May 7, 2021
The Deep by Rivers Solomon — Review by Rebecca Thacker
“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 sea floor/Unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers/Until their world came to destroy ours.”
– Clipping, “The Deep”
The 2019 novella The Deep is a richly imagined, deeply moving Afrofuturist novel by 32-year-old Rivers Solomon, whom many call a successor to Octavia Butler. Solomon also is the author of An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017) and Sorrowland (May 2021).
Inspired by the song “The Deep” by rap group Clipping, Solomon’s novella envisions an underwater society created by the water-breathing descendants of pregnant African women thrown overboard during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These murders are well-documented; the most well-known arguably is the 1781 mass drowning of more than 130 enslaved Africans by the white male crew of the British slave ship Zong. Because enslaved African people were held as chattel property, slavers threw “problematic” cargo, such as pregnant females, overboard so that their companies might save supplies, make insurance claims on dead cargo, and otherwise cut their economic losses.
In The Deep, Solomon imagines that these pregnant women’s children did not drown when their mothers did. Instead, the children have adapted and thrived underwater, building a complex underwater society – the wajinru. For the wajinru, the trauma of their origins is too painful to bear, so they choose one individual each generation to be the “historian” responsible for carrying the collective memories of all wajinru from the beginning of time. This allows the rest to live their lives blissfully unaware of their unspeakable past. Each year all wajinru return home for the “remembering.” The historian returns this history to them, and they absorb the value of the memories before again becoming unaware when the historian re-collects the memories to hold until the next remembering.
As the novella opens, Yetu, the wajinru’s current historian, struggles with the immense pain and burden of carrying these memories alone. She is being consumed by them. Lost in the trauma of the past and unable to be her own person, Yetu wastes away slowly. During the ceremony of remembering, Yetu gives the memories to the wajinru but, unable to bear the thought of resuming their burden, she flees, leaving the wajinru to shoulder the memories alone. As the story progresses, Yetu must make an agonizing decision – will she abandon her role as historian to save herself or will she return to retake the memories, allowing the wajinru to continue their tradition of collective forgetfulness?
Afrofuturist novels can offer a corrective to the extraordinary efforts European enslavers took to ensure captive Africans and their descendants were entirely cut off from their communities, histories, and memories. In her 2006 memoir Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman argues that to be enslaved is to “lose your mother,” (your past, culture, and country). But speculative literature, in this case Afrofuturist fiction such as The Deep, can re-envision these lost stories, filling in gaps and crafting pasts for diasporic peoples whose histories have been erased. In the hands of Rivers Solomon, a tragic history rooted in kidnapping and genocide is transformed into a story of survival, collectivity, and hope.
The Deep’s wajinru can be read as a metaphor for the people of the African diaspora – descendants of the enslaved have lost their mothers; they are the wajinru. These descendants were not meant to survive, but they have. The Deep asks, what relationship should these descendants have with their history? The novel argues that although chattel slavery may have ended in the 1860s, the residue of this sordid history is still here, influencing individuals and our collective society. Solomon addresses the potential power of collectivity in a 2019 Publisher’s Weekly Interview: “The heart of the message in The Deep is to turn to and build community. Our real-life communities, especially marginalized communities, are often wounded by physical realities. It’s important not to become isolated, like Yetu does. We can bear more together and do more together.” The ramifications of chattel slavery must be addressed and processed, but, like Yetu and the wajinru, we all must shoulder the burden collectively.
Hugo, Nebula and Otherwise Award nominee and Lambda Literary Award-winning The Deep is now available in paperback, e-book, and audiobook. The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes (Saga 978-153-443987-0, $14.99, 192pp) Paperback, August 2020.
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