Autistic Book Party, Episode 60: The Deep

Today’s Book: “The Deep” by Rivers Solomon

The Plot: The wajinru, a group of mermaid-like creatures in the deep sea, are the descendants of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships. Only one “historian” among them is chosen to remember their traumatic past, while the others blissfully forget – but this history is a burden that can’t be borne alone.

Autistic Character(s): Yetu, the young historian whose point of view carries most of the book; and Oori, a human she befriends when she escapes to the surface.

I’ve been really excited to read this Nebula-nominated novella by Solomon, who previously wrote “An Unkindness of Ghosts.” Like the other book, this one is a meditation on individual and community trauma which centers the perspectives of Black queer and non-neurotypical characters.

Yetu is a wonderful, complex character who has been carrying her community’s memories since she was fourteen. More sensitive than other historians due to her neurotype, she struggles intensely, often getting so lost in her remembrances that she forgets to eat or care for herself – or so distressed by them that she self-harms. The rest of her community cares about her but can’t understand how to help, since they themselves have no concept of what trauma is. Once a year, there’s a religious ceremony where the memories are temporarily given back to the community. During this ceremony, Yetu escapes, fearing that if she takes the memories for herself again, she won’t survive.

I found Yetu’s struggles to be extremely realistic for a traumatized autistic person without much support. (I say this as an autistic person with my own set of secret teenage traumas, though I can’t speak from experience about the race-related aspects of the book.) She struggles not only with the direct effects of carrying traumatic memories, but also with guilt, ambivalence, and worry for her community when she escapes them. Solomon’s narration also contains some of the most intriguing descriptions I’ve ever seen about how fantasy psychic abilities and autistic hypersensitivities might combine:

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 Amaha’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.
All of this may make “The Deep” sound like a very grim, depressing book. Despite the subject matter I actually did not have a grim or depressing experience reading. Maybe it’s the ocean setting, or maybe it’s the way the book focuses on the people carrying the memories and on their simple, direct relationships, rather than the details of the atrocities that caused the memories to happen in the first place. I found many parts of “The Deep” very moving, but I also found them more easily emotionally approachable than “An Unkindness of Ghosts.” I was able to devour “The Deep” at an enthusiastic pace and enjoy it fully.
(To be clear: emotionally difficult, dark, wrenching books are necessary things, and marginalized authors should be allowed to write them. I can’t believe this needs to be said, but in the light of recent furores over dark content in queer books and fanfic I feel it does. “An Unkindness of Ghosts” is an excellent book and I was glad I read that, too. I am not making a moral value judgment. I am simply describing how my subjective emotional experience of both books differed.)

Maybe it’s also the way “The Deep” ends with hope and reconciliation, as Yetu and her community work on alternative ways to hold the rememberings and care for each other. I found it especially meaningful that, although Yetu is in many ways the archetypal young protagonist who’s different and burdened, it’s her loved ones in the community who help her to find the eventual solution, and who insist to her that her safety and happiness are worthwhile. These are intergenerational, community traumas, and only the whole community working together can hold them.

Autism isn’t central to this story, but it’s unmistakable and deeply layered into the characters, both for Yetu and for Oori. Yetu is deeply affected by her sensory and emotional sensitivities, which were always present, but which are exacerbated by the memories she is chosen to carry, and which isolate her in deeper and crueller ways than the historians before her. Oori is not a POV character, and her autism is marked more by external traits: blunt speech, unfriendliness, lack of eye contact, and the puzzled reactions of other humans. Delightfully, Oori’s difficulty getting along with other humans is the very thing that draws Yetu to her:

“I just mean that she’s different, you know? Not like us. She’s not so good with, hm, how do you say, human interaction and any trappings of decorum or rules. I suppose that’s why she prefers animals to people. Most animals don’t exchange hellos and ask how the other is. They just exist next to one another.”

Yetu’s ears and skin perked at the sound of that. Oori preferred animals, did she?

“Perfect, then. I’m not human,” said Yetu.

Oori is not only Yetu’s friend and possible love interest, but she’s also the last survivor of her own human culture, and she has a perspective on the importance of memory which both challenges and helps Yetu to hear.

Queer and intersex themes are unmistakably layered in, too. For instance, there’s the odd, awkward, somewhat adorable scene in which Yetu and Oori discuss how sex works for their respective species and whether they’d like to try it with each other. The way this conversation plays out is a way that would only ever work for a pair of queer autistic characters, and that alone makes it fun to read.

There’s a lovely afterword which describes “The Deep”‘s origins: before it was a book by Rivers Solomon it was a song by the rap group clipping. and clipping.’s song is in turn based on the work of other artists. The concept of the wajinru in the sea has been told and retold from multiple perspectives, gaining something each time. In clipping.’s song, there’s a war between the wajinru and the humans because of the terrible way the humans treat the sea. In “The Deep,” this war exists as backstory; it’s another thing for both Yetu’s and Oori’s sides to remember and learn from. I love this kind of intertextuality and I hope the concept continues to inspire even more successive groups of artists.

In short, this is an excellent book, well worthy of its Nebula nomination, and you all should read it.

The Verdict: Highly Recommended

Disclosure: Rivers Solomon and I are acquainted online and have talked to each other sometimes. I read their book by buying a copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.