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Ta-Nehisi Coates Explores The Tension Between Escape, Family In 'The Water Dancer'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written nonfiction for most of his career. His essays redefine the conversation around reparations. His memoirs explored fatherhood and black masculinity. In 2016, Coates wrote a series of "Black Panther" comics for Marvel. Well, now he's out with his first novel. It's called "The Water Dancer." It's about a man named Hiram, a slave in antebellum Virginia, the son of the plantation owner.

TA-NEHISI COATES: (Reading) I walked up that back staircase of awful secrets into that house of bondage. And as I mounted each step, I felt the terrible logic of the task, my task, snap into place. It was not just that I would never be heir to even one inch of Lockless, and it was more than knowing that I would never be a subscriber to the fruit of my own labor. It was also that my own natural wants must forever be bottled up, that I must live in fear of those wants so that more than I must live in fear of The Quality (ph), I must live in fear of myself.

CORNISH: The novel explores the tension between escape and family. Coates read first person accounts written by slaves to help him write.

COATES: You start, you know, with a letter from somebody, you know, over the loss of their kids or something, or a narrative over the loss of a, you know, husband or wife. And then you sit back, and you try to imagine yourself in that person's shoes and how you would feel about it.

CORNISH: It also means that it affects the decision about whether or not to escape really profoundly, and that's something that maybe is glossed over a lot of times in these narratives. It's often like...

COATES: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...I would run if I went back there.

COATES: I know. I know.

CORNISH: And then when you do it, like, oh, wait. Or you'd have a toddler.

COATES: That's right.

CORNISH: Or your cousin would be down the road.

COATES: That's right.

CORNISH: Or you would be catatonic because of trauma. Tease out that idea because I think it is very easy, even for people of color to look back and say, somehow, I would've done it differently.

COATES: That's right. Everybody thinks they're a hero. And, in fact, even the hero of this book, when he does attempt to run, he does so in a matter that is actually very selfish.

You know, you can talk all day about how - what you would've done, about how you would've run. Would you have run and left your six kids behind? Would you have run and left your husband behind? Would you have run and left your wife behind? Would you have run and left your mother behind? Would you have run and left your grandmother? You know what I mean? Like, would you have done that knowing that once you ran, your master would've taken out their wrath on your loved ones? Would you have run then? I really tried to put people in the practical realities of life at that time.

CORNISH: And the reality of imposing that kind of terrorism...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...Of the people who made those decisions.

COATES: Exactly. And then, you know, within that context, within all of, you know, that horror happening, people still find the space to love each other.

CORNISH: Especially since so much of your work is about family. Like, your first memoir highlighted your relationship with your father. "Between The World And Me" is a message to your son. I think even your "Black Panther" was like a political family dynasty conflict.

COATES: It was. It was. No, you're not wrong.

CORNISH: So here you are again, getting to the root of it, I think, for black people in particular.

COATES: Yeah. And 'cause I think there is an overriding narrative, regrettably, in this country about how black people feel about their children, about their wives or girlfriends, about their husbands and boyfriends that asserts that we do not love in the same way that other people do, that we don't have the same kind of family values that other people do, that we don't want the best for our children the way other people do. And there's even a progressive version of this that blames that on enslavement, but I don't think the history actually holds that up. You know, I felt quite the opposite, in fact.

And I think it's really, really important for folks who have political goals to remember that if people don't regard you as human, political goals become impossible. And for me, a key part of being human is the basic desire for one's family to be prosperous. And so I wanted to write about enslaved people from that perspective.

CORNISH: There is also a female character in this book, Sophia, who is the love interest. And she, over the course of the book, becomes a real person and not just a love interest.

COATES: Yeah. Right.

CORNISH: How much of that is due to past criticism of your work, right? I mean, so many women writers have said they felt ignored in your perspectives.

COATES: Yeah. Well, I'll say a couple things. This is the oldest book I have besides "The Beautiful Struggle." I started this in 2010. I heard that criticism, and I was sorry that, you know, folks felt that way. And so, certainly, when I was working on "The Water Dancer," certainly when it came time to get reads of "The Water Dancer," that was high in my mind.

It's a tough thing to do, not, you know, so much to - because you have to preserve your voice, right? And at the same time, you know, you don't want that to turn into a kind of arrogance. I guess what I'm trying to say is I wanted to incorporate that criticism and not end up writing for a crowd.

CORNISH: Right.

COATES: I don't know if that makes sense.

CORNISH: It does. I mean, at the same time, I think in so many stories, especially slavery stories, women can be ciphers...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...To endure ritual rape, ritual abuse.

COATES: Right, right. Right.

CORNISH: They're a symbol of the abuses...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...And of shame. And I think for men, I don't know. I don't know how men think about that (laughter).

COATES: No, no. So I will tell you this. I was aware of that because I think in a lot of adventure stories, women serve that role. For instance, you know, it's a traditional, you know, sort of trope in the western that, oh, my wife was raped and killed, so I'm going to go now take revenge.

CORNISH: Right.

COATES: And I think there's a, you know, a regrettable tradition among black men and among, you know, literature where women become symbols of our honor. It's also one of the reasons why, like - I don't know - like, this sort of story that we tell or, you know, is almost in our subconscious where, you know, someone is enslaved, they come back, they, you know, inflict an act of violence, you know, they save, you know, their wife and family and then, you know, everything goes on. And I really wanted to write an exciting and thrilling book that was kind of free of those tropes of cowboy literature. I didn't want to write cowboy literature.

CORNISH: Or that aren't just revenge fantasies, right? That just wouldn't make much sense...

COATES: Or aren't just revenge fantasies. There you go. Right.

CORNISH: ...When you look at the history.

COATES: That's right. I mean, these are complicated family, you know, relationships.

CORNISH: The conversation around slavery, and specifically reparations, has changed vastly since you and I last talked.

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: What has that been like to hear? I mean, Democratic candidates now include it in their platforms.

COATES: I think one of the things that's happened is there was a revolution in scholarship post-W.E.B. Du Bois' book "Black Reconstruction" wherein historians really began to change the way they had written about the Civil War and the period of enslavement. And I actually think in much of the activity - and I include, you know, the congressional hearings on reparations. I include Democratic, you know, candidates who have included it as part of their platform. I include even, you know, the very existence of a movie like "Black Panther." I think something is happening in the creative zeitgeist that is actually resulting from different ways of telling stories that actually began over half a century ago. I think we're beginning to see those investments actually bear fruit.

CORNISH: For a time, you said that your big goal with your reparations conversation was to get people to stop laughing. Do you feel like that's accomplished, at least?

COATES: Yes, they've stopped laughing. It's no longer a "Chappelle's Show" skit. It's significant that people are actually having discussions about this and not, you know, making jokes at its expense.

CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates - his new novel is called "The Water Dancer." Thank you for speaking with us.

COATES: Thanks for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.