The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

water dancer

This first novel from Coates, known for his nonfiction such as Between the World and Me, is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. Hiram’s mother was sold when he was nine, and curiously he has no memory of her. This is odd because otherwise he has perfect recall, a photographic memory.

Then one day when he is driving his feckless half-brother home, he has a vision of his mother dancing on the bridge they are approaching, and something extraordinary happens. He finds he has another, unsuspected power, one which he hopes to use to escape to the north.

Among the many wonderful layers in this story is Hiram’s ambivalent feelings towards his father. As a child he looked up to him as to a powerful god, but as he grows and begins to see the truth about the man’s failings, Hiram’s feelings become more complicated. He can’t completely lose that earlier desire to win his father’s approval. The portrait of the owner is equally nuanced, as he vacillates between treating Hiram as a son and as property. Because it’s so unusual an approach and overlaid with cultural roles, this is a great way to explore father-son relationships.

Another layer is Hiram’s new, magical power, which is called conduction. This becomes more important as the story goes on and he learns how to better use it. Supernatural powers and happenings were a significant part of slave culture, so its inclusion in this slave narrative makes sense. However, for me, this magical realism aspect dissipates some of the outrage at the mental and physical suffering of the enslaved people. Also, it seems to function as a deus ex machina in resolving problems.

To his credit, Coates does not make it easy for Hiram. For Hiram, using his powers is not like waving a magic wand, but instead is an exhausting and painful experience. It reminded me of my recurrent flying dreams as a child which were not lovely floating rides, but entailed my having to labor at a difficult breast stroke if I was to get to the person in need, a strenuous effort that always left me drained in the morning.

The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. His scenes draw me in, full of sensory details and poetic images that make places and stories come alive. I did not get a very deep sense of the characters, but this makes sense since we are seeing them through Hiram’s eyes. He is too young and inexperienced to be deeply perceptive about people—in fact his misunderstandings drive some of the plot. Also, this reflects the reality of slave life: People are constantly being torn away from you, sold south, or lost, so it’s better not to get too attached.

I loved the first part of the book, where even the narrative portions fascinated me, and Coates’s use of unusual terminology—the Tasked instead of slaves, the Low instead of poor whites, etc.—was delightful. However, after that, the story seemed to bog down, and I had to force myself to keep reading.

I thought about this problem for a long time, and I think it comes down to this: Once Hiram achieves his initial goal, the new goal motivating him is not strong enough to drive the story. The stakes do not seem high enough and not personal enough to make that goal matter. It is a worthy goal and certainly should matter a lot, but somehow it just isn’t convincing, at least for this reader.

Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory. One of the episodes that most stands out to me is the brief story of a former slave Hiram meets who is trying to rescue the remainder of his family. Finally, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this novel vividly demonstrates the curious self-blindness, the dissociation that slave owners and supporters of slavery inculcated in themselves.

Have you ever shied away from a novel because it seemed as though its subject matter would be difficult or distressing? Did you ever, as I did with this book, go on to read it and be glad you did?

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

OctaviaEButler_Kindred

I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. I was a little surprised, because it was not the science fiction novel I expected, given that is how it is classified. No matter. I was entranced and changed by the story it actually tells.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

She sees a young red-haired boy who is drowning and rescues him. Apparently, she has been drawn back by Rufus’s fear of dying. She continues to move between the past and present, something neither she nor Rufus has conscious control over. Time moves faster in the past, so she encounters Rufus at different ages. Dana’s white husband Kevin also gets drawn back with her at one point, and his experiences highlight how much Dana’s changed status is due to her gender as well as her skin color.

What is astounding in this book is the way Dana comes up against the small and large ways that life is different for her in Rufus’s world. No matter how much I’ve read of histories and novels and slave narratives, no matter how many museums and former plantations I’ve visited, nothing brought home to me the live of a slave the way Dana’s experience does.

Why? Partly of course that’s due to Butler’s extensive research. Even more, it’s due to her vivid writing—the strong characters, the plot that never stops, the high stakes, the familiarity in her use of slave narratives as story structure.

But most of all it’s because Dana is me. The differences in our race and cities mean nothing compared to our common culture. Experiencing the indignities, injustices, and downright torture of that life through Dana’s frame of reference opened my eyes in a new way to the abuses of slavery. Here is a woman who expects to wear pants, be able to read a book and write a letter, speak up for herself and demand justice, even to go where and when she pleases. Deprived of all that, powerless, considered property, something less than human, without even the survival mechanisms other slaves have learned, Dana must find a way to endure her trips back in time.

There are many lessons here for fiction writers. One is the use of voice. Dana’s modern-day narrative voice reinforces the connection with the reader while emphasising how far away she is from the time of slavery. This is starkly apparent when she is forced to put on a slave-voice to protect herself.

Another is not only the importance of research, but how to use it effectively. It is clear that Butler has done her research well, not only into antebellum plantation conditions, but also into slave narratives and historical accounts of slavery. Yet, she employs that research lightly, including details only as appropriate for plot and character. For example, at one point when she’s back in Los Angeles, Dana throws away her books on African-American history because she now sees the flaws and gaps in their depiction of slavery. I expect Butler could have listed texts and quoted examples, but wisely refrained.

Yet another lesson is for fiction writers looking for a new way to write about a common theme. I think of it as the what-if game. What if you took a classic western and put it in a different setting, maybe outer space? You might come up with Firefly or Star Wars. What if you took a classic vampire story and used a different—even implausible—protagonist? You might have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. What if you took one of your own experiences and gave the protagonist different characteristics from you (good, bad or both) or a different time period or a different culture? How might that story play out?

Or you can use the tropes of science fiction/fantasy genre to explore modern-day problems by taking them out of the modern day. That is what Margaret Atwood did in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And it is how Octavia Butler shows us that, instead of papering over them, we in the U.S. must confront the ugly crimes of our past in order to move forward.

Have you read any of Octavia Butler’s books? What did you think of it?