a headshot of Ta-Nehisi Coates
COLE WILSON / The New York Times​ / R / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

What Ta-Nehisi Coates Wants to Remember

The writer’s debut novel, The Water Dancer, is a fantastical love story that seeks to illuminate the forgotten emotional tolls of slavery. “This just wasn’t a physical horror. It broke families,” Coates told The Atlantic.

Deep in the morass of antebellum Virginia, the enslaved protagonist of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel lurches toward freedom. The Water Dancer follows a young man named Hiram Walker, whose journey North is an urgent, perilous odyssey. In one early scene, Hiram encounters a group of white men charged with capturing runaways. “Even in this terror and despair, I didn’t think to fall down in the road or to surrender myself,” he says. “The light of freedom had been reduced to embers, but it was still shining in me, and borne up by the winds of fear, I kept running, bent, loping, locked, but running all the same, with my whole chest aflame.”

The Water Dancer infuses Hiram’s tale of escape with an air of magic. Like the mother he cannot remember, the young man has a water-driven power called Conduction, which enables him to traverse great distances. Along the way, he meets real-world figures such as William Still and Harriet Tubman. They challenge and assist him as he attempts to secure the safety of Thena, a maternal figure, and Sophia, the woman he adores. Tubman, who is herself a Conductor, explains the supernatural ability to Hiram: “The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses.” Studied and meticulous, the novel is a slave narrative that depicts the quotidian horrors of family separation. Even so, it’s remarkably tender: The Water Dancer is also a romance.

Publishing historical fiction is a new endeavor for the author. As a national correspondent at The Atlantic, Coates produced journalism, essays, and memoir writing that earned him widespread acclaim and shifted national dialogues. But in recent years, the writer has also turned his attention to projects that stretch readers’ imaginations—and his own—in different directions. “It became clear to me that I could say some things in the fiction that I couldn’t say in nonfiction,” Coates said of the shift when we spoke recently about The Water Dancer, his research process, and the larger project of resurfacing buried historical narratives. This conversation has been edited.

Hannah Giorgis: Where does the story of this book start for you?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It actually starts back at The Atlantic. I was doing a lot of Civil War blogging when I was there back around 2009 almost up through 2012. I got captivated by the world I was inhabiting through the histories. And after my first book was published, my editor, Chris Jackson, really felt like I should try some fiction. This seemed like the place to do it—the world to do it in.

Giorgis: When did you know that you needed to take a break from being public in the way that you were as a nonfiction writer, to focus on just this story?

Coates: I didn’t expect what happened with me as a nonfiction writer to actually happen. When I first got into this more than 20 years ago, I just wanted to write profiles of people in print ... in GQ, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, wherever. That was my dream. And there wasn’t no black people doing it really at the time. You could count on one hand.

One World

And instead what happened was ... I started attracting a singular level of attention, and it felt like that attention often overshadowed the writing. People were more reacting to something that was maybe briefly related to the writing but wasn’t the writing itself. And that wasn’t enjoyable. Obviously, a lot of this [informed] my departure from Twitter. Even in my departure from The Atlantic, the person I became was not somebody I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be in those kinds of debates. Which is not to say I didn’t want to be in intellectual debates, but there was just so much that was coming with it. The thing with fiction is, unlike argumentative pieces, you can’t see [titles like] “The Case for Reparations” and then go ahead and write your [reaction] piece based on the headline, which is what people would do. You gotta actually read the book to have something to say about the book.

Giorgis: The thing about the book that does read so similarly to your prior work is how deeply researched it feels. What did your research process look like?

Coates: Somewhere deep in the annals of my blogging, I did probably about 70 percent of the research [for this book]. A ton of it was reading, interacting with primary documents. I was in Virginia for a week. And I wrote these little dispatches every day I was there, about being there and about how I was feeling, and what I was reading, what I was thinking, and what I was going to see. I would go to plantations. I would go to Civil War battlefields. I went to the Whitney Plantation down in Louisiana. This last year I went to Monticello and Montpelier. It was a lot of time spent visiting different sites, to understand how other folks lived.

Giorgis: What surprised you as you undertook that work?

Coates: I didn’t realize how much this country depended on slavery. And then once I understood it, to start visiting some of these plantation sites and to see in general—not everywhere, but in general—to see how sidelined slavery was in terms of the national memory.

