My Thoughts: The Water Dancer

I’ve had an overdose of slavery writing lately, by virtue of having been enrolled last semester in an English class literally called “The Slave Narrative and the Novel.” So, goodness knows why, at the dawn of the decade, I thought it would be a good idea to go read yet another slavery novel.

For quite a while from the beginning, The Water Dancer was going, content-wise, the way I expected it to, and so I had thoughts of abandoning it until I felt capable of engaging with a slavery book again. The thing that changed my mind halfway through, which got me to commit to finishing, was this one narrative spin: superpowers.

36A8BAEE-59D3-4976-8183-CEE731620D5E

I’ve read quite a bit of Coates’ nonfiction. I know, though, that he is also a comic book writer, particularly of one of Marvel’s Black Panther series. I still haven’t read any, like the disgrace that I am. Either way, just by knowing Coates’ reputation for writing superheroes, I sat up a lot straighter when I saw the hint of superpowers in The Water Dancer. This man knows the genre well, I thought. He’s about to give me a superhero slavery novel and I have never in my life read a superhero slavery novel. Turns out, however, that in this regard, the joke was on me. The Water Dancer turned out to be more of a coming-of-age story by way of magical realism, than a superhero story. So, there, I suffered from a bit of unmet expectation. It’s hard to say whether my expectations were even valid or not, seeing that I don’t actually know how Coates deals with superpowers in his other texts. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and am glad I finished it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an amazingly poetic writer, which made the prose a genuine pleasure to read. Now, this feature worked spectacularly in the narration and inner thoughts of the main character, Hiram. There was also something quite fascinating going on in the combination of racial and class-based language into categories unique to the world of The Water Dancer. Slaves were generally referred to as “the Tasked” and slavery itself as “the Task”; slaveholders and powerful whites were generally referred to as “the Quality.” I’m sure Coates would be able to give some brilliant explanations for his decision to use such language, which can scarcely escape the notice of any reader who may be desensitized to the more commonly used words/categories.

Where the language seemed to fall into awkward confusion was in the direct speech. The way slaves talk in The Water Dancer is very different from how slaves have talked in any other text I have read. It felt weird. Not necessarily a good, creative weird like with Toni Morrison’s characters, but weird like, “You can’t possibly expect me to believe they said this like that.” I don’t know what the difference is that made the words come off so, but I can’t deny that I felt uncomfortable with it sometimes. One critical reviewer said that all the characters sounded the same, and I can definitely see how that opinion came about.

There were many other things I loved, though. One of them was the recurrent messages of freedom and individuality, both in the institutional sense—regarding the Task/slavery—and in the personal sense of being allegiant to oneself. Two of my favorite quotes came from the characters Corinne and Hawkins.

“But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see—one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose.” –Corinne


“But I think this is the lesson in it all. We forget sometimes—it is freedom we are serving, it is the Task that we are against. And freedom mean the right of a man to do as he please, not as we suppose. And if you have not been as we supposed, you have been as you were supposed to be.” –Hawkins

Another thing I found wonderful was the lexivist themes woven so integrally into the story. The novel presented the power of story, storytelling and memory as mediums for the supernatural, and the power of good, crafty writing as a liberating, dangerous tool utilized by the defiant Underground.

Besides these, I thought Hiram was a sufficiently complex character. His internal struggles, thoughts and moments of cognitive dissonance came across as extremely realistic. The dangerously potent attachment to his owner’s family, property and town, for one. Then there was his immaturity and then maturity, callousness and compassion, desire for proximate power, fear of freedom, complicated relationships with women.

Speaking of women, possibly my favorite thing about The Water Dancer was how the women in the novel refused to be owned. Especially Sophia and Moses/Harriet. I thought the Harriet character was very congruent with how she was portrayed in the recently released movie Harriet (which did the superhero slavery thing excellently, I might add!). As for Sophia, the hurt she harbored regarding men was so profound, I felt it in the depths of my soul. She seemed to me to represent how, after you have been traumatized by a man, being any man’s woman, even in love, is sometimes too terrible to contemplate. Her fear, which even Hiram picked up, was so powerful and relevant.

