On my TBR is The Deep. No author, but it’s in with the 2019 stuff, so I wasn’t worried about finding it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there were actually two books titled The Deep published in 2019 and both look like something I’d put on my TBR list. Since I couldn’t remember which one I meant to write down and I wanted to read both of them, I’m requiring just that to cross this title off the list. Poor me.
Rather than trying to shove them both into one post, I’ll be making this a special The Deep two-parter. Two vastly different books, two weeks, one weirdly popular title.
First up is Rivers Solomon’s The Deep. What looks on its face to be an atmospheric tale about mermaids quickly turns into a rumination of memory and loss of life and culture and history.
The story is based on a song by the same name (starting to feel a little reductive here, guys) by clipping, which itself was based on Afrofuturist mythology developed by Drexciya based on historical events. Still with me? Good. So in this telephone-game of inspiration, we meet Yetu, a mermaid who wants to be a normal mermaid but she can’t because she has been entrusted with the whole history of her mermaid community. Through a mystical mermaid-y process that involves putting one’s fins over another mermaid’s head to essentially copy their memories (even if they’re dead), the mermaids’ Historians, as they are called, have crystal-clear memories of the whole of their existence—all the way back to when the first of their kind were born to pregnant mothers who jumped or were pushed overboard slave ships during the Atlantic crossing.
It is this painful history that predominantly drives the mermaids to elect a single Historian to keep that knowledge alive and yet protected so the rest of them don’t have to bear that heavy burden. But that burden is crushing Yetu. She wants to be her own person and to be free of the voices and the pain. Her desperation drives her to first attempt suicide by wounding herself and swimming to a shark-infested area, and later to flee her home during the annual ritual in which she offloads her memories onto the rest of the mermaids so they, too, can briefly remember.
As her friends and family writhe in the agony of that which she has to endure all day every day, Yetu relishes in her newfound freedom—even if the lack of memories leaves her feeling less liberated and more lonely than she anticipated. She winds up in a large tidepool, tired and spent and dependent on the kindness of the humans who discover her to recuperate. In talking with humans, and one in particular, she comes to understand the gift her lifelong burden truly is in comparison to the loss of forgetting one’s heritage.
This book is unapologetically about the cost of the history and culture lost in the slave trade, both through the stripped-away identity that accompanied subjugation and the lives lost en route to plantations. It does this well. It takes that loss out of the abstract and shows the specific hurt it causes to a people and the community around them as the years progress.
I’ve talked a bit about books “being written for me” or “not being written for me,” by which I mean that I may or may not have the experience, personality, history, or any number of other factors to resonate precisely with a story. I don’t think that’s bad or avoidable; there is no such thing as a book that resonates with everyone, let alone in the same way. And I’ve always looked at books as a way of discovering other people and other lives and other experiences, real or imagined, literal or figurative. I’m white and have had relatives enthusiastically map out my family’s lineage over a thousand years in some cases, so in that specific respect this book was not written for me—at least, not in the sense that I would connect with it on that empathetic level. But on another level, on a level of gaining understanding and contextualizing a loss that I have had to think very little about in my life, this book was written exactly for me and for others like me. This is a book to help me see the world more empathetically, to help me think more deeply about the experiences of others.
On yet another level, I think this book can resonate personally with those of us fortunate enough to know where we came from, even if that knowledge is limited to names and dates on a family tree. Because even if we have those names and dates, that information is often rendered meaningless by the years and the generations. My history wasn’t stolen from me but I’ve lost it in another way. I know where I came from, but what do I know about what life was like there? What do I know about who the people were who lived there and how I’ve been influenced by the pain and the joy they experienced? Do I know the songs they sang? Do I know the things they hoped for? Do I know what was most meaningful to them? And since the answer to all of these questions is no, do I really know where I came from?
This is a question The Deep asks, too, and one Yetu has to answer for herself because despite knowing the entire history over those centuries upon centuries, she doesn’t know how to hold that information in a way that’s bearable. She doesn’t know how to use that information as anything but a millstone around her neck. And as she flees, and then considers her actions, we learn, too, how to better hold the pain and the joy of the past. And that is a message that can resonate with just about everyone.