Oprah Winfrey and Ta-Nehisi Coates Discuss 'The Water Dancer,' Toni Morrison at the Apollo Theater

NIR ARIELI
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey interviewed the best-selling author about his first novel on Monday evening.

“I love a talking-back audience. It’s like church at the Apollo,” Oprah Winfrey said from the stage of the historic Harlem theater in New York City on Monday night.

Winfrey was joined by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was less enthused by the whoops and hollers from the crowd whenever he mentioned his alma mater Howard University. “So annoying,” he said with a laugh. “This is why people hate us.”

Winfrey joined Coates to discuss his first novel The Water Dancer, which comes out Tuesday. The book is Winfrey’s first pick for her Apple TV+ book club, and she has partnered with the streamer to create a series around the story and Coates will be on the first episode on Nov. 1.

“First novels never get this,” Coates said about the promotion surrounding the book. “I cannot stress to you how unusual this is.”

Known for his work as a political journalist and for his non-fiction works like Between the World and Me, Coates spent 10 years working on The Water Dancer. The book follows a young slave on a plantation in antebellum Virginia whose mother has been sold away, and he must use his mystical power to connect with her and find his path toward freedom.

“One of the reasons I was so excited about this book is it goes into that terrain of myth,” Coates said. “It leaves that world of facts where I actually think a lot of the argument wasn’t actually happening and it tries to attack the deeper thing.”

Winfrey asked how Coates was able to get into the mind of a 19th-century slave and understand that world, and the author emphasized the importance of research, saying he spent a lot of his time reading stories from the time period.

“I’m a language person, by which I mean literally the arrangement of words hold meaning for me. It might not even be what somebody is saying but the way they say it,” Coates said. “It was through language I achieved my connection.”

Winfrey also spoke about how she finds it important in her own life to remind herself of where she came from, and she has an art piece, “To the Highest Bidder,” featuring a mother and a daughter on the auction block in the entryway of her home alongside slave ledgers.

“I’ve always known that I was carried by the ancestors, that my life would not be possible without them, so I surround myself with it all the time,” Winfrey said. “I think about a lot what kind of slave I would have been. Would I have had the courage to run? I probably would have been in the fields. I don’t fit the description of the big house. Which is why it’s so great to now live in the big house.”

Coates also spoke about the importance of visiting plantations in his research process, nothing that Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, was an invaluable resource.

The Water Dancer would not be possible without the historians there. … There’s no way I would have been able to get in there the way I did in this book without their help,” he said. “We need to support that. I think more black folks should go there. There’s a lot to be learned about how our ancestors lived. It’s a tremendously important place.”

Winfrey also asked if Coates was worried about writing a book that was similar to other narratives like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which has similar themes. “I’m ashamed it gave me pause,” he said, as that book came out as he was writing his novel. However, Coates didn’t want to perpetuate the notion that “there can only be one,” and Winfrey recalled how people asked her why she was making another slave movie when Beloved came out. “No one says, 'Clint Eastwood made a Western, so I can’t make Western,'” Coates said.

Winfrey and Coates also spoke about Toni Morrison, who read an early copy of Between the World and Me before her death, and she wrote an email to Coates’ editor Chris Jackson that said: “I’d been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly, it’s Ta-Nehesi Coates.”

While Coates admires Baldwin’s seminal works, he had slightly different answers when Winfrey asked about his first literary inspirations. The author spoke about his love for comic books growing up, and now, he’s channeling that childhood passion into writing the Black Panther comic books.

“I went from writing about politics to comics, and the people in comics are way crazier,” Coates said, adding that he wishes the form was more easily accessible to readers.

Winfrey asked Coates if he hopes the book will bring up important conversations about race. He spoke to Congress in June about reparations, and he said he hopes the book and stories like it will help continue the discussion.

“There is a part of being black in America that we all would part with and give up and that is the fact of being the black race, being put into a black race and having to deal with all the things that come with that,” Coates said. “But the cultural part? We’re not giving that up. We’re not giving the greens up. We’re not giving Marvin Gaye back.”

“I think we’re in an interesting moment now. I think it’s a moment that goes back almost 100 years to W.E.B. Du Bois and the publication of Black Reconstruction,” Coates said, adding that storytellers and journalists have started to take on the tradition. “I think now what’s happening is the public is encountering it in a different way. I think young people, specifically, will probably see things a little differently.”