“What I did understand was that she was terribly afraid of something—something in me, and the thought that I would, in any way, exist to her in the way of Nathaniel, that she would fear me as she feared him, scared and shamed me all at once.” –Hiram

And I am glad Hiram was ashamed.

My greatest discomforts with The Water Dancer come from, interestingly enough, how the novel reads as being extraordinarily nice to white people. Something in me is already weary of the whole biracial-slave-owned-by-his-white-master/father protagonist thing. On top of that, Hiram’s love for his father—whom he consistently referred to as, and wholeheartedly and delightedly claimed as his father—was a bit sickening to me. Furthermore, the white characters, particularly Hiram’s father and Corinne, only got called out a couple of times each, and none harshly enough that I really felt anything. The white characters felt kind of like heroes. I don’t know what that means for a slavery novel. I do know what that means in terms of being palatable to the mainstream publishing industry, though, so I don’t know what to think about that. The one time I was struck in a positive way by Hiram calling someone out was in this case:

All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. –Hiram

I thought this a necessary and refreshing perspective to bring to the consideration of white abolitionists and Underground agents. But Coates definitely has the creative license to do what he wants, and I don’t know half of the crap that goes on in the publishing world before a book comes out, so I choose, this time, to refrain from any explicit judgment. Life is hard and weird.

Despite the many someway things, I did think The Water Dancer was a good novel and enjoyable read. And I really like when Black people have superpowers.

-Akotz the Spider Kid

BTW, follow my reading-dedicated Instagram account, @SpiderKidReads!

My Thoughts: The Nickel Boys

I owned The Nickel Boys for months before I dared read it, because I was afraid that it would be too heavy to engage with in the middle of an already challenging semester. I thought it would rip me apart and break my heart with all its potential horror. After reading it finally over break, I don’t know how else to say this, but it turns out that The Nickel Boys was not nearly as harrowing as I expected. Although I consider it a good read, I don’t feel anything particularly strongly about it.

148F5644-75CB-41D3-A8E5-271F50EE5C4EFor those unfamiliar, the book is about a boarding school in Florida that operates more like a detainment center for delinquent boys than an institute of education. Neither teachers nor administrators give a whit about the wellbeing of the boys. I don’t know whether the book really was written in a way that wasn’t as painful as I expected, or if my relative stoicism came from myself, being familiar with Ghanaian boys’ boarding house horror stories. The Nickel Academy certainly felt awful, but not even close to unimaginably so. Only once while reading do I recall being stunned enough to pause and reevaluate my decision to keep reading.

The Nickel Boys was my second ever Colson Whitehead read. The first was The Underground Railroad, which I read in 2018. The Underground Railroad was a bit of a publishing hit. Before all the publicity of its release, I didn’t even know who Colson Whitehead was. I suspect that book’s success was both a good thing and a bad thing for The Nickel Boys, published in its shadow. The fortunate part is that after the preceding book’s popularity, people were eager to get their hands on The Nickel Boys. The unfortunate consequence, though, is that too many people seem to want to interpret The Nickel Boys as another Underground Railroad­­­—essentially another American slavery novel—whereas I think it just isn’t

My reading experiences between The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad were vastly different. I experienced the former to be better than the latter, both in relevance and enjoyability. While I remember thinking The Underground Railroad was full of Black academic jargon that I only recognized because I myself am an Africana Studies major, The Nickel Boys used simple language which was beautifully lyrical while being easy to work through. The book itself was brief, but I also read it very fast in the way I can only do when I am able to swim through the writing style with barely any resistance. Additionally, there are many, many books about American slavery, both in fiction and nonfiction. But a topic such as this—the Nickel Academy being based off the very real Dozier School for Boys—is not one that you come across often. That alone made the subject matter more interesting for me.