One of the things that got me was when I went to Monticello. In the past 30 years they really have begun to research the lives of enslaved people, and they have all of these artifacts. Like, they would find marbles. Little enslaved kids played with marbles—that’s not something I ever thought about. They would find spectacles; folks had glasses. They would find remnants of toothbrushes. All of the small stuff about the life of enslaved people was really shocking to me. And this is one of the parts of the research I actually enjoyed the most. I was interested in that, whether it went in the book or not.

Giorgis: What were you reading as you did that research?

Coates: There was a ton of first-person accounts [of slavery]. A ton of encyclopedias. I got, like, a furniture encyclopedia at home. I got a book of 19th-century recipes. I got a book, I think it’s called What Slaves Ate. I have books on fashion—on fashion among enslaved people. I read some David Brion Davis, Thavolia Glymph, Barbara Fields. A lot of Eric Foner. All of the big historians. James McPherson. David Blight. All of that work really helped shape what I ultimately did.

Giorgis: The Water Dancer obviously conveys the moral quandaries and political realities of slavery, but I was struck by how clearly the novel homes in on the emotional and psychological toll—especially through its depictions of family separation. What drove the move away from more sweeping arguments and toward capturing these kinds of ruptures in interpersonal connections?

Coates: I felt like we had this picture of enslavement that focuses on the physical and the visceral—on torture, on the rape, and the physical work. And all of that is there. That’s actually in the book, but to me, as you point out, probably the most terrible aspect was the aspect of family separation. Of selling kids off for profit. Selling people’s parents off for profit.

There’s a great book by the historian Walter Johnson. It’s hard to read, but it’s really, really fascinating—it focuses on family separation. When I would read primary sources, that’s what people talked about a lot. They talked about their relatives being sold off. I wanted folks to remember that this just wasn’t a physical horror. It broke families. For money.

Giorgis: How did you think about portraying love?

Coates: Again, I feel like I saw a lot of that in the primary sources, and it’s not something I feel like I saw a lot of in depictions of slavery. And so it’s very, very important to me that you have some picture of not just what was done to these people but what they did. In many ways, at its core, The Water Dancer is a love story. And I thought it would be really cool to set a love story during that period. Letters from wives to husbands or husbands to wives where their loved ones were about to be sold off ... were just some of the most affecting notes that I read.

Giorgis: I’m also struck by the clarity and defiance with which the women in the book articulate their needs and push back against Hiram. Harriet, Thena, and Sophia all have lives that exist outside him. How did you think about gender, and about writing those relationships?

Coates: I think it’s always important to have a group of really compassionate readers. And I’m hesitant to say this, but it’s true: My wife is my first reader. And I’m only hesitant to say that because people say shit like that to credit themselves. I’m not saying it like that—part of how we met all those years ago is the fact that we were both readers. I also had two [other] editors at One World. Chris is my editor, but he had the editors Nicole Counts and Victory Matsui, and they all worked in collaboration.

One of the challenges I faced is I felt like Hiram needed to be this 19th-century dude, so that meant 19th-century attitudes about gender. Because he was the protagonist of the story ... he has to struggle with how he feels about Sophia in the book. I think the struggle is probably a lot clearer [now] than it was in earlier drafts.

We’re in this time right now where people love to talk shit about diversity. Man, fuck that. If you’re trying to do a thing and you understand that thing is not within your direct experience, you should have people interacting with your work who have that as a direct experience. It ain’t no different than going out and reporting on a story. If you want some expertise on something ... you find somebody who has that direct experience that you trust. I had that in making The Water Dancer.

Giorgis: I was reminded of something that Tayari Jones, who wrote An American Marriage, said about having read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in college and learning how to write a feminist novel largely from the perspective of a man. How did you think about conveying the tensions between black characters—along lines of gender, but beyond that, too—even as they all struggle against the overarching horror of slavery?

Coates: I really wanted to write an adventure story. I almost wanted it to be like genre fiction. One of the tropes of genre fiction is to use women as plot objects of the white man. “My wife was raped and killed, now I have to go and do X, Y, and Z.” I really wanted to avoid that. I really wanted it to not be the case that Hiram felt like he had to make up for his humiliations, to be seizing his woman as a prize.

