How a Hugo-Nominated Song Inspired a Book by a Campbell Award Nominee

Magic can happen at the World Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention. Not literal magic, perhaps—though if you have evidence to the contrary, please let us know—but certainly of the literary variety. As the convention that hosts the Hugo Awards, one of the most storied honors in genre writing, WorldCon attracts hundreds of writers, publishers, editors, and agents every year, meaning there is ample opportunity for interested parties to meet, discuss, and birth new and fantastic creative projects into the world.

An unusual example resulted from WorldCon 75, which took place last year in Helsinki, Finland. Navah Wolfe, a Hugo-nominated editor for Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press, happened to be on the same flight with Tony and Grammy-winning actor and musician Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton fame, her fellow Hugo nominee as part of the band Clipping, which also includes William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes; their album Splendor & Misery was nominated for Best Related Work. Conversations that began on that flight and at the convention led to a partnership that will soon result in a novel and a companion album, both rooted in the resurgent Afrofuturism movement.

The project grew out of the band’s song “The Deep” (which is also up for an award at this year’s Hugos, taking place this weekend in San José). The song, which premiered as part of an episode of the radio series and podcast This American Life focused on the history and future of Afrofuturism, tells the story of a world where the aquatic-dwelling descendants of African slaves have created a new society underwater and must reclaim their collective memories of the past.

I listened to ‘The Deep’ for the first time on my way home from [WorldCon 75],” Wolfe said. “I remember standing in the airport, waiting to board my plane, riveted by the song. That was when I first had the glimmering of an idea to approach Clipping to do more with the [it], but it took a few more months to find the perfect writer and pull the whole thing together.”

The right writer was Campbell Award-nominee Rivers Solomon, who earned significant acclaim for their 2017 Afrofuturist novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, set on a generation ship where society has reverted to a class system that reflects old prejudices and patriarchal ideas. They have transformed “The Deep” into a full-length novel of the same name, publishing next year.

“I knew there were stories in [this song],” Wolfe said. “It’s such a dense five-and-a-half minutes of rap, full of ideas and raw emotion… gorgeous and harrowing and powerful. I wanted to help bring those stories to the surface. When I reached out to Clipping to explore making this project a reality, I knew we needed the right writer—someone who could capture the pain and the beauty of the song. I read An Unkindness of Ghosts and instantly knew this was the voice I had been hoping to find. Rivers’ writing is raw, emotional and beautiful, and I knew they could do justice to this project. And they have—the book they’ve written is everything I was hoping it would be.” 

Here is more on the novel from the publisher:

The Deep is the story of Yetu, who holds the memories for her people—the water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slavers. Her people live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save her. But the memories—painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous—are destroying her, so she flees to the surface, to escape the memories and the expectations and the responsibilities, and discovers a world her people left behind long ago. She 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.

Though the novel is based on the song, Solomon and Clipping didn’t collaborate directly. Rather, the song inspired the novel, and the group joined in at the editorial stage, reading every draft and offering feedback. In turn, Solomon’s novel inspired the creation of new music by Clipping, which will be released on vinyl around the same time as the book.

Wolfe likens the project to a game of telephone—one story moving and changing as it transitioned from song, to book, to more music. “Working to bring [these] enormous talents into conversation with each other to make this book a reality has been an extraordinary treat,” she said.

“[The song] is a fantastic feat of storytelling, wordplay, and literary prowess,” Solomon said. “It’s been such an honor to be a part of transposing this powerful work into written medium—tackling familiar themes of mine (diaspora, collective memory, trauma), while using the vision of other artists as a springboard. How does one begin to capture the poetry of the lyrics, the surreality of the sound effects, and the musicality of the changing tempos? As a writer, you dream of taking on a challenge like this.”

“I’m thrilled that Rivers Solomon heard enough in ‘The Deep’ to use it as a skeleton for such a beautiful and thrilling book,” said Daveed Diggs, speaking for Clipping in a press release. “I’ve always thought that ‘good art’ begets ‘good art,’ so reading what Rivers created felt like receiving the greatest of compliments. I can’t wait for people to read it.”

They’ll get their chance next summer: The Deep will be released in June 2019.

 

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