Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for the Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle and is currently working on a novel set in Virginia prior to the Civil War.
Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears conducted this interview with him via email.
The Rumpus: You’ve been consumed, of late, with the Civil War in your writing at the Atlantic, and you’ve said that it’s building to a larger work. Can you give us a bit of a preview as to the form it will take? And how does a work like this come together for you?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Sure. My first book, The Beautiful Struggle, leaned heavily on voice, as opposed to narrative. I like that book a lot, but very little actually happens in the book. Indeed, plot was beside the point, in terms of my reasons for writing. What I hoped to do was create a work wherein the voice—the allusions, the rhythm, the entire style—summoned up the era of my youth. I wanted to explain the times and characters through the language proper. It’s an approach that I really picked up from hip-hop—the very deployment of the street vernacular summons up the streets. I wanted to summon up X-Factor, Dungeons & Dragons, the black pantheon, and the music of my youth, hip-hop, all at once. It didn’t work perfectly, but it was a good attempt.
My first book was memoir, but this one is fiction. It deploys that same hip-hop approach—trying to summon up the past through the vernacular and cadence of the era. Calling it hip-hop is probably too much. I read Faulkner in the same way. As I Lay Dying takes you to a place through the voices of its characters, through there style of speech. So when Tull says:
It’s a hard life on women, for a fact. Some women. I mind my mammy lived to be seventy and more. Worked every day, rain or shine; never a sick day since her last chap was born until one day she kind of looked around her and then she went and taken that lace-trimmed gown she had forty-five years and never wore out of the chest and put it on and laid down on the bed and pulled the covers up and shut her eyes. “You will all have to look out for your pa the best you can,” she said, “I’m tired.”
I feel as though his way of speaking has told me something about him, maybe something I can’t even name. It’s very similar to Nas running from a shoot-out:
So now I’m jetting to the building lobby
And it was filled with children probably
couldn’t see as I high as I be
It’s like the game at the same.
Got younger niggers, pulling triggers,
adding fame to their name and claim,
some corners. Crews without guns is goners
In broad daylight, stick-up kids they run up on us.
There’s more action in that verse, but the fact that this is a 19-year old kid complaining that he’s too old for the world of drug-dealing tells me something about him and where he is.
With that approach in mind, my aim is to answer a simple question—how might it have felt to be a Southerner before/during/immediately after the Civil War? My way of answering that question is through the language of the time, is through attempting to hear the voices, and phrasing of that period and pull something out of it that will allow me to understand that world. As it stands, the story is about an interracial family in Virginia. It’s told from the perspective of four different voices in that family. I don’t know if it will make a very good novel. But I’m confident it will answer my questions about the times.
Rumpus: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little more about this interracial family in pre Civil War Virginia? It seems to me like there’s a lot of room to explore the various power dynamics at play in those relationships. What worries you most in writing these voices?
Coates: I probably shouldn’t say too much about them, except to say that the challenge is making the voices sound true to me. I’m not particularly interested in rote verisimilitude. I’m more interested in taking inspiration from the way people wrote and spoke and creating something that feels true to that time, but probably won’t be a Xerox of that time. And that’s fine. History is dead. You can’t literally reproduce the past. I don’t aim, for instance, to offer a definitive account of “what slavery was like” or “what the Civil War was about.” I’m more interested in my own take on how I might have experienced that era in the form of different people. Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!—Whips!—Rape!—Lincoln!—Free!—Lynching!—King—March.—Dream—Free!—Crack!—Murder!—Obama!—Free!! Or some such. I want something different.
Rumpus: I’ve read your writing on that subject on your blog, though I’ve never seen that particular timeline. I’m reminded of something you wrote in a blog post late last year titled “The Debatable Effects of Boycotting.” You wrote:
At some point we have to stop telling people what they can’t believe in, and start telling them what they can. At some point we have push a positive view of history, not in the sense of white-washing, but in the sense of something beyond debunking. I don’t know that you can banish the Confederate flag from the South. I don’t know that you can make Tennessee come to terms with Nathan Bedford Forrest. But surely you can shine a light on Ida B Wells, Prince Rivers, Cassius Clay and Elizabeth Van Lew.
How much is that desire to tell people what they can believe in, the desire to shift the Black History narrative away from the noble suffering victim story, informing your work on your novel?
Coates: Well the largest part is, as I said, understanding what it might have felt like to be there. The second largest part is, surely, to give a different view of history. To show what was possible.
Rumpus: Let’s widen the field a little. How has writing a blog for The Atlantic and your interaction with the community that’s risen around it affected your writing on the whole?
Coates: It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Seriously. This book, in so many ways, comes out of my blogging. My commenters recommended many of the sources that led me to the idea in the first place. It’s hard work holding them all together, and I know, at some point, I’ll have to step away. But I don’t really know what I’d do without them.
Rumpus: You realize that the “I’ll have to step away” comment will cause a great disturbance in the Force, don’t you?
I think one of the best things I’ve ever seen on your blog is the “talk to me like I’m stupid” posts because they turn the expected blogger/reader relationship on its head, and also because they’re crazy informative. Did you expect the quality of answers you got when you tried it the first time?
Coates: Yes, I did. They’ve always been an incredibly sharp bunch. They keep me on my toes constantly and force me to think before I write. I know if I’m off, I’ll get called on it. So yeah, I did. Being able to write isn’t the same as “being smarter than everyone else.”
Rumpus: I recently edited a chat with the poet Kirsten Kaschock and the subject of myth came up, about how even in such an information-rich environment like the one we live in, myths like the idea that the Civil War was fought over something other than slavery can still have a powerful hold over such a significant portion of the population. Can myths be beaten back with objective information, or do you have to create counter-myths that grab people and consume them? Or is there something else involved?
Coates: I don’t know if objective information beats back myth. I’ve actually been struggling with this because I’m convinced that blogging is limited in this regard. I think, as you allude to, false myth can only be beaten by ‘truer’ myth. Like, there’s the thin facile myth of the Confederacy. And then there’s the myth of “the greatest generation.” I’d suggest that the former is false myth, and the latter—while not objectively perfect—is a truer myth. Or maybe just one I like more. Who can tell?