I came across quite a number of The Nickel Boys reviews that treated it as a slavery novel, and for the life of me, after reading it, I couldn’t see it as one, no matter what the critics said. The main characters are certainly Black, and a significant portion of the time setting is the Civil Rights Era. The experiences of Elwood and Turner are definitely horrifying and the circumstances by which they landed in the Nickel Academy were specifically racial. But if the novel must be treated as a critique, I see it as more of a critique on the US’s way of dealing (or not dealing) with delinquency—or what a dysfunctional system thinks delinquency is—than of slavery or racism. The Nickel Academy, though segregated, is a house of horrors for unfortunate teenage boys, Black, white, and in Jaimie’s case, Mexican. Although the main character, Elwood, is Black, and his story and his friend Turner’s are consequently stories of Black horror, the Nickel Academy itself does not value any demographic of its boys. It’s a downright awful institution for all enrolled in it. If the novel must have a moral, I’d say it was this: something is very, very wrong with human beings. Too many characters seem to derive pleasure from gratuitous cruelty and operate with a stunning disregard for the value of life.

I have some idea of why some critics so badly want to turn this into a slavery novel, but I do not think The Nickel Boys becomes any less relevant than The Underground Railroad even if it is not explicitly about race. Sometimes, books suffer unreasonably from the shadows of their predecessors or the reputations of their writers.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book, which showcases Colson Whitehead’s classical wit (and I’ve experienced him in person so I can verify that he’s hilarious):

“His constant dorm reassignments notwithstanding, Jaimie kept a quiet profile and conducted himself in accordance with the Nickel handbook’s rules of conduct—a miracle, since no one had ever seen the handbook despite its constant invocations by the staff. Like justice, it existed in theory.”

-Akotz the Spider Kid

BTW, follow my reading-dedicated Instagram account, @SpiderKidReads!

My Thoughts: A Court of Wings and Ruin (or, the ACOTAR series so far, I guess)

A Court of Wings and Ruin is the third book in Sarah J. Maas’s fantasy ACOTAR series. The first book, for which the series is named, is called A Court of Thorns and Roses. The Second, A Court of Mist and Fury.

ACOWAR

All the ACOTAR books, while written principally from the same character’s perspective and following the same chain of events, seem to have different predominant vibes. ACOTAR (#1) had the strongest fairytale remix vibe. ACOMAF (#2) had a predominantly fantasy-romance vibe. ACOWAR (#3), this one, certainly had the most brutal, strategic, war-like fantasy vibes of the series so far. Story-wise, it was probably the most exciting so far.

I can’t help but think, though, that one of the series’ strongest selling points on the market is the sexual content, and in that regard, the sex in the first two books was a lot more exciting than the sex in ACOWAR. This is relevant because it speaks very much to Maas’s skill as a storyteller. In my reading experience, there were two main reasons the sex in book 1 and 2 were so interesting. First, it was faerie sex. The non-humanness of the characters, the fact that they have body parts which ordinary human beings don’t have, adds an interesting dimension to sexual activity. How does intercourse change when you’re dealing with a shapeshifter? When claws, fur or highly sensitive wings are an option? Vampires are certainly not as physically/sexually interesting as ACOTAR faeries. Secondly, the impact of many of the sexual scenes came from an accumulation of relationship development and sexual tension, strung out for pages and pages before they reach—metaphorically speaking—a climax. Without that skill of gradual development, if the sex scenes were to have occurred in greater isolation, they would not have read as half as interesting as they felt in the moment. I don’t think it detracts from the appeal of ACOWAR that the sex wasn’t as exciting, though. The third book had different priorities, and for what this story demanded, I think it was all executed splendidly.

(In related but auxiliary news, Rhysand has been the love of my life from the moment he first appeared in the first book.)

With three books in the series down now, I’m convinced of what I think is Sarah J. Maas’s strongest suit: her character development is off the chain. Without spoiling, I can tell you that I went from thinking the main character, Feyre, was an incredibly stupid girl in book 1, to someone who showed surprising promise in book 2, and by book 3, I was like, “OMG, she a badass!” As the series progresses, the same characters hardly get old because as you discover more about them, your previous perceptions of them are constantly challenged. There is incredible expertise involved in making you love a character when they’re presented as one thing and continue loving the character even more fiercely when they’re presented as the complete antithesis of that one thing. And it takes phenomenal talent for the same writer who could do that, to leave you thoroughly shocked when some other character is not what you expected.

