The Deep – by Rivers Solomon

After the beautiful and harrowing experience that was reading An Unkindness Of Ghosts, I was determined to read everything by Rivers Solomon, sooner or later. So when The Deep was selected as a subject by one of the online discussion groups I occasionally hang out with, I decided that the time had come.

Title: The Deep

Author: Rivers Solomon – with: Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press

Publication Date: 5 November 2019

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 166

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: The wajinru are a group of deep-sea merfolk, originated from thousands of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships; the women drowned, but their babies survived by mutating into their current water-breathing form. Under the sea they have built their own idyllic society, where a single person – called the Historian – bear the burned of all their painful memories, allowing others to live a blissful life, except for an annual ceremony when said memories are shared once again. At the time of our story, young wajinru Yetu has been chosen for the role of Historian, but she struggles with her task and is especially reluctant to let go of her own personality and desires, as her duty should require. Thus, she flees from her community, ending up on the surface, where she finds out she can somehow breath air; there she meets some of the dreaded two-legs, finding out that not all of them are ruthless slave trader; in particular she bonds with Oori, herself the sole survivor of a different tragedy. However, other surface-dwellers are still a threat to the wajinru, since oil companies are now determined to exploit the ocean bed where they live.

Analysis: First of all, it’s worth mentioning the peculiar background behind the writing of The Deep: the book is in fact inspired to the homonymous song by hip-hop group Clipping, originally commissioned by Chicago Public Radio for a special episode on Afrofuturism. According to the group, their song is an homage to Acid/Techno duo Drexciya and to the mythological universe created for their music, which refers to a underwater utopia founded by African mothers thrown overboard from slave ships. The concept was later developed into an album which led to a Hugo Award nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation. Saga Press senior editor Navah Wolfe became so fascinated by it that she set out to find an author who could further develop its concepts; already interested in similar themes and with a penchant for bringing unique characters to life, Rivers Solomon was surely the perfect match for the project.

As for the book itself – The Deep is a short novella written in a very distinctive style. As the wajinru live in the dark oceanic depths, a sizeable part of the story lacks any visual description, instead relying on other sensory inputs; moreover, the book switches between the third-person narration of the main plot, with the first person plural of the wajinru’s historical memory, where individual experiences blend together and ancient pain is never forgotten. The result is unique, lyrical, and very effective in evoking an experience that’s both removed from our own and nevertheless emotionally powerful.

The plot in itself is is quite simple, as the focus is actually on themes and characters. Here Solomon deals once again with the horror of slavery, this time seen through the lenses of a distant memory – one that is, at once, essential to preserve and intolerable to bear. The theme of remembrance is portrayed at first through the depiction of wajinru society, that descends directly from the victims of the slave trade and has found a magical way to both protect and elude their history; later on, Oori lets us see a different side of the issue, because while Yetu can’t bear the pain of her memories, that she sees as challenging her own individuality, her human companion is on the other hand anguished by the loss of her own history – which is another thinly veiled refernece to the condition of African slaves and their descendants, whose ancestral memories have been severed off and erased.

In more than one ways Yetu and Oori are two faces of the same coin. Not only they are in different ways bound to carry the memory of their people – Yetu as a Historian, Oori as a last survivor – they also stand out even among their own peers, as they both perceive the world differently, which makes it harder for others to relate to their experience. Both are portrayed as neurodivergent characters, although each in a different way: Yetu appears to be hypersensitive and easily overwhelmed, while Oori comes across as blunt and unsociable. Anyway, despite hailing from different world, they find it easier to connect with each other than with anyone else, unashamedly trying to build their own language of love.

Conclusions & Recommendations: I loved this novella for how it weaved together lyricism and important themes, painful awareness and glimpses of hope. It must be said, it has more vibes than plot, which I think is absolutely fine for such a short novella, however I get it might be not everyone’s cup of tea. On the other hand, if you like poetic and insightful writing in its own right, this is what you are looking for.

Content Warning: Slavery – Death – Grief – Suicidal thoughts – Violence

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