Razia Parveen reviews Ta-Nehsi Coates' debut work of fiction
The Water Dancer is stunningly lyrical as well as heartbreakingly sorrowful. We are given the narrative of a young man living in the American South during the slavery era and seeking freedom with other former slaves including the legendary Harriet Tubman. We are given a slave narrative, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, as a memory never to be forgotten. Coates, however, innovatively weaves magical realism into this story and creates a spellbinding and powerful tale of emancipation that resonates with the Black Lives Matter protests of our times.
The story envelops strands of the literary genre known as magical realism, which can be found in much Latin American literature of the 60s and 70s. It is a style which can elevate an ordinary situation or human into the extraordinary. Coates has integrated this technique into the narrative of Hiram, the protagonist, and thus entwined two writing genres to create one very powerful narrative of the slave experience.
The novel is split into three sections each marked by Roman numerals, reflecting the journey of the slave. Hiram, is at the heart of the novel and like a tornado sweeping through the landscape he relates other lives in the swirl of those caught up in the horrors of slavery:
My other cellmate was an old man. His face was lined by the ages, and upon the ocean of his back I saw the many voyages of Rayland’s whip. …At any moment in the day, whenever the mood struck, these men would pull the old man out and compel him to sing, dance, crawl, bark, cluck, or perform some other indignity. And should his performance dissatisfy any of them, they would wail on him with fists and boots, beat him with horse reins or carriage whip, hurl paperweights and chairs at him, or each for whatever else was at hand.
Here we have the brutality and indignity of slavery laid bare for the reader. This book is not an easy read, and it makes the reader work. The novel begins with the ominous epigraph:
My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators - Frederick Douglass
Coates does not waste any time in his crisp narrative and structures the opening of the novel to reflect the immediacy of telling this story:
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because there was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south. (p.3)
This opening not only introduces us to Hiram and the horrors of slavery but also the intense relationship of mother and child, and the themes of water and memory which will become central to this narrative. One other aspect central to this novel is the land itself – the beauty and horrors of the Southern plantations themselves. Hiram attempts to flee the brutality of his life with a girl called Sophia, who makes it clear to Hiram that she wants total freedom from all men regardless of their colour:
But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain’t freedom to me, do you understand? I noticed then that her hand was on my arm. And that she was squeezing it firmly.
“If that is what you want, if that is what you are thinking, then you must tell me now. If that is your plan to shackle me there, to have me bring yearlings to you, then tell me now and allow me the decency of making by own choice here. You are not like them. You must do me the service of giving me that choice. So tell me. Tell me now your intending.” (p.111-112)
Sophia makes a reference to the famous Underground Railway, a nod to the dangerous work of the slave resistance network and the bravery of the great Harriet Tubman. Her legendary tales of rescuing slaves from the Deep South and bringing them to the North is given a magical twist. Hiram joins her revolutionary Underground Railway, moving the enslaved to freedom and taking them out of bondage to the liberated air of the North.
Sophia also takes a stand for not only enslaved women but gender equality here. Her character is very reminiscent of the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth and her celebrated speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman’:
I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and chopped and husked, and can any man do more than do. I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much any man and eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that I now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint, awt and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full. You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much – for we can’t take more than out pint’ll hold.m - (Truth’s original speech at the Women’s Rights Convention held on June 21, 1851, taken from The Anti-Slavery Bugle, vol. 6)
Sophia’s monologue to Hiram is reflective of Truth’s speech here, allowing comparisons to be made regarding their situations. So was Sophia’s character based upon Truth? As like Truth, Sophia became an emancipated slave. Truth became one of the many friends of Tubman and the Underground Railway is weaved into Hiram’s narrative adding to its educational power. After failing to flee from his captors, Hiram is rescued by agents of the Underground Railway:
“But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see – one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves too justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose. We have chosen this, Hawkins and I. We have accepted the gospel that says our freedom is a call to war against unfreedom. Because this is who we are, Hiram. The Underground.” (p.155)
Hiram becomes an agent for the Underground Railway working alongside other agents as well as Harriet Tubman. She also builds friendships with other famed abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Thomas Garner and Martha Coffin White:
So, I was trained to be an agent, trained in the mountains at Bryceton, Corrine’s family stead, along with other new agents recruited for the Underground. You will forgive me for not saying much about my fellow agents. Those who are mentioned in this volume are either alive and have tendered their permission, or have gone off to that final journey to meet with the Grand Discerner of Souls. We are not yet past a time when scores are settled and vengeances sought, so many of us must, even in this time, remain underground. (p.163)
The tradition of singing songs is much praised and held in great esteem by Hiram and the older members of the enslaved family:
Going away to the great house farm
Going up, but won’t be long
Be back, Gina, with my heart and my song.
