Book Reviews Reviews

The Black Oceanic Imagination in Rivers Solomon’s “The Deep”

by Aris Kian
“In their ambitious second novella, Solomon explores questions  of remembrance and well-being and considers answers that could only be found within a fictional landscape.”

Rivers Solomon, The Deep, (Gallery/Saga Press, 2019).

From the cover of Solomon’s book, readers are immediately immersed into an afro-aquatic underworld; with the illustration of a wild-haired fish/human hybrid looking towards the ocean’s surface, we are asked to interrogate the relationship between those who walk on land, those who dwell in the sea, and all those in between. However, what feels like a set-up for a YA fantasy plot actually aims to sink itself into a deeply historical and horrific narrative. In collaboration with the experimental hip-hop group by the name of “clipping.”, Solomon constructs  their lyrics into a fantastical narrative of the wajinru: a population of deep-sea descendants from pregnant African women who were thrown overboard by their enslavers. These water creatures were born out of a brutal history; to watch their population grow is not simply from their own doing, but from the violence inflicted upon their fallen foremothers. In their ambitious second novella, Solomon explores questions  of remembrance and well-being and considers answers that could only be found within a fictional landscape.

We are first introduced to Yetu, a reckless and short-wicked wajinru tasked with carrying the violent memories of the wajinru’s origins so that none of the others have to. As the historian, Yetu must lead a yearly ritual called the Remembrance, in which she shares the history with the community and guides them through their pain so that they never forget its significance. Afterwards, they all give the painful memories back for her to hold. Yetu, who was chosen as historian due to her intense ability to feel, must decide if she will abandon her duty for her personal well-being or risk harming herself for the well-being of her kind. Solomon offers us a particularly monolithic population, one where the carrying of history is left to a singular being while all other members live in bliss. What we don’t explore is the depth of that community, nor the differing ideologies that pervade it, and how they both may impact the wajinru as a whole. Solomon seems instead to zoom out and consider the larger scope, asking us to analyze how we as a society remember trauma, the pain inherent in a violent archive, and the importance of a collective community. 

Through an Afrofuturist (an imaginative philosophy that explores the intersection of the African Diaspora, growing technology and world-building) and Black queer lens, Solomon cleverly offers us the body of the wajinru, through which we can process the physicality of historical and collective trauma. The electroreceptors in the wajinru allow them to be susceptible to the energy within the water around them. Yetu’s mother says, “Do not make such sharp sounds around her…can’t you see how it stings her?” (13). Through their skin, the wajinru can feel the changes in climate, the predators/prey swimming nearby, the emotions of their people–their sensitivities are an adapted advantage until it becomes the highest source of pain for Yetu. “The ocean overwhelmed her even when she was in its most quiet portions, and that was before taking on the rememberings” (6). Solomon offers an entryway to physicalizing the pains of  microaggressions, systemic oppression, and the weight of communal obligation, which often otherwise stand as invisible but tangible sensations.

Scholar Christina Sharpe writes in her book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, “the weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and the climate is antiblack” ( 104). In many ways, this idea serves as a literary foremother to Solomon’s The Deep. It contextualizes the necessity of navigating an environment that, even in its most dormant state, was fostered out of colonial and white supremacist violence. Solomon shows Yetu grappling with this reality often; we find this character getting lost in the traumatic memories of her ancestors and yearning to escape into the world above the sea to free herself from living amongst her people. For her, this literally means death: 

“If she could just get this sickness out of her once and for all, the sickness of remembering, she would survive. She wanted to survive. She didn’t want to be the wajinru with a death wish, who swam with sharks as she bled because she could not tell past from present” (Solomon 38).

Within the prose, Solomon underscores the tie between the emotional impact of memory and its physical implications, allowing readers to feel both Yetu’s motivations and her conflict.

