Jay Bernard: Whenever I am asked to write about something – usually because I share some social category with the author, rather than an aesthetic or political affinity – I find myself reaching to become something I am not, some kind of singular authority. But this novel sparks so many thoughts that I have discussed with you (and others) in different contexts. Why not speak to you directly? And then we can put across the flavour of our everyday conversation.
Sita Balani: With reviews, there’s an obligation to be clever, to be certain, to gain a kind of mastery over the text. Reviewing often feels like being pitted against the author in some way, and that dynamic can be a conservative one. Whereas when you and I discuss fiction together – which we do often – we test out ideas, express uncertainty, and think together about what the book does. We rarely come to definitive conclusions, because the things we read become folded into our lives, our conversations, our relationships.
J: So. This is a novel about Hiram, the gifted child of a black slave and a white master, who tries to escape and ends up working with the Underground Railroad. I found it difficult to read, because although my family is Caribbean, ultimately I am descended from slaves and this is my history. A lot felt familiar about him – yet this familiarity was more a sense of my (our?) overfamiliarity with the US. That’s the advantage of being in conversation, I think, to diffract the story through our different experiences, rather than attempt to categorise it.
S: Yes. It’s funny, because despite my own personal distance from this story, being British Asian, the territory is still quite familiar. As much as it’s a novel about slavery, it’s a novel about America – the most mediated nation on earth – so, in a way, it’s impossible not to come to the story knowing too much. We’ve watched the long aftermath of the plantation society play out on our screens through the images of police brutality that circulate globally. The murder of George Floyd has ignited a global response because the US is not an ordinary nation-state, but the imperial hegemon. Its violent racism has international purchase, as does this moment of insurrectionary resistance. But of course, it’s not my history, and so I arrive at the novel differently.
J: Right. And there’s something interesting – for this particular review – about rooting the discussion in our shared diasporic experience, and observing this quintessentially American novel, rather than over-identifying with it. It’s interesting to think about who this novel is for, and how it resonates with those outside of the history it recounts. On the one hand, it’s incredibly detailed, and in the wake of the Hollywood movie Harriet (2019), which was not especially well-received, it’s part of the most recent wave of works to narrate slavery in such a way that it is embedded in popular culture. There is a long history of slave narratives on screen: Gone with the Wind (1939), Roots (1977), Welcome II the Terrordome (1995), Django Unchained (2012), Twelve Years a Slave (2013), The Long Song (2018), and so on. But what, I wonder, does cinematic representation do to the history? And what kind of political insight does it transmit? A quotation from the novel:
Because we in the Warrens lived among them, we knew first-hand that they took the privy as all others, that they were young and stupid, and old and frail, and that their powers were all a fiction. They were no better than us, and in so many ways, much worse.
The first thing that struck me about The Water Dancer was how ‘knowing’ is Hiram’s journey from being an ordinary downtrodden slave boy to an agent of the Underground Railroad. His gift, his power, is really the gift of memory; Coates seems to be saying that memory is a kind of knowledge that aids liberation.
S: I was very interested in how the novel portrays the knowledge that enslaved people have of their captors, who in turn know nothing of the people they legally own. It’s something Coates shows really powerfully, the total dependence – an ironic dependence, but a real one – that rich, white, Southern capitalists had on the people who washed their clothes, and worked their fields, dressed them in the mornings, and nursed their children, but whom they didn’t view as people at all.
This kind of intimate knowledge interests me because my own work is partially about empire and sexuality. So in India, for example, in the early days of empire, English colonials were encouraged to form relationships with Indian women as a way to become familiar with native culture. Then later, these relationships were prohibited because they threatened the fiction of racial superiority. Circumstances of exploitation and oppression inevitably produce intimacy between people from opposite ends of the social spectrum. And intimacy is always a kind of knowledge, even if it’s partial and asymmetrical. In the novel, Hiram can anticipate his half-brother’s needs and desires not through the bond of fraternal love, but through bondage, servitude. Coates makes it clear that Hiram and his brother are worlds apart in intellect and in ethics, and that their differences, as well as their connection, are the product of a system of exploitation upheld by violence.
