In flowing conversation: Ta-Nehisi Coates talks magic, spirituality in ‘The Water Dancer’ at Sydney Goldstein Theater

Illustration of Ta-Nehisi Coates
Olivia Staser/Staff

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San Francisco’s grand and glamorous Sydney Goldstein Theater boasts lush red curtains, curling stone motifs, an upstairs balcony and more than 1,600 seats. But when Ta-Nehisi Coates and his editor Chris Jackson took the stage last Tuesday, the venue seemed only as large as a living room — shrunk down to intimate size through the power of personal rapport coupled with flowing conversation. Coates, long-hailed as one of the most influential cultural critics of this century, appeared in a sports jacket and running shoes, ready for a friendly chat laced with wit and good humor. Jackson introduced him with the wry tone of familiarity, stacking a list of Coates’ numerous achievements — including a National Book Award, an essay for the Atlantic which single-handedly launched the national conversation on reparations and his work on the Marvel Black Panther comics, among others — with quips regarding his own insomnia in the face of Coates’ incessant habit of texting at any given hour. 

The conversation, held in front of a full house as it were, began cheerfully and only grew more energetic as the hour drew on. Coates’ finely honed writerly craft of combining enormous, nuanced and historically problematized subjects with masterful narration is seamlessly evident in his speech. The topics discussed, specifically Coates’ writing process and his debut novel  “The Water Dancer,” provided ample leeway for larger political discourse. Coates demonstrated that politics and artistry, for Black writers speaking truth to power, were never disparate. 

When asked as to why he ultimately chose the novel form for “The Water Dancer,” Coates expounded on fiction’s political viability. “At certain points it really became clear to me that novels and fiction have a great cultural power in our society,” he said. “I think books have a tremendous amount of power in shaping what the boundaries of our politics were. This is about stories …  about myths … about fiction reinforced over and over. ‘The Water Dancer’ is what became of a conscious effort to tell a different story.”

The novel, written in flowing prose whose internal rhythms and currents surfaced in Coates’ own reading, follows the journey of Hiram, a young Black boy living in Virginia during the 19th century  who discovers a unique superpower — the ability to transport himself across great distances. Coates, in discussing the style of his prose, is wholly unapologetic toward critiques of it being distractingly beautiful. He describes his mission, in both his nonfiction work and the novel, as one of “haunting.” It’s useless if people are able to dismiss his work as merely well-crafted writing, he argued. Well-crafted, beautiful prose is merely a conduit for its message to reverberate in readers’ minds and memories. 

Being haunted by memory is not unfamiliar to Coates. As he described, the personal mission of his writing felt, at times, heavily weighed and foreshadowed by Black writers and ancestors who came before — and this sense of history has inspired him to both love his work and cast it as inevitable. Although his own position on religion is atheistic, the task of writing and the resulting novel have taken on the ardent fervor of a spiritual experience. 

“There were moments where … I felt like my ancestors had done some work, had written some things and maybe it hadn’t been effective at the time, but it had been waiting for me,” Coates said to thunderous applause. 

To work within a suppressed and undervalued canon is to build upon monuments of the precious work and scholarship that came before — and make them accessible to the present. In a triumphant moment near the event’s closing, Coates raised an arm in a sheer confluence of indignation and joy. “What I’m writing is the history of America. It’s all the white writing that’s been pigeonholed! … Who wouldn’t want to be a Black writer? … Who don’t want to be us?”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].