I read ACOWAR to provide a distraction from my own thoughts and feelings, and honestly, it was a splendid choice. It was immersive enough to have me thinking about nearly nothing but the characters and stories, even minutes or hours after I’d taken a break from reading.

Although I haven’t yet read any of Maas’s Throne of Glass books, from what I’ve seen of ACOTAR, I think I stand by my opinion that Maas writes a very feminine kind of high fantasy. This is absolutely not derogatory. It doesn’t detract at all from the drama or the action or the spectacular messiness of everything, but the prioritization of the personal, emotional and individual aspects of characters and story evokes in me a personal investment that I don’t think would exist otherwise.

The femininity also doesn’t detract from the gravity of the story/content, but rather adds something crucial to it. Whereas I think masculine fantasy is often preoccupied with war and murder and slaying things and dangerous quests, fantasy like ACOTAR is not afraid to handle the difficult topics. Sex, the expression of sexuality, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, toxic masculinity, feminism and choice, (the fantasy equivalent of) racial prejudice, honor and protection of minorities and the oppressed, relationship trauma, abusive parenthood, you name it! I promise they go far beyond the reach of Brienne of Tarth or Arya vs. Sansa Stark. There are so many incredibly important things about the human condition that I think too often male authors are not writing about. I also think high fantasy is one of the best places to explore some of these topics, because it provides an avenue to step out of the world you think you know so that when you come back to it, you can see it in a clearer light. I’m so glad that Sarah J. Maas addresses these topics in a way that does not entirely make me cringe!

If you read the first book and you think it’s a bit cliché and are unimpressed, I would personally encourage you to keep going. Because it gets nicer. It gets so much nicer.

-Akotz the Spider Kid

My Thoughts: Black Leopard Red Wolf

It’s possible that this book has had the greatest impact on me than any book I’ve read this year, so far. It didn’t always feel that way in the midst of reading it, but since I’ve finished, I’ve been thinking about it almost too often for my own health. Marlon James has done something extraordinary with Black Leopard Red Wolf and if the rest of the Dark Star trilogy is going to be anything like it, then those of us dedicated to following it are in for a wild time.

This is not my first Marlon James book. Several years ago, I read A Brief History of Seven Killings and I must confess: I was not impressed. Not because I thought it was a bad book; there was obviously something uniquely stylistic about Marlon James’ writing… But I personally just didn’t get it. I had a hard time following the story. My brain couldn’t seem to adjust to the rapid switches between English and Jamaican Patois. There were so many characters, I couldn’t remember who anyone was, and I really thought (mistakenly) that the main character was going to be Bob Marley. To this day, I can hardly remember anything about that book except for how confused I was, and that I’d resolved to one day read it again because the first time didn’t cut it. So, given that my first encounter with James didn’t go swimmingly, what drew me to jump on Black Leopard? The honest truth is that, once I saw the description of the book prior to its release, I was awash with something very like despair—because it looked like Marlon James had written exactly the kind of book I wanted to write, before I could write it. (Disadvantages of being born late. Insert eye roll.) And I was deathly afraid that it was going to be brilliant.

Spoiler alert: It was brilliant.

9937EAA1-27AE-45A0-BD14-6E57C50F9CD8

It was also very Marlon James. By which I mean: stylistically strange, even if familiar; difficult to get into the groove of; full of characters and plot occurrences a reader is hardly ever sure what to do with. And yet, all these had on me the opposite effect they’d had with A Brief History. I liked Black Leopard the more for them.

I wouldn’t call Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to read, although I know that this is most likely the common sentiment experienced by people who simply did not expect the book to be written like this. I will say though, that it is difficult to learn how to read. Luckily for me, the concept of different texts requiring different reorientations to reading was fresh on my mind, thanks to this interesting article a friend had sent me not much earlier: How We Read, by Irina Dumitrescu. When I applied myself in re-learning how to read and figured out what the hell was happening with the narrative style, I assure you, I was blown away at the masterful employment of technique.