J: Yes, exactly. As a child, Hiram knows his father is a white master, but does not know him personally until economic circumstances force some acknowledgment on his father’s part. Strangely, he has only sketchy recollections of his black mother (which, intriguingly, he puts down to having possibly betrayed her and repressed the memory of it). After he is brought into the house by his white father to work as a servant, he memorises all the rhymes written on a deck of cards so that he can perform a trick of ‘reading’ in front of white society. This ‘knowledge’, this mimicry, is really what sets the novel in motion and eventually comes full circle: his impulse to imitate knowledge, his understanding that literacy is what sets slaves and masters apart, is echoed at the end of the novel when he learns to forge the signatures of slave masters in order to free slaves, even though he does not at that point actually have the skill of being able to read. There is a fascinating balance between knowing and imitating throughout the book. He gets an education; a small accommodation is made for this boy genius which separates him from the other slaves, the people who raised him. And this small exception is made in order to maintain the larger oppressive order, because as we know power is never total: it relies on exceptions, the same way you can put holes in a metal beam to make it stronger.
S: I was intrigued by Coates’s decision to publish a piece of genre fiction as his first novel. The Water Dancer is very much an adventure story with a magical element. It’s quite a departure from his non-fiction, his memoirs, Between the World and Me (2015) and The Beautiful Struggle (2008). I’ve no doubt a contemporary coming-of-age story in a similarly reflective or confessional tone would have found a huge audience, so I found this novel – with its historical setting and use of magic as a trope – to be a bold move, though one very much in step with the recent embrace of speculative fiction. I’m thinking here of Octavia Butler’s renewed prominence, Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019), and the works of Nnedi Okorafor and N. K. Jemisin. But in the end, I did feel like the tropes of the adventure story were as much a hindrance as they were a help to Coates – at times the twists and turns of the plot felt laborious, and sometimes the novel got stuck in the gears of the mechanisms peculiar to genre fiction.
J: There’s something unsettling about taking this very American idea of the adventure, which is really about conquest, and applying it to runaway slaves. As we mentioned before, it says a lot about how this story, and the ideas therein, are meant to be consumed. Is there some palatability there? Something reassuringly familiar? Hiram as the genius, mixed-race child – the Barack Obama effect, perhaps. Even Obama made fun of his image as the special one when he screened the beginning of The Lion King as the story of his birth.
S: Totally! My other problem was the magical element. The thing that’s extraordinary about the Underground Railroad is precisely that they didn’t have any magic. There’s a Harriet Tubman character – well, she actually is Harriet Tubman – who makes quite a long cameo in the novel, and I don’t know a huge amount about Harriet Tubman, but I do know that she liberated hundreds of people from conditions of terrible violence. She was an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. Because even under conditions of horrific exploitation, people resist. And that’s what’s at stake in remembering these histories, particularly in Britain where the idea that William Wilberforce abolished slavery is so widely held.
J: Yes, this idea that Britain’s main part in the slave trade was to abolish it. It’s hilarious. This country only stopped paying off the debt from compensation to slave owners in 2015. Can you believe that? Yet it’s not part of the larger narrative.
J: The relationship between the characters in the novel is fascinating. I was especially intrigued by Georgie Parks, the classic traitor figure, who becomes a target of the Underground, which works as an assassination machine as much as a liberation organisation. I thought it was very subtle the way Coates spun the deception that Georgie enacts into a force that the Underground can use for their own ends. This idea that you must let tragedies happen in order to achieve a larger goal.
S: I was intrigued by the character of Corinne. She’s from an elite, plantation-owning family, who uses the cover of being a rich white woman to set up a station on the Underground Railroad. Throughout the novel, there’s something sinister about her. Coates describes her as ‘fanatical’ and says, memorably, that ‘all of these fanatics were white.’ And there’s a moment towards the end where Hiram has to decide whether to defy Corinne, who feels that his plan to save the people he loves might endanger many more lives. It’s not a million miles from The Trolley Problem – do you save one person or five? Does personal attachment matter? Coates makes very clear that Corinne and Hiram have different politics, different attachments, and personify different political movements. His – and by default, our – affinity is with Hiram, but he’s careful not to dismiss Corinne’s position. In fact, he shows it a kind of grudging respect.
J: There is a lot going on formally. It’s a combination of genre novel, historical document, political tract. At times – not very consistently, I’d say – there are hints that what we’re reading is itself a slave narrative. And then that becomes a more formalised part of the text – when the Underground rescue people, they write down what happened. So you get these curious interjections from characters who then become part of the story – part of history as it’s being told here.
S: Yes – characters keep pausing to give monologues on the terrible violence of slavery. The monologues are beautifully written and compelling on their own terms, but they are testimony, not dialogue; they feel like they would make sense in a courtroom.
