Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.
Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.
Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.
Trigger Warning: death, cultural trauma, ptsd, depictions of blood, slavery, discussions of genocide and erasure. I keep spoilers mild and vague.
Recently, I went to an art show showcasing Native women’s art. One of the artists painted a portraiture of themselves. Every white artist in the west has painted themselves (and their chevy truck) in a ‘portrait of the artist’.
What was really cool about Rosalie Favell’s painting is she put herself as the artist, resisting the nameless native stereotype. Rivers is not Native but this novella does something really cool with how people expect marginalized people to tell stories. It takes all those expectations and sets lights it on fire. It’s saying something about cultural trauma, about black identity, about our expectations of stories told by black people. Rivers, like Favell’s own fight, resists the white expectation that stories about cultural trauma and black pain must fit the mold. They go beyond sadness and give us the ever revolutionary: happiness.
Yetu carries the memories of her ancestors for the Wajinru, her people. A burden and at the expense of her own happiness, it is a tradition to have the historian carry the history, to save other the others from pain. Every year, Yetu performs the Remembering. This ceremony is the history of their people. It is what makes them who they are. To forget is to eradicate their culture as a people. During the remembering the historian, our protagonist, tries to get the Wajinru to remember their names. Like the descendants of enslaved people, they try to find their ancestors and where they came from. But Yetu decides this is the moment she wants to be an individual, not a historian. The story takes off from there.
Yetu’s storyline and her memories of the ancestors are intertwined to tell us what it is to remember and carry the weight of that past. The Deep tells us of the descendants of enslaved women. We are told of the middle passage and the ships carrying enslaved people from Africa, taken to ports and sold into slavery. Only the historian is made to remember that pain. It reminds us that placing the weight of cultural trauma on people while others may forget their trauma is to treat pain as insignificant. The constant expectation to re-experience the trauma of Yetu’s people forces her to become traumatized as well.
Years of living with the memories of the dead had taken their toll, occupying as much of her mind and body as her own self did.
Yetu has pain in her body from the memories. She has flashbacks from her ancestors memories. She is hypersensitive to her surroundings. Rivers makes it clear that Yetu has PTSD. She’s constantly having to live through the trauma of her ancestors past. The descendants of enslaved people carry the trauma of their ancestors, even if they are unaware of it.
While we learn of her pain, the story is beautifully told. As interesting as the concept is, it is the writing that won me.
She remembered the first mothers, the images of their floating bodies as seen by their children or other wajinru. She remembered whales, their gigantic, godlike forms. She remembered shelters made of seaweed and carcasses. Castles, too, made out of the bones of giant sharks. Kings and queens. Endless beauty, endless dark.
The most interesting aspect of this afro-futuristic world of mermaids is the world building. They take the erasure of African cultures and re-gift it here in a utopian society. We are given a story of urvivors and their hope. All the world building is based on the ocean and creating beings, like some afro-futuristic darwinism. The ocean is a graveyard turned into a utopian dream. The ocean, their mother, and the whales, their caretakers. The drowning was their beginning.
The Wajinru have electro-sensitivity. They will the ocean on their command through naturalistic and water based power. The ocean is their ancestor, a place their ancestors died and the place they came into being.
Taken by rage and grief from the rememberings, and without the cognizance to hold themselves back, the wajinru all together could stir the ocean waters to a degree that would disrupt the natural weather cycles.
It is the source of their memories and the source of their power.
On another less serious note I am so tired of immortal/otherworldly creatures in SFF having humanistic behaviors and attitudes. I cannot handle them saying “This artery is the SHIT!!!” You not only lost the respect of the human you’re sucking but you lost the respect of me, the reader. Stop making pop culture references you thousand year old berry.
Yetu feels like what I imagine a mermaid would be like. She is not familiar to human behaviors. She feels like she is completely foreign to human traditions. She is completely boggled by humans and their weird prudishness. There is a hilarious moment where Yetu just flat out asks about breasts. She’s amazing. I love her so much.
There are mermaids dancing, nonbinary characters, awkward flirting, gay crushes, and mermaids with fangs. None of that Ariel shit here (no disrespect to the Ariels out there).