Michael Chabon: Thank you. Thank you all for coming this evening. It’s wonderful to see you. My friend Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of “The Beautiful Struggle,” “We Were Eight Years in Power,” and “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award in 2015. “The Water Dancer” is his first novel. Please help me welcome Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: These things always come off.
Michael Chabon: I know, they fall out. These things fall off.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’m just going to hold it.
Michael Chabon: We’ll make it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Okay. All right. It’ll be fine.
Michael Chabon: How’s it going?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’m good. I’m all right.
Michael Chabon: Where are you in the whole long journey?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So we are week four of seven.
Michael Chabon: Jeez.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. I know. Pity me.
Michael Chabon: It’s pretty good though, right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Pity me, I got endorsed by Oprah. Everybody wants to read the book, pity me.
Michael Chabon: Now, I mean, you’ve been out there before. You’ve been out there, you’ve done this kind of thing before. Is it different doing it with a novel than it has been in the past with, you know, “We Were Eight Years in Power,” or “Between the World and Me”?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think the big difference is like, there’s a plot. And so because there’s a plot–.
Michael Chabon: You can’t spoil it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. People can get spoiled. Nobody’s, you know what I mean? There’s no spoilers with “Between the World and Me” or “We Were Eight Years in Power.” Newsflash, Trump won the election.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. You know that part where Trump won? Yeah, exactly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. No, there’s none of that. And so when I was in Philadelphia with the, yeah. Yeah.
Michael Chabon: They wouldn’t cheer if they’d read the way you describe Philadelphia in your novel.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s pretty cool, actually. I think I got it for the, it’s a 19th century city.
Michael Chabon: It’s a little smelly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: A little smelly. But when I went, they booed the person moderating the conversation.
Michael Chabon: Whoa.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I know.
Michael Chabon: Is that going to happen tonight?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: See this is a warm city, you know?
Michael Chabon: What’d the person do?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: He really liked the novel and he wanted to talk about the novel.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. No, it’s hard. Like when I was thinking, planning for talking tonight, it’s very, it’s hard to talk about a work of fiction without ruining it for people who haven’t read yet.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But I feel like in week four, there should be much more slack than–like the book had been out for three days. He was like, going in.
Michael Chabon: Nobody had read it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. Yeah.
Michael Chabon: Whereas now, if you haven’t read it yet, what’s the problem.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s on you, it’s on you. I know you just got the books tonight, but. Yeah.
Michael Chabon: So, I mean, I, you know, I’ve known you for a long time. I remember when you started thinking about writing a work of fiction. And I mean, this all started, my relationship with you, my friendship with you, all started with my admiration for you. I picked up “The Beautiful Struggle.” Actually I was, I loved your, when you were blogging for the Atlantic.
And then one day, you know, a lot of books come into your house when you’re a writer, like people asking for blurbs and stuff, and I had really loved your work. And then I was looking like one day at our shelf and there’s this book sitting there with your name on it called “The Beautiful Struggle.” It must have come in. And I just picked it up. I loved it. I wrote you a fan letter, just to tell you…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Is that why you–so this is my question, like with a situation like that is, did you read the book because of the blogging? Like, if you had never, if there had been no blog…
Michael Chabon: It was your name. Yeah I saw it, wait, that’s the guy, the guy’s name on the spine there. Cause, you know, I, you know, Talib Kweli album, you know, I thought, okay, that’s kind of intriguing, but it just got added to the pile. And then I picked it up. So, you know, I’ve read you, loved you, watched you, and I remember when you were first thinking about–but could you just talk about like what was the germ of that?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh, I think you started in the right place. I mean, it really, it actually began with “The Beautiful Struggle.” And it’s funny that that attracted you, because I got into a big fight with my editor–the first of many over the years–about that title. He’ll be here tomorrow, so we can, you know, talk more about that.
Michael Chabon: Oh, he didn’t want you to use the title?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, that was his idea and I hated it.
Michael Chabon: Oh, I see. What did you want to call it?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Let’s not talk about it. It’s over, I lost that fight, so it doesn’t matter. But, so, you know, book is out, and he says, you know, the voice here is very, very interesting. Cause I knew even like when I was writing a book, I didn’t want to, “and this happened and this happened and this happened.” You know, so the story I was trying to create this kind of immersive world of West…
Michael Chabon: Well let me just stop you right there. When you’re doing that, are you, when you’re writing memoir, how hard was it, how scrupulous were you, how careful were you, or how much did you struggle with that sort of urge to fiction stuff up a little bit?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I was always annoyed by writers who would be like five years old and remember the way the rain dropped on the windshield. So if you actually go back and read the book, there’s a lot of, “I don’t remember how, I don’t remember when, it must’ve been, I’m not sure,” you know, there’s a lot of that. And then I talked to family members also, you know, in the course of writing. And when I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t do it.
Michael Chabon: But were you wary of none, of that impulse to want to be able to make it…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Nah, cause I was coming from the other place. And in fact, that was actually part of the challenge, to reconstruct one’s life without fictionalizing the life.
Michael Chabon: Right.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know, I felt that, I mean, not knowing much about fiction, obviously, but I felt then that if you could fictionalize it like, I mean, come on, like you’re kinda cheating. You’re living in that world between novel and like, you know, biography. You’re, you know, you have all of the advantages of writing a novel, you know, and none of the restrictions of actually writing nonfiction. You know, so it felt like a cheat.
So no, I didn’t, I didn’t even feel temptation to that. You know, and also, I think, coming out of journalism, like making stuff up was just imprinted on me as such a sin.
Michael Chabon: So do you think that’s–so, you know, you chose a very history rooted non-fiction base for this novel, and it’s one that you first began to explore, I think, on the Atlantic blog, right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I did. I did. But you know, again, I think subject wise, that’s true, but in terms of actual writing, it comes out of “The Beautiful Struggle.” Bcause I think what I didn’t realize, which I really liked, even though, it was nonfiction, I really liked it deciding how that world was going to be put it on display. You know, what the vocabulary of the world would be, you know, what the angle… Like I thought it was interesting and you know, talk about the hood and, you know, use it through the lens of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons and hip hop and all of that. And I think like there are very similar things going on in “The Water Dancer,” and always were.
You know, you’re correct, I started to explore it, subjectwise, on the Atlantic, you know, in terms of blogging. But one of the things that became really, really clear to me, and partially due to your intervention, was that if you’re going to write about the period of enslavement, you really have to have something new to say, and you really have to have a new way of presenting it.
And it was really clear to me that I couldn’t just, I guess couldn’t be “Roots,” you know? And that’s not a shot at “Roots.” That’s “Roots” has already been done. So how do you, how do you make it new? And so that challenge was very, very exciting.
Michael Chabon: What was the, well, first of all, just the Civil War itself, like I can remember from those blog posts, like the excitement that you conveyed with them, just that the, it’s so rich, the whole history, not just the part that has to do with enslavement, but the–you were into the battles and the battlefields and all of that stuff. And what triggered that for you? Like where did that come from?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: What triggered that. I, you know, when I started at the Atlantic, I had a lot of time. I had a lot of time. And I had more time to read than I had had in a really, really long time, you know. My son was about eight years old, and that’s a, you know, a period where they reach a kind of semi-independence.
Michael Chabon: Not hanging off you quite the same way.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, right, right. So I had, and then the way my job was structured, I had a lot of time to read. And I can actually remember how the trail went. I read this book, this biography about Ida B. Wells, and I really enjoyed that. And there was a lot about reconstruction. And so then I went and read this book about reconstruction and I really enjoyed that.
And then at the back of that, there was a lot about the Civil War. And I went read about the Civil War. And then it just sort of, a world just sort of opened up.
Michael Chabon: So it started with Ida B. Wells. Interesting.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And I thought I was gonna be writing a novel about the Civil War. That’s what I actually thought originally. And you know, one day, hopefully I will. But that was the original germ of the idea.
