Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Water Dancer”: The Power of Memory

Book Rating: 9/10

Warning: Light spoilers below.

I’ve followed Ta Nehisi Coates’ articles on The Atlantic and read his work for Black Panther (2016-) comic series. The comic has been traditionally developed by Caucasian authors; hence, the comic’s success says a lot. Coates is an extraordinary storyteller who can make a book readable to a wide range of audiences while commemorating the history of the Black Peoples of the USA gracefully. I ordered Coates’ latest book, The Water Dancer a while back and waited months for it to come out. The book was advertised to be yet another superhero genre product. However, you can see it for yourself that it is built open the power of memory, which is based more on reality than fiction.

His latest book, The Water Dancer, is inspired by agents of the underground railroad network (specifically, stories of the Still family in the book, The Underground Railroad Records by Quincy Mills). Hiram Walker is the child of a white plantation owner and a tasking mother. The readers observe Hiram’s struggle to grow out of the task in the fictional Virginia plantation, Lockless. Tasking comes too easy to Hiram because he has no memory of his past.

Structure of Water

What better way to create an imagery of slavery other than the unstable yet calming nature of water? The whole book is in fact inspired by the water. After he leaves Lockless, Hiram’s journey is taken over by water. He trusts a free Black man to save himself and his girl, and he finds himself locked in jail. He is later sold to a psychotic Black hunter group who release Hiram only to catch him every single night; soon, he realizes, months of running every night is simply a lie. Hiram’s journey after Lockless is never stable. Whenever the reader decides to take a breath, surely, they need to hold it back for twice as long. Coates does not want the reader to fantasize about happy endings (although he gives us one); He wants the reader to see the unstable nature of freedom amidst a nation ruled by slavery. Hence, slavery is the waves of water. It drowns Hiram at times but only to push him to the shore. For some of the other characters, they lay deep down in the water, never to escape.


The Power of Memory

It is true to say Hiram’s journey never follows a straight line— up until he remembers. Every time Hiram escapes slavery, he gets pulled back into it. Tasking means comfort, tasking means doing what he knows, and tasking is also an escape from remembering his traumatic past. Hiram’s brain sets free sparks of his memory when life leaves its heaviness on him. In fact, the author never tries to gather sympathy for Hiram, the brutality tactfully speaks for itself. Harriet, (inspired by the underground agent Harriet Tubman), is a force of the underground with the ability to channel her memories is a strong guiding figure for Hiram. He meets Harriet in the free state after his conception by the Underground. In Chapter 25, both Hiram and the readers experience what conduction means. It is magical and stripped from physicality. Conduction has an element of turning the other cheek; it repairs what has been stolen from the tasking folk beautifully.

Critique: The Ways of the Underground 

By the end of the first quarter of the book (Chapter 12), the author reaches a hidden climax while Hiram is metaphorically hit by the waves. Hiram and Sophia are sure they will see above tasking; in fact, they will be free. However, Georgie Sparks, a respectable free colored, betrays them. They both find themselves in the jail until Hiram is bought to be haunted like an animal every night by low-Whites. The readers don’t know what happens to Sophia, and it feels like the book serves its purpose of putting Hiram through unendurable pain. The following chapters are dark, however, they serve a greater purpose to understanding the concept of loyalty and capital of the Underground. The author later reveals that the hunting was set up by the Underground to give Hiram his own V for Vendetta plot. Initially, this chapter made me mad, but again, Coates’ aimed to be intriguing with his writing here. The chapter served its purpose of showing who truly owns the tasking folks’ bodies and minds within the chaos they endure and revealed Hiram’s strong character.

On the Screen Adaptation

Finally, I want to speak about the possibility of a film adaptation of The Water Dancer. It is not a surprise being compelled by Coates’ literary style upon finishing the book (although there touches of contemporary tones). The Water Dancer is a visual experience on the pages itself. Hence, a film adaptation that captures the script’s blue darkness, and the light brought to the screen by Hiram’s mother and his Sophia, and the festivity of conduction would make a feast. A screen adaptation would likely diminish many important details to the book, however, I am hopeful that with Coates’ involvement The Water Dancer on screen can be revolutionary.

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