On top of that, I also wanted to be in conversation, specifically in our community, with how, related to that—part of patriarchal society is this idea that men can protect women, or that men are supposed to protect women, as property. And so because black men have often lacked the power to “protect” (sometimes actually protect), there’s a kind of shame that comes with that. The terms are in and of themselves wrong, but being judged on those terms, there’s a level of shame, of feeling emasculated. And I think one response to that is to insist on all black men having the same sort of power that white men have.

Part of Hiram’s realization has to be that he can’t do that. Hiram wants individual freedom. And the book is about the recognition, from my perspective, that individual freedom is actually tied to all these other freedoms. So he can’t actually be free, or have his freedom the way he wants it, and [treat Sophia like property]. That’s not gonna work. I mean, she tells him that, first of all. She’s very clear about it. He has a series of experiences where—it starts with him almost going to be like his [white] father. He wants to literally be like a white man, that’s what he’s thinking, and then comes to realize how corrupt that actually is, and what that means.

Giorgis: Not to bring it to Morrison again, but I’m going to bring it to Morrison again. I think all the time about how she described the Mississippi River—how it was straightened out to make room for homes, but the water remembers. Water plays such an important role in this book. What did it mean for you?

Coates: For me it really came out of the research. It came out of the folklore. All these old stories of enslaved black people, us literally coming from the water, like coming across the Atlantic. As Nikole [Hannah-Jones]’s “1619” piece says, “They say we were born on the water.” In that transition, we became something different and something new. There was this one story that—and Sophia actually tells the story [in the book]—where there’s this ship, and the enslaved people rebel, and the ship runs aground. And [they] get surrounded by these white folks, and she says, “We’re going into the water. The water brought us here. Water gotta take us home.”

I was talking to [my wife] Kenyatta about this when I started doing the research on the dancing. The first time I came across the water dance, and this idea of holding the vessel of water on your head and the first person that spills a drop loses—for some reason, that took me back to these old stories of black folks who would leap in the water during the transatlantic slave trade. And Kenyatta said, “Well, you know, it’s like, we flipped it.” It’s like you’re possessing the water by putting it on your head instead of having it possess you.

Giorgis: The book so clearly emphasizes the power—and limits—of memory. Why did that feel important to you?

Coates: I think that goes back to the nonfiction. I ended up writing this piece out of research for The Atlantic on the Civil War and black people’s relationship to it. And I remember I would go to these Civil War battlefields, and there would be no black people there. None. Just none. And you’re at battlefields where the battle was literally over how we were going to exist and our freedom, and yet we didn't go there. I can probably count on one hand the number of black [visitors] I’ve seen at Monticello. So in some ways, I felt like folks had—as much as they won a war of politics, they actually have lost the wars of history and memory. [The Water Dancer] in part comes out of that. It is an attempt to restore that history and that memory back to black folks.

And then there’s also a second level, what Hiram was writing about—that much of the power that black folks are able to access through memory, white people can't access at all. Like, they can’t see. He has a part where he says, “Like our music, like our dance.” Which they can’t do, because they can’t remember. What he’s saying is all of this sort of art is actually representative of something, being tied to something, understanding something, seeing something that white people's power is totally dependent on not seeing.

Giorgis: What felt appealing about communicating that via the supernatural and not through more straightforward narrative descriptions?

Coates: There’s a lot of, again, in the research, references to the supernatural. It was already there. [And] when I was a kid, I loved sci-fi, loved fantasy, all of that stuff.

I started really, really trying to come up with an idea in 2008, and I started really, really writing in 2009. And I worked on it for a long time, and probably around 2012 or so [is when it clicked]. Like, when I started reading the biographies of Harriet Tubman, even in those biographies, she just comes across as such a mystical figure. That was how I felt reading her. So it felt natural.

Giorgis: Do you see your work, broadly speaking, as a project of remembering?

Coates: Yeah, at this moment right now, yes. I was just thinking today about how long that’ll go for. It wouldn’t be so bad if that was all it was, too. Because there’s a lot to remember. There’s a lot that’s been put away and avoided.

Giorgis: How do you contend with the psychic burden of holding all that?

Coates: By writing. Writing feels like purifying. The reading and the actual consuming of the information is the part where you get the burden. The writing is liberating, especially when it’s out in the world.