Michael Chabon: Uh huh. You know you’ve written and spoken, I’ve seen in interviews where you talk about like black Americans’ knowledge of and interest in the Civil War itself and how they’re taught or not taught about the Civil War. Like for you as a kid growing up, like what was your awareness or consciousness of the Civil War?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It wasn’t much. No, it wasn’t much.
Michael Chabon: And growing up in Maryland, which is like an intense battlefield of not just actual battles, but of slavery and abolition, and Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass, and Marylanders, and all that.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes. Yes, all of that. So we had Harriet Tubman, Frederick, all of that we knew about, but it just, the Civil War, I think one of the more successful things that the Lost Cause Neo-Confederate movement did was they won the battle for history, certainly, but they also won a cultural battle, a battle of aesthetics. And so who was given the honor of being depicted as a valorous–is that how you say that word?
Michael Chabon: Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Okay. It’s not valourious. That wouldn’t make sense.
Michael Chabon: No, that means you’re wearing velour clothing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Ok. We don’t want that. Although that could be cool too.
Michael Chabon: That could be cool. That could be cool.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s not what we mean, though. But who got, you know, valor and who got to look gallant, you know what I mean, it was generally the Southern, you know, Confederate, white, you know, soldiers and generals. And so instinctively, you know, that has nothing to do with you. You know? And so we, I think in many ways we really quit the field. And then when I began to, you know, read, it just, there was so much that was rich.
I was, you know, Michael, I was like really interested in why it was that what clearly became a war fought for deeply evil causes, you know, the right to own and sell human beings and their families for profit–how could it be that the champions of that war were like the knights, do you know what I mean? Like how–and the people who were fighting against it, if reluctantly, were the dragons? Like, how did that happen? You know?
And in the earliest stages of thinking about this novel, I think I was very interested in that battle of aesthetics. I was interested in entering into that. I was interested in heroes that would better track what the history actually was.
Michael Chabon: Reality.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. Would better track reality. And also had, you know, frankly more truth, you know, in what they were doing and what they were trying to accomplish.
Michael Chabon: Until it wasn’t, I mean, it was partly what you were writing about Robert E. Lee, when you addressed the subject of Robert E. Lee in those blog posts, that was the first time I actually started, like I had an intellectual knowledge of more underlying, you know, ambiguity in his figure. But the base of what I feel and think about Robert E. Lee is all that bullshit that I got taught as a kid. And I had this feeling like, “Oh, poor Robert E. Lee,” right? “And his horse’s name was Traveler, and all he wanted to do was just, you know, go home to his farm in Virginia, but they made him do it.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Home to his farm, you know, he didn’t want to fight.
Michael Chabon: And like all that stuff. So yeah. It’s such a valuable, for me personally, it was such a valuable corrective.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And, but I had something not too different in my head. Like I don’t, like, I kind of had just sorta avoided it. I, you know, if I hadn’t gone that far, I just… And then when I saw, you know, like Robert E. Lee, when he goes to Gettysburg, his army is kidnapping freed black people and selling them into slavery. When he goes to Antietam, they’re kidnapping free black people and selling them into Antietam. When I saw that the very documents of seccession so clearly outlined that the cause was for enslavement, that in the words of John C. Calhoun, the South held that slavery was a quote positive good. So there was nothing actually reluctant about this at all.
Michael Chabon: There was no shame.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, no, no. It was willing. It was lustful. It was aggressive. You know, once I got that. And I saw these people are heroes. That in Virginia for instance, they have King Lee Jackson Day. Martin Luther King, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. That’s the holiday. No, seriously. No, seriously. This is a thing. This is an actual thing. You know, and so they can’t give the holiday to a man who gave his life, who got shot in the head, you know, for the cause of nonviolence, and they married the two people who fought for the right to sell people.
And that, when you started getting that, when you get that like in Tennessee for instance, there are all sorts of statues to Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the Ku Klux Klan. You know…
Michael Chabon: And a terrorist.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And a terrorist. I mean, just a, you know, a blatant terrorist. And. You start like, how did these heroes get made?
You know, you’ll get this. Most people on tour haven’t gotten this. But I always joke, it’s like, you know, you were watching Lord of the Rings, but like Sauron won.
Michael Chabon: Exactly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And then Sauron wrote history, right. And Sauron made himself out to be, you know, like the good guy. Like they were the elves, and the elves were actually the orcs, you know what I mean? Then you read it and you’re like, wait, you know, this is actually quite fascinating, you know, what happened.
And so when I went into the novel, even, in fact, long before I understood what it actually took to write a novel, like I understood that. I had like a political understanding of the importance of it. I gotta tell a story though.
Michael Chabon: Okay.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And not the story you think I’m gonna tell. I don’t know if I told you this, Michael, but.
Michael Chabon: Uh oh.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So I went to–this is going to get really personal. Michael has a vacation home, Michael and his wife Ayelet have a vacation home, in parts unknown. I don’t know if that’s public knowledge or…
Michael Chabon: No that’s fine, it’s state of Maine.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Okay. State, in the state of Maine, we’ll go with that. In the state of Maine. So we came up to visit with, I came with my son, and my wife, nephew, we all come up, have a great time. We stayed for some abnormally long time. And somehow ended up not fighting. Everything was great actually. Except me.
So Michael and Ayelet, at this, you know, house in the state of Maine somewhere, big state. They have these two work spaces. And they made the mistake of showing them to me the first day I got there. And they’re beautiful. I mean, it’s like writer’s heaven. You know what I mean? Like in that back–like you can leave the house and go out there. There’s no wifi, is there?
Michael Chabon: No, it doesn’t reach.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh my god. It’s incredible. Why have I not been back?
Michael Chabon: I don’t know. We keep asking you.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I know. So they say, “Hey, you know, if you need to work”–cause they work, right, both of them are like, “Hey, we’ve got to work.” I went out there that first day. Or the second day, I can’t remember if it was the first day or the second day. But do you know, it was right there that I got the idea for Hiram? That Hiram came from me right there.
Michael Chabon: No, I did not know that.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And here’s the thing, here’s the thing. For the rest of that vacation, I was so antisocial. It was, I was a terrible vacationer. But part of it was because of this book. It was like this book had a hold of me and I just couldn’t let it go. And it was why they was like, “Jesus is Ta-Nehisi going to do anything?” But it was actually the beginnings of this book, because I had brought something else that was failing and not working, and I went out there to work on it and I ran right into Hiram. I was sitting right there.
Michael Chabon: Wow. That makes me so happy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Well, yeah, so that makes me being an antisocial guest…so there you go.
Michael Chabon: No, it’s, no, it’s all, it’s all forgiven. Now.
No, seriously. I can remember that very well and we were just like, wow, that’s, I mean, it makes you feel, it makes me feel, like I want to go do my work, to see somebody…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh, it was ruining the vibe, wasn’t it? It was making everybody else feel like they should be working.
Michael Chabon: No.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Okay. All right.
Michael Chabon: But so, I mean, just sitting here thinking, like listening to you talking about this whole sort of deeply revisionist understanding of the Civil War, history of, the historiography of the Civil War–that’s in your mind. And then you have this–and you’ve already set that, even though you didn’t end up writing that particular novel, but still that’s one of your starting positions in your mind. And then you’re setting yourself this other thing of like, and I don’t want to write about enslavement in a way it’s been done before. I don’t want to write “Roots,” or any–you got to find your own way into that.
So you started out with these two gigant–I mean, you were crazy. Like most people’s first novel, they start with like, you know, like I did, like this wonderful summer in my life, where I learned about sex and whatever, and the future. Whatever you tend to start like really autobiographical…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But you know what? You know what? Those novels–no disrespect. They bored me. Like they really, they actually….
Michael Chabon: No, I understand.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: They actually like, but you know, like when I thought about what I loved, like I thought about like, like I always found Doctorow so exciting. Like, I would read it and it was this huge world, you know what I mean, it was this atlas, and I was in the middle of it, and there were things going on, and I’m thinking of “Ragtime.” You know, Teddy Roosevelt is here. Was it Roosevelt? No, it wasn’t. Maybe it’s like Taft or somebody.
