This month, Kavya Murthy reviews Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer. Read on for her thoughts about the book, and buy it on our online bookstore.
In The Water Dancer, we spend our time with Hiram Walker, a melancholic young man. His father is a white man of ‘The Quality’, Coates’ term for the slave-holders. His mother was a woman enslaved, belonging to the ‘The Tasked’. He is a product of sexual violence. Hiram has a prodigious photographic memory, and yet he cannot quite remember his mother, who his white father sold when Hiram was nine.
We meet him as he is about to drown with his horse, carriage, and half-brother as they ride across a bridge, and with him, we’re submerged into antebellum Virginia of depleted tobacco fields and a historical meditation on the view of that world from Hiram’s eyes. There is a blue light, and a dream.
Like many, my first view of this world — the pre-Civil War southern United States — was with Gone with the Wind, as an impressionable teenager. I was compelled by the wilful, stubborn Scarlett O’Hara and her field of vision was made my own effortlessly with Margaret Mitchell’s narrative blinders. The South in this book was glorious, full of dresses, polkas, fluttering eyelids and unknown mammies. All things Confederate America, the Ku Klux and lynchings receded into the background as Scarlett’s fixation for the pallid Ashley and her determination to renew her lost class status after the Civil War became my concern. And Rhett Butler.
As I read The Water Dancer, so much later into a reading journey that has since made amends for the gullible teenage self, I thought about Ta Nehisi’s Coates’ celebrated essay, The Case for Reparations from 2014. I thought that what The Water Dancer does for literature is a form of narrative reparation.
And Coates is able to tell the story without flinching, without ellision, and yet with a grace that does not have to show us rape, torture or lynching to correct our field of vision. We feel this world in a palpable register in which the Virginia is called out for what it is: a land of brutal subjugation that keeps those it enslaves, enslaved, through every means available in its violent arsenal.
Coates never uses the words ‘master’ or ‘slave’ to describe the social order. “...‘Slave’ sounds like something the person is, as opposed to the condition someone else put upon them...a thing was done to them, they were enslaved...what was done to them was not their identity,” he says in an interview discussing his book. And this historical, ethical diligence is what we travel with throughout the book.
The Water Dancer is deeply researched and lyrical. Once Hiram awakes, we see the world through his voice and telling, recalling slave narratives in pace, rhythm and language.
Much of the beginning of the book sets the context right. We walk the inner corridors where The Tasked work to bring pristine order to the social world the white people take for granted; they are hidden away as effectively as chamber pots, but Hiram takes us everywhere. Coates digs into the past and we are given a complex emotional landscape, in which Hiram’s desire to be loved as a son by his white father is unravelled to show us his own journey towards the truth of the social order of things.
Hiram has an almost superhuman and powerful memory - to recall sentences, maps, images and his own past in vivid detail, and he has the power of Conduction, the element of magical realism that sits almost seamlessly with the non-fictional elements of the book. Conduction, as a sort of superpower, reinforces the theme of amnesia and remembering. Once the narrative progresses, we are conducted through a brief history of the Underground Railroad, shown a history of map, movements and activism that many years later to when the book is located, people were freed.
I finished reading this book with doors opened to historical places I can only travel thanks to those like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and James Baldwin.
From his epistolary Between the World and Me to his journalism in The Atlantic to speculative fiction of the Black Panther series, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts public conversation on race on the right track. He holds different ways of telling the history of the United States, and as a consequence, sets the tone for the conversation of its future.
If you think The Water Dancer is up your alley, you may also like to read James Baldwin’s Another Country, and Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full Of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations (both available on our online store).