Wednesday, October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020: Recent Reads: Washington Black and The Water Dancer
[Last October I had a lot of fun sharing and AmericanStudying some of my recent reads, and it brought out great responses and nominations for a crowd-sourced weekend post. So this year I wanted to do the same, and would love to hear what you’ve been reading for another weekend list!]
On realism, the fantastic, and two historical novels that blur the boundaries.
In this post on Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), I wrote about how those two acclaimed and award-winning historical novels of slavery use anachronisms in parallel but ultimately quite different (and to my mind less and more successful, respectively) ways. But it’s perhaps more accurate to say that what both books and authors are seeking to do, with those anachronisms and in many other ways, is to blur the line between history and fiction, the lived histories and realities of slavery and the fictional and fantastic elements that storytelling can feature. In so doing, they’re part of a long legacy of such historical fictions (sometimes known as neo-slave narratives, a term coined by scholar Ashraf H.A. Rushdy), a list that would also include Octavia Butler’s time travel sci fi historical novel Kindred (1979), David Bradley’s blend of storytelling, folklore, and academic/scholarly history in The Chaneysville Incident (1981), and Toni Morrison’s ghost story historical novel Beloved (1987), among many others.
Earlier this year I read two of the newer entries in that well-established but still evolving genre: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (2018) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel, The Water Dancer (2019). The two novels interestingly parallel Johnson’s and Whitehead’s books respectively: like Middle Passage, Washington Black is a bildungsroman in which its recognizably realistic main character is born into slavery but experiences an extreme and at least somewhat anachronistic journey (taking him in Edugyan’s novel as far as the Arctic); and like Underground Railroad, The Water Dancer weds the histories of slavery to overtly supernatural elements linked to setting, in this case the protagonist Hiram Walker’s ability known as “conduction” (inherited from a mother of whom he has no memories despite an otherwise photographic memory), which allows him to transport people great distances by folding the earth and traveling across it. While my opinion isn’t the point of this post, I’ll note that I found Edugyan’s novel more effective and satisfying than both Johnson’s and Coates’, and would say that Whitehead’s remains my favorite of this group (but all four are well worth checking out).
So what is the point of my post, then, beyond a Reading Rainbow-like insistence that you should “read the book(s)”? That is a main point for sure, but this pairing also leads me to think a bit more broadly about the question of representing slavery in fiction. (I’m indebted to a Twitter conversation with Laura Vrana for this paragraph’s brief thoughts.) Obviously historical fictions always blend those two elements in one way or another, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a late 20th or early 21st century historical novel of slavery that doesn’t do so in these more overt, extreme, and (in one way or another) fantastic ways. Even Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), a relatively straightforward multi-generational historical novel, features a striking climactic section that introduces Haley as a character and depicts his own recreation of his focal, familial histories. While this might be overstating the case, it seems to me that to write historical fiction about slavery (and perhaps about any similarly traumatic histories) both requires and amplifies the more fantastic side of storytelling, not to elide or forget the histories, but in an effort to capture and include (and ultimately, at least in some ways, transcend) them.
Next recent reads tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Recent reads you’d share for the weekend post?