Michael Chabon: And Houdini…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Houdini is there and Booker T. Washington is showing up and Theodore Dreiser keeps turning his chair around. And it was like exciting. Like I was just so…
Michael Chabon: Well you have a taste for the epic, it sounds like. Cause you mentioned Lord of the Rings. Like you like epic narratives, don’t you?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I do. I mean I like small, there’s small books that I love actually. But when I thought about what I wanted to read, I came away from a lot of that Civil War reading feeling like–and this was not something I had as a younger person–that like the story of black America was to me, personally, like the most exciting epic in American history and maybe in all of the West. And let me explain what I mean by that.
You have this country that ostensibly fashions itself as an enlightenment Republic, oldest democracy in the world. And that democracy in that Republic is actually made possible by the enslavement–which is the total opposite of democracy–of another group of people. And what I didn’t understand before was that one literally depends on the other. You couldn’t have democracy without the enslavement. And this struggle goes on to this date for 400 years. And you can see the back and forth, the pull and the push, and all of these great characters within it.
And I thought like, oh, this is–if you want to write something epic, this is where you would go. You wouldn’t go to the plantation and write it from the master’s perspective. Why would you do that? You know what I mean? All of the tension and the grime and the dirt and the filth and the beauty is down here. You know?
Michael Chabon: What you call the muck in the…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: The muck, the muck in the book. Exactly. And so I think for a lot of African American writers, certainly journalists, there was always this sense that we have to get out of this sort of space of being black. We don’t want to just be pigeonholed as black writers. And once I got it, I felt like, shit, white people should want to be black writers.
You know like, we’re not in the pigeonhole, they are, you know what I mean? Like “Gone With the Wind” is the pigeonhole, you know what I mean? And everything outside of that is actually America, you know what I mean? And once I understood that, I thought, good god, I could live here. You know what I mean? Like I actually, I mean, I do live here, but I, you know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: No, I mean, I have, I felt many times, like I’m a Wikipedia rabbit hole person, and I’ll like start down link trails…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You can lose yourself, it’s dangerous.
Michael Chabon: So many times I’ve ended up on a page that is, in some way or another, a page about African American history, like a figure, a relatively minor unknown or some narrative. And I’ll have this feeling of like, you know, some lucky writer is going to get to this person one day. There’s at least two novels in this story, right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, it’s true.
Michael Chabon: It’s, so you, you know, when you, when I think about…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Wait, can I give a quick example?
Michael Chabon: Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Cause this is something I’m excited about. I’ll just give a really quick example.
So we were going down to Monticello to film for “The Water Dancer,” film promo stuff and everything for “The Water Dancer.” And I’m talking to one of the historians down there, and I said, you know, we’re talking about, you know, my buddy Nikole Hannah Jones’s 1619 project, and everybody loves it, and we’re talking about it. And she said–yeah, you can clap for Nikole.
You know, we were just talking about how wonderful it is, and she said, “you know, yeah, it’s great, you know, but you know, there’s an argument that it actually is an earlier date.” I said, “what’s the earlier date?” She said, “well, in the 16th century, actually, the Spanish came to Florida and they came here to California and they brought enslaved black folks with them.” I said, “huh. What happened?” She said, “well, the interesting story is in Florida, they bring these enslaved black folks, start up, you know, a little enclave, a little camp, they rebel, and then they run away and disappear, and they’re never accounted for.” And I thought, ohhh.
Michael Chabon: There you go, right. Exactly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know what I mean? Like there’s so many stories like that, you know what I mean? Just absolutely incredible ones. And I think part of it is like when you’re black in this country, you’re not…
So the first thing was, you know, you’re conditioned to believe you don’t have a history. And then when we finally got to the point where we had black history month, we realized we did, but your history is kind of boring and mostly consists of people, you know, beating the shit out of you. I mean, that really is how I was taught. You know, it’s a, you know, a kind of, you know, sacrificial lamb sort of history, you know. And then you start to dig into it and it’s so much more exciting than that, you know?
Michael Chabon: No, I always think about, for me, Oscar Micheaux like the direct, like I’d love to write a novel about the whole world of black movies, that kind of like paralleling what was going on. I don’t know if somebody’s already done that or…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Can I ask a question?
Michael Chabon: Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Do you have any fear about doing that?
Michael Chabon: Do I have fear?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. As a…
Michael Chabon: Person–like when I’m on, when my butt is in the chair and I’m just at the keyboard, I don’t have any fear whatsoever.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But as a person who’s white, do you have…
Michael Chabon: Going out into the world with it, I would have some, I’d probably ask you to like, whether you thought it was a good idea or not.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean, well, I’ll tell you right now. I think it is a good idea. Yeah. I mean, I think it is a good idea. I think, this actually gets to something that went on with the book though. I think–and we went through this with “Telegraph Avenue.” We went through this with “Telegraph Avenue.” I think there nothing wrong, when you’re writing about another experience, having other people read it, you know.
Michael Chabon: You should. You have to.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, I think you have to. And they, and it’s not even to inure you from criticism, you know what I mean, so much as it is to make you feel, okay, I…
Michael Chabon: Yeah, what did I forget, or what don’t I know? Or what more can you tell me that I’m clearly ignorant about?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, right.
Michael Chabon: I mean, for me, the whole purpose of like, this is the interview with you, but the whole purpose of life is to remedy your ignorance.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes.
Michael Chabon: So.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah.
Michael Chabon: Remedy my ignorance, I want to say. Not yours. So when you talk about writing a different… I mean, I’m happy to help out…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No mine too.
Michael Chabon: I’m here for you.
But so when you talk about a different approach to writing about the experience of slavery, that’s immediately apparent when you start–actually not immediately. At first when you’re reading “The Water Dancer,” you know, I have this, I realized I had this like slight anxiety as I started to read it. Like, is this going to be a story like most other stories about slavery, which tend to be horrific–like justifiably–horrific, gruesome, incredibly violent, incredibly painful, both physically painful, in terms of what the characters are undergoing, and emotionally–and it’s really not. I mean, it’s not–that stuff’s there, right. You’re not avoiding it. But it’s not the focus of the story. Is that right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s correct. That’s very much correct. And I was, that was intentional. And it’s funny because the story, for whatever reason, of the slave has been written in that kind of visceral way. It is actually somewhat of a hurdle you have to cross with African American readers to get them to engage. And I get it. If it weren’t me, it probably would be a hurdle you had to cross too. You know, if I were the consumer. And obviously, you know, slavery depended on torture, you know, it depended on deeply gruesome, you know, acts of violence.
But there is a way in which in focusing on the visceral–see there is no absolute truth, right? There’s no absolute thing that happened. And so I heard, you know, no disrespect, you know, George R.R. Martin one time he was called on, you know, some of, you know, how, you know, sex is depicted and rape and all that. And he said “well this is, you know, this is the Middle Ages, this is what life was like.” No, there’s no fucking what life was like. You know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: Plus that is a made up world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s just a made a world. It’s a made up world. This is fiction. This is fiction. You know what I mean? And in fiction there’s a camera and there’s somebody behind the camera and the camera chooses what they want to show, what they want to emphasize, you know, et cetera. There is an essence of truth, but there’s no, you know, retreat to versimilitude. And when I went back and read–so there are choices that are made, right, about how you show and what you show.
When I went back and read, the thing that struck me the most, yes, you know, when you look at the primary documents, there’s violence, you know, there’s rape, there’s chains, there’s beatings, there’s all the stuff you know, but the thing that horrified people the most was the selling of their children. That was always the most painful, painful thing. And in fact, usually led to the most radical action, you know? The destruction of family was always there.
And so I thought, okay, this is really a way in, you know. And I don’t know if I consciously thought that, but I do remember really being provoked by that. You know what I mean? And wanting to, you know, center around–I mean, a lot of that is around why does someone run? Like what are the conditions for which someone decides to run from slavery?
And very often what I found what the conditions where, they sold my wife, sold my kids, sold my husband, I no longer have ties to this place. You know what I mean? And so, you know, I go.