One of the things that stood out about the narrative style was the emphatic and unusual use of language. If you don’t think too deeply about it, it feels like this serves no purpose other than to thoroughly confuse a reader. But perhaps if you’re bilingual (and better if one of your languages is not Europe-derived), you might be able to catch on quicker to what is going on: this book is not written in English. It is only using English words to get its content across. If you speak a non-English language, try taking an English sentence, translating it into that language, and then translating again it in the most literal and direct way you can manage. (This is called back-translation.) You are likely to get a sentence made of English words that does not sound like the English sentence you started with. Now imagine doing this for a 700-page book. Yeah. Somehow, Marlon James wrote the entire book using some sort of back-translation. And I stand in awe.

The story of the novel was long and interesting and cool, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the language as much as I enjoyed the plot. I sincerely hope this was James’s intention, because if so, it worked splendidly. The narrative is so conversation-heavy in a way that very often doesn’t add to the plot at all, but it’s just really fun to read. So perhaps James is making a statement in his narrative style: something along the lines of how the act of reading should be at least as much fun as the substance of the content one reads. As a writer and a reader, there’s something to learn from that. Also, the book has lots of superfluous and creative swearing which I think just makes a lot of serious things funnier.

In terms of fantasy, I think Black Leopard stays very true to its genre. It’s a huge book, is built on a composite world, and is part of a larger saga that is probably just going to get more confusing as time goes on. There is a hell of a lot of individual characters, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of them. The plot is so winding and not necessarily in chronological order. I will confess that I often forgot the book’s beginning while I was in the middle, and I struggled often to remember why whatever was happening was happening. And yet the seemingly disjointed plot elements prove themselves by the end to all have been not only connected to each other, but to something that we as the audience will not be privy to until the book’s sequels.

Knowing that fantasy itself has so many different styles and variations, I will also confess that Black Leopard Red Wolf felt like a very masculine kind of fantasy. It’s not like A Wizard of Earthsea which has basically no female characters, and it’s very, very far from the romance-heavy, almost distinctly feminine style of Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. And when I call Black Leopard masculine, I by no means mean cis-het masculine. Almost every character is homosexual or at least not straight and there’s certainly a substantial amount of sex. It’s just that the sex isn’t meant to do to a reader what A Court sex is meant to do to a reader. Besides which, there is an almost shocking amount of blood and violence, and at least one powerfully written depiction of real-time physical disfigurement had me recoiling. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that this book is not for the weak, and it’s not designed to make you feel fairytale good. More action movie than rom-com. Oh, also, the main character is a misogynist. I believe and truly hope this is an intentional move on Marlon James’ part, and there was some hope in the course of the story that the main character might eventually reach a point where he is able to properly diagnose and deal with the roots of his misogyny.

Speaking of the main character, Tracker, well… He’s very unlikeable. And I like him a whole bloody lot. For those who’ve been around, you might remember I wrote an entire appreciation post for the movie character CJ Walker, specifically because of how unlikeable and complex she was. Now Tracker? He’s sharp tongued and a hothead, my favorite kind of character. And he has even fewer obvious redeeming qualities than CJ! I can only surmise that the sole reason Tracker isn’t fully abandoned by 90% of the characters in the book is because of his physical or magical abilities—which, incidentally, have nothing in the least to do with his personality. Imagine people keeping you around only because you have a good nose and not because they like you in any way, shape or form. That’s what it’s like to be Tracker.

When I think about it carefully, there’s nothing that I really disliked about this book. Once I got into the groove of it, once I learnt how to read it, it was all over for me. I truly enjoyed the experience of reading the book, and I loved seeing African fantasy and mythological creatures from around the continent being brought alive in James’ own way. I finished the book convinced that Marlon James is fearless. Because Black Leopard Red Wolf (and I might extrapolate, the entire Dark Star trilogy) doesn’t have that super-quick commercial quality that other new writing like Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have, but if there is any sense in the world, James’s fantasy trilogy and James himself are going to go down in history as bloody legendary. And if they don’t, I’ll be up in arms.

P.S. I’m furious at James and don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for doing almost exactly what I want to do with African fantasy, before I could do it.

-Akotowaa