Author Ta-Nehisi Coates and Director, Ryan Coogler Sat Down for an Intimate Conversation Surrounding the Black Experience and Coates debut novel, “The Water Dancer”
By Saybin Roberson,
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ryan Coogler welcomed many to a night of Black excellence as they discussed Coates’ debut novel, The Water Dancer. Held at West Angeles Cathedral, The Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD series welcomed the two to celebrate The Water Dancer, and more.
The Water Dancer written by Ta-Nehisi Coates is his first fictional novel and New York Times #1 Best Seller. His debut novel follows a young Hiram Walker who was born into bondage and lost his mother and the memory of her. Hiram is saved from an accident by an unknown force, which grew newfound urgency on his private rebellion. He then uses his talent to go on a journey into the war on slavery, finding his chosen mother and love, determined to leave the only home he knows. The novel travels through his findings on several plantations, his return to home and the mastering of his gifts, as he reconstructs the story of his biggest loss.
The event opened with a performance from Senegalese drummer Malik Sow and his collection of drummers. Together, Coates and Coogler explored the Black experience through the lens of the novel’s protagonist Hiram story and the strength exuded by Black culture.
The conversation began as Coogler asked Coates of his craftsmanship, which the author then detailed it took 10 years to write The Water Dancer. Coogler asks, “At what point did you think you had something?” Coates explains his formula, stating the first draft was terrible. Also adding that of the 10 years, he didn’t feel a true piece was created until just a year ago when he found the key element of the story.
“You can’t talent your way to writing, it’s built, it’s a made thing. The real thing you have to do, you got to go back to that bad writing, you’ve got to revise. You have to get to bad to not-so-bad,” he says and the crowd laughs.
With Coogler and Coates having a prior relationship, the conversation was fluid and friendly. Coogler explained he finished the book moments before, said he enjoyed and connected to the book thoroughly. Highlighting the common thread and truth of slavery being violence, rape, and bondage, but for this novel, it focused much on emotional trauma.
“I think it’s necessary to tell those types of stories, but what I wasn’t ready for was the type of violence that this focused on, which was not physical violence but emotional,” Coogler says. “I never seen a work that was like, very razor-sharp focused on emotion.”
Coates responds, detailing his intention and the most striking aspect that drew him to the story, was the destruction of families. “What got me and what I finally actually got what I thought I was reading about, was the destruction of family,” he says. “In slavery, if somebody sells your kid, that’s just as good as killing your kids. You’re never going to see them again.”
“I had seen the physical [violence] and how bad it was, I wanted to go here, I wanted an opportunity to write a different kind of narrative.”
The two go through elements of the novel, reading an excerpt with a gut-wrenching monologue from a freed-slave who felt she was still in bondage because her family had not come to freedom with her. Coogler goes on saying he couldn’t read the novel without thinking of mass incarceration, Coates agrees.
The conversation travels to therapy, how creating is a form of therapy. As well as the process of becoming and remaining inspired when you have nothing, which according to history is the way of Black culture.
Coates relates this to the protagonist Hiram’s story, “He has to realize it’s not what’s being advertised to him that’s the story he should embrace.”
The Water Dancer, much like the conversation between the two creatives touches on topics and extremely prevalent ideas in today’s society. The notion of taking back our story like Coates’s main character Hiram does. In conjunction with taking back our strength as Coogler promoted in his recording breaking box office hit, “The Black Panther.”
“It’s not what they did to us,” Coates says in his closing statement, “it’s what we did.”
This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel.