When I meet Ta-Nehisi Coates, I am surprised. All of the photos I’ve seen of him are somber and inscrutable, but when I walk into the café where he’s suggested we meet, he’s not like that at all. He’s one of those people who looks young at any age: There’s a kind of weightlessness and buoyancy in the way he holds himself, with a serious, clear eye that looks knowing and hesitant all at once. He also has a baby face. But even though he looks at me with kindness, I’m nervous.
Every seat in the place is taken, with most folks staring desultorily at laptop screens. I am dismayed to find Coates sitting at the very back of the restaurant, tucked into a corner. I am naturally clumsy, often self-conscious, and shy, and 20 minutes ago, I texted the man frantically. I called him “Mr. Coates,” wary of disrespecting him, my anxiety pulling out my southernness, and told him that my GPS insisted I would be there 15 minutes after our scheduled meeting time. Instead, here I am walking in 10 minutes early, dreading that this is a sign from the cosmos that I will ask the wrong questions. I list through the tables and sweat. When I sit down I awkwardly throw my phone on the table to record our conversation, introduce myself, and shake his hand to a rising wail in my head: He’s going to despise me.
There are so many reasons for self-doubt. Coates is a formidable writer and thinker. After his virtuosic memoir The Beautiful Struggle was released in 2008, he found an audience who was solidly impressed not only by the quality of his writing, which careened along and rose and fell like a song, but also by his intellectual prowess, his curiosity, his ranging mind. The book revolves around what it meant for Coates to grow up Black in Baltimore in the ’80s and is heavily informed by his father, who worked as a librarian at Howard University, and whose life was driven by the desire to equip his children with the tools they would need to survive in America—perhaps in a quest to figure that out for himself. Coates’s father started his own press, which sought out and published works by writers of the African diaspora.
Coates grew up in a home and a world where consciousness in thought and deed was the ultimate reflection of what it means to be a human being, where books and papers surrounded him and reflected him. He sought other stories in comic books and novels. Baltimore in the ’80s demanded a different education of him, one where he was bored by teachers, fell asleep in class, walked through the streets assessing the landscape and the people incessantly, wary and aware that at any moment, at any time, he could be jumped and beaten for any number of imagined offenses by boys who looked like him. That world trained Coates to navigate violence with his body and his mind, pressured his inner self to become the man he is today, a man with a baby face and easy bearing whose looks belie the weapon within, a self honed to a scythe’s sharpness.
He brandished that weapon in 2015’s Between the World and Me, an epistolary revelation to his son on what it means to live and die as a Black person in America. The book did something Coates hadn’t expected: It rose to the top of the best seller lists, and all hell broke loose. He won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and damn near every cable show, every magazine, every reader was hungry for his insight. Now a huge readership knew Coates for what his longtime editor Chris Jackson describes as “a poetic style drawing from hip-hop, black nationalist rhetoric, comic books, and wrestling—a language that was declarative and galvanizing, that had a kind of swag and strut, that named its own world unapologetically,” one centered on love and fear. “Everything that makes him such a powerful and seemingly unique—he would dispute that characterization—voice,” says Jackson, “was there from the beginning.”
After Between the World and Me, though, fame elbowed her way into his life like a belligerent drunk: loud, imperious, and blind to her sloppy need. The café we are meeting at, where Coates walked to work and sat for hours in his corner, drafting and rewriting his articles, his books, for years, was no longer the dim safe haven it had always been, especially in the literary bubble of New York. After Between the World and Me came out, he says, “I would look on Twitter, and people would tweet I was here, and then people would come up to me. I would run into people and they used to say, ‘I hear you write here.’ ” So he stopped coming to this dim pastry shop so often.
