Just about two years ago I read Solomon’s debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, and was so impressed with the world-building, the diversity of the characters, the writing…it was a fantastic debut. And it was before I really had any idea about Afrofuturism as a genre, so it felt truly groundbreaking to me. I am glad to say, as far as my own reading diversity, that I’ve learned more about and experimented with other Afrofuturism novels since then (Binti being another favorite). But long story short, I knew that I’d be keeping an eye out for future works by Solomon, since they were my first foray into the genre and I couldn’t wait to see what they did next. As soon as I saw this novella, and read its blurb, I knew I was going to love it.
***And as icing on the cake, it fits The Reading Women Challenge 2020 Prompt #7: Afrofuturism or Africanfuturism. (While this was originally my choice for prompt 7, it was, in fact, an unacceptable oversight on my end, as Solomon does not identify as female. So, I am correcting that here, and in all other places that I posted this review. I’m choosing to keep my original post as is, but adding this apology and explanation, to make it clear that I messed up and want to own in, instead of pretending it never happened. I send my heartfelt apologies for any pain and erasure this original post caused. Thank you to the commenter on IG who pointed this out and has allowed me the chance to address it and correct myself. And I appreciate the understanding from the community as I learn. In addition, I will be choosing a new book to fit this prompt, so stay tuned for that.)***
“Who each of them was mattered as much as who all of them were together.”
Yetu is wajinru, a people descended from pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave traders. Living an idyllic, utopian life protected by the sea, the wajinru have for centuries guarded the knowledge of their traumatic past in a way that protects the majority: by appointing a Historian, one who holds all the memories of their History with the exception of the yearly Remembrance ceremony, where all wajinru come together for a few days to share this knowledge. But the price of their “freedom” from this knowledge the rest of the year is the mental health and life of the Historian. And Yetu, the currently appointed one, knows that she cannot last much longer in this role. The pain of holding the knowledge alone is too much for her. She must decide whether to allow herself the peace of mind that was stolen from her or sacrifice herself for the whole of her people. But in her journey to answer that question, she and the wajinru realize that there may be another path, one in which they can all reclaim their past and own who they are.
For such a slim little book, this novella holds multitudes. Before I get into the deeper things (ummm, pun intended?) I want to mention a few things. One is the writing. It’s a very different style of book from Solomon’s first, but I have to say I thought the polish on the writing definitely makes it clear that it’s not their first. There were some plot points and descriptions that left me a little lost in Unkindness (though I got through it fine with a little willing suspension of disbelief), and while this didn’t have quite the same scope, so it may be an apples and oranges comparison, I didn’t have that issue here. Everything, from the plot to the character development to the mechanisms of memory passing and communication, felt polished and smooth. The writing itself had a flow and rhythm that fit the philosophical nature of the topics it covered, complemented with a sparse-ness and to the point delivery that fit the harsh realities of those same topics. Also, I want to point out the idea of this novella – the general concept of pregnant slave women who were thrown overboard into the sea whose children were born from their wombs and into an ocean that welcomed them and showed them how to breath underwater, whose creatures both killed and protected them, and where their discarded lives created a home and community where they were safe and sheltered – it’s incredible. And I read the afterward, I know that it was a combination of efforts, a idea that began before Solomon came to it and will continue to grow after this novella, but I am a book person, a reading person, and this is the format where the idea was most likely to sink its claws into me. And oh my goodness, sink them it did. I just cannot get over it – how beautiful and hopeful it is, despite the horror and tragedy from which it was born. As I said, incredible.
And now, my attempt to address and review the focal topic of this little book: the potent cumulative, intergenerational effects of trauma. The philosophical explorations of the original wajinru and their decision to protect the whole from the trauma of the past by assigning the responsibility of remembering it to a single entity in juxtaposition with Yetu’s personal journey to find out who she is for herself, separate from the memories of the past, are extraordinary. There is equal time given to the benefits and potential pitfalls of all sides of remembering history: from the way the pain of remembering everything can overwhelm you (as Yetu feels) to the equally painful reality of losing all of the past, having no knowledge of where you came from (as Oori, the confidant Yetu meets while struggling with escaping her role/people or swimming back to it, feels). There is pain in remembering, but there is also power. There are terrible memories, visceral in their horror, but there is also hope and goodness. Both are important perspectives, and the all or nothing options forced upon Yetu and Oori at both extremes are heart-breaking. And then Solomon brings it all together in the end with a gorgeous message about the importance of community in History and Remembrance, of sharing the burden (because our past is part of who we are, and should be honored, but also does not have to fully define us), and of the possibility for collective healing and a more balanced future.
If there was ever a doubt that fairy tales or fantasy are a useful way to address complicated and abstract reality-based topics in truly beneficial ways, The Deep is here to disabuse you of said doubt. This is a such a striking novella in so many ways, from the creativity of its story to the intensity and cutting commentary of its message. Its short length belies the strength in its pages. There is no way my words could do justice to what Solomon has crafted. If there is open communication and real healing to be found in words, Solomon is well along the path to finding it, to making it. Magnificent.
I marked so many quotes and passages. Enjoy these:
“One can only go for so long without asking, who am I? Where do I come from? What does all this mean?”
“She didn’t mean to be so cruel, but what else was she to do with all the violence inside of her?”
“Forgetting was not the same as healing.”
“Remember how deep we go.”
“Without your history, you are empty.”
“‘What is belonging?’ we ask. She says, ‘Where loneliness ends.’”
“We have absorbed many lifetimes of pain, but it is no matter compared to the good.”
“But connection came with responsibility. Duty choked independence and freedom.”
“If the past is full of bad things, if a people is defined by the terror done to them, its good for it to go, don’t you think?”
“Doesn’t it hurt not to know who you are?”
“‘But your whole history. Your ancestry. That’s who you are.’ […] ‘No. I am who I am now. Before, I was no one. When you’re everyone in the past, and when you’re for everyone in the present, you’re no one. Nobody. You don’t exist.”
“…if freedom only brought loneliness, emptiness, what was that point? Nothingness was a fate worse than pain. […] At least with pain there was life, a chance at change and redemption.”
“Our shared fury makes us stronger. We continue to rise.”