J: I actually thought at one point that the twist was going to be that it wasn’t set in the eighteenth century at all, and was, in fact, in some sort of alternative present. Linguistically, that was strongly implied: Coates uses ‘Tasked’ as well as ‘slaves’. It creates texture, because it means we are privy to different registers, different subjectivities. The enslaved, to return to the point about knowledge, must necessarily know themselves differently to how the masters think they know themselves. There’s something about the word ‘Tasked’, a kind of religiosity…
S: Yes, he uses very formal language too as an attempt to create historical texture, to make it feel like eighteenth-century Virginia, but the novel has such a contemporary sensibility. A set of contemporary political perspectives are put in the mouths of various characters. It’s most obvious with the women characters – like when Sophia says, ‘if you want me, you can’t own me’. I don’t doubt there was a woman having that thought in the eighteenth century, but it’s expressed in such explicitly feminist terms. Characters all but use the word ‘intersectionality’. It’s not just that each character is the vehicle for a set of political ideas, but that Coates has projected a set of live, current political debates back into the past. I guess my question is what do these tropes (of the chosen one or the noble hero, for example) do to the political allegories in the book? The characters sit at the meeting point of two sets of contrivances – the political allegories and the adventure story – and at times, they seemed trapped there.
J: Yes, exactly. Has Coates written himself into a corner? But the contemporaneity of the story also has a kind of haunting resonance. If we cast back into history what we now know, say about attachment theory, which seems to be a strong theme in the book, then it’s really interesting to think afresh about the destruction of families that happened then. The psychological impact is rendered anew. I was struck by the word ‘stupor’, used in relation to childhood trauma. For example, this passage, after Hiram’s mother is sold:
I have now seen a great many children in the same place I found myself that day, orphans feeling themselves abandoned and left open before all the elements of the world, and I have seen how some explode in tantrum while others walk in an almost stupor, how some cry for days and others move with uncanny focus, addressing only the moment before them.
What we know about attachment makes this poignant and quite well observed, in a way that contrasts with some of the ideological contemporary stuff. And that was something that really touched me about the novel: this image of the child without its parent, unable to know themselves or the world. But the word ‘stupor’ also has other valences too. It suggests aggression, incorrigibility, drunkenness and hubris. The tension between the two meanings – abandonment and arrogance – is felt throughout the text. It’s interesting that abolition has re-entered the mainstream consciousness in the past few months with the Black Lives Matter protests; abolitionist demands, such as defunding the police and repealing the criminalisation of survival, can seem as impossible as the abolition of slavery seemed then. But it’s about waking up from the stupor. Cutting off supply to the arrogant giant intoxicated with itself.
S: Yes. Returning to these forms of suffering, but with our contemporary knowledge, is crucial to the novel, I think, because what Coates is trying to do here is to keep in view the ongoing suffering in the long aftermath of slavery’s abolition. America operates on a kind of disavowal: it both knows and does not know that it is founded on genocide and slavery. The thing that’s important is for America to say, ‘We know’. After all, Coates’s rise to fame came through his 2014 essay ‘The Case for Reparations.’ Though this is an argument about resources, it’s also, fundamentally, about acknowledgement: about saying we know. This happened. We know.
J: Coates’s personal journey mirrors Hiram’s in some ways. Hiram moves from precocious child in the big house, to runaway slave and rebel, to member of the organised underground. Coates moved from black liberal to a more radical position; from dreaming about assuming and replicating power to working towards fundamentally restructuring society. Near the end of the book, Hiram says, ‘Once I’d dreamed of ruling, as my father had done, back at Lockless, and it is tough to say it as such, that it was my dream.’ This acknowledgment is painful, but it’s a necessary confession if he is to make the psychological shift – in the face of horrendous violence – towards radical action. Coates seems to be talking about undergoing a similar shift as a public figure.
S: He has since, however, come under fire from various other black intellectuals, not least from Cornel West, who made a damning critique of what he saw as Coates’s neoliberal attachments. More pertinent to my mind, though, have been the critiques of Coates aligning himself with a black nationalist position that sees Israel as a model of reparative justice. There are hints that Coates holds firm to this position in the novel, I think. You mentioned the religious connotations of ‘Tasked’…
J: Yes, that term really implies the ‘chosen people’…
S: Right! His Zionist attachments have been heavily critiqued, so it’s notable to see them persist in his fiction.