As our conversation properly begins with my first question, which is why he chose this café as his office, I learn that Coates has his own reasons for self-doubt and self-consciousness. I learn that I’m not the only one who is nervous today, because after writing dozens of lauded articles and three book-length works of creative nonfiction, Coates has written a novel, a wondrous, unpredictable novel set in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia called The Water Dancer; it follows an enslaved man named Hiram as he attempts to find his way to freedom. But it is not straightforward and cutting like his nonfiction, where he wields his mind to devastating effect. In The Water Dancer, amid love and covetousness and tenderness and brutality, Hiram wields magic. He has an ability called Conduction (capitalized throughout the book), wherein he can bend, fold, time and space. This is a proper novel, an abrupt departure from what overbearing, messy fame demands of Coates. And because of that, he is nervous too.
Part of the reason Coates returned to the pastry shop is because he felt it allowed him to take on the trappings of the novelist throughout the 10 years it took him to complete the book. His son went to a school nearby, and it was, first, convenient. “I imagined that this was a place where a writer could just work.” Here he motions to the other dark corner in the back of the café. “There was a woman who used to sit, who does still sit, in that corner seat right there. She looked so serious. And I knew she was a writer right away, just by how she worked. She never socialized. We ended up being friends!” They worked in silent kinship over the years, and he’d look over at her as he was wandering through the wilderness of writing his debut novel and thought, That’s what I want to be.
The writer was—is—Julie Otsuka, who wrote, among other novels, a haunting, boundary-expanding, award-winning book in 2011 about a group of Japanese wives sent from Japan to marry Japanese American husbands called The Buddha in the Attic. The women collectively narrate their journey in language that is lyrical and heartbreaking. When I ask him if he asked her to read The Water Dancer,he says he didn’t. He was intimidated by her and didn’t want to bother her.
He’s made an effort to surround himself with other fiction writers. “I sent the first chapter off to Michael Chabon—we’d struck up this friendship—and he just blasted it. ‘This is not fiction, bro,’ he said.” At this, Coates laughs. “He wrote this long-ass note. It was great. It was really great. I was totally depressed. But it helped. I said, ‘Okay, this is where I have to go; this is what it has to be.’ Everything proceeded from there.” He half-grins when he says it, and I believe his ruefulness is tempered by years of writing articles on deadline, of having his work line-edited and purged, of getting the kind of ruthless feedback that journalism engenders. But still, I imagine, it had to hurt. “It was deflating,” he said. “I was nowhere close, and he let me know, which is exactly what a good friend and good reader is supposed to do. I think so much of writing happens in those moments. Talent is important, but perseverance and high threshold for humiliation is maybe even more important?”
Coates also sought writing wisdom from the women in his life. His wife, Kenyatta Matthews, is his first reader. “She reads everything,” he says. “She reads more than I do.” Coates is aware that critics have seen a deficiency in his work regarding women, that their absence as fully realized people has been notable and noted. Even though The Water Dancer is told from Hiram’s perspective, Hiram would not survive without the women who protect him, care for him, teach him, and partner with him: his lover, Sophia, his mother, Rose, sold away from him; his adoptive mother, Thena; and finally Harriet Tubman, whom Hiram meets and befriends. “I feel like there was a great danger of writing this book as a kind of save-the-girl cowboy thing. So how do you prevent that? First of all, you try to muddy the whole saving thing as much as you possibly can. And secondly, you try really, really hard not to make the person an object of the protagonist. You just try to make them as full as you possibly can.” The women characters are the people he thought of the most. Everyone important to his writing life read with an eye toward this—Jackson and two other editors, Kenyatta, and himself. “That’s so hard to talk about,” says Coates. “It’s really hard to say what you had a hard time doing. Because you’re talking about the place where you know you felt your weakest.” It is the chief pursuit of a novelist to imbue those written about with life, with beating hearts and breath. And true to the experience of most debut novelists, this novel taught Coates how to write it, again and again.
