Atmospheric and thought provoking. That’s my short analysis of The Deep by Rivers Solomon (with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes). The Deep will make you ponder what it means to be a people, the importance of history, and the roles individuals play within a society.
“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.
Inspired by a song produced by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future,” The Deep is vividly original and uniquely affecting.” – Goodreads blurb
I read The Deep as part of my project to read the Nebula and Hugo award nominees for best Novella. It had already been on my radar due to some other reviews I’d read but the awards were the catalyst for me reading it now.
At the outset I’d like to take a moment to commend Rivers Solomon for writing this book that is itself a shared work with others. Specifically a rap song from the group Clipping that itself was based upon the work of Drexciya. Authors often enter into shared worlds with other authors, but this is something different as it takes music and lyrics and creates a more in-depth story out of it. But it works. Like the role of the historian in the novella, Solomon takes the shared history and story and retells it for another audience.
“What does it mean to be born of the dead?”
The concept for this book is nothing short of heartbreaking on multiple levels. The people of the story, the Wajinru are descendants of slaves tossed over board to die during the crossing of the Atlantic slave trade. Pregnant mothers who gave birth as they drowned in the crushing deep of the ocean. As this people grows in number and comes together a role emerges, that of the historian, who is responsible for keeping the memories and stories of the people and their origins. The historian takes on all those memories with all of their pain and suffering, allowing the others to forget for a time. Once a year the historian shares those memories with the other Wajinru for a few days allowing them to remember who they are before taking them back and going in search of more. The historian passes this role down to one other before they die. And the cycle continues. It’s a story filled with pain and suffering, and with it abuse.
Solomon’s prose is atmospheric. Their writing brings to mind the ocean with its deep water pressure and powerful currents. From the way the Wajinru swim and move about their world to the way the communicate is bounded and determined by the underwater world they live in. Solomon’s writing reflects this and makes the reader feel it. Likewise the pain and suffering of the Wajinru and specifically Yetu the historian is also reflected in the weaving of the prose and the way it is presented. This was one of the highlights of the book for me.
But the biggest highlight is the thought provoking nature of the entire story. It forces the reader to think about what it means to be a people. It asks questions of the importance of history and tradition, community and family, memory and identity, and one’s role in society. And it takes on greater significance when all of these factors and questions are based upon an origin born through pain and suffering. All of these are explored in the few short pages of this novella and make it a rich and deeply meaningful read that offers itself as a window into the soul and identity of people today.
“One can only go for so long without asking who am I? Where do I come from? What does all this mean? What is being? What came before me, and what might come after.”
It also explores themes of abuse. This is a multi-leveled theme as well. There’s the abuse and suffering of the Wajinru and their ancestors at the broader level. Then there is the abuse and suffering of Yetu who has to hold on to all the painful memories day in and day out while everyone else can go about their lives in relative ignorance for most of the year. The weight of that knowledge bears down on Yetu in ways even more harshly than the pressure of the deep ocean to the point where she can’t take it anymore and tries to escape. Yetu’s people’s survival is reliant upon her suffering. When she tries to break free of it the Wajinru’s survival as well as the survival of humans above the surface of the ocean becomes tenuous and is fraught with danger. It is a form of mental, and emotional, and perhaps even physical abuse (in that it manifests in physical ways) that demands the reader look inward and explore the ways in which this abuse and its consequences exist in our world, and our society today.
While I was drawn to the prose and the thematic nature of The Deep I was less enthralled with it’s meandering structure. I felt while reading that much of the story didn’t go anywhere or that it was going in circles. As I’ve sat with this (I finished the book a couple weeks ago) I’ve wondered if perhaps that this was on purpose, that much like the currents of the deep the story would ebb and flow, twist and turn, before finally reaching its end. And maybe that’s the case, but it didn’t work for me personally. I kept feeling like the narrative wasn’t getting to where I could see it was going. I also felt let down by the climax. Their was this build up of pressure that seemed to be released with something of a whimper and the closing of the story while nice and perhaps comforting felt wanting.
I enjoyed The Deep and would recommend it to everyone. It’s exploration of the themes I noted above and their impact on identity as a whole (fictional and in reality) is what sets it apart from other reads I’ve sat with lately. My personal feelings on the structure and climax are just those…mine…and others will undoubtedly feel differently.
3.5 of 5 Stars
Author: Rivers Solomon
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
Format: Kindle Hardcover