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American intellectual, known for his radical analyzes of the black condition in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coates is back in the news with the publication in French translation of his very first novel, La Danse de l’eau (first part).

We no longer present Ta-Nehisi Coates. Journalist and essayist, the American became famous by publishing in 2015 Between The World and Me, a powerful essay in the form of a letter to his son, about the question of race and what to be black means in the United States today. This book, which won the prestigious National Book Award, is available in French under the title Une Anger Noire (Autrement, 2016).

Author of several other essays, including a collection of texts about the Obama years, the essayist aroused a sensation in the American literary world by publishing two years ago a very literary novel, between historical fresco and fantastic road novel, which is shown in France this re-entry during titled La Danse de l’eau.

Heir to James BaldwinTa-Nehisi Coates is a great writer. The power and originality of his thinking about race in the United States has given him a chance to be compared to James Baldwin. In connection with the publication of his novel, he would come to France to meet his readers and then go on tour in Africa. This was without taking into account the pandemic and its unpredictable impact on intercontinental travel. The launch campaign for La Danse de l’eau must also be stopped, to the author’s dismay. Coates, who lived in France, has often declared his love for Molière’s language. Interviewed by telephone, he also said how much he regretted not being able to come to France or to go to Africa, an ancestral continent with which African Americans have such a visceral relationship.

“In all my life,” laments the novelist, “I have never set foot in Africa. I was therefore particularly impatient to take the opportunity to meet my readers from Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, the two countries I was planning for the launch of my novel. The thought of finally discovering Dakar excited me. You see, for us African Americans, traveling to Africa has almost a spiritual meaning. We are constantly tormented by the thought of regaining our lost identity. Our quest is to return to this continent that we consider our homeland. ”

The author of Unecolère noire is also happy to point out that his relationship with Africa is not only ancestral, but also intellectual. Coates was born in Baltimore in 1975 and grew up in a house full of books. Her father, a former member of the Black Panthers, was a librarian and in his spare time editor of confidential research books on the black world. It is to his father that the novelist owes his first name, which means “the great Nubian people in the south” in ancient Egyptian. He also owes him his first discoveries in African literature. These discoveries, systematized during his time at Howard University, the famous “Black Harvard”, are according to the author not foreign to the important place of myths and legends in his novel.

A debt that Coates is happy to admit. “My debt is huge. My intellectual roots are in African American literature, but also in the literature of the entire black world. I must have read, like everyone else, “The World Collapses” (by Chinua Achebe Editor’s Note) and the poetry of the Negritus. These readings gave me a sense of belonging to a black society larger than the African-American universe in which I grew up. I remember experiencing one of the greatest emotions of my life when I discovered in my classical classes “The epic of Soundiata“. I was barely 18 then. It was, I think, the very first book I read whose central protagonist was an African.”

Both a historical novel and a fantasy story, La Danse de l’eau tells a story of learning in America before the Civil War, slavery and brutality. Almost Tolstoyan in its breadth, the novel’s plot, spread over 500 pages, takes place against the backdrop of the decadent splendor of the plantations in Virginia that will soon be destroyed by the Civil War. It is in this twilight world, between dogs and wolves, that Hiram, the novel’s central character, develops. He was born in iron and forged in the harsh reality of slavery, while dreaming of liberation and love.

Imagination and artThe theme of slavery, at the heart of this novel, Coates had already addressed in his essays. He recalls the extent to which the slavery of millions of Africans, along with the appropriation of indigenous lands, was the basis of the prosperity of the United States. By returning to this theme in a fictional form, the author hopes to see his readers grasp the past through imagination and art.

On the issues of slavery fiction writing, Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “I think fiction and essay are different ways of saying the same thing. I have long been a non-fiction writer. I was anxious to gather statements based on concrete facts, but I gradually realized that people were as much moved by facts as by ideologies, myths and beliefs, conveyed through books such as “So Many. Gone with the Wind” or “Birth of the Nation” “movies “In American history, literature has played an important role in confirming the ideology of white supremacy, hence my quest for an appropriate form of writing to remind people that the experience of blacks is also part of the human experience.”

In the second part of this column, it will be a question of the journey rich in twists and turns of the hero of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the romantic art with the epic spirit of this daring intellectual, who proposes to rebuild the African-American imagination by linking it to the source, that is, Africa.

The Water Dance, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Translated from English by Pierre Demarty. Fayard, 480 pages, 23 euros.


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