Mythic language pervades the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his leviathanic 2015 piece, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” he invoked The Grey Wastes, hearkening back to a childhood enthrallment with D&D. In “The Case for Reparations,” race relations are recast in the language of plunder and credit, and though he’s writing specifically about housing and redlining and Clyde Ross, he’s also writing about slavery and Jim Crow, state regimes and intergenerational oppression. In his National Book Award-winning letter to his son, Between the World and Me, the epistolary format provides a ribcage for the poetic heart beating inside.
With The Water Dancer, Coates’s first full-length novel, a story about slavery and a superpower, we pay witness to a writer unchained. In the proliferation of subjunctive clauses; the easy moving from waking to dreaming; capitalizations as we see in the Tasked, the Quality, and Low whites; in the very configuration of Lockless manor as two houses—one shown and one hidden—containing liminal spaces through which the Tasked must flit so as to appear at parties to pour a guest’s drink like they were summoned out of thin air, in all of these things lives a writer finally able to marry novelistic tendencies to the form. The faithfully dated prose and the constraints of this story’s form as recitation or testimonial allow Coates ample room to both dramatize his arguments and encapsulate them in single lines of cutting dialogue, to carry an entire longform essay’s worth of insights in the arms of a single paragraph-long interaction between two characters. The result is a powerful, if somewhat bloated, book that seeks to do so much. Sometimes, perhaps, too much. But while the moonshot may be off, the fistfuls of firmament Coates is able to bring back to us are a wonder to behold.
The Water Dancer tells the story of Hiram Walker, a slave on the Loveless plantation in twilit Virginia, a kingdom on the cusp of ruin. The soil, once rich and fertile, has been ravaged by generations of tobacco harvest. Storied families have journeyed west in search of new conquest and have taken much of their fortunes (namely their ambulatory property) with them. And Hiram, still a slave but also the acknowledged son of the plantation’s patriarch, flits between worlds. He begins his life in the Street where the Tasked congregate and go about the business of living when not in the fields. It’s here that he experiences a trauma so vicious, initiating a hurt so primordial, that he has blocked out all memory of it. The significance of this grows increasingly evident when it becomes clear that Hiram otherwise has a near-perfect memory. It is how he learns to read. It is also how he learns the slave songs, every timbre and intonation, parroting back to the workers their words and every emotional inflection captured therein.
As his half-brother Maynard, the louche, white heir to the empire, grows older, their father, Howell, calls on Hiram to attend to his brother, to guide him and groom him and keep him from his worst self. To fashion him into a man of Quality, properly suited to own his own kin. At one point, Hiram imagines taking his brother’s place as heir apparent, a veritable Prince of Egypt. As rooted in history and verisimilitude as this book is, speculative fiction tropes abound.
It’s during the course of this service that Hiram experiences an episode that awakens in him a magical power, one that sets him directly in the sights of an underground resistance. Hiram has the gift of Conduction, a sort of teleportation that, when set in motion, whisks him and his passengers bodily across land and water and which promises to transport him to worlds beyond imagining.
Hiram’s story is self-told in the tradition of slave narratives like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, faithful to the 19th century diction of the era in addition to the genre’s utilization of narrative devices in the sentimental novel to serve the recounting of slavery’s horrors. Such stories, unique in that they were the specific testimonies of slaves themselves, served overtly political purposes but were also works of storytelling in which one could locate act breaks and foreshadowing and all manner of narrative sophistication. Through the form of the novel, the Tasked could make intelligible to their white audience just what it was they were being made to endure. Much of the research Coates performed for The Water Dancer consisted of reading these personal testimonies, and what stood out to him as one of the most heartbreaking aspects of slavery was the separation of families.