But that kind of feedback that he sought out through the 10 years he spent writing and rewriting The Water Dancer only made him want to tell Hiram’s story even more, because not only is the story about how one lives in spite of the dehumanizing institution of slavery, to Coates, it is a love story. When he was writing, he listened to “a lot of sad-ass R & B,” he says. “A lot of songs about longing. I played the Righteous Brothers’ ‘Unchained Melody,’ Isaac Hayes, ‘Walk on By.’ ‘Look of Love.’ ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.’ ” When I ask him why, he surprises me. “My mom reads serious stuff, and she also reads what people would refer to as trash, right.” As a teen, he says, “I read a lot of what people refer to as trash too. And I told her years ago that I was going to write her a romance novel. I told her this when I was 20.” He shakes his head. “And when I started researching the Civil War, the most heartbreaking shit to me was when these people would be divided from each other. I tried to imagine loving somebody the way I love my wife, and somebody being like, ‘That’s it—and your kid too, by the way.’ And I came across these letters about it.”
When Coates curses, his Baltimore accent thickens the vowels and consonants, and I feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Once it settles into the conversation, it lingers, and I can’t shake this sense that I know that man, that there is something familiar about him to me. That in some distant way, we are kin. I decide to think more about this later and instead settle in and listen.
“There’s something in black music, and I guess music, period, that expresses feeling that can’t be spoken or written. And I felt like in writing about slavery, I was going for a kind of emotion I didn’t quite know how to express,” he says. “Music was like an audio cue for me. It would take me to the place I needed to go.” What Coates has done in his novel is meld the prose of the early 1800s with a modern sentiment of love and heartbreak. The novel’s prose is faithfully dated, marked by the linguistic formalities and trends of the time; it authentically reads as if an educated man from that time period is speaking to the reader.
But as I mull his declaration over, I understand it. That sense of longing is ever-present. Coates references a story from The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, about a man sold away from his love, who later writes to her. “He’s like, ‘Listen, I never wanted to be parted from you, I always wanted us to be together, but it happened, and the best thing now is for you to find somebody and get married.’ And he ends it. And he’s talking about these kids he’s never going to see again. He says, ‘Send me a lock of the children’s hair.’ I said, ‘Goddamn!’ ” Both Hiram and Sophia are enslaved by an older Virginia planter whose estate is in decay. As the overworked land of his plantation yields smaller and smaller crops, the plantation owner, who is Hiram’s father, sells the people he has enslaved south, to Natchez, to live and die in the brutal cotton fields of Mississippi.
In Between the World and Me, Coates tells his son Samori, who is now in college, that every slave is a person. This fact is one of the great powers of The Water Dancer, that nearly each enslaved adult we meet is a person. They are in love, have been in love, have had children or made a makeshift family along with other dispossessed, displaced people. Later in the conversation, he asks me if I miss my characters as he misses his; I respond by talking about writing rough drafts and revising and get lost in a terrible tangent. I never answer his question. Days later, I realize that’s okay, because we’ve had the best kind of conversation: we two cousins meeting for the first time, we two writers in the good fight meeting on furlough, trading dreams, possibilities, people. Garnering strength to return to battle, to tell these essential stories.
That sense of longing moves beyond couples, as parents long for children, brothers for sisters, cousins for cousins, friends for friends. Families and communities were dislocated, sold south for profit as plantations in the upper South failed, and this is the longing that Coates speaks of that undergirded millions of lives. This is the great sea that disoriented them, drenched them, and drowned them for generations. Slavery was the antithesis of love. While love sharpens awareness of humanity, makes us focus on the beloved’s way of singing to themselves when they think no one can hear, their way of holding their head just so when they are listening intently, their way of crying when they are angry or laughing when they are sad, slavery does the exact opposite work. It dulls awareness of humanity, reduces the enslaved to object, to tool, and to cash. This difference is what drove Coates to write. He began researching slavery and the Civil War before he knew Hiram, or before he knew that he would write novels about enslaved people.
Coates has been intellectually wrestling with the darker aspects of American history and policy for a long time. He wrote for the Atlantic for years, and when he published his standout essay “The Case for Reparations,” he announced himself as one of our most essential public intellectuals. While President Barack Obama was in office, Coates made a study of the 44th president, including interviewing him, and used that material in the collection We Were Eight Years in Power, which reflects on race, America, Obama’s presidency, and its immediate aftermath. This continuous intellectual engagement fed his nonfiction and fiction at the same time.