Solomon furthers this emotional/physical link by showing readers how Yetu’s lived experience manifests in her body. Though not specifically mentioned, Yetu’s struggle with disordered eating is implied by her refusal to eat, her weight loss, and her family’s aims at making her strong for the upcoming Remembrance. She also suffers from depression, self-harm and suicidal ideations within the story. She finds herself losing track of time and place for long periods as she explores these memories. Here and there, Solomon approaches the challenge of covering broad topics within a single character, but they don’t give us much room to explore them. As a reader, it felt genuine to have a character that navigates a variety of physical and mental health issues, yet most of them weren’t given the tenderness this character deserved, which felt more like an oversight than an intentional choice. With this story, individual and community care seem to be at the forefront of Solomon’s thinking. However, Yetu was not so much offered that care in the writing. 

Instead, Yetu’s character seemed to be more of a medium through which a reader experiencing similar realities could relate,  rather than a complete and full character on her own. This felt true to the context of the story, since Yetu’s role as a historian lends us to see her as a container. Tasked with leading the community through their history by sharing horrific memories and then holding them in again, Yetu functions as a lens for the complexities of navigating a violent origin and challenges us to consider those who house our history. How do we protect those doing deeply emotional archival work?  How do those who intake the scholarship and research of traumatic histories add to the work and pain of the scholar? This book thinks about use and consumption, and does well with considering how to share the weight of a communal history and what it looks like to feel what we do not wish to feel. 

In what performs like an effort to provide relief to the reader and to Yetu, Solomon introduces the character Oori in order to explore the world of the two-legs, or humans. Oori is a character who finds comfort in all things near the coast: fishing, boating, swimming, etc. She comes from what she calls “a dead place;” her land, language and community have all been lost, and she is now the last of the Oshuben people. As we have explored Yetu’s painful journey with remembrance, Solomon considers how other members of the diaspora must grapple with loss and having no record of who or where one comes from. The text begins to lose some of its storytelling steam above the surface; it becomes less about action and more about intimacy. Solomon focuses on the dialogue as opposed to plot advancements—no one goes anywhere, save for the occasional flashback. They use this stillness to create vulnerable and unashamed discussions about gender fluidity and choice by exploring the wajinru’s sexual experiences. 

Yetu describes how the wajinru participate in sex based on preference and comfort; she is  specific with how it works with multiple partners and emphasizes that she is waiting for the right one(s). What could have been an uncomfortably erotic creature/human subplot instead allows us to explore physical relationships with tenderness and curiosity within different body types and comfort levels. While less engaging than the action that precedes and follows, Solomon handles the prose very deftly in its openness about sex. In addition, they never lose sight of its relevance to the storyline, as readers are given yet another avenue to understand our physical sensations and and interpersonal comfort. The Deep sustains a truly Afrofuturist lens by imagining a world that allows for both a spectrum of identity and transparent conversations within one’s community.

Even as we are immersed in a deeply sci-fi landscape, Solomon’s writing in The Deep remains particularly matter-of-fact; although we are engrossed in this underwater landscape, the diction never feels supremely fantastical. All of the prose was plain-spoken, as though surely the reader knows this world like the back of their hand. We know Yetu’s mother, as her dialogue feels all too familiar: “[y]ou need medicine, child. And food. When did you last eat?” (3). Solomon could have gone as far as creating new languages and/or dialects, but instead they choose to stay true to the diasporic nature of familiarity. This writing invites us to grieve with the characters, to hear the wajinru’s voices as though they are our own, to heighten our own sensitivity and to feel every movement as they move. 

As we begin to create a world inclined to community care and historical truth, Solomon uses this novella as a first step: one that anticipates a multitude after. We ask questions like, how do we approach a community in conflict? What can sustainable caregiving networks look like? How do we hold a history that honors its ancestors and its descendants? Fiction gives us the audacity to put into practice what we have never seen, even if it’s as simple as asking a question we’re too afraid to ask. Solomon balances realism with a fantasy world that navigates a history of misogynoir while daring to imagine another outcome, one with a life on the other side of it. They offer readers a new beginning from a tragic end, while embracing one of the African diaspora’s strongest traits: survival.

About the Reviewer:

Aris Kian is a Houston enthusiast and a student of abolition. Her poems are published and forthcoming with The West Review, Obsidian Lit, Write About Now and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart nominee and a 2020 Best of the Net Finalist. She ranks #10 in the 2020 Women of the World Poetry Slam and pursues her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

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