Songs were sung as a tool to remember family members who had perished before them. These were melancholy, yet full of the hope of freedom to come. The songs that are being sung are in the same tradition as those ancestors on the plantations and the slave ships coming from Africa:
“It’s a story,” she said. “was a big king who came over from Africa on the slave ship with his people. But when they got close to shore, him and his folk took over, killed all the white folks, threw ’em overboard, and tried to sail back home. But the ship run aground, and when the king look out, he see that the white folks’ army is coming for him with their guns and all. So the chef told his people to walk out into the water, to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess would take ’em back home." (p.379)
Coates employs the technique of telling a story within a story; nestled within the story of Hiram are snippets from the life journey of many people that he meets along the way. For instance, when Hiram is captured he is imprisoned along with an old man who narrates his life in enslavement:
Tonight, the old man, for some reason, felt the need to speaks…That was a time when a good man could make himself a family, and could witness his children, and children’s children, the same. My grand-daddy saw it all., yes, he did. Brought here from Africa…I could tell you stories boy….. (pps.128 &129)
Within these stories Hiram continues to educate the modern reader into the grotesque inhumanity of slavery. The style of magical realism employed by Coates is in stark contrast to the brutal realism of the descriptions of the horrors of slavery. When you construct magical bodies alongside the brutal reality, only then can the reader experience and understand the world created by Coates. For the connection between the two styles, as tangible as it is, allows the world of the Hiram to come surging into our present. Just prior to Hiram meeting the old man he is captured as he walks along the street:
When I awoke I was, once again, chained, blinded, and gagged. I was in the back of a drawn cart and could feel ground moving beneath me. I cleared my head and knew exactly what had befallen me, for I heard all the stories. It was the man-catchers – known to simply grab coloured people off the street and ship them south for a price, with no regard to their status as free or in flight from the Task. (p.214)
As the novel closes, we see Hiram return to his former life and through the process of ‘conduction’, take back Sophia and the woman who had become his mother, Thena. ‘Conduction’ is recalling of a memory which then allows the person to ‘jump’ long distances in an almost supernatural manner. Hiram is one of the few agents of the Underground Railway that can perform this feat besides Harriet:
The thing works on memory, and the deeper the memory, the farther away it can carry you. My memory of that Holiday night is tied to Georgie, and it’s tied to this horse that was my gift to him and his baby. But to conduct y’all that far, I need a deeper memory, and need another object tied to that memory to be my guide. (p.380)
Memory becomes the most important commodity between the enslaved for it is memory which both enslaves and liberates them.
Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same….(p.370)
Coates’ style is very reminiscent of James Baldwin – the American orator, writer and civil rights campaigner of the civil rights era. Both write with compassion and in doing so understand convey the effects of slavery upon the individual body and soul. Baldwin wrote about racial segration and humanity in compelling and very similar terms:
Yes, he had heard it all his life, but it was only now that his ears were opened to this sound that came from darkness, that could only come from darkness, that yet bore such sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself – it rose from his bleeding, his cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound now in eternity; rage that had no language, weeping with no voice – which yet spoke now, to John's startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched, the dungeon most absolute, of love's bed defiled, and birth dishonored, and most bloody, unspeakable, sudden death. Yes, the darkness hummed with murder: the body in the water, the body in the fire, the body on the tree. John looked down the line of these armies of darkness, army upon army, and his soul whispered: Who are these? Who are they? And wondered: Where Shall I go? - from Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin
Both these writers, decades apart, possess an uplifting style which makes their characters’ internal monologues sound like a fiery sermon delivered in a church. This is highlighted as the enslaved people turned to the church for a sense of relief. This is present in The Water Dancer when songs are sung:
Oh Lord, trouble so hard
Oh Lord, trouble so hard
Nobody knows my troubles but my God
Nobody know my trouble but my God
It went on for verse after verse, taking the song from trouble to labor to trouble to hope to trouble to freedom. When I sang the song the call, I changed many voice to the sound of the lead man in the field, bold and exaggerated. When I sang the response I took o the voices of the people around me mimicking them one by one. They were delighted these elders, and their delight grew as the song extended verse after verse….(p.20)
It was hope found in something to believe, which Hiram’s narrative is trying to tell us. By interweaving historical life experiences of iconic figures of African-American history, Coates has constructed a novel which is both a harrowing slave narrative and a tale of magical transcendence. He has shown the power of storytelling through the variety of characters which walk on the land of the Deep South:
The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction. (p.358)
Coates has kept alive the memory of an earlier generation of anti-racist resistance in a narrative which delivers powerful lessons for the same struggle in the 21st century. The Water Dancer is written poetically, mingling fiction with non-fiction. Coates is the Toni Morrison or James Baldwin for the Black Lives Matter generation of today.