We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
For this week’s edition of City Paper Arts Club, arts editor Kayla Randall and multimedia editor Will Warren read City Paper alum Ta-Nehisi Coates’ deep and dense debut novel, The Water Dancer. It centers on a young enslaved man who finds himself with fantastical abilities and sets out on an unforgettable journey.
Next, we’ll watch Warrior, a 2011 film about fighting battles both physical and emotional.
These Arts Club chat excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity. For the full chat, subscribe to Washington City Podcast.
Will Warren: So, this is the story of a young man named Hiram, who is enslaved in Virginia, and he has a sort of mystical power in that he can essentially teleport from one place to another. It’s a story about him coming to understand that power and how it ties into his family and his relationships. It’s also about his journey out of enslavement, because he takes up with the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad here is more like a secret spy agency, almost. This is a fantasy, so there’s some sort of mystical aspects to it. It’s about the missions he does, and [later] he returns back to his home in Virginia to rescue some of the people who are most important to him.
Kayla Randall: What did you think of the book?
WW: Ultimately, I really liked it. There were parts that were a little hard to get into, but I thought it was a really compelling story and it had a lot of powerful things to say about the ways in which slavery was so violent and cruel. It doesn’t seem like something that you need someone to tell you, but also it’s something that we should be told and think about all the time, because it was this foundational crime of our country and of the world. And also [it had] powerful things to say about love and relationships, because that’s ultimately what’s at the center of Hiram’s journey both away from home and then back.
KR: I agree … There’s just so many stories, right? We can never know all the stories of the atrocities that have occurred in this country.
WW: And that’s kind of what that opening quote from Frederick Douglass is about, right?
KR: Yes! It goes: “My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators.” —Frederick Douglass. I wish I could rattle off poignant statements like that—just such truths. A lot of the narratives we consume, if not most of the narratives we consume, are the narratives of the “master.”
There’s a great moment where Hiram is mentioning that really all his captors, all his oppressors want is to be lazy: “The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them—we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.” And I was just like, “Damn!”
WW: [Laughs] That’s a good line.
KR: And it’s true.