So, to me, there was that. But there was another thing too. I was very, very concerned about how, when you depict violence a certain way, you somehow re-inflict the violence, or you propagate it.
You know, I, you know, the thing I think about the most is how, you know, so in the vocabulary of rape, there’s this idea that, you know, use the word survivor, not the word victim. And I use that word, you know, mostly out of respect, but not really understanding why. And it was only through writing this book that I came to understand why. And a large part of that is because there’s a thing that somebody does to somebody, and then the society says, you are the thing that they did to you. And thus, you know, you are robbed of your identity. You’re stripped of it.
So if I write a five page, you know, say rape scene of Sophia–that’s not in the book at all–but if I do that, then every time you see Sophia, that’s what you see. That’s who she becomes. You know? And in that way, you actually propagate, you know, the crime. You actually are…
Michael Chabon: You repeat it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You repeat it, you become enrolled in it, even as you claim to be writing against it, you know? And so I didn’t want to like do that. I, you know, I wanted my, “The Water Dancer” is about the interiority, and about the thoughts and the dreams and aspirations of the individual characters in the book. And you can’t really do that if every time somebody sees the character, they see the exterior. They see what somebody did to them, as opposed to, you know who they are.
Michael Chabon: Well, and these are people too to whom all of these, or to each of whom at least one of these terrible things has happened. Whether it was having their family taken, sold away, or having been raped, or having been beaten. And so what you’re seeing is the effects on these people that you get to know as people to whom it happened at some, whether they were, when they were children, or recently, or whatever it was. In some ways that can be, I think, can be more devastating to the reader, than you know, having, seeing it, sort of witnessing in it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, cause I think, you know.
Michael Chabon: Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Like I think–.
Michael Chabon: No, you’ve seen it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. You know, it’s–and then the other thing is, it’s like people have in their minds pictures in the popular culture of what enslavement is. And you almost have to write against that. You know what I mean? You almost have to remake it. I, and I don’t know, and this is less, you know, firm, you know, this is probably subjective, but I just find the effects of violence, the longterm effects of it more interesting.
Michael Chabon: Exactly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know, like the wreckage, that you know, it leaves, and how people work to, you know, remake themselves and heal, much more interesting than the actual act itself.
Michael Chabon: So you, I mean, you had a really–you were very conscious as you approached this book, I can tell, cause I’ve read also what, when you’ve talked about, you know, that on some level this could have been very easily have been, and it even would have appealed to you on a certain level to make it into a story about Hiram’s revenge quest, and how there’s definitely a template that you compare to like the Western, that there’s a sort of element of the Western in this, but that it could, you could have easily made it a story of like his, you know, his woman was raped and now he’s going to go…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Now he’s gonna go do it, yeah.
Michael Chabon: Get the revenge, and your instinct said “don’t go there.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. And I think, I, you know, I love westerns, you know, “Tombstone,” all of that. I love, you know, revenge flicks. I, you know, I’m, I have a natural sort of attraction to that.
Michael Chabon: No, I mean, revenge is a great story.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I have no idea what that says about me. But look if you’re gonna, you know, if you start from the proposition that, okay, we’re going to make enslavement new, you know, like even that very idea causes you to approach the story in a different way. Because in many ways, like it was an opportunity to, I don’t know if it, you know, remake the adventure story, but to, you know, interrogate its idea.
And so I think one of the ideas that it tries interrogate is what you just said. You know, my woman is raped, so now I’m gonna go do X, Y, and Z. And one of the key questions in “The Water Dancer” is, what do you mean by “my woman?” You know, and that recurs all the way through.
And so I felt like also, looking at African American history, another part of this is, the means that you see deployed in revenge films and in revenge stories and in westerns generally have not been available to African Americans. You know, there are rare exceptions to that, but in general, you just didn’t have the right to, you know, just go out and kill because you felt a kind of way.
But see and there’s actually great beauty in that. At first you think there’s a lack of power right? But there’s actually great beauty in that, because now we have to flip it and say, “okay, what can I do though?” Right? “What actually is my–if I can’t just kill everybody, you know what I mean, that did, you know, X, Y, and Z to me, what can I do?” And the answer to that is in history.
I was reading, also very early in this book, you know, Isabel Wilkerson’s book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and there’s a part where she talks about the great migration. And she has a sentence, I’m going to mangle this, but it basically says, you know, African Americans in this era resisted in a way that peoples, you know, opressed peoples have throughout history: they left. And it’s the first time I thought of leaving as an act, as power.
And then, you know, I started thinking about, you know, enslavement, and the idea that the body belongs to somebody. Like your body belongs, body and mind, you belong to someone else. And so to run is not just flight for your freedom, it is a kind of theft. It’s a kind of robbing.
Michael Chabon: Where you steal yourself back.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. Autoliberation, as you would say. I’ve always loved that word. That’s a deep cut. But yeah. You know what I mean? Like, there’s a power in actually going away from the gun. You know what I mean? In releasing that and saying, you know, we don’t have that. There’s something exciting on the other side that’s not quite obvious because we’d been so programmed to tell the story according to the lines and the terms that white men have told the story for years now.
Michael Chabon: Exactly. I mean, I think like you, I can remember you at some point when you were in the middle of working on this, like writing me to ask me something about escape, the theme of escape, or.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That was about, that was from what do you call it, that’s from “Kavalier and Clay,” I was reading “Kavalier and Clay,” and I’d come across that autoliberation phrase.
Michael Chabon: Yeah and I just was like, what’s he, what’s going on there? But then when I read the novel, then, I mean, you have made a kind of new superpower. And a new superhero out of the ability to escape. I mean, I think, I mean, that’s part of what…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s in there, right. Right, I can’t, it’s been years, but the guy, he keeps escaping, right. For reasons, right? Like there’s a bigger metaphorical thing going on in all of these locks and all this other stuff.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. I mean, when you see it in, even with like Houdini, the reason Harry was in “Ragtime,” you know, he was an immigrant. He grew up poor. There, you know, he didn’t have access to any of the kind of power that he might’ve wanted, but he had this ability to escape. And then that became a really powerful metaphor that resonated for a lot of people.
You know, thinking about superheroes and superpowers, I did think a lot about the X-Men when I was reading this book. And I know that was a pretty important narrative, has been a pretty important narrative, the kind of big, long arc of the X-Men.
And in particular with the figure of Corrine. I mean, no spoilers here if you haven’t read the book, I’m sorry, but when you were writing Corrine, and she’s such a remarkable figure for the way she’s, you know, both, well, I don’t, I can’t say anything, I’ll give it away.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, we can’t, we can’t talk about it, we actually can’t talk about it.
Michael Chabon: I’ll be careful. Without giving anything away. Did you ever find yourself thinking about Professor X? Do you see what I mean?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, I do. I do. Probably not consciously, but it’s so deep into my bones, you know what I mean? Like I’ve been reading X-men since I was a kid, so it’s probably so deep in my bones that yeah, it probably was. I would not, you know, I can’t say that there was no influence.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. This idea that someone is sort of scouted for their abilities and then recruits…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You should stop talking.
Michael Chabon: I’m not going to say anything more. So let’s talk about though, let’s talk about the way that–I think this doesn’t spoil anything–just the way the–well, let me ask you this.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s hard.
Michael Chabon: It is hard, man.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s really fucking hard.
Michael Chabon: Talk about the connection between–why in order to become powerful… I’m doing my best. Why in order to become powerful, within the framework of this novel, to become empowered, is it necessary to tell stories? Or remember the past?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, I think that’s fine. I think that’s good.
Michael Chabon: Or how does that, how did you know that, or when did you know that, or how is that true outside of the novel?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. You know, what’s funny about that. So I started the earliest iteration of this before I had gotten to Hiram, in like 2008, and I didn’t hit upon the memory aspect–boy, I mean, even when I was up at the house, I didn’t have that. So I probably, I think I finished the first, so I woulda hit him, hit on it in like 2012, so it was like four years of trying to write, write, write, write, write. I don’t know. I don’t even remember how it came to me. You know?
