Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel, “The Water Dancer,” will be published in September by One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and now, it has a cover. The image, painted by the artist Calida Garcia Rawles, depicts a black man submerged in water, a reflection of both a plot point in the book as well as Rawles’ previous work, in which she said she’s combined the “meditative” quality of water to reckon with black trauma.
In late 2017, during a visit to Rawles’s studio in Los Angeles, Coates saw some of her recent work: photo-like paintings of black women, men and children floating or swimming in a pool. He had not yet finished his novel, but he knew it would deal with water as a central theme, so he asked Rawles — somewhat shyly, in her telling — whether she might be interested in trying her hand at the cover art.
Book covers are typically created by in-house designers, but Coates said he wanted Rawles to “read the work, feel a type of way and then create something,” which is to say, be inspired rather than directed by him or his work. “It was kind of a gamble,” he said. Rawles agreed to do it, but, nervous that rough sketches might not show the full range of what she could create, she bought a few small canvases and began painting instead.
When Coates got the first image last fall, “I wanted to cry,” he said. He had written the earliest version of “The Water Dancer” in 2009, before “Between the World and Me” and “We Were Eight Years in Power” or, even, his seminal essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” When he saw Rawles’s interpretation of his words, the novel “started to feel really alive to me,” he said.
“The Water Dancer” is about an enslaved man in mid-1800s Virginia named Hiram Walker whose life is deeply affected when he nearly drowns in a carriage accident. Coates said that, in his research for the book, he came across numerous references to water in relation to those forced into slavery, starting with the Middle Passage, when many jumped off ships to escape enslavement. These images stuck with him.
Rawles will create more paintings inspired by Coates’s new novel. The two plan to collaborate on a series of events in which Coates will read from the book, and Rawles will display her art. In these, she said, “I will leave the pool and paint water from the ocean.”
“There are other themes in this book that I know she’s interested in,” said Coates, who said he’s eager to see what she comes up with once she reads the full book and without the constraints of the cover format.