ONE OF NPR’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019
The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society—and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future in this brilliantly imaginative novella inspired by the Hugo Award–nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’s rap group clipping
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.
Inspired by a song produced by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future,” The Deep is vividly original and uniquely affecting.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Daveed Diggs is an actor, singer, producer, writer, and rapper. He is the vocalist of the experimental hip hop group Clipping. Diggs originated the role of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in the 2015 musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda which he won a Grammy and Tony for. He also cowrote, produced, and stars in the film Blindspotting. Find him on Twitter @DaveedDiggs.
William Hutson is a composer, known for Room 237 (2012), The Mayor (2017), and Ten Minutes Is Two Hours (2013). He is part of the rap group Clipping. Find him on Twitter @Clppng.
Jonathan Snipes is a composer and sound designer for film and theater living in Los Angeles. He occasionally teaches sound design in the theater department at UCLA, and is a member of the rap group Clipping. Find him at Jonat8han.com.
Read an Excerpt
“IT WAS LIKE DREAMING,” SAID Yetu, throat raw. She’d been weeping for days, lost in a remembering of one of the first wajinru.
“Then wake up,” Amaba said, “and wake up now. What kind of dream makes someone lurk in shark-dense waters, leaking blood like a fool? If I had not come for you, if I had not found you in time…” Amaba shook her head, black water sloshing over her face. “Do you wish for death? Is that why you do this? You are grown now. Have been grown. You must put those childish whims behind you.” Amaba waved her front fins forcefully as she lectured her daughter, the movements troubling the otherwise placid water.
“I do not wish for death,” said Yetu, resolute despite the quiet of her worn voice.
“Then what? What else would make you do something so foolish?” Amaba asked, her fins a bevy of movement.
Yetu strained to feel Amaba’s words over the chorus of ripples, her skin drawn away from the delicate waves of speech and toward the short, powerful pulses brought on by her amaba’s gesticulations.
“Answer me!” Amaba said, her tone desperate and screeching.
Most of the time, Yetu kept her senses dulled. As a child, she’d learned to shut out what she could of the world, lest it overwhelm her into fits. But now she had to open herself back up, to make her body a wound again so Amaba’s words would ring against her skin more clearly.
Yetu closed her eyes and honed in on the vibrations of the deep, purposefully resensitizing her scaled skin to the onslaught of the circus that is the sea. It was a matter of reconnecting her brain to her body and lowering the shields she’d put in place in her mind to protect herself. As she focused, the world came in. The water grew colder, the pressure more intense, the salt denser. She could parse each granule. Individual crystals of the flaky white mineral scraped against her.
Even though Yetu always kept herself tense against the ocean’s intrusions, they found their way in; but with her senses freshly unreined, the rush of feeling was dizzying. This was nothing like the faraway throbbing she’d grown used to when she threw all her energy into repelling the world outside. The push and pull of nearby currents upended her. The flutter of a school of fangfish reverberated deep in her chest. How did other wajinru manage this all the time?
“Where did you go just now? Are you dreaming yet again?” asked Amaba, sounding more defeated than angry. Her voice cracked into splintered waves, rough against Yetu’s skin.
“I am here, Amaba. I promise,” said Yetu quietly, exhaustedly, though she wasn’t sure that was true. Adrift in a memory that wasn’t hers, she hadn’t been present when she’d brought herself to the sharks to be feasted upon. How could she be sure she was here now?
Yetu needed to recover her composure. She’d never done something that dangerous before. She had lost more control of her abilities than she’d realized. The rememberings were always drawing her backward into the ancestors’ memories—that was what they were supposed to do—but not at the expense of her life.
“Come to me,” said Amaba, several paces away. Too weak to argue, Yetu offered no protest. She resigned herself for now to do her amaba’s biddings. “You need medicine, child. And food. When did you last eat?”
Yetu didn’t remember, but as she took a moment to zero in on the emptiness in her stomach, she was surprised to find the pain of it was a vortex she could easily get lost in. She moved her body, examined its contours. She’d been withering away, and now there was little left of her but the base amounts of outer fat she needed to keep warm in the ocean’s deepest waters.
As evidenced by her encounter with the sharks, Yetu’s condition was worsening. With each passing year, she was less and less able to distinguish rememberings from the present.
“Eat these. They will help your throat heal,” said Amaba, drawing her daughter into her embrace. Yetu floated in the dense, black brine, her amaba’s fins a lasso about her torso. “Come, now. I said eat.” Amaba pressed venom leaves into Yetu’s mouth, humming a made-up lullaby as she did. Water waves from her voice stroked Yetu’s scales, and though Yetu usually avoided such stimulation, she was pleased to have a tether to the waking world as her connection to it grew more and more precarious. She needed frequent reminders she was more than a vessel for the ancestors’ memories. She wouldn’t let herself disappear. “Keep chewing. That’s good. Very good. Now swallow.”
Spurred by the promise of pain relief as much as by her amaba’s prodding, Yetu gagged the medicine down. Venom leaves slithered like slime down her throat and into her belly, and with every swallow she coughed.
“See? Isn’t that nice? Can you feel it working in you yet?”
Cradled in her amaba’s front fins, Yetu looked but a pup. It was fitting. In this moment, she was as reliant on Amaba’s care as she had been in infancy. She’d grown from colicky pup into mercurial adolescent into tempestuous adult, still sometimes in need of her amaba’s deep nurturing.
Given her sensitivity, no one should have been surprised that the rememberings affected Yetu more deeply than previous historians, but then everything surprised wajinru. Their memories faded after weeks or months—if not through wajinru biological predisposition for forgetfulness, then through sheer force of will. Those cursed with more intact long-term recollection learned how to forget, how to throw themselves into the moment. Only the historian was allowed to remember.