Michael Chabon: Do you think amnesia, like historical amnesia, engenders powerlessness? Like do you think it, if you don’t know your history, if you don’t know your story?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, I think both. I think powerlessness and power, you know. I think one of the themes in the book is, like at one point, Hiram is talking about the world of the enslaved people and how much the people outside of it look into it and they want access to aspects of it. But they can’t get it. Even though they control everything, you know. Even though they own these people, there’s something essential in them that they can’t get to.
And Hiram’s explanation for that is it’s because they cannot remember, you know, and that their power is actually dependent on actually not remembering. Because it is the not remembering that allows them to see people as not human. Because if they don’t have to remember all of those, you know, human moments that people actually… You know, so I mean, one of the things I think about, you know, I think people notice, is the antebellum South, you would have kids raised around each other, you know, black and white, like they were, you know…
Michael Chabon: Like Hiram and Maynard.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, like Hiram and Maynard, you know, although they were actually related. You know, but it’s, they were like, you know, siblings, and then comes this age when they split them apart. Which is like the cruelest thing you could ever do, you know? And Hiram says, at one point, they set the one friend up, you know, as the king, and you set the, or the queen, and the other friend up, you know, as the peasant or the serving girl. And they did this for generations. And to do that, you clearly have to forget certain things.
Michael Chabon: Or repress them.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, right, right. I mean, well, I mean, I think they go hand in hand, right? Like to subjugate your childhood friend, you really have to forget like those moments that made you guys friends in the first place. You have to have the power to let all of that go and make yourself cold. And what Hiram is saying is, in making yourself cold, you actually lose aspect to certain things. You know, you lose aspects of certain essential things about life and about living. And so, I mean, one of the things that I was, I’ve always been fascinated by, you know, during the period of enslavement, is the way slavery enslaves the slave master. Like how dependent those who you would think of as having the most power actually were on people?
There was a moment, you know, I think about, like right after the period of emancipation where, you know, the women who are working in the house leave, who were enslaved in the house, leave. And the matriarchs in the house literally don’t know how to boil water. You know, like they can’t sweep, they can’t do basic things, because, you know, the whole point of being, you know, a slaveholder, member of the planet class, of “the quality,” as it’s said in the novel, is to not have to work at all. That was the whole ambition. That was how you became, you know, royalty. You know, by setting yourself up as somebody who had to do no action. In fact, labor was looked down upon. You know, America, for all of its talk about work ethic and lack of work ethic among black people often forgets that, you know, that the whole basis of wealth and aristocracy in the South was not working.
Michael Chabon: Well I think one of the things that’s really powerful in this book, that you depict so effectively, is how deeply broken the South, or at least Virginia, the Virginia that we’re in in the novel, how dysfunctional it is. Not dysfunctional like in the emotional sense, but how it, and as the novel goes on, it just gets more and more broken. And we have this prevailing image of sort of the “Gone with the Wind,” like these glittering plantations that are like these shining examples of kind of paradise, that then the war comes along and ruins. And what you’re presenting in this novel is the ruination that actually precedes the conflict.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, yeah. That it was corrupt. I mean, people, often, the first thing you have to start with is, the union or the North did not declare war on the South. That’s not actually what happened. I don’t know why the story is told that way. But the Confederacy literally fired on a Southern fort. But a national fort. That was how the war actually began, the first shot was fired by the Confederacy. And so, you know, the notion that somebody came to ruin something…And then you have to ask yourself, what would make somebody do that?
Like what was everything that happened, that made people do–I mean, it’s interesting, even like listening to you talk, you know, and very correctly summarize “Gone with the Wind,” it’s like no writer I know would be attracted to that story. You know, we would say, “jeez, this like a cardboard cutout or something, what is this? This is not, this isn’t fiction.”
Michael Chabon: Yeah, where’s the truth? Where’s the juicy dark stuff?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Where’s the juice? There’s no juice in this. You know what I mean? There’s no, I mean, this is just, you know, make-believe, you know? And so for me to visit that world, if you want to get to the juice, the juice is in the down below, the juice is in the muck, you know, the juice is actually in the people who actually do have to do all the work.
I, you know, once I got it, like got the voice down and got where I wanted to go and everything, I just, I had an absolute blast, man. I really did. And when I was–I don’t know if you ever feel like this–but when I was done, I was like, sad.
Michael Chabon: To be leaving?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. I was like, I’m leaving. You know what I mean? Like it’s over. I’m gone. You know?
Michael Chabon: You have that like moment like, aww.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, exactly. And now belongs to everyone else. It belongs to whoever reads it. Like it’s not, it’s, Hiram isn’t mine anymore. You know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: And you put all those books away that you had that were like your friends, that you were, your resources, your references…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, I have shelves of them. Yes.
Michael Chabon: Now that you’re not going to be going back there anymore.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean, I think I like if I wrote another book in that era, I could, but…
Michael Chabon: Would you?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I would, yes, yes, yes.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. Cause there’s just so much there?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: There’s so much there. But I really, really liked the characters. I really did. I mean, I liked all of them. I didn’t, I know some writers don’t like all of their characters, but I liked all of them. You know what I mean? Like there’s part of me in every single one of them. And so I just, they were like my children, you know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: I mean, it’s, there really aren’t any villains in the novel. Even the characters who do the despicable things, you present them with an amazing amount of sympathy or understanding, even if what they’re doing is selling their own children into slavery, or the mother of their children into slavery. There’s, you still manage to find a way into the, at least the pathos of that character.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. Cause I think you miss some essential truth if you don’t–so in my mind there’s a system, okay, there’s an actual system, and if you slot people into the system, nine times out of ten, they’ll do something predictable. And if you make it less about the system, but about the people, you know, Hiram’s dad is just weak, for instance. You know what I mean? Or Virginians were just innately corrupt or something. Like you, again, you lose that drama, you know what I mean? For me, the drama is Hiram’s dad maybe knows what he’s doing is really, really wrong, and he’s losing something by doing it right. And he almost sometimes wishes the world was another way. But not really.
You know what I mean? This is like, why, I know I’ve talked about this on every, you know, stop. This is why like, Thomas Jefferson is so attractive to me. Because here you have a man who, if you ever want to read about what enslavement does and why it is a moral evil and a deeply corrupting force from the perspective of ending slavery, it just doesn’t get much better than Thomas Jefferson. He’s a beautiful, beautiful writer. You know, I, you know, if I were teaching history, I would teach “Notes on the State of Virginia” over and over again. And yet he lacked the moral courage to actually act on what he…
Michael Chabon: What he knew.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: What he knew. I mean, it’s one thing, you know, if you, you know what I mean, at least in your writing, we can’t detect that you know… This, I mean, he was very, very clear. You know, he’s clear it was corrupting him. He was clear it was corrupting his children. He was just clear it was bad, you know. But, you know, he lacked, you know, not only did he lack the moral courage to part with the system, but in addition to that, continued to profit off of it, you know what I mean? Such to the extent that, you know, when he died, you know, there are black families that are destroyed to settle his debts. So I try to get into that.
Michael Chabon: Do you think, like would you use the word tragic, like with Thom–do you think it approaches a tragedy that, or do you think, because of his weakness…?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No.
Michael Chabon: It’s not.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No. I think he was not particularly evil, and also don’t think he was particularly courageous, you know? And so like when you talk about founding fathers and you talk about–I was at some school, I think it was Hofstra, and there’s a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and they were trying to get it taken down.
And you know, there’s this movement to get all of these statutes taken down and, you know, I actually have different rules for different people. Like, I don’t think all…
Michael Chabon: Wait, I want to hear them. What are your statue rules?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean it depends. Like it depends. Like I think in certain places, you know, statues should come down, and certain other places they probably should not.
