The Deep is a novel inspired by a song by the rappers known as clipping (Diggs, Hutson and Snipes). It is the story of Yetu, a 34-year-old wajinru (mer-person) who serves as her people’s historian, and of the burden that this vocation entails. It is also the story of the enslaved people of the Americas and of the trauma handed down through generations.
The sea-dwelling people known as wajinru were born from a traumatic experience: their foremothers were land-dwelling women who had been enslaved and put on ships to the Americas; pregnant women thrown overboard (due to illness or other reasons) died in the ocean but their children born in the water adapted to the watery conditions and survived. These children grew up not knowing their family, their past, their history. Nurtured by whales, they eventually found each other and formed their own communities. In the wajinru community, one person is chosen to be the “historian,” a position that is highly respected but also a tremendous burden. The historian, through some sort of electric/telepathic means, acquires knowledge of the wajinru’s entire history; this person sees/knows/feels everything that every member of the community has felt throughout all time, including their origins ~ the drowning deaths of the mothers. One of the first founding members of the wajinru decided that only one person, the historian, should carry the burden of knowing the history because the knowledge amongst the masses, unprepared to handle it, could lead to horrendous storms and the destruction of the entire earth. Once per year, the wajinru hold a “remembrance,” in which the community comes together and briefly shares in the knowledge of their history. For a few days they suffer from knowing the horrors of their past, but then they hand the memories back to the historian and forget until the next remembering. Yetu, when we meet her, has served as historian for 20 years, and the burden is literally killing her. She remembers everything, every tragedy, all the time and cannot escape this knowledge. Yetu is torn between service to her community (and preserving the safety of the world) and a desire to save herself. As she struggles with this conflict, she comes into contact with land-dwellers, in particular a woman named Oori, who will influence her thinking and help her determine what she needs to do for herself and for the wajinru.
I reviewed Rivers Solomon’s first novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, for CBR9 and thought it was excellent. That experience combined with finding a story related to mer-people and matters related to race/history drew me to this novel. I was not disappointed. Solomon is a master at creating off-land worlds and addressing matters of race and injustice through strong female characters. Solomon also skillfully depicts the impact of trauma upon mental health over generations — depression, anger, thoughts of suicide, and so on. The Deep is a fascinating fantasy novel that also serves as an allegory for the continued trauma endured by the descendants of enslaved people in the US.