The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Genre: Afrofuturism; Fantasy
Content warning: depictions of violence; mild sexual content; mild sexual language
The Deep (2019, 192 pages) is a novella written by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Winner of the Lambda Literary LGBTQ Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror award, the novella is inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Digg’s (of Hamilton fame) experimental rap group clipping, which drew its inspiration from mythos created by the 90s techno-pop group Drexciya. Due to the novella’s history as a “collectively conceived narrative ” before Solomon assumed authorship, Daveed Diggs and William Hutson of clipping and Jonathon Snipes of Drexciya are credited as co-authors. Told from the third person and set in an underwater city, the novella follows the story of Yetu, a historian, and her water-dwelling people, the wajinru, or “chorus of the deep”. The wajinru are merpeople descended from pregnant African women who were thrown overboard by slavers during the Middle Passage. As the sole historian, Yetu is responsible for keeping the painful memories of the wajinru’s ancestors and helping her people relive these memories for a few days in a yearly ritual called The Remembrance: “A historian’s role was to carry the memories so other wajinru wouldn’t have to. Then, when the time came, she’d share them freely until they got their fill of knowing.”
Yetu became the wajinru’s historian at fourteen years old, but twenty years later, when the novella takes place, she is having an increasingly difficult time fulfilling her duties. Easily overwhelmed by the memories of her ancestors, Yetu barely eats, avoids others and spends most of her time reliving trauma experienced by her ancestors at the hands of two-legged surface dwellers. At the start of the novella, the reader learns that Yetu has been so overcome in the past few months that she had forgotten to host the wajinru’s most important ceremony, The Remembrance. Yetu’s dread of the Remembrance is understandable: “It required she remember and relive the wajinru’s entire history all at once […] It was a painful process [and] If she could skip it, she would, but she couldn’t.”
Three months after it was scheduled to take place, Yetu returns to the site of the Remembrance and begins the process of transferring the ancestors’ memories to her people and creating order and meaning to the memories: “Through Yetu’s machinations, the wajinru experienced the rememberings like they were living out their own memories. They were the ancestors. Piece by piece, Yetu showed them their past, filled them with it. Soon, she’d give them all of it. It would be theirs, and she would be free from it, for a little while.” When Yetu is free from the memories of her ancestors, she begins to dread the moment when all these memories will be returned to her, while the wajinru can go back to forgetting: “To let the wajinru put the rememberings back inside her would be to commit suicide.” So Yetu makes the fateful decision to flee, leaving her people “trapped in the memories with no one in the wings to relieve them of the burden.” The remainder of the novella follows Yetu as she travels to a faraway land and becomes friends with a two-legged surface dweller named Oora.
For a book of only 175 pages, The Deep manages to address many complex themes such as individual versus the common good, duty and sacrifice, vengeance and forgiveness and tradition versus progress. Torn between what she owes her people as their sole historian and her mental health, Yetu comes across as a relatable, albeit selfish, protagonist. Typically, I don’t like when authors use fantasy when explaining painful historical events because as reviewers Gary Wolfe and Ian Mond point out, it “risks turning historical outrage into comforting myth.” However, I find that I didn’t mind the way Solomon dealt with such a sensitive and emotionally taxing topic because of the way she carefully described the mental and physical trauma that Yetu experiences from carrying around these memories. Through Yetu’s pain, the reader is able to begin to understand the ways in which Black people try to cope with our shared traumatic history and the effect that continued racial trauma has on Black mental health. You can read more about the effect of historic and contemporary racial trauma on Black mental health, also referred to as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), here, here and here.
I read The Deep for my book club and so I benefitted from lively discussion about the book with other book club members. One book club member pointed out that The Deep reminded her of how most Black Americans learn about their own history, which is through African American history classes in college taught primarily by Black historians. To her, The Deep is an allegory for how Black American history is treated because unless you take a college class, or do your own research, you will be ignorant of most of the historic trauma that Black Americans have suffered. As an aside, John Oliver did an excellent segment on Last Week Tonight on this topic that you can watch here. I loved this explanation for the book because prior to the book club discussion, I thought it was far-fetched that a people wouldn’t know their history and would have to rely on specially trained experts to teach them. Then I realized that I was looking at this book through my lens as a Jamaican, who did K-12 on the island, where we are taught about slavery and colonization in depth, so after thinking about The Deep as an allegory for Black American history, I appreciated the book a lot more.
Also, I liked how the novel dealt with interspecies relations through the relationship that developed between Yetu and Oora. After she leaves the Remembrance, Yetu finds herself stuck in a tidal pool and has to rely on Oora to provide her with food. As the friendship between Yetu and Oora grows, Yetu learns that perhaps it is possible for the wajinru and surface dwellers to get along and that not all surface dwellers are enslavers. Nevertheless, this revelation is tempered by the fact that: “Below us, deep beneath the sand, there is a substance they crave. It is their life force. They feast on it like blood.” Basically, although not all surface dwellers are dangerous, the ones that are, still pose an existential threat to the wajinru.
However, there were a few things that I didn’t like about the book. For instance, I thought the book fell flat after Yetu becomes trapped in the tidal pool because she spends most of the remainder of the book in the pool. Also, it isn’t clear how Yetu is able to breathe air after she becomes trapped in this pool. Another thing that I thought was odd was the swift evolution of Yetu and Oora’s relationship from friendship to a romantic one. I thought the romance was contrived and while it is understandable why Yetu would be attracted to Oora, the person who saved her life, it is unclear why Oora would be interested in selfish Yetu.
The Deep is similar to N.K. Jemisin’s Afrofuturist short story Cuisine des Mémoires from her book How Long ‘til Black Future Month that I first heard on the short fiction podcast LeVar Burton Reads. The Cuisine des Mémoires is about a restaurant that offers diners the experience of re-living events from their past through food. Although The Deep and Cuisine des Mémoires deal with different types of history, the former is about merpeople descended from enslaved Africans and the latter is about lost love, both books center on the theme of how memory and remembering can cast a long shadow on the lives of those who are unable or unwilling to escape the past. Nevertheless, I think those who like Cuisine des Mémoires will also enjoy The Deep.
Overall, I liked this book and give it three and a half out of five stars. Solomon was able to tell a very interesting and thought-provoking story in a few pages but precisely due to its short format, some plot points, like the romance between Yetu and Oora were not fleshed out enough. At the same time, other plot points, like Yetu getting trapped in the tidal pool, lasted far longer than it should have.