Michael Chabon: Oh so it’s not by person, it’s more, I mean it’s…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s by person and place actually. Yeah, yeah. Thomas Jefferson at Hofstra should come down. They just put that Jefferson statue up cause they had, you know, out of some sort of admiration for Jefferson. But I think Jefferson is not worthy, you know, of–I just don’t think he’s worthy of the platform. I just don’t see at Hofstra. I probably would not go to UVA and say they should take Jefferson’s statue down. But I would say there should be like a plaque added to it, you know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: Where it explains a little footnote…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Like I think there should be. Yeah. Yes, yes. And I would probably have a conversation about how Jefferson is taught. I might–I don’t know if they do this, I’m just in fantasy land now–I might mandate that every, you know, student coming into UVA understand what, like there are other things I would do.
Michael Chabon: What about Mount Rushmore?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, I’m fine with Mount Rushmore. Because I think, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And here’s why. If you destroy Mount Rushmore, you erase the fact that there was a point in history where somebody thought Mount Rushmore was a good idea.
Michael Chabon: Exactly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And you have to remember that.
Michael Chabon: I think that’s a really good point.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You have to remember that. I’m not a fan of erasing history. I think because the monuments themselves oftentimes tell a story. And you don’t want the society to forget that at one point someone thought this was a good idea.
Michael Chabon: No, I think that’s really powerful, what you’re saying. I think, and that’s, I mean, and I say powerful, like to me that’s one of the things I thought while reading this book, was the idea of remembering as empowering. And that there might be weakness, I mean physical weakness, political weakness, in forgetting, and in amnesia. Selective amnesia or compulsory amnesia. When people take a narrative and rewrite it, like they did with the Lost Cause, or when things just are allowed to sort of slip away and people stop thinking or remembering.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Another thing, I think sometimes, like one of the things that’s talked about too–see even this gets tricky, right? Like, you think about like Robert E. Lee, you know, in Richmond. And I guess it’s Monument Ave, I think it’s called. Like the historian in me would say, I wouldn’t touch that. I would, you know, affect how I taught it, da, da, da, da. I might put plaques, et cetera. But then there are people who live there. You know, I mean, who maybe, you know, came up in a time of Jim Crow and, you know, don’t want to have to walk past that statue every day.
So then there’s the argument of, okay, maybe we should move it into a museum. You know what I mean? And put it in a proper context. Yeah, I think it’s actually, you know, there’s a lot of fear in the country right now. Well if you take Robert E. Lee down, you know, do you have to take, you know, Washington down? Do you have to take Jefferson? I mean, maybe.
Michael Chabon: We rename the Capitol?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No.
Michael Chabon: We won’t even rename the damn football team.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, exactly. Exactly. No, I don’t, there’s actually, I think the statehood bill up right now is like it’s, there’s some combination of Washington Douglass. Yeah. I think that’s what the bill is. They get, you know, DC as a state or something like that.
I just, I think you’ve got to balance the two impulses, you know what I mean? I think people do need to recall the fact that it’s a statement on the country itself, that at some point in history people thought putting, say, Andrew Jackson on money was a good idea. You know what I mean? That like people were that oblivious. Cause if you do it right, it serves as a reminder. You know what I mean, to current generations. So I think those things need to be balanced.
Michael Chabon: Because I mean, if you have the power to control the context, that’s the real power. Like the power to destroy or knock a statue down, that is a kind of power, but if you control the narrative around it, that’s, I think, greater power.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Which I guess though, to take me back to Hofstra, maybe that argues for keeping the statue up. I don’t know.
Michael Chabon: It’s a tricky thing. Do you–I mean like, let me, this makes me think about your argument for reparations and how much that has to do with remembering, with getting the story straight. With getting the facts straight about what happened and what the cost was and what the profits were and all that. And in order for reparations to happen, there has to be this sort of massive act of rememberance, of like acknowledgement of the past and what really happened.
Let’s say, continuing in this vein of fantasy, like imagine you were going to write a novel that was set after reparations. Like reparations happened. Right? That’s your turning point, like, instead of this boring thing of like, what if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, like people keep going back to that over and over again. What if reparations happened?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So that’s–I love that. This is like where the fun comes in, right?
Michael Chabon: What kind of country are we after that?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So, the first thing you have to ask yourself–see this is why it’s great. The first thing you have to ask yourself, is would you have a country?
Michael Chabon: Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Like in other words, is it true that America, as you know it today, is capable of paying, you know, doing what it has to do to make reparation? Or would it mean that something else had happened? Something had, you know changed in the American order. Would we think that, you know, for instance, with my fiction hat on, not my journalist hat, I would observe that almost every time there’s been massive or some, you know, point of great progress for African Americans, something really, really violent happened before that.
So you think about the period of, you know emancipation, some 800,000, you know, Americans, you know, die in a war, most violent war in American history up until very, very recently. More casualties than all American wars combined, okay. Die in, during the Civil War. Think about the civil rights movement, which people often depict as nonviolent, but in fact, it’s very hard to imagine a civil rights movement without World War II. Okay? Because that’s, you know, where, you know, all the rhetoric of freedom comes from and America begins to look at itself in a different way. More specifically, the Cold War comes out of World War II, and so there’s a heavy foreign policy instinct.
Michael Chabon: The Soviet Union is busy saying, who are you to lecture us…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Exactly. Exactly. And all of that plays, I mean, Robert F. Kennedy literally says, he’s watching the freedom riders, he says, you’ve got to deal with this. You know, because this is a foreign policy disaster for us. It’s a propaganda gift to the Soviet Union.
So if that’s true, what happened in America? And this is the question I would ask–what happened in America so that there could be reparations? And then I would write from there. But I would like go back into the world. Cause that’s again, that’s where all the juice is, right? I mean it’s not actually in the check. It’s in everything that happened that led to, you know what I mean? You know, there’s this massive upheaval. That’d be a lot of fun.
But you know, the cool thing is now you’re not even about reparations though. You think you’re writing about reperations, but you’re not. You actually are not. That’s actually somewhere in that novel, that’s in the background. And whatever the cataclysmic event that happened is your actual story.
Michael Chabon: Or at least that’s the first volume.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right.
Michael Chabon: And then you show what life was like after.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, yes. Well, no, you do, you’re showing, that’s not, no, it’s happening in that time. Like you’re right, you’re correct. I’m accepting your challenge, reparations has been paid. But I actually think what’s most exciting even in that, is what the world actually looks like because of this event. And so reparations is like in the background, it’s repeated, you know, older people talk about, “Oh, this happened, da da, da, da, da.”
But what people are most concerned with is–I mean, think about this, right? Like when reparations is paid for the victims of the Holocaust, right? That happens, and it’s a known thing that happens, but all of the stories about the world that came out of the Holocaust…
Michael Chabon: Right, you’re right.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s what people are actually, that’s where the juice is.
Michael Chabon: And nobody’s telling about like the pensioner in Israel living off money from the German government…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, no, no, no, no. No, no. That’s a thing. I mean, people know it and it exists. You know what I mean? In that world. But it’s not the thing. The thing is, what is the cataclysmic event that happened that led to?
Michael Chabon: Wow. It sounds kind of terrifying, but the imagination also runs.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But as a novelist, isn’t it really exciting? Like as an actual storyteller, you know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: I give it to you.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, thank you. Because you know what people typically do? They say, “Oh, what do people spend on the money?” Like they do things like that. Like they go to their, you know, what’d they spend on the money? You know, what was white people’s reaction to reparations? You know what I mean? But they’re ignoring every, like they’re ignoring all of the other stuff, you know what I mean, all of the…
This is actually the problem with that Confederate story, you know what I mean? Like, it was like, okay, like this kind of counterfactual you’re posing is actually, if you think about it, really, really, really boring. You know what I mean? Like, you’re actually starting it this way. First of all, everybody, it’s been done tons of times, it’s actually not even a new question. But in fact…
Michael Chabon: We’re talking about the…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah sorry.
Michael Chabon: The Benioff Weiss.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. Is that even happening still?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I mean, maybe, I hope not. You know.
