name, it’s because of his non-fiction writing. Over the past 10 years, his books and articles like “The Case for Reparations,” “The First White President,” and Between The World And Me have explored how slavery and institutionalised racism have left behind legacies that America still needs to reckon with. While doing the writing that would win him awards, Coates would also blog about his love of superhero comics and his first published foray into fiction was writing Black Panther for Marvel.
But, for 10 years, another unwieldy ambition was also cascading through his head: a novel that would try and fuse elements of all his passions into an altogether new whole. The Water Dancer is out now from Penguin Random House and represents the end of a decade-long journey for Coates.
The cover of The Water Dancer. (Image: Calida Garcia Rawles /Penguin Random House)
The main character of The Water Dancer is Hiram “Hi” Walker, son of a slave-holding white man and the woman who was his property. As a young man, Hi begins to manifest a photographic memory and the gift of Conduction, a supernatural ability that might carry him and others to freedom if he learns to master it. But others in 19th Century Virginia know about Conduction, too, and Hi’s life falls into great complication and danger when he crosses paths with those who want to use him for their own ends.
As we spoke on the phone last week, Coates was banging around in the kitchen while holding forth about the self-doubt, research, and rewriting that went into shaping The Water Dancer. The interview that follows is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.
One of the things that strikes me about how you construct the suspense in the book is that it feels pulpy. The motivations are predicated on deep impulses and yearning. And Hi feels hot-headed at times, but you’ve also told me it was really important to minimise violence as a liberating tool. Why did this book have to be told in this specific way?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, that’s actually a great question. Especially what you said about the pulpy part, because arguably, violence is always really important with pulpy fiction, the kind of storytelling you and I came up on. I felt two things. One: I am who I am. In terms of my influences. And my influences are quite well recorded. I played Dungeons & Dragons, I read comic books. I listened to hip-hop. Those are very Low Culture, you know what I mean? In terms of my fiction, those are the sort of things that stay with me. So, that was one thing. But there’s another conflicting thing that took some years to get to. One of the fascinating things about African American history is how it sits with the typical Western narrative of the hero. Often, the hero starts his rise and ends with killing his antagonist in a violent confrontation. And, a lot of times, that’s how heroes are built. And as a younger reader, I hungered for that from black folk.
I always wondered why there weren’t black people who did that. But, as I read and researched, I actually realised a beautiful thing about black history in America: that very often, we have not had the recourse to violence and we had to triumph in other ways. Sorry, I’m opening this Isabel Wilkerson book [The Warmth of Other Suns] because she has this great quote that I think about all the time. She’s talking about resistance and black people and the Great Migration:
“What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
And that was one of the first times I heard someone actively position the act of leaving, of running, as resistance. And that’s a theme all throughout history because we were enslaved, right? And so, on one level I was like, “Oh, I can tell a different kind of story” – not a story about how he comes back and kills his master and claims his woman, you know what I mean? One where violence is not really possible, so now your hero has to resort to other means. And that, to me, was a thrilling way to tell a story.
Because you can feel certain things, but never really act on them. And there’s a gender component to that, too. Because in many ways I wanted to write a Western. I love Westerns. An adventure story, you know? But one of the tropes of Westerns is this idea that, you know, “guy is on a mission to save his wife,” or “guy is on a mission to avenge his wife, who was raped and killed.” “Now I’ll go take my vengeance,” right? Or, you know, “I’m gonna go back and save my wife.” And I wanted to undercut that as much as I possibly could. I wanted to call that into as a much question as I possibly could. You know? And so...like, violence as its deployed in storytelling in the west, it always has this resonance with machismo. And I was trying to really get away from that in the book.
Yeah, those tropes are also aligned with this kind of top-down distribution of power that’s inherently inequitable, right? The power structure gifts you violence, or you steal it from the power structure and inflict it upon the power structure, but it keeps on going in a cycle that ultimately dehumanises all parties, I think. One of the things it feels like you’re doing is interrogating older American mythologies that we’ve been told to believe and creating new mythology from the counter-narrative stories that have always been there. You map out this taxonomy of the slaveholding South in the book: slave-hunters as a faction named Ryland, slaves are Tasking folk, plantation owners are Quality, working-class whites are Low, women whose bodies are sold for sex are Fancies. How did those influences you mentioned before – D&D, J.R.R. Tolkien, hip-hop, comics, science-fiction genre stuff – help you do that?
Coates: That’s what we do, you know what I mean? That’s an essential part of gaming, this idea of world-building. That’s what we do in hip hop. That’s how Staten Island became Shaolin. That’s in our brain. It’s how the police became One Time. That’s all throughout the literature, always being defined in different ways. So, me, that’s the stuff I came up on, man. I just drank that stuff. When you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, the idea of naming things is so important, from naming your character, to what continent they’re named after and what world you’re playing in. All that stuff is so key. I didn’t have to think about it, it’s in my bones. And then there’s the other thing: People have a certain image when you say slavery. Certain things come to mind. And so, a large part of my job was to make slavery new. And part of making it new was new names.