“I started reading books about the Underground Railroad. It was the individual stories that got me. I was reading this biography of Harriet Tubman, and one of the biographies said something to the effect of, ‘To this day, we don’t know how she made some of these escapes.’ I said, ‘Fuck—well, how did she?’ To me, that’s where myth lives in fiction.”
When Coates was younger, he read comics incessantly. He was obsessed with superheroes, with people who secretly possessed power that could remake the world. Coates’s youthful obsession with a kind of magic that gilds the everyday world resurfaces in The Water Dancer. But because Coates has disavowed magic in Between the World and Me, explicitly stating that he rejects all forms of magic, I ask him about that declaration. He laughs. “I think the true answer is that’s probably not a true statement. I think myth or magic has a lot of power.” Popular culture wrestles with America’s disavowed history in oblique ways that to many nerds of color feel dishonest. We begin to speak about other artists tackling the same time period in America’s history, including David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s proposed show about the Confederacy.
“A buddy of mine, he says, ‘Listen, there’s very little American science fiction or fantasy that is not, in fact, aping our shit.’ One of my favorite movies is the last Mad Max that came out, Fury Road; God, I love that movie. How are you going to have a bunch of runaway slaves and there’s only one black person? One black person in the whole movie? This movie is just about slavery.” So much of sci-fi and fantasy is, he says. Or take the X-men comic books, “about all these people who are allegedly special but are persecuted for it? Well, fuck—I know about that.” He laughs. “So like, when that Confederate thing happened, my thing is: Why do y’all keep telling the same fucking story? So many people in speculative fiction have tackled: What if the Confederacy had won? Why are we going back to this again? Do you know how many stories to be told are out there? There are so many things to speculate about.” His love for speculating, for creating alternate realities, is evident in the work he’s done in the Black Panther universe, where he’s written several fresh comics for Marvel.
After telling Coates that I, too, am working on a novel about an enslaved person sold south, I blurt out that I was scared when I read the first few chapters of The Water Dancer. I thought: Oh, my God, what if Ta-Nehisi is telling the same story? Coates shakes his head and laughs. He is a little less upright, familiarity allowing him to slouch a bit more. “You know what’s funny? When Colson’s book [The Underground Railroad] came out, I said, ‘Oh, shit, I’m dead.’ I still haven’t read it. I’m going to. But I didn’t, because I just didn’t want him in my head. So I just avoided it. But the thing I quickly realized too: How many fucking Westerns are there? Nobody’s like, ‘Well, I’m scared I’m going to do this Clint Eastwood thing again.’ No one says that.” He laughs again. “How many fucking Mob movies are there? Jesus Christ!”
We should have the luxury of telling our stories, all our stories, he insists. They are legion, and they are varied; the miseries repeated, but the human experiences did not. “Since when are we like, ‘Oh, shit, that person got a book about somebody being sold’? But I suspect there will be a lot of stories about the Underground Railroad. You know what I mean? I expect there will be many, many more. The very fact that we feel like there might not be room for all of us to live here—now, white people never feel that way. Look, I came up reading a lot of fantasy novels. I can’t tell you how many fuckin’ stories there are about elves and dwarves. They don’t care about that shit. They could care less.” At that moment, I feel the urge to pump my fist in the air: I barely resist.
Several hours later, Coates asks me, “Are you hungry?” I waffle, wired on coffee and conversation, until he makes an executive decision. “Let’s get something to eat.” He stands. He’s tall. My head is approaching his elbow or something, and I realize he was slouching much more than I thought, probably to accommodate me, adjusting in that way that I assume taller people do for shorter people: perpetually bending to be at eye level with the height-challenged. I half-walk half-run as he lopes to the train station, and we head south to West Fourth. Because we spoke briefly about fame earlier, I wonder if anyone recognizes him in the train car, but I look around, and the train is mostly empty; some people doze, some people stare off into the tunnels or at their reflection in the glass, some stare into themselves, eyes glossy, as they listen to their headphones. Everyone looks tired.
