The Deep (Saga, Nov.), which PW’s starred review called a “superb, multilayered work,” is a fantastical riff on real violence committed against pregnant women transported on slave ships during the Middle Passage. For the novel, which explores memory and the weight of history, An Unkindness of Ghosts author Rivers Solomon collaborated with Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and his experimental hip-hop group Clipping. PW spoke with Solomon about mythmaking, colonialism, and whether whales blink.
The Deep has an atypical backstory. How did you get involved with it?
It came out of the song of the same name by Clipping, commissioned by NPR for a This American Life feature on Afrofuturism. It tells the story of underwater beings who are the descendants of pregnant slave women thrown overboard. The editor, Navah Wolfe, heard the song and thought: this should be a book.
Why does the story resonate now?
The Atlantic slave trade had such a huge global impact. There’s a lot in the song about climate change as well. As a people, we’re deeply feeling that fear. The song talks about how humans came to meet [the underwater descendants] because humans ran out of earth, and went into the sea—an invasion that was another kind of colonialism.
What surprised you most while working on the book?
It was really difficult to write people living under the sea. I had to imagine how people would live underwater. I didn’t know how to construct a scene where people weren’t, you know, just sitting around drinking tea. I did so much research, I had a lot of silly Google questions: Do whales cry? Do they blink? I drew a lot on whales specifically because they’re the closest we have to mermaids, as mammals who spend a lot of time above water and also in the extraordinary depths of the ocean.
The protagonist Yetu holds the memories for her people and is tasked with telling their story. What deeper story are you trying to convey?
History is important, but only insomuch that it gives us direction and identity. It’s possible to get lost in the trauma of it. That’s something that happens to Yetu, who’s not really able to be her own person. We all have to navigate the tension between our history and our future. I’m an American citizen [living in the U.K.]; it can be an alienating experience, cut off by an ocean from my ancestral homelands. It can make you feel identityless. But also, without a clear history, I can make my own myths and traditions, and make the future different from my own experiences. I’ve dug into this question before, in An Unkindness of Ghosts. It took place on a spaceship, which is the pinnacle of being unmoored and untethered from a homeland. The heart of the message in The Deep is to turn to and build community. Our real-life communities, especially marginalized communities, are often wounded by physical realities. It’s important not to become isolated, like Yetu does. We can bear more together and do more together.