Both a sales and critical successThe softness of water allowed Nathan Harris to be shortlisted for the 2021 Man Booker Prize, and the winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He also benefited from the large promotion of Oprah’s Book Club and from having been one ” favorite books of 2021 » of a certain Barack Obama.
Southerner and Redneck Georgie wakes up from a long hangover: The Civil War (The Civil War), begun four years earlier, is about to be lost to the northern armies. Federal and anti-slavery America has defeated the Southern Confederates, and slavery is officially abolished in General Lee’s lands.
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The novel recounts the day after, through the fate of two young brothers released and without landmarks in a hostile universe, Landry and Prentiss. Faced with these two bruises full of scars, an old couple, George and Isabel, in mourning, and around, the inhabitants of Old Ox, humiliated, revengeful and of an assumed racism…
ActuaLitté: Your first book deals with the early days following the abolition of slavery in a small town in the south. How did you come to this little-discussed subject?
Nathan Harris: At first I never imagined what it must be like for these men and women who, after a life of servitude, had suddenly been given the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. Where could they go? What could they wish to accomplish? This moment must have been incredibly strange and upsetting. I wanted to explore this time window as a novelist, and here is my attempt.
The sweetness of water takes place in a collapsing world: that of the southern states defeated by the armies of the north, of George and Isabel who think they have lost their son, or of the two brothers freed by the war, but ultimately without landmarks.
Nathan Harris: When writing my novel, I had no clear and definitive plan. Only characters: two brothers looking for a way to give meaning to their newfound freedom. A mother and father in a souring relationship, both mourning the loss of their son. And I also had a community around… A city on the verge of destruction. Everything else flowed from this raw material, from it.
Did the America Festival give you a first opportunity to discover Paris? How did you experience this meeting with French readers?
Nathan Harris: I had been to Paris once before, but only as a tourist. Never had I had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful readers in France, and so many lovers of literature. This trip allowed me to see how much your country appreciates novels and discussions around the works. The French really love books! They also have a deep curiosity to discover other cultures, like me.
Your work was translated by Isabelle Chapman. Did you participate in this translation through advice, for example, or contacts with the translator?
Nathan Harris: I didn’t have many exchanges with Ms. Chapman, but I’m sure she did an excellent job of translating my book. The French feedback for the novel has been incredible and gratifying. So I’m exceedingly grateful for the role she must have played in the success of my book here. [NdR : La douceur de l’eau a notamment été sélectionné pour le Prix Fémina étranger 2022]
This novel is a look at a southern United States in the 19th century fueled by strong racism. Is it also, implicitly, a reflection on these same states today?
Nathan Harris: The issues I try to address in my book are certainly contemporary, in a sense. Veiled behind a historical period, I try to deal with the problems that still plague America. Questions of race, class, and the tensions that arise from these two dividing lines that have always fractured the United States. These seeds were planted in the past, then germinated and remain in the soil of this country.
Why a historical subject rather than a contemporary one?
Nathan Harris: History is History. By that I mean that there is nothing contemporary about it to begin with. The first image in my mind was of the two brothers, isolated in the woods of George Walker’s farm, not knowing where to go next. The inspiration is born from the imagination, from a pleasure of the story, not from problems to be answered. But by immersing myself in history, and by writing, I had to face the questions that surround the period. It turned out that these are the same problems that my country still faces to this day.
Do you have authors who have inspired you or whom you particularly admire?
Nathan Harris: Many authors have indeed inspired me: Kazuo Ishiguro, James McBride, Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Ayana Mathis. The list is getting longer and longer!
Finally, despite difficult subjects, such as slavery, this novel is not without optimism: what is your approach to this painful historical phenomenon?
Nathan Harris: I believe stories like this are exactly what we need. Stories and characters who face, unflinchingly, grief, grief, loss and pain. They loudly declare that we can at least try to overcome ourselves. Stories that unite us. the sweetness of the water, finally, is a story of hope. I hope it uplifts my readers, no matter how dark some passages are. Time will tell us.
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And as a bonus, if Philippe Rey prefers not to reveal the backstage of the negotiations which made it possible, on June 2, 2021, to conclude the purchase of the rights, he agreed to come back for us on the reasons which motivated him to publish the first novel by the American, including it in a catalog, between Joyce Maynard and Joyce Carol Oates.
Philip Rey: On reading the sweetness of the water, I was struck by the strength of the writing, but also by the exceptional mastery of the composition of the story, on the part of such a young author for whom this is the first publication. He managed to make a modern novel out of events that take place in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The difficulties of the two brothers Landry and Prentiss, ex-slaves learning their freedom in a racial society and extreme harshness towards them, resonate particularly today in this American world where segregation has not yet really disappeared from mindsets.
I was also sensitive to the lyrical descriptions of nature and humanity of a couple of white farmers, which provide a luminous and poetic counterpoint. Nathan Harris, only 30 years old, is a true writer whom I am proud to support.
Photo credits: Laurel Sager
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Nathan Harris: ‘I’m trying to deal with the problems that still plague America’