A part of Coates must be vigilant about being recognized, because as we ascend the subway station stairs and re-enter the upper world, we talk about fame. A few years ago, Coates made news not for his writing but for buying a brownstone in his old Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens; he never moved in once the news broke, and he resold the house. Not only can fame be dangerous, Coates believes, but it flattens you. You have all these ideas about who you are, what you do, what you believe. But people don’t see that. They only see what they want to see. And then Coates utters something that strikes me as so insightful and true, something like: This erasure of the authentic self for the famous (reflective, wish-fulfilling, stardust-glazed) self is only good for people who dislike themselves, because it allows them to erase who they are and become someone totally new. In order to be really good at being famous, in order to embrace it wholeheartedly, you have to dislike yourself.
I think about this as we walk toward the restaurant. The day is perfect: balmy and sunny. Ice cream parlors and coffee shops and diners have rolled up their awnings and set their tables on the sidewalks, welcoming those stunned by the cold and dark months, now blinking in the sun. Coates leads us to a nondescript glass door, and when he opens it, I smell the sea, briny and sharp, tempered by butter. We take a seat and then we are eye level again. Miraculous, I think.
One of the reasons fame is so difficult for Coates to navigate is because he doesn’t hate himself. He knows who he has worked so hard to become, and he is proud of that. New York Times writer David Carr, his first editor, saw that he had talent and encouraged him early on, even though he wanted to quit. Carr, who died in 2015, had known Coates since they worked at the Washington City Paper.Coates has spoken affectionately of Carr’s occasionally aggressive support—Carr was known to chase Coates into the elevator yelling about perfecting story copy. (Coates will contribute the foreword to a forthcoming collection of Carr’s own work.) But the two became close friends over “a relationship built on the mutual interests of journalism, typing, and fun smack talk,” says Erin Lee Carr, who wrote a book, All That You Leave Behind, about her dad. “My father believed in T because he knew he would get there, that the writing demanded it, and it was up to the media landscape to take note. How lucky we all are that Ta-Nehisi kept going. What an incredible loss that would have been.”
“I was good at two things,” Coates says. “Writing and driving.” He insists that before his big break, he intended to leave writing and become a taxi driver. “My wife was like—absolutely not. She was like—keep going.” He had stories to tell, she insisted. “She saw that in me,” he says, when he couldn’t see it in himself. She led him to nurture it, to embrace it, to hone it. When one of the most remarkable things about you has been born from your beloved’s estimation of you, from their vision of you, how can you not love what you are? How can you not love what those who love you have had a hand in ushering forth, fed fat on nectar through the winter in your life? How can you abhor the emergent self? How can you rend those wings and still the heart that beats beneath the downy, golden skin for fame?
My nerves have faded, and that sense of familiarity I feel when I’m with other Black writers, that sense of spending time with someone who is family, is true here too. Coates speaks admiringly of another new Black storyteller, Ryan Coogler, and of Creed. That film told a true story, he thinks. Creed felt more American to him, at the same time that it felt truer to life. “There are stories that we tell. It’s not that slavery doesn’t exist in American storytelling. It does. But black people are objects. They are ways of getting out of a thing.” They’re not central. “So I feel like there are a lot of us right now, and not even just novelists, who are involved in this project of retelling American history and American myth. It’s actually, I think, one of the most optimistic and powerful things happening right now.”
Right now, Coates feels that art is where it’s at. In the world of nonfiction, he says, journalists and columnists think if you line up enough facts, you can convince somebody of something. “But if you don’t get to these essential stories and constructs of who we are.…” He trails off, but I understand what he’s saying. If people don’t hear that, or as we like to say down south, feel for the people you are writing about, then they’re still unconvinced.
And as an artist, you’ve failed.
