Rivers Solomon’s Hugo-nominated novella The Deep (their second book, following the publication of The Unkindness of Ghosts in 2017) has a strong interest in, and links with, oral modes of storytelling and history-making. Its most direct influence is a hip-hop song, “The Deep”, by experimental band clipping. (whose members are listed as co-authors of the novella), which was itself inspired by the work of electronic music band Drexciya. Its dreamy, slightly unfocused narration calls to mind the rhythms of oral storytelling, embarking as it often does on digressions that tell parts of a story, snippets of background information that weave together into a rich and impressionistic tapestry. The society the novella depicts has no writing, no way of recording information – it relies on a single Historian to hold its collective memory, sharing it once a year in a process at once traumatic and necessary.
For the history that the wajinru, the merpeople that The Deep centres on, remember is one of slavery: they’re descended from the children of pregnant women flung overboard by slaveship crews sailing the Middle Passage. The novella follows their Historian, Yetu, as she struggles to bear the weight of this history alone, seeking to chart a path between her responsibility to the wajinru, which threatens to overwhelm her, and her need for self-actualisation, which threatens the continued survival of the wajinru’s culture and traditions.
So the novella’s interest in oral storytelling is plainly linked to African-American storytelling traditions – the spoken (or sung) word often being the only method Black slaves had of passing down their history and culture. It’s through this lens that Solomon looks at questions about memorialising generational trauma. The wajinru choose to lay the burden of memory upon one Historian because they feel it’s too traumatic for them to bear as a culture. Through Yetu’s abandonment of the wajinru in the midst of their yearly ceremony of remembrance, when collective grief has them at their most vulnerable, the novella explores the ramifications and ethics of such a decision. When your cultural identity is partly shaped by trauma, how do you balance the need to remember the past, to pass on your history, with the need to move on, to live in the present and not be consumed by grief?
The Deep is also very good on LGBT+ representation: all the wajinru are intersex and choose their genders, and queer relationships are basically non-remarkable. (Solomon themself is non-binary.) In many ways, wajinru society is idyllic – if you don’t happen to be the Historian, that is – in a way that only emphasises the disproportionality of the burden that’s put on Yetu, the dysfunction of the way their culture deals with memory.
Solomon doesn’t present conclusive solutions to that dysfunction, but Yetu’s romance with human woman Oori, as well as the novella’s continuation of a shared universe begun by other artists, suggests that the way forward must be collective, must involve a sharing of responsibility. It’ll be interesting to see what – if anything – happens next in this shared universe; what future artists will choose to build on the foundations Solomon’s erected.