The Deep, the new novella by Campbell Award-nominated author Rivers Solomon (An Unkindness of Ghosts), is actually the third iteration of artistic works based on a singularly provocative premise: what if the children of pregnant African women thrown overboard to drown during the slave trade transformed into water-breathers, and build a whole society in the deep ocean?
The band clipping. (made up of Hamilton’s Tony-winning Thomas Jefferson Daveed Diggs and producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes) saw tantalizing glimpses of this world in the largely instrumental music of a Detroit techno duo called Drexciya. So taken with the idea of a utopian underwater civilization populated by the descendants of enslaved Africans, they produced the Hugo-nominated song also titled “The Deep,” a six-minute, textually complex aural epic that tells the story of the Deep’s rising after their kingdom is bombed due to oil prospecting by the surface dwellers. The song was featured in an episode of the radio program This American Life and later attracted the attention of Navah Wolfe, formerly an editor with the science fiction publisher Saga Press, who worked with the band and Rivers Solomon to reimagined the song as a novel. Like the song, Solomon packs a lot into a slender package, giving new voice to the story of people borne out of the horrors of the Middle Passage.
Yetu is a historian of the water-dwelling wajinru. Historians like her have been collecting memories since the time the first mothers—the two-legs who died as their children were born into the deep. This is an act performed by a sort of touch-transfer by those electro-sensitive enough to hold the memories and share them. The existence of a historian like Yetu allows the wajinru to live without the burden of memory; it is also killing her. As the book opens, Yetu is drifting in dangerous waters, lost in remembering. Her mother, Amaba, rescues her, chiding her for her thoughtlessness. But Yetu isn’t thoughtless; she is so full of thought she feels like she’s been emptied of herself. When she tries to explain, telling stories of their people’s past, her mother finds her incomprehensible: her mother cannot understand because she, herself, has no memory.
The role of the historian didn’t sit so heavily on Yetu’s predecessors, but the way her electro-sensitivity is described makes me think she’s neurodiverse from many of her people. She is hurting, in part, because of the way things are done, ways that don’t necessarily account for the divergent. Holding the memories of her entire people is overwhelming. At an annual ritual where Yetu shares her memories in a kind of communion, letting the wajinru live and feel their history for the length of the ceremony, she runs away before taking the memories back. The wajinru are left circling inside a protective structure known as the Womb, lost in the very memories that so overburdened their historian.
The image of the womb is fitting. The very first wajinru were born into the primordial ocean—born breathing water just as they did in the womb. When Yetu leaves her people, they are gestating in another way: lost in reverie while their historian breaches the surface the water, her leave taking invoking a kind of deliverance. As the holder of the wajinru’s memory, Yetu’s search for herself in the wider ocean and on the edges of the land is a search for the wajinru themselves. Yetu’s experiences after leaving her people are intercut with stories of the wajinru—both their bleak origins, which left motherless children alone in the fathomless deep, and the story of how they came together to build a new kind of existence. Their history may begin in horror, but their stories encompass love and power too. The parallel with the real world history of the descendants of enslaved Africans is unmistakeable, and will be as resonant to some readers as it is discomfiting to others.
After excising the paradoxical emptiness of remembering everything, Yetu slowly, carefully begins to heal in mind and spirit. She washes up in a tidal pool and makes tenuous acquaintance with several two-legs. Her most vital relationship is with Oori, a taciturn old salt who is, in similarly heartbreaking ways, also the keeper of her people’s memory. When the time comes to leave the tide pool, it is another kind of birth. Their last interaction in the story brought tears to my eyes, and not of sadness. Solomon has a knack for creating tremulous moments of connection that are searing in their fragility; the ending of their debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, is similarly emotional.
The Deep is about the impossible weight of memory, a burden that must be shared to be borne. It is beautiful and terrible and vital, a story that comes from the very depths of of our rough history, transforming as it surfaces and then returns. What was thrown down can rise up.