Michael Chabon: It got very quiet.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, it did. It got really quiet, thankfully. But the question itself, I mean, is actually like, the premise is quite boring. You know what I mean? There’s a way of doing that, but you would have to like be really interested in black people for instance. You know what I mean?
Michael Chabon: And that’s never…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s never, that’s never how we do it. And so then it becomes the whole question–I should have been a showrunner–the whole question…Like the fact that the Confederacy won goes over here. Like, that’s not the pitch. The pitch is not when the, what the Confederates, it’s everything that happens. That we got, you know, say, guerrilla warfare in the South. You know, because these people are fighting slavery. And then the Confederacy won thing is actually, you know, more of a, it happened, but it’s a subtext. It’s in the background. That’s not what all of the excitement is.
Michael Chabon: Or the conquest of Mexico and Honduras and Guatemala.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Exactly. All the things that would’ve come out of that. I mean like, that–I’m going into a rabbit hole here.
Michael Chabon: We’re history nerds. Sorry.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But like, that’s what you would like, that’s where, because that was one of the Confederates’ aim, in fact, they, you know. This notion that they were going to win and just stay in the South actually doesn’t, you know, the Confederacy was an aggressive, imperialistic power. It said so several times, you know, their goal was to expand enslavement into the tropics. Now that I would like to see, like that I, you know, if there were wars in the tropics, I mean, that is interesting, you know, to me.
Michael Chabon: Well, maybe Benioff and Weiss will hear this podcast.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: They got Star Wars. They’re okay, that’s fine.
Michael Chabon: So, well, we have arrived at that portion of the evening where we’re going to turn this over to the audience for questions. So, people are going to be coming with microphones and they will find you if you have questions and they’re up, they’re down. I would just like to remind each of you, any of you who thinks you might have a question, to please make it an actual question. And the way that you do that is by, is not just putting a rising intonation at the end, or a question mark at the end. It’s by putting forth something that you don’t know the answer to.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the very front of the orchestra all the way to your right.
Audience Member 1: I’m pretty short, look down.
Michael Chabon: Right there.
Audience Member 1: Hey, I’m Vanessa Quintana. For two history nerds, I’m curious the entire conversation excluded any acknowledgement of indigenous people on Indigenous People’s Day. I’m just curious to know why, that’s all.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hmm. Well, I think, the reason why that happened is because the book is about enslavement. That’s what I wrote about. And that’s probably where the correction, the questions were directed, you know. I think had I, you know, written something else or something bigger, the questions probably would have been there. If you have questions you want to ask, I’m certainly happy to answer. Yeah sure, I mean, I don’t know where the mic is. We can bring the mic back over there. I’m certainly happy to answer a question.
Audience Member 1: I mean, there was like opportunity to even acknowledge today that it’s Indigenous People’s Day. There’s opportunity to, even with the whole fantasy, like reparations, or just anything like, and it’s hard, I mean, again, I didn’t read the book. But acknowledging that this is, it was stolen land. Like America in itself, when you’re acknowledging the, how American history is intriguing, like capitalism, the whole success, quote unquote, is built on stolen land and on the backs of slaves, right?
So I think those two go hand in hand. You can’t have plantations without actually having stolen land. You can’t have, like so much of the, like literally the entire thing was built on the actual stolen land. And then on, of course, as you have already noted, the backs of slaves. It’s the straight up oppression of two people. And both histories were erased. I don’t even know my own history because white men…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Okay. All right. Well, let me take this opportunity to acknowledge the theft of indigenous land. I think you’re exactly correct. I think they do go hand in hand. Half the reason that, you know, the enslaved population boomed, was because of the theft of that land and needing people to work that stolen land. And so I think you’re exactly right to bring attention to it. The two do go hand in hand. So thank you for that.
Michael Chabon: I’d just add to that, I mean, I think I slipped up because, recently when I’ve been convening public events, I’ve been trying to do a land acknowledgement before beginning. I’m the chairman of the board of the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire, and when I’ve been convening the medal day observance there the past few years, I’ve been beginning with a land acknowledgement. And it’s something I’m still learning how to do. I think I was…This, yes, we are meeting here tonight on the ancestral land of the Ohlone people, who lived here for many thousands of years before it was taken away from them by all of those, you know, murderers and rapists and other immigrants coming from Europe.
So, you know, I think it was probably just my nervousness about the august gentlemen I was going to be speaking here with tonight and making sure I had good questions for him. That kind of put me out of my mind of thinking about what ought to have been my responsibility. So I apologize for that.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front and center of the balcony.
Audience Member 2: The first, oh, sorry. It’s me. First I just want to say thank you for the work that you do. Everything that you do is amazing. Oh, sorry. Sorry. I, you clearly have a deep love of history, and I’m just curious if there are more recent moments in black American history that you were considering putting your eye on next for another novel, and if there is any nervousness or fear that goes along with writing a novel about a moment that people still alive remember?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, there are, but I probably shouldn’t talk about them. No. I just want it to be good. You know, my only nervousness is about, you know, my actual skills and my abilities as a writer. I find that if I’m curious, genuinely curious, I’m generally okay. And then it just becomes a question of, you know, my ability to actually execute.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 3: Hi. As a consumer of everything you’ve done and, you know, feeling transformed by a lot of the work you’ve done, and as a teacher who uses a lot of your work in the classroom, I’m wondering if going from nonfiction to fiction, if there was any intention or thought around like who you reach? Because people who often consume fiction and people who consume the Atlantic or all of the nonfiction you’ve done can be different audiences. So I’m just curious if any part of this you were–.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: How so?
Audience Member 2: Well, I think that there are people–now I’m really on the spot. Sorry.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean, I’m the one on the spot. I have to answer. I wrote the book.
Audience Member 3: I forgot my regular glasses, so I’m going to put on my sunglasses so I can see you, but don’t take it personally. Okay. Okay.
So, I think that you are a meticulous researcher. You are, you come across as somebody who consumes history and information and then puts it back out there in a very like measured and ordered and researched way. And as a teacher, I’ve been able to take that right into my 12 and 13 year old classroom. And really, when I’m teaching the history of race, you know, and I use your argument for reparations, like that is one way that your like information and who you are get out there to the world.
And then fiction is often a different genre. And people who write in the fiction vein, that’s often what they do, and it’s artistic, and how you talked about how you don’t want to fill the cracks with fiction, like a fiction writer comes from the other way and they’re like, I’m given this freedom, you know, because I’m a fiction writer, and I can fill in like, you know, like “Homegoing,” like I can fill in the parts that I’m not sure of with this fiction cause I’m an artist and like, this is how I get it across. I don’t know if this makes any sense.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No it makes total sense. I understand.
Audience Member 3: So, you know, so, you have now gone from this very like historic, research, measured way of getting information out. And I haven’t read your book, and it looks really well-researched, so I’m gonna assume there’s a lot of that in there. But, fiction is also an art form often. And the people who might consume that can be a different audience. In a way, I’m just asking if a part of this was you thinking, there’s so many more people I can reach, you know, if I dip into fiction… And it sounds like you’ve been working on this for a long time, and as somebody who’s just, who’s a teacher, I’m not sure that being a journalist and being a fiction writer are separate at all.
Michael Chabon: If I’m not mistaken, you started this novel before you started “Between the World and Me,” or anything else you published.
Audience Member 3: That’s my question. I’ll stop talking.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, yeah. No, no, no. It’s a good question. It’s a good question. I understand. I mean, I don’t know. I, as Michael points out, this novel is actually older than “Between the World and Me,” it’s older than “Case for Reparations,” older than almost everything except I think one or two pieces in “We Were Eight Years in Power.” So in many ways it’s like the oldest of my work. And of my four books, it’s like the second oldest, you know, in terms of conception.
I don’t really know, man. I don’t think about audience too much. I think about what I would really like to read. I think about what makes me, gets me going, you know, in the morning. You know, and what I’m thinking about at night and what has a hold on me. And I think any audience I have, you know, I’m deeply fortunate to have. But I don’t have an external approach.