After several moments, the venom leaves took effect, and the pain in Yetu’s hoarse throat numbed. Other aches soothed too. The stiffness all but disappeared from her neck. Overworked muscles relaxed. Sedated, she could think more clearly now.
“Amaba,” Yetu said. She was calmer and in a state to better explain what had happened that morning: why she’d gone to the sharks, why she’d put herself in such danger, why she’d threatened the wajinru legacy so selfishly.
If Yetu died doing something reckless and the wajinru were not able to recover her body, the next historian would not be able to harvest the ancestors’ rememberings from Yetu’s mind. Bits of the History could be salvaged from the shark’s body, assuming they found it, but it was an incredible risk, and no doubt whole sections would be lost.
Worse, the wajinru didn’t know who was to succeed Yetu. They may not have had the memories to understand the importance of this fully, but they had an inkling. It had been plain to all for many years that Yetu was a creature on the precipice, and without a successor in place, they’d be lost. They’d have to improvise.
Previous historians had spent their days roaming the ocean to collect the memories of the living wajinru before they were forgotten. Such a task ensured that the historian understood who was best suited to take on the role after their own death came. In addition to reaching into the minds of wajinru to log the events of the era, historians learned whose minds were electro-sensitive enough to host the rememberings in the future, and shared that information often and repeatedly with other wajinru.
Yetu never did this. The ocean overwhelmed her even when she was in its most quiet portions, and that was before taking on the rememberings. Now that she was the historian, it was even worse, her mind unable to process it all. She couldn’t fathom spending her days traveling across the sea only to burden herself with more memories at the end of each journey. Unfortunately for Yetu, when the previous historian had chosen her, he’d been so impressed by the sensitivity of her electroreceptors that he’d failed to notice her finicky temperament. Yetu loved Basha’s memories, loved living inside of his bravery, his tumult. But if ever he’d made a mistake, it was choosing Yetu as historian. She couldn’t fulfill her most basic of duties. How disappointed he would be in the girl he’d chosen. She’d grown up to be so fragile.
“I’m sorry,” said Yetu. “There’s so much to tell you, yet I never know where to begin. But I am ready now. I can speak. I can tell you why I did what I did, and it has nothing to do with wanting to die.”
Yetu readied herself to reveal all, to go back to those painful moments and relive them yet again for her amaba’s benefit.
“Shhh,” said Amaba, using the sticky webbing at the end of her left front fin to cover Yetu’s mouth. “It is in the past. It is already forgotten. What matters is that you are here now, and we can focus on the present. It is time for you to give the Remembrance.”
The Remembrance—had it really been a year since the last? A year, then, since she’d seen her amaba? It was impossible to keep precise track of the passing of time in the dark of the deep, but she could ascertain the time of year based on currents, animal movement, and mating seasons. None of that mattered, however, if Yetu wasn’t present enough to pay attention to them. The rememberings carried her mind away from the ocean to the past. These days, she was more there than here. This wasn’t a new thought, but she’d never felt it this strongly before. Yetu was becoming an ancestor herself. Like them, she was dead, or very near it.
“I didn’t know that we were already so close to the Remembrance,” said Yetu, unsure she even had the strength to conduct the ceremony.
“Yetu, it is overdue by an entire mating cycle,” said Amaba.
Was Yetu really three months late to the most important event in the wajinru’s life? Had she failed her duty so tremendously? “Is everyone all right?” asked Yetu.
“Alive, yes, but not well, not well at all,” said Amaba.
A historian’s role was to carry the memories so other wajinru wouldn’t have to. Then, when the time came, she’d share them freely until they got their fill of knowing.
Late as Yetu was, the wajinru must be starving for it, consumed with desire for the past that made and defined them. Living without detailed, long-term memories allowed for spontaneity and lack of regret, but after a certain amount of time had passed, they needed more. That was why once a year, Yetu gave them the rememberings, even if only for a few days. It was enough that their bodies retained a sense memory of the past, which could sustain them through the year until the next Remembrance.
“We grow anxious and restless without you, my child. One can only go for so long without asking who am I? Where do I come from? What does all this mean? What is being? What came before me, and what might come after? Without answers, there is only a hole, a hole where a history should be that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities. You don’t know what it’s like, blessed with the rememberings as you are,” said Amaba.
Yetu did know what it was like. After all, wasn’t cavity just another word for vessel? Her own self had been scooped out when she was a child of fourteen years to make room for ancestors, leaving her empty and wandering and ravenous.
“I’ll be taking you to the sacred waters soon. The people will want to offer their thanks and prayers to you. You should be happy, no? You like the Remembrance. It is good for you,” Amaba said.
Yetu disagreed. The Remembrance took more than it gave. It required she remember and relive the wajinru’s entire history all at once. Not just that, she had to put order and meaning to the events, so that the others could understand. She had to help them open their minds so they could relive the past too.
It was a painful process. The reward at the end, that the rememberings left Yetu briefly while the rest of the wajinru absorbed them, was small. If she could skip it, she would, but she couldn’t. That was something her younger, more immature self would’ve done. She’d been appointed to this role according to her people’s traditions, and she balked at the level of self-centeredness it would require to abandon six hundred years of wajinru culture and custom to accommodate her own desires.
“Are you strong enough to swim to the sacred waters without help?” Amaba asked Yetu.
She wasn’t, but she’d make the journey unaided anyway. She didn’t want her amaba carrying her any more than she already had. The memory of Amaba’s fins squeezing around her tail fin, dragging her away from the sharks at nauseating speeds, lingered unpleasantly, the same way all memories did.
She understood why wajinru wanted nothing to do with them but for one time a year.