Centuries ago, when the slave traders threw pregnant African women overboard, they thought that was the end of their story. They were wrong. The women drowned, but their children did not. Born able to live underwater these merpeople-like beings built a new home down in the depths, far from the cruel two-legs. Eventually, it was decided to put the past behind them and live without the agony of the knowledge of what was done to their ancestors. A Historian was selected to keep all the memories of all the wajinru. While the others lived peaceful, carefree lives, the Historian would remember.
The system worked until it didn’t. Yetu cannot handle the strain of being a Historian, the burden of history is too heavy. She is losing her sense of self to the memories of others. So when the time comes to temporarily transfer memories back to the rest of the wajinru, Yetu seizes the moment. She is only supposed to release the memories for a few days before taking them back, but instead she leaves her people to fend for themselves and escapes to the surface. There she meets a two-legs and comes to understand the truth about her kind and the meaning of her people’s history.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep is based on the song of the same name by the band Clipping (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes), which was written for an episode on Afrofuturism for This American Life. It was also based on something else, the utopian world created by the Detroit techno-electro group Drexciya (James Stinson, and Gerald Donald). Although Drexciya’s world is mythological, it is rooted in the brutal realities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Clipping’s lyrics call forth images of enslaved African women drowned on the journey across the sea, of climate change and environmental destruction, of the passion of the ancestors and drive of the survivors.
Our mothers were pregnant African women thrown overboard while / crossing the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships. We were born / breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the / seafloor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers until / their world came to destroy ours. With cannons, they searched / for oil beneath our cities. Their greed and recklessness forced / our uprising. Tonight, we remember.
From those lyrics sprang forth Solomon’s work. Their story isn’t a true parallel; it changes and shifts and erodes and evolves. It is inspired by and at the same time something new. In a way it feels like Afrofuturism with a folklore twist. Solomon isn’t exploring how the African diaspora and technology affect and alter each other like Afrofuturism but the intersection of history and folklore with the diaspora. The setting could be the present or even the future. What’s important is not when it takes place but how.
Solomon’s story is centered on conflict: between slave traders and Africans, between wajinru and the Historian, between Yetu and her two-legs companion Oori, between the apex predators on land and underwater, between the roiling ocean and the calm tidepools, between remembering and forgetting, between the past and present and future. The tension between knowing too much and not understanding enough crisscrosses the plot. It’s what drives Yetu to abandon her post for the surface and to bond with the intriguing Oori. And it’s what forms the center of their fledgling relationship.
Yetu isn’t the only Historian in the novella. As the last of her people, Oori is Historian by default. Where Yetu is tormented by the memories of her people, Oori would give anything to have even a fraction of her people’s memories. Those of us in the Black diaspora who are descended from enslaved Africans actually have more in common with Oori than Yetu. We long for a homeland that is no longer ours. Our traditions are not like those from the lands where our people once lived but new creations based on memories of old stories. All our ancestors had were stories of other people’s memories. Everything that happens to Black bodies in America today can be traced back through those memories to the moment our first ancestor stepped off the slave trader’s boat. But we cannot go back further than that. We have only what we could smuggle aboard the slave ship. Like Oori, we live in a constant state of remembering and forgetting, of being grateful for what we have and wanting something better.
The Deep’s slim page count disguises the depth of the work within. Rivers Solomon conjures a vast world in her latest novella, one where history and present day collide and love can change lives. The text is ever-changing as the ocean itself. Shifting from third person to first person plural, at times it feels as lyrical as the song from whence it came. The story unbalances and redefines. It will trail in your wake long after you finish it. Yetu is a force to behold, and I for one am immensely grateful that Solomon allowed us to witness her story.
The Deep is available from Saga Press.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.