I think also, you know, they just, I don’t know. I got like different parts of me, you know, and the novel satisfies a part that probably to the nonfiction doesn’t, you know.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front and center of the balcony.
Audience Member 4: Hello. Thanks for coming here. And, I appreciate the nonfiction that you’ve been writing, like Black Panther and Captain America.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s fiction. Oh, that was a joke. Oh I get it. Oh right. Yeah, no, ok.
Audience Member 4: But the question I have is more about the national conversation that I really appreciate that you’ve been pushing us as a group. So I wrote it down cause I knew that it would be nervous or whatever to speak.
If America was able to fully enact reparations, wouldn’t we then face the problem of an unequal distribution of resources that’s quote unquote colorblind, essentially assimilating our people into a class–based system of oppression?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right.
Audience Member 4: And then further, wouldn’t that make us accomplices in a global system of racism and racist policies?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So the first thing I would, if you expand that, I would answer the second part first. I would say, if you broaden that out, you know, to the broad, you know, sort of evils beyond racism, to the basic exploitation, you know, of power, we already are complicit. My iPhone makes me complicit. You know, my clothes make me complicit. It’s one of the tough things about being born into a country. You don’t get to choose your country necessarily. So that’s the first thing. I don’t think we should be so blind as to, you know, pretend that, you know, we’re not already involved in this. As citizens, we automatically are. You know, I mean, part of the message of reparations is you take the good and you take the bad, you know, with it.
The second part of that is, once again, I would go back to the question about what sort of world actually would enact reparations in the first place?Certainly there is a, I guess hypothetical world in which black people get reparations and the world around us does not change. The economic system under which we live, for instance, does not change. And I’m just speaking for me, I have a hard time seeing that world. I don’t think that the fact that reparations actually hasn’t been paid is disconnected from the labor system under which we live.
I think it’s part of it. Because you have to think about what that would mean. You know what I mean? What, you know, paying reparations, what a country that decides that it actually wants to look into its history and this deepest part of itself. That it actually wants to look into the way in which the wealth that seeded the entire country actually, you know, was extracted and made.
And I have a hard time seeing, you know, that sort of search and that sort of quest happen and the country coming to a moment of acknowledgement, and not acknowledging everything else around it that’s related to that.
Reparations isn’t a bribe. It’s not a payoff. It’s not, here, take a check, you know, and then everything continues as normal. Reparations specifically involves not just the attempt to repair the plunder and the attempt to close the wealth between the two classes. It also has to involve this deep look at history. And so I just think an America that actually makes good on reparations is not an America where everything else is held constant. You know, I actually think everything else is affected too.
And I would argue that it’s always actually been this way, you know? It’s not like when enslavement was quote unquote defeated, and abolition happened, that nothing else was affected. Everything else actually was affected. It’s not like the civil rights movement was just a boon only for black people. Everything else around it was affected, you know. And that’s not a mistake. It’s because in many ways, you know, African Americans exist at the heart of this country, you know. And so to alter, you know, that position that we occupy, actually I think is to alter, you know, much more.
The second thing I would say is I think it’s really, really important to continue to consider reparations as part of a broader project. You know, I know that there’s been quite a bit of discussion around class first or race first, you know, solutions, et cetera. And this notion that reparations is this sort of side project that exists over here. But you know, for me, what all of those things, you know, shared in common was a desire for a more humane world.
And so it’s impossible for me to look at, you know, reparations and not at the same time, you know, associate it with all the other projects that, you know, we have, to make a more humane world. And I actually think a victory, you know, for reparations actually, you know, brings all of that along with it. If the historical component is with it and it’s not actually a bribe.
City Arts & Lectures: This last question’s coming from the very back of the orchestra all the way to your left.
Audience Member 5: Good evening. Just to piggyback off the conversation regarding Indigenous People’s Day, it seems a lot of times we are put in a position to have to choose which fight we want to engage in. And I just want to kind of get your perspective on how we can further the conversation and like, rather than continuously divide amongst ourselves. For example, you know, you talking about the African American plight or the struggle of black people shouldn’t take away from the struggle of indigenous people or women. And so I just kind of want your perspective on that.
Michael Chabon: Before you answer that, can I, I just want to say one of the things I think is so powerful in “The Water Dancer” is the ways that you show that abolition, for example, was, raised women’s consciousness of women’s situations.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: White women’s.
Michael Chabon: Yeah. That the, the feminist…
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, no specifically. Like, that’s in the book. I’m not taking a shot at Michael. I mean, like specifically that’s in the book.
Michael Chabon: That you see in this book, the seeds, what must have been the seeds, what became the seeds of the suffragist movement, of the women’s rights movement, in the, after the war.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. Yeah, I mean, I don’t. I don’t really know, you know. I understand, you know, desire of people who, you know, have a platform, when they speak, to make sure they acknowledge all the related sufferings that other people have gone through and all the related oppressions. I think also at the same time, African American writers come under, I would argue, more pressure to do that.
I don’t mean any disrespect by this, but I probably would not go to see a Native American writer who had just written a novel you know about, say, the Trail of Tears, and then ask them why, you know, they hadn’t talked more about, or talked at all about, enslavement, that’s me. That’s me.
But listen, listen. I’m not really looking for acknowledgement in that way. You know what I mean? Like I just don’t–and I just want to be clear. This is not a general thing. I’m not recommending, you know, that people do. But if I come to see you, I’m actually interested in what you have to say. I’m not coming to see you give something to me, you know what I mean, beyond what you came to give.
So I think for whatever reason–and I think it’s because, maybe it’s because the black struggle exists in that sort of central way, you know, that’s the response. I think writers should write what they know, and I think they should speak to what they know. I spent 10 years writing a novel. That dealt with enslavement. That was where my research was. You know, I don’t have the range to speak to all the related evils. And were I to, you know, it would be like insulting to your intelligence. I would be bullshitting you. Do you know what I mean?
Like I have, you know, in my heart, listen, if we were after this and we had a, you know, having a beer together, I told you about my beliefs, I could run that down, you know, I could do it. But I’m a believer in people playing their positions and staying in their lanes. You know, I think you’ve got to stand on what you can stand on. You’ve got to fight on what you can fight on. And my sense is not to move too much off of that, you know.
Michael Chabon: But it’s still okay for me to write a novel about Oscar Micheaux?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s definitely, it’s definitely. No, no, no. Because I would assume, Michael, I would assume that you wouldn’t just sit down and say, “Oh Oscar Micheaux was a human being, I can now sit down and write.” Like I would assume you would give…
Michael Chabon: White, brown, blue, red, purple. Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Exactly. I would assume you would give Oscar, you know, Micheaux the kind of respect, you know, that frankly, I would give Oscar Micheaux. Cause I don’t know much about Oscar Micheaux either. You know, you would research it. You should…
But to get to the heart of this, I just, man, I mean, this is just me. Because I guess I’m trying to be sensitive to, you know, the expectations of the audience and to, you know, me as a particular person. I just, you know, writers aren’t priests, you know, they aren’t all knowing. They aren’t, you know, oracles, you know, they’re not prophets.
You know, what I do is very, very grounded. I, you know, I go and I read certain things. I visit certain places. I have a process. And then I sit back and I figure out what strikes me, and then I try to write it. And to put the weight of all the collective oppressions of America on the shoulders of individual people, you know what I mean? And individual books. I just, I think it’s a lot. I mean, it’s a lot.
I think–and man there’s other ways to support. Like the real talk is there are other ways to support, you know what I mean? They’re the writers who we promote, you know what I mean? They’re the writers that we interface with, who we’re in conversation with. They’re the institutions that we go to visit. There are all sorts of other ways to support other people who have spent that time and have done that research in that sort of way, you know? And so I understand that that might not be the most satisfying answer to that to everybody here. But it really is the only answer I have.
Michael Chabon: I just want to say–and I’m sure that all of you will agree–it’s such an incredible thrill and a privilege to hear what this incredible mind thinks and feels, and that you express it so perfectly and beautifully. I really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you all did too. Thank you all for coming.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thank you all. Thank you.