What We’re Reading: The Water Dancer

October 3, 2019  • David K. Gibson

Throughout this decade, the Aspen Institute has been fortunate enough to host writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at many of our events. When he speaks, he speaks from a place of deeply considered history, and when he questions, it is from a place of genuine curiosity. The MacArthur Foundation declared him a fellow in 2015, but many of us had been calling him a genius for at least a few years before.

And so we are excited to read the first reviews of his upcoming first novel, The Water Dancer, released just last week. It is a piece of fiction set in the world of the Underground Railroad, but also in a supernatural universe in which the protagonist, Hiram Walker, has both perfect recall and (with conditions) the ability to transport people instantaneously through spacetime. While this may seem far-fetched, it is no late-era-Tarantino wish-fulfillment. Instead, it’s the logical intersection of two of Coates’ narrative interests — thoughtful explorations of white supremacy and the costs (and debt) of slavery, and the fantastical worlds he created penning graphic novels in the Black Panther and Captain America series. In an ask-me-anything interview in 2017, Coates stated, “Superhero comics are largely a response to trauma,” and we’re anxious to see The Water Dancer taking on the trauma of America’s original sin.

In June, Coates released a short story from the novel in The New Yorker, and that was enough to send thousands out to their local booksellers to preorder the book. They (and you) will do themselves a favor to dip into pieces he wrote for The Atlantic for some context of his thinking on slavery, reparations, and the continuing crisis of racism — and to reacquaint themselves with his prose.