As The Water Dancer was a decade in the making, any timely resonance with family separation in the context of the current political landscape speaks less to a conscious authorial reaching and more to the fact that government policy at its most injurious has often targeted the family. But the novel does stand out for training its trenchant eye on that aspect of the peculiar institution rather than bringing into stark relief the beatings and mutilations, the cotton-picking, the sexual violence, the corporeal punishment and physical danger thickening the air breathed in every second by every single Tasked person, all of which are still very much present in the novel. Whether because of the novelty of that aspect being made the focus in a piece of mainstream literature or whether because of Coates’s heartrending depictions of enslaved families in extremis, or perhaps because of both of those things operating in tandem, the horrors depicted never felt rote or part of any genre rulebook. In highlighting families, Coates made his characters individuals. All of the Tasked thirst for freedom. The water from that well is especially sweetened when one can bring one’s beloved with them.
The partition and formation of families also paves the way for the love story threaded through the book. Elements of the adventure novel, of the heist novel, of the romance are all there. But Coates expertly subverts the expectations each of those labels carries. The women in Hiram’s story are not props. They aren’t triggers for the protagonist’s man-pain. They are individuals with their own desires and fears and anguish and hope. They exist with an interiority as profound as Hiram’s. The book does not lack for scene-stealers.
This novel lives within that particular orbit of hurt, the pain attending the rending of families under chattel slavery. And so many of the novel’s most powerful moments stem precisely from its positioning here.
Another aspect that caught Coates’s eye during the course of his research, in reading from narratives gathered by the US Works Progress Administration and from elsewhere, was the persistent presence of the supernatural.
Speculative fiction is at its sharpest when the story is built around a well-formed metaphor or when the fantastika is properly understood as a literary device. The Underground Railroad as a literal network of train tracks burrowed beneath America served as the spine for Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Time travel forced both reader and protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Kindred to reckon with the hypocrisies of the present and the ways in which they’d been deployed to mask the pain and injury of the past.
In The Water Dancer, the matter is a little more muddled, and it is in this respect perhaps that the novel is guilty of trying to say—to be—too many things at once. At one point, Hiram’s memory makes him an expert forger. In the course of his work, he is forced to learn the personal background of the people whose handwriting he’s meant to imitate, as though knowing their aspirations and routines and petty grievances and gastronomical preferences will inform each stroke. Is Coates here deploying analogy to describe his own process of research and writing for this book, diving into the mind of slave and slavemaster alike, betrayer and resistance fighter, man and woman? Is he pointing to the act of empathy readers are meant to perform when engaging in the text?
Does that lead us to a wider statement on the thesis of Coates’s enterprise here? Why write a novel set during chattel slavery in the United States? Why look backward?
Memory powers Hiram’s abilities. It is the battery, indeed, for the entire novel. “[M]emory is the chariot,” says Harriet Tubman at one point in the book. It’s “the bridge from the curse of slavery to freedom.” That memory seems to be the activating agent in both Hiram’s and Tubman’s supernatural abilities of Conduction suggests that the novel’s message is that the way forward is to remember. Indeed, one of Coates’s most incisive essays is entitled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”. Denial, conscious forgetting as coping mechanism, thwarts the progress of the individual, as well as the nation. It is Kryptonite for the project of liberation.
At work in The Water Dancer is a pulse-beat similar to what throbbed in Butler’s Kindred as well as Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, namely a reclamation of narrative, the story of the savannah told from the perspective of the hunted. Ripping away the drywall that’s been papered over the narrative of slavery, tearing at the acrylic that paints something like the Civil War as a noble misunderstanding among whites, centering the black folks at the center of America’s war with itself, all of that is, whether intentionally or not, the baggage the slavery novel carries with it when written by a black writer. The slavery novel as educational tool, a reteaching. Slavery is no longer something preserved in the amber of parable. It is evidence of a titanic societal debt.
But there’s a problem that that formulation can’t quite shake, and it’s a problem that has dogged Coates visibly since before the publication of Between the World and Me and his very public anointing as this age’s Baldwin, an anointing to which he has insisted on politely objecting. Namely, who is he writing this for?