J: It was a really flawed position to take. It is not transformative, but it is very seductive. And it’s interesting because there is a quotation on the back of the book from Toni Morrison, who says that Coates fills the intellectual void left by James Baldwin. Yet the intellectual spaces Baldwin occupied were critical of Israel.
S: I’ve found the comparison to Baldwin unconvincing. Baldwin was a far less didactic figure, one closer to Toni Morrison herself, really. I think of Baldwin as a kind of fugitive intellectual, an internationalist whose sexuality, among other things, made him wary of being claimed by nationalist or factional politics. The Black Radical tradition, to use Cedric Robinson’s phrase, is one that refuses the nation-state as the horizon of political possibility.
J: Exactly. Morrison manages to tell stories that give over the culture of a people with this history; she doesn’t theorise, there’s no political blueprint. In a funny way, she privileges the commune over the nation; she looks at peoples, not states. And, again returning to knowledge, Morrison really plays on the need we all have to fill in blanks, to make leaps of our own imagination, to not know precisely.
S: What we really want, I think, is for literature to feel like the archives – to have that sense of mystery, while being deeply tied to life – and for archives to feel like art, to have the clarity of a poem or a painting.
J: Yes, to accommodate that fundamental human faculty of filling in a gap. Something we must be wary of. It’s interesting how this relates to current ideas around the archives as a site of memory and, therefore, power. The erasure of knowledge, as we saw with the Windrush Scandal, is as powerful as storing it. The destruction of those boarding cards was a powerful demonstration of how archival accumulation is not the same as knowledge production. The state creates and destroys as a matter of course. And yet, still, when you go through a shoebox full of minutes, you find provocations, promises, mysteries, fragments of the narratives we construct in order to exist.
S: This is the conundrum of being a person in the world: you can map someone’s conditions – the circumstances in which they live – and you can look at their behaviour, but the relationship between these two things is fundamentally mysterious. Not only the question of why some revolt when others don’t, but how do ordinary people participate in the creation and snuffing out of worlds?
J: This feels like Hannah Arendt’s territory.
S: And George Orwell’s, in many ways. Both are interested in the psychology of the oppressor.
J: And what’s interesting is that both do so from within. Both attempt an objective critique of their positions within an oppressive order. Arendt as the Jewish refugee who is castigated for pointing out Jewish complicity with the Nazis and the bureaucratic banality of it all. Orwell, as the old Etonian ex-policeman who notes the quotidian aspect of devastating colonial oppression. In his short story ‘A Hanging’ he writes about the execution of an Indian:
It is curious, but until that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide… He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.
Orwell was a policeman; he was complicit in these kinds of killings, and capable of profound reflection about his actions. And Coates shows that complexity too, in what the characters of the novel are willing to do. What you said about intimate violence at the beginning is, in many ways, shown by Orwell to be something an oppressive force knows it is doing. How can you not know that you are raping a woman because she is black and subordinate? How can you not know that the product of that rape will work for you, for free, for his whole natural life? How can you not know the cruelty of letting children play together, then making one a slave and one a master? Orwell portrays this understanding as a revelation, right there in the heart of the empire; until he makes a decision to truly act, this man’s death is just a pity, in the same way that Hiram’s condemnation to slavery by his own father is a pity. It’s interesting that Orwell is so often held up as the last word on totalitarianism, less on oppressive intimate relations with others, less as an example of whiteness rethinking itself.
S: Yes. I think it’s important to remember that the big structural stuff – the circumstances under which we live – also conditions how we relate to each other. Authoritarian regimes continually produce new and ingenious ways of being cruel to each other. These days, that means you can shop your noisy neighbour to immigration and potentially have them deported. We’ve seen this tendency really take hold during lockdown, with people calling the police on their sunbathing neighbours, displacing the blame for the death toll onto individuals and away from the government. To grasp the real meaning of resistance, we must also understand how structural violence shapes intimate brutality. This is crucial, and perhaps the deeper point that Coates is trying to make in the novel.
J: He makes it. When the Underground works to liberate a woman and her child in Canada (slaves did not always know that they were automatically free there) she points out that her intimate relations are more important than individual freedom. She says, ‘If you can’t stop them from breaking us up, as they do, if you can’t put us back together, then your freedom is thin and your church and your city hold nothing for me.’ It’s a sobering moment. A truth politics has no answer for.