In an essay on race and memory, Toni Morrison wrote of "the stress of remembering, its inevitability, [but] the chances for liberation that lie within the process." Ta-Nehisi Coates' new novel, The Water Dancer, is an experiment in taking Morrison's "chances for liberation" literally: What if memory had the power to transport enslaved people to freedom?
Coates is best known as a writer of nonfiction, including Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power, but with a new novel and his work on the Black Panther comic series, he is straying into speculative fiction. The results are mixed. At its best, The Water Dancer is a melancholic and suspenseful novel that merges the slavery narrative with the genres of fantasy or quest novels. But moments of great lyricism are matched with clichés and odd narrative gaps, and the mechanics of plot sometimes seem to grind and stall.
Coates' protagonist, Hiram Walker, can remember everything — faces, stories, facts — with photographic recall. But there is one exception: his mother, who was sold south when Hiram was 9 years old by his father, the owner of a fading Virginia plantation called Lockless.
One day, when Hiram is driving across a bridge, he has a sudden vision of his mother dancing. Before he understands what is happening, the carriage is in the water. His brother drowns, but he is transported to safety.
Hiram learns that he has a power called conduction, a power shared by the great escape artist Harriet Tubman, whom enslaved people (in this novel, "the Tasked") call Moses. Conduction made the earth fold "like fabric," and on contact with water, Hiram can use it to transport himself and other people across great distances. But to do it, he needs to access a powerful source of feeling. He needs to remember his mother.
The summoning of personal feeling, faith or memory to access supernatural powers is a regular trope of fantasy. But for Coates, remembering is not only a personal process — it involves tapping into the collective culture, memory and pain of generations. In her essay, Morrison distinguishes between history and memory: When it comes to black Americans, inherited memory is more important, and more true, than history, because they are treated like "objects of history, not subjects within it." Coates writes too of "heroes who did not live in books, but in our talk; an entire world of our own, hidden away from them, and to be part of that world, I felt even then, was to be in on a secret, a secret that was in you." This collective memory is also part of the power needed to achieve conduction.
For me, the most moving part of The Water Dancer was not Hiram's escape or the escape of the people he loves, but the possibility it offers of an alternate history. In epigraphs between chapters, Coates quotes poems and writings about people who were captured and drowned in the middle passage. We read lines from Robert Hayden: "Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter / to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under." Coates also quotes from a contemporary eyewitness: "The negroes, in the meantime, who had gotten off, continued dancing among the waves, yelling with all their might, what seemed to me a song of triumph."
With his metaphor of conduction by water, Coates gives us permission to read those scenes differently. The book's most poignant and painful gift is the temporary fantasy that all the people who leaped off slave ships and into the Atlantic were not drowning themselves in terror and anguish, but going home.