The narration and dialogue in the book swings between colloquialism versus mannered speech. Sometimes it’s what you’d expect of the period and sometimes it isn’t. Talk to me about the considerations you had in deploying each one.
Coates: Well, you know what I had to get to, I had to figure out that this is a book inspired by a certain time period but it has to be readable to the people of today. So I was, more than anything, trying to evoke certain things but not necessarily be restricted by them. In earlier versions of trying to write the book, that wasn’t true. It’s more of an attempt to evoke than anything else. That’s really what I was trying to do.
There are times when it’s like, “You know, they probably didn’t sound like this back in the day...” but those moments between Hi and [surrogate parent] Thena did communicate a mother-son, familial kind of energy.
Coates: Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s the feeling you’re going for. Not necessarily the exact thing, but the feeling.
Up until your comics work, most of your published writing had been memoir or socio-political commentary. How did that affect the long incubation period of this book?
Coates: I started this book before everything. Before Between the World and Me, before We Were Eight Years in Power, I was working on this. And it’s hard to learn to write fiction. [laughs] It’s hard to cultivate a new skill. When it’s not what you do, or have done. I’m just happy it wasn’t immediately published. I was talking to our mutual friend [editor] Chris [Jackson] last night because he was the first one who suggested writing fiction. He did that and my feeling was like, “I don’t understand this,” as far as craft. I would read fiction and not understand how this person made me feel like this actually happened and I really was there. I don’t get how they did that. And so it took a while, man. It just took a lot of writing that died and didn’t end up getting published to get there.
But I think all the stuff you were doing as non-fiction – it’s clearly evident there, you know?
Coates: It’s in there.
And there are parts of it that felt autobiographical, specifically Hi’s voracious reading and hunger to understand the larger forces demarcating his life.
Coates: Definitely, and also just thinking about the history and having to sit with the history for long periods of time. I mean, that was just the essential. It just was. I posted some stuff on Instagram this morning and what it was, was a lot of the documents I was reading. Oral testimonies, and then there’s places where that stuff just cuts off because it has to. And I would just find myself thinking, after reading that stuff, “Okay, what was that actually like?” What did that mean? What did it feel like?” And probably, the most exciting aspect of doing this fiction was getting into that mindset. Getting to a place where you could ask that question. And answer it.
Water Dancer #4, from the “Water Dancer” series by the novel’s cover artist (Image: Calida Garcia Rawles)
History doesn’t always give us those answers, but fiction can. In the research, did you ever learn a fact that seemed too fantastical to be true?
Coates: I felt like one of the biggest things was, I was shocked about how durable notions of family were. There is a notion among us, and among the wider public, that slavery destroyed traditional ideas – or not even traditional – healthy ideas of family. And I was shocked by how much of a myth [that] was. Everybody from black nationalists to white conservatives to white liberals say that. And it’s just a lie. An absolute, absolute lie. That was a big one.
The importance of family is palpable throughout the book. I feel like the tension between collective and individual memory is a through-line throughout most of all your work. But also, I feel like something that really comes into sharp focus in The Water Dancer is that memory and history are two separate, distinct things. Can you talk about the mechanisms by which those two things become distinct?
Coates: So, history is written and what actually “happened,” I guess. There’s a place in the book where Harriet Tubman says “There are certain stories I just can’t tell.” Like, “Why don’t you go down and save them with X, Y, and Z?” She actually can’t do that without specific memories! She’s Moses, not Jesus. And so, memory is the key in the book. Hiram, when he finally does Conduct and even the first Conduction early in the book, it’s a situation where these are things that happen that are part of the historical record, but are deeply personal to them. That’s what they can act on.
That felt like you layering a rule set on top of these people’s powers.
Coates: You got to. When you’re trying to do something and introduce an element of magic, you have to have boundaries. I had to do something like that.
Just like how Nightcrawler can’t teleport anywhere, he’s got to have a line of sight.
Coates: Line of sight. Or have been there before.
One of the things that really stuck out to me was Hi’s whole “college experience” on the mountain revival, where he encounters all these notions of freedom. Did you worry about anachronism in that sequence...
Coates: [laughs] That’s what it is, though. That’s a good term for it. It’s like going to college. No, I wasn’t worried because I read about that before I made that sequence. All that shit was actually going on.
That was the second part of my question. You kind of tease out, “these things we think about as new notions about men and women loving each other are not –”
Coates: NO, EVAN! I read about that before I even decided to put that in the book! There’s a section in What Hath God Wrought, which is like a history of basically the antebellum period in America. And [author Daniel Walker Howe] talks about all these utopian movements. We think free love is something the hippies came up with, but it’s not. It’s not at all. It’s actually quite old. I knew all of that stuff was actually going on.