You watch Mad Max: Fury Road and can say to yourself, “that’s a movie about an escape from enslavement,” or you read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and see in Deckard the familiar contours of a slavecatcher. The allegory, whether intended or not, works. But to ask of George Miller or Philip K. Dick, “who are you writing this for” is to imply something very different from asking that question of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In The Water Dancer, Coates is describing American power from the standpoint of its victims. The slaves are victims, but slavery as an institution is a soul-deadening enterprise, marking all who are involved. “[S]uppose we did not have to crumble with them,” Hiram says to Sophia, the Tasked woman he loves enough to risk his freedom for. You read that line and you hear the pity in it. Look what this is doing to them, that line is saying. Look at their ruin. But Coates is in the same position as so many other authors from formerly colonized countries or marginalized backgrounds who have ascended or been thrust into the mainstream and made reluctant ambassadors of their people.
It is Hiram’s duty to remember. That is what he is told over and over and over again. It is how he is able to advance his role in the plot. The reader, through Hiram, is being told to remember as well. But remember what, exactly?
Remember black musical traditions? Remember that there was more to the life of a slave than monotone tragedy? That black people found joy and life amongst each other? That they’ve loved and lost and cheated and embraced and hated and praised each other since time immemorial, that they made families for and out of each other in the face of an enterprise—a near-global order—that sought to obliterate their personhood entirely?
Remember that no participant in slavery, no matter how “kind” they might have been to their property, was a just person? Remember that the “love” a slaveholder believes resulted in his mixed-race progeny was an act of rape every single time? Remember that there were white people who did these horrible things and believed themselves good people the way that there are white people who do horrible things and believe themselves good people now?
There’s an almost cosmic unfairness in the falling-apart of the metaphor-as-entreaty in this necessary and expansive novel. That isn’t to say it would be a stronger work were the magic excised from it. Indeed, it’s precisely this element that most distinguishes the novel and makes it an incisive and memorable and beautiful thing. This is a good book. A really, really good book. But its point collapses beneath the weight of the metaphor. Remembering is what brings us forward, but who is us?
The Water Dancer is, in many ways, a culmination of Coates’s previous efforts. The archival rigor and voracious curiosity that gave his journalism its unique musculature, the valorization of black effort and genius, the poetic language bridging the cosmic reckoning with this country’s Original Sin to the terrestrial struggles of the victims of that primordial injuring, his enduring love and appreciation for the mythology captured in comic books, the eschatological coloring of the problem of racism in America, the focus on the family. His journalism on mass incarceration and redlining, his study of the presidency of Barack Obama, his epistolary instruction to his son, his chronicling of his own childhood in Baltimore, his expansion of Wakandan influence throughout the Marvel universe, all of it seems to have been pointing to this book, a work of speculative fiction staring the elephantine enormity of that peculiar institution in the face.
At points, the book’s knees do buckle under the weight of what it’s trying to do. But it’s cognizant of the foundation on which it stands, a foundation that includes Butler and Jacobs and Douglass and Haldeman. Rather than shed the influences of science fiction and fantasy, Coates has embraced them and, in doing so, has produced a story that embraces as well.
Hiram’s name, throughout the novel, is often shortened to “Hi,” as though Coates were greeting me periodically during this odyssey through the treachery of chattel slavery. Perhaps therein lies the answer to the question of audience. Who is he talking to when he demands remembering? He’s talking to us.
All of us.
Tochi Onyebuchi’s fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, and Omenana Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. He holds a B.A. from Yale University, a M.F.A. from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and a Masters degree in droit économique from L’institut d’études politiques. His debut young adult novel, Beasts Made of Night, was published by Razorbill in October 2017, and its sequel, Crown of Thunder, was published in October 2018. His next YA book, War Girls, will hit shelves on October 15, 2019, and a novella, Riot Baby, will be available from Tor.com Publishing in January, 2020.