Fiction, Reviews

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

Pictured: the book cover on a smartphone screen, sitting in a bed of seashells in front of a grey, textured background.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

You say madness such as mine doesn’t exist, but it would exist in you, too, if you had to experience the ugly things I do all the time.

**There are minor spoilers in the “Content Warnings” and “Review” portions of this post**

Published: November 2019
Genre: Fantasy
Representation: Black People of Colour (BIPOC), Neurodivergent, Non-Binary (LGBT+), Women Who Love Women (WLW) (LGBT+), Men Who Love Men (MLM) (LGBT+)
Content Warning: Murder, death, trauma, descriptions of slavery from the past, self harm, attempted suicide, suicidal ideation, PTSD, depictions of blood, discussions of genocide and erasure, cultural and intergenerational trauma, drowning, mention of war

Summary

The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society—and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future in this brilliantly imaginative novella inspired by the Hugo Award nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’ rap group Clipping.

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

— taken from Goodreads

Review

Written by Rivers Solomon (they/them), The Deep is a creative collaboration between them and the members of experimental hip hop group clipping., made up of Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes. As mentioned in the summary, the premise of this book centres around a species of merpeople called “wajinru,” who are descendants of the pregnant black women who were thrown overboard by white slave owners. This book is so powerful and poignant, as it highlights intergenerational trauma, colonial injustices, and white supremacist violence. It captures a culture built from the pain and suffering of black folks and weaves a fascinating story following an important socio-political figure within the wajinru. Yetu, the current Historian of the wajinru, runs from the consuming pain she experiences from the burden of being the sole keeper of generations of her peoples’ memories, which threaten to swallow her up or kill her. The book features dark themes but is simultaneously filled with light and hope. 

Their story took one of the most gruesome details of the Atlantic Slave Trade and reframed it. The murder of enslaved women was reimagined as an escape from murderous oppression, and the founding of a utopian civilization.

– clipping.; “The Deep,” afterword.

As you read the book, the reality weighs on you. Yes, Solomon builds a utopian world under the sea, but it’s utopian with an asterisk. It’s a utopia because one person, the Historian, is chosen from every generation to carry the burdens of the entire race so that no one but them has to suffer from the pain of the trauma passed down from the beginning of their conception. It allows everyone but the Historian to live happily, to remain pain-free, and only live with the memories of their day-to-day. And once a year, the Historian gets to relieve their burden to the rest of the people temporarily, only to reabsorb it after a short period of time. It is all a way to protect the people, keeping them ignorant so that they may live in peace. Plainly speaking, the trauma experienced by their ancestors was deemed to difficult for anyone to bear without facing immense suffering; and so, it is thrust upon only one person per generation.  But as great as it sounds in theory, the reality is that they are sacrificing one person’s mental and physical wellbeing for the sake of the whole race. And this is not practical. It does not work. The Deep explores this in an excruciatingly honest way. It is as incredible, unique, and brilliantly written as it is absolutely devastating and heart-wrenching. Rivers Solomon is a master writer.

The main character, Yetu, is entirely relatable in many aspects. She feels the immense weight of the burden she carries, and she reasonably questions the validity and fairness of her duty to her people. Through her musings, she admonishes herself for seeking freedom and convinces herself that she is selfish and treacherous. The guilt weighs on her throughout the book. As a reader, processing Yetu’s experience, you begin to truly wonder how it is that no other wajinru has defected before. You can’t help but marvel at Yetu’s bravery and attempt to do better for herself, while simultaneously feeling uncomfortable with the fact that her actions plunged her people into chaos. Rivers Solomon plays this line incredibly well. It’s impossible not to both sympathize, and worry about the correctness in what has happened. 

The way the book progresses is fascinating to say the least. You follow Yetu as she recovers from years of suffering (as well as the physical injuries she has sustained from being lost in the memories and trauma), but you also experience some of the happenings of the past generations of wajinru including the difficult and hard-to-swallow parts. You start to understand why the wajinru are the way that they are, and can respect their reasons while also disagreeing with them. Both aspects of the book are masterfully written so as to keep you invested in both Yetu and the wajinru as a whole. 

Yetu meets humans who treat her with compassion, and develops deep, caring feelings for her, which are at odds with some of the memories Yetu used to carry about the cruelty that humans are capable of. You see the ocean through the wajinru’s eyes; a beautiful oasis full of a community of creatures that nurture each other and creates life. This book is truly an experience. The ending is beautiful and fitting, if not a little bizarre (but it is so sweet, so it can be forgiven). The characters are unique and multifaceted. And there is a strange karmic element that makes you wish that the wajinru were real, if only to have a complicated, but nonetheless beautiful legacy born out of horrific colonial practices. 

You lived. You did what you needed to do to make sure you lived. Our survival honors [sic] ancestors more than any tradition.

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