It’s hard to do that work. Coates articulates this anxiety perfectly when he talks about the difference between the purpose of nonfiction and the purpose of fiction. Creative nonfiction, he thinks, “is not up to the task of humanizing. That’s not what it’s for.” He continues, “Also, I’ve got to tell you, you go to a very different place when you have to imagine a single person, versus write about mass. It’s not the same. I wonder, like, how you deal with the central tragedy and violence and darkness and horribleness that is happening, and the dehumanization without writing a work that itself dehumanizes.” He shakes his head. “My mom, actually, she can’t finish it”—The Water Dancer—“and… I actually feel like I intentionally held back. I feel like Hiram was very privileged in terms of being a slave.” He takes another bite of food. “How do I write about something, as horrible as it is, and not repeat the thing? You know what I’m saying?” And, he repeats, he has to resist the American legacy of myths. He has to resist the lure of the adventure story. He has to resist the lure of the cowboy. He has to resist the lure of the savior. It’s a hard thing to resist the great stories of your youth in an effort to discover new myths, new heroes, new legends that reveal a wider reality.
One of the things Coates must now do is figure out how to balance the two: how to write nonfiction and fiction, how to juggle his renown with his calling. “So many writers and so-called public intellectuals are driven by their desire for fame, celebrity, and money that this is practically all they see when they see someone like Ta-Nehisi. But he does what he does out of a deep sense of responsibility that has never changed,” says Jackson. “It’s a responsibility to his family—to his parents, his wife, his son. But also a sense of responsibility to black people. This is not to say that he fetishizes race or that he’s a nationalist. But that he knows that black people are keepers of a sacred tradition, not just of resistance, but artful, creative, generative, and generous resistance in the name of truth.”
A few weeks after our meeting, Coates is called to testify before members of Congress for H.R. 40, a proposed bit of legislation that would study the issue of reparations. Coates has been so persuasive in his writing about the issue that even those on the other side of the political divide, like conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, agree with him. The hearing is around three hours long, and I watch it on YouTube, at turns invested, distracted, angry. Invested because Coates is one of the first to testify, directly after Senator Cory Booker. He begins by referencing comments by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who said America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, when no one currently living was alive. Coates immediately does this brilliant thing where he insists our very conception of ourselves as a nation and a democratic republic is based on embracing our legacy, embracing the more honorable figures and aspects of our past.
He says we were still paying pensions to heirs of Civil War soldiers into this very century, and that we still honor treaties even though all the people who signed them are no longer living. Reparations, in Coates’s words, are a dilemma of inheritance. Later, when asked to summarize by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, he argues eloquently and convincingly that enslavement is theft. “If I agree to pay taxes, if I agree to fealty to a government, and you give me a different level of resources out of that tax pool, if you give me a different level of protection, you have effectively stolen from me. If you deny my ability to vote, and to participate in the political process, to decide how those resources are used, you have effectively stolen from me.” Coates goes on to establish the wealth gap that Julianne Malveaux, an economist on the panel, attributes to that theft that spans almost 350 years, from 1619 to 1968—“conservatively.” Then Coates finishes with steady assurance. “This wasn’t a passive discrimination. This was appropriating resources from one group and giving them to the other through the auspices of the state.”
I believe The Water Dancer will not be the last novel you read by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I could write slavery fiction all day,” he says. “I feel like it because I feel like it’s the quintessential thing about America. It really is.” Along with the massacre, forced removal, and colonization of indigenous peoples and lands, Coates feels that this is the violent, secret heart of this country.
“This is the thing they try to avoid, but it defines everything. We’re just getting to the moment where people are.… I don’t know if it was too painful before for black writers, for us, to go there. Maybe there’s enough distance at this point for us where we can talk about it in certain ways.” He notes that writers during the Harlem Renaissance were working at a time when former slaves were alive, so it would have been tough. That writers can go there now, this is the thing that gives him more hope, more than any bit of politics. Once we can go there, “then people will understand they have different myths, and different ideas, and different stories.” Story vanity Fair
Main photo: Ta Nehisi Coates, The New York Review of Books