You hear about the early feminist movements and think that was definitely happening. But some of the crazier stuff in that part...this is the period Marx is alive, so Marxism is a thing that’s going on. Free love is a thing that’s going on. Child labour movements are alive and well. There’s somebody in those scenes who does a temperance thing about alcohol. That was a thing that was going on at that time. So, it was really interesting to me how abolition was the white-hot core of those movements. It brought all those disparate people together. But that, like, it wasn’t just abolition. There were all these other things, too. If you read about Frederick Douglass, he was talking about all these things. He’s talking about temperance and called himself “a woman’s rights man.” He wasn’t using the term feminism at the time, but said “a woman’s rights man,” which is a 19th century version of a male feminist.
Speaking of women’s rights and feminism, a lot of the conflicting tensions of that historical moment live inside Corinne, who’s just fascinating because she’s the subject of a different sort of oppression, yet she holds Hiram in another kind of bondage and debt. What was it like figuring out her character?
Coates: She’s an antagonist and an anti-hero, right? I think that’s basically what we’d say she is. So again, going back to the history, there are all these stories like the Grimke sisters where folks talk about white women talking about slavery and the fact that enslavement gave them insight into their own “slavery,” as women. So she comes out of that. And there was a woman by the name of Elizabeth Van Lew. She was in Richmond, Virginia. She was deep in Confederate circles but she was a spy for the Union. She had a black woman that worked with her. I mean, they spied on Jefferson Davis and shit. And I used to think that was fucking incredible. It’s incredible, the idea of a Union spy in the Confederacy during the Civil War, a black woman and a white woman, working together. That was sort of irresistible inspiration.
This book has been brewing for so long, way before you started writing comics. How did writing comics change the way you worked on The Water Dancer?
Coates: Oh, it helped a lot. The most modern version happened after Black Panther, so it definitely helped a lot. I think one of the big things was having to write that much dialogue and those themes. It helped a lot. Writing comics was just like practice for those things.
How I experienced it was you had these really tight encapsulations of scenes that felt very visual. I’ve read your comic scripts and they’ve gotten very lean. But this was a more muscular version of what you do in your comic scripts.
Coates: That’s exactly it. It’s not that different, you know?
Has this book changed the way you write comics now?
Coates: I think it’s the other way around. You know what I love about comics? If you’re doing it right, it has a kind of immediacy. You don’t have the option or the luxury you have in books, where you can just sort of sit back. So, I think comic book writing changed my aesthetic. It made me want to make the literature more immediate and not to waste people’s time. It’s still a novel but I tried as much as possible to get into things as quickly as I could. To get to action. And that’s something I got from the comic book writing.
Do you think you could have told this story as a comic?
Coates: I had this idea to do a prequel comic but a buddy of mine told me if I did that, I would be fucking up because I would have to show people what Conduction looked like before they got a chance to read the book. And he was saying, “You shouldn’t show them what it looks like.” You should let them imagine.
Re-reading this book a second time, it made me think about what you’re doing with Captain America, where Steve has to figure out where his place is in the national psyche. You’re not the first person to have Steve wonder if he can manifest the best ideals of the country doing what he’s doing in the way he’s doing it. Why do you think that’s a recurring theme in Captain America stories over the decades?
Coates: To me, a guy who just wants to bomb everything and shout “America!” wouldn’t be very interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is that a guy with a flag on his chest would actually be intelligent enough to see the flaws. Steve’s a sensitive dude, man. I think people forget that. Steve is an artist. And so, to me, the struggle Steve has is to love America as it is. He really loves it; he’s literally from the Greatest Generation. But he’s also having to constantly, in his own way, push the country to live out those ideals amidst the disappointment that they, in fact, do not. If I had actually take one panel and say “that’s the mission statement” for Captain America, as I write him? It’s that great panel [from Daredevil: Born Again]: “I’m loyal to nothing except the dream.”
Captain America explains his true allegiance in a great scene from Daredevil: Born Again. (Image: David Mazzucchelli, Max Scheele, Joe Rosen/Marvel Comics)
I think one of the reasons Steve and T’Challa are such great partners, brothers to each other, is that they’re opposite sides to the same coin. Steve grew into the symbolism, but T’Challa had it thrust upon him and chafes under it.
Coates: He wanted it! Steve wanted it. He wanted the symbolism. He wanted to serve. To be that dude. T’Challa, like you say, was thrust upon it.
And again, the contrast is like...well, Steve has this initial naiveté and he has to learn about the flaws and foibles of how the American experiment is executed. T’Challa knows all that – about Wakanda and the rest of the world – going in.
Coates: He knows this world is flawed.
Last question. It seems like you’ve opened a horizon of possibility with The Water Dancer. Do you feel if there’s another one following this, it will be easier to write?
Coates: I think the thing is I don’t have to go find the voice again. Unless Hiram isn’t the storyteller. I think if I use Hiram, I don’t have to figure that out again. I was doing an interview with someone yesterday and they said, “Would you be happy with any fiction you did from here on out was just about slavery?” And I told that person it would have sounded crazy to me before, but there are so many goddamn stories. It’s just insane. So, you know, doing more with those stories wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Featured image: Calida Garcia Rawles