Nathan Harris has a lot to be thankful for this year. His debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and subsequent instant New York Times bestseller, as well as landing on Barack Obama’s Summer 2021 reading list. All of the above may make for great press, but as further validation of the brilliance of his first effort, the 29-year-old’s tale of an unlikely alliance in a divided Southern town immediately following the end of the Civil War has also been nominated for multiple awards, including the Man Booker Prize and the 2022 Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and was also named the Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post.
Harris cites Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World as one of his influences in crafting a tale of this scope. But as he tells us on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit, he simply wrote a narrative he had yet to encounter.
“I hadn’t read the book that was dealing with those immediate days after slavery—and you know, I am a big believer that empathy is what drives fiction, in many ways. And it’s so important to put yourself in the shoes of others,” he explains. “I had never heard somebody embody these voices and consider what it would be like leaving the plantation and just thinking about, ‘Oh my god, what comes next?’... I always relate it to much more minor circumstances—you know, heading off to college; or like, you’ve got a job at a steel mill for 40 years and all of a sudden, you’ve lost your job and you don’t know what your identity is.
“You know, we all have those moments, and this is that—just multiplied to such a degree,” he continues. “You spend your whole life in bondage, enslaved, and to have every waking hour and waking minute decided for you, and then, all of the sudden, you can do as you please in the world. I mean, just on a level of creating stories and creating characters, I just wanted to put that on the page...I wanted to dig into that.”
Hear more from the deeply empathetic Nathan Harris in Episode 58 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Nathan Harris on The Sweetness of Water, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public.