by Rivers Solomon,
with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, & Jonathan Snipes
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 2, 2019
Rivers Solomon's new novella The Deep will be released in a little over a month, November 5. I received an e-ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I was also lucky in winning a print ARC through Goodreads, but I passed that on to another blogger since I had already pre-ordered the hardcover. I can whole-heartedly recommend this. The afterword by the hip hop group Clipping (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes) says that editor Navah Wolfe described this as a form of literary telephone. You know, the game where someone whispers something into another person's ear, then it goes around the room, with the last person saying something totally unrelated to the original phrase. Clipping had been nominated for a Hugo two years in a row in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category. Last year it was for their short musical composition The Deep, originally produced for a This American Life podcast segment entitled "We Are in the Future." But that was not the beginning. They were inspired by the Detroit electronic-techno group Drexciya, who had a succession of songs about an afrofuturistic underwater kingdom. What the afterword doesn't mention is that Drexciya were building on ideas presented in Paul Gilroy's non-fiction book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Drexciya's work was mostly instrumental, with occasional dialog, Clipping's is more in a narrative vein. Rivers met the members of Clipping at last year's WorldCon, and through discussion of their song and inspirations, they decided to expand on the idea of the underwater world. However, the implication is that this might not be the last iteration of the concept.
When a human embryo is gestating inside its mother's womb, it resides in a dark, liquid world, gaining sustenance through the placenta and umbilical cord. It doesn't breathe air into the lungs until after birth. What if the birth occurs underwater, with no chance for the baby to rise to the surface? Could it survive breathing water as a fish does? That's the basis of the premise. Babies born in the water after their pregnant mothers were thrown overboard by slave traders who didn't want to be burdened with the sickly women. Generations later these beings call themselves wajinru, the chorus of the deep. One in each generation is designated an Historian, the repository of wajinru knowledge, with a yearly ritual known as the Remembrance where the Historian gives back to the group their collective history. It is a way for them to maintain a cohesive bond as a people, but the Remembrance is short-lived for all but the Historian, they quickly lose those memories and go about their daily lives of hunting for sustenance. Yet the burden of the memories is forever with the Historian. Most have been able to handle it, but the current Historian, Yetu, is finding it difficult to cope. She is forever lost in those memories, sometimes going hours or even days between periods of being aware of the physical world around her. She is so unaware of her surroundings she puts herself in danger by wandering into shark infested waters. She is rescued by her mother, her amaba, who came looking for her because Yetu was three months behind schedule for the annual Remembrance.
Can Yetu survive as the Historian? Can she last long enough to train her replacement? That is difficult since she finds it extremely uncomfortable being in close proximity with other wajinru, constantly bombarded with new memories to absorb. There are flashbacks to earlier times, of how whales nurtured newly birthed wajinru until they were able to fend for themselves; an encounter with a "Two-Legs" who imparts knowledge of languange to a wajinru it names Zoti Aleyu, "strange fish." Zoti becomes the first Historian. There are also memories of Yetu's youth, as she wonders what her life would have been like if she had not been chosen Historian. She has to grapple with the idea that the History is too overwhelming for her, that it might be best for wajinru to forget the past and just concentrate on the future. Can Yetu survive on her own, disregarding the memories? She goes through a long period of soul-searching, both encouraged and frustrated by chance enounters with other Two-Legs. She forms a close bond with one of them, someone else suffering from trauma, the loss of their family and homeland. The story is full of pain and heartache, but also hope and compassion. History is important, but it must be shared all the time, not just sporadically. It should be used to inform the present and future, not bind a people to their past. And everyone must share the burden. Don't miss this book. I'm certain you'll be seeing it on many award ballots next year.
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