It’s no surprise to me that we often call history a burden. The terrible actions of our past—either our own or our ancestors’—seem to have an actual weight. The protagonist of The Deep, by Rivers Solomon (based on a group idea as the afterword explains) carries her people’s past in a very literal way: her brain remembers generations of memories. These memories crowd out her own experiences and often cause physical and emotional pain. At the beginning of the novella, Yetu is desperate to put her burden down.
The wajinru, a magical aquatic people, have a yearly ritual in which Yetu shares that entire history with them. The ritual reminds them who they are and where they came from, because they tend to forget without their Historian to serve as a living archive. These memories remind the wajinru that they are the children of pregnant, enslaved African women who were thrown overboard as they were transported to the Caribbean and America. Their infants, born in the ocean, were transformed to survive under water.
Because there is a real chance that these memories could kill Yetu, as soon as she has shared the memories during the yearly ritual, she leaves. A storm leaves her stranded and injured in a tidal pool. There she meets a woman who is the last of her people, who would give anything to preserve their history before it is lost forever. Yetu has to decide if she will go back to the wajinru and rescue them from their history…or if she will strike out on her own.
The Deep, being a novella, is incredibly brief. The amazing worldbuilding has plenty of hints about a wider world—one that I wish I could know more about. The wajinru in particular are a wonderful subject for stories. Like the people of Winter in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin, gender is not really an issue for the wajinru. They can be either male or female for the purposes of reproduction; they use gendered pronouns, but it seems to be a matter of personal preference. They can also have a collective identity, one that makes Yetu’s dilemma carry a lot of emotional weight (on top of her burden as Historian).
The best part of The Deep, at least for me, are the questions and ideas it brings up. The spare writing felt almost like folk lore. Details are often ignored to keep the plot moving. This may annoy people, but the questions at the heart of this novella are really important. Can we find a middle path between treating our history as a terrible burden or as something sacred? Can we learn to see our history as a tool for becoming something better? Can we learn to remember the good as much as the bad? (And vice versa for the people who tend to gloss over the hard parts.) I’m looking forward to reading the reviews of this book, to see what other readers and critics think.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.