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Interview: Rivers Solomon

Rivers Solomon is the author of An Unkindness of Ghosts, and is a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. They graduated from Stanford University with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and hold an MFA in fiction writing from the Michener Center for Writers. Though originally from the United States, they currently live in Cambridge, England, with their family. The Deep is their second book. Find them on Twitter @cyborgandroid.

In The Deep, water-breathing descendents of enslaved African women tossed overboard, the wajinru, have built their own underwater society. One of them, Yetu, has been given the role of Historian: the holder of memories for her people. When Yetu notices that the memories are destroying her, she flees to the surface. Saga Press editor Navah Wolfe commissioned you to write it, which is based on the song of the same name by experimental hip-hop group clipping. What was your reaction when she reached out to you?

Navah’s pitch absolutely stood out at a time when I was fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a number of cool projects. Experimental hip-hop group, you say? Underwater beings descended from enslaved Africans thrown overboard? Climate catastrophe? It was clear that Navah had done her research on my writing and knew I might connect with her mission.

I was hesitant to work with someone else’s property, but that feeling was mitigated when I first listened to “The Deep” and also read some of the written analysis of the song Navah shared with me. The lyricism was so rich, layered, wild, and out-there, so preposterously my exact cup of tea, that my curiosity transformed to a sense of excitement that I might have an opportunity to be a part of transposing this song to prose.

Were you already familiar with the work of clipping. and the Detroit-based electronic music act Drexciya, the original creators of the central idea of “The Deep,” when she approached you about the project?

I was not. This cannot be overstated—I am the deepest depths of uncool. My musical tastes now aren’t that different from what they were when I was ten. That’s not completely true, but I tend to latch onto music and listen to it and over and over, rarely branching out or exploring into new areas. I’m grateful for friends, random podcasts, television—and Navah—for exposing me to new music and bands that I’ve come to cherish. clipping.’s discography is bananas.

I read that clipping. was involved throughout the project. What was it like for you collaborating with and working with feedback from Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes?

Something I really appreciated about working with clipping., actually, is that they granted me a lot of freedom with their property. While they thoughtfully read and considered everything I wrote—approving various pieces at different stages, from pitch to outline to sample pages to whole drafts—they kept feedback positive and sparse, letting the work develop. Part of the reason for that, I think, is because we made an amazing team. Navah Wolfe really went out of her way to find a writer who would click and connect with clipping. Because of that, clipping. and I vibed in a way that meant we had very similar visions and goals.

In An Unkindness of Ghosts, you wrote about a generation ship that was based on the last ship known to carry enslaved Africans to the United States. In The Deep, you write about ships again, though this time they’re not the setting, but the root of the existence of the wajinru. Was there anything you wanted to explore about slave ships in this novella that you hadn’t explored in your debut novel?

It’s a particular experience to witness trauma from the outside, as a player who can only watch. Do you recall the odd sensation of seeing a smashed animal corpse on the side of the road, or passing a bevy of cop cars and ambulances at a house in your neighborhood? Seeing genocide in a tweet? A picture of a murdered child on the news? We’re flooded daily with the whole world’s violences, but most of the time, we can be no more than passing ships in the night with everyone’s aches. That’s literally the case in The Deep. While the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was happening, there was a whole, vast world happening outside of it. This phenomenon that has become a foundation of how the modern world is structured was just . . . boats. I do not know if I have anything useful or important to say about that, other than that it’s gutting. We have all of this raw material around us, full of potential—wood, steel . . . people—and so often, this raw material has, instead of being transformed into beauty, been mutated into traumas. Coming from this pain, the wajinru are very concerned with building a life under the sea that’s wondrous rather than catastrophic. Part of this is witnessing the ships that originated them. All they can do is fill their own world with more good.

Let’s get into some of the world building. Once a year, Yetu shares the six hundred years’ worth of history of the wajinru with her community during the Remembrance, which takes place in a mud womb built for the occasion. She guides everyone through receiving the collective memories, which is pretty traumatic, but at the end they return the memories to her. How did this part of the world building come together for you?

This is something that came directly from the song. I wanted clipping.’s “The Deep” to fit into the mythology of the book. Where and when would this song be sung in the novelization? Who’s singing it and why? The lyrics of the song ask an anonymous audience if they remember. That’s exactly what Yetu does in the book, as well. The song, in my mind, is a version of the Remembrance that historians perform.

Womb imagery comes up several times in the novella: the mud womb built for the Remembrance; the very fact that the wajinru are descendants of pregnant African women jettisoned from slave ships. Even the tidal pool Yetu finds herself in after running away to the surface. Would you say rebirth a major theme in The Deep?

I might have shared this before on social media, but I’ll share it again because it’s relevant here. I was once searching through my computer for a story I’d written that I’d forgotten the title of, so I just searched for the word “uterus” because I remembered that being a key theme of the story. This turned out, however, not to be helpful at all, because every story I’d written that was saved on my computer had the word “uterus” in it.

I don’t like to talk about wombs or uteri in an essentializing way. Perhaps for some, they’re a vessel for life, but for others, they’re vessels for life-altering chronic pain in the form of endometriosis, or vessels for cancer, or vessels for lives they didn’t ask for and have no wish to carry forward. For many, they’re simply baggage. But I do think for me, personally, the uterus is an exciting and interesting organ, and there’s no denying its cultural resonance. Ripe for metaphor for sure!

The womb is fascinating in that way all body parts are, but in The Deep, I see it less as a vehicle for life and birth as I see it as a space for contemplation. The mud womb is where the Remembrance takes place. The tidal pool is where Yetu must reckon with her choices. The wombs that carry the wajinru are places where life must reconsider how it’s formed in order to survive in the water.

Where did you get the idea of giving the wajinru electroreceptors in order for Yetu to share their history? Such a cool visual for communication!

I spent a lot of time doing extensive research into deep sea life, so I have to say, this is not one of my own innovations, but one of nature’s. We have vast ways of sharing and communicating, and perceiving soundwaves auditorily is but one of them. When I read that there are animals, sea and otherwise, who talk by electricity, I couldn’t not include that. I love when science fiction and fantasy can bring light to some piece of magic that already exists in our world, albeit in a different form.

Oh cool! And did your research on deep sea life have anything to do with your decision to give the wajinru a radical biology that allows them to mate with anyone of their species regardless of gender or absence thereof? Because I am living for the queerness and nonbinaryness your world building brings to the mythos in clipping’s song!

Is it very unwriterly for me to say that little thought went into it at all? I decided on a whim, really. I live inside a body that often defies the categories established by European scientific understanding, therefore it’s probably not surprising that I’m inclined to impart body and genital diversity into my work. Biological life forms exist according to an array of patterns, and it’s we humans that tend to anthropomorphize them into our arbitrary gendered constraints.

Banana slugs each tend to possess two sets of compatible reproductive genitalia, so that they can mate with anyone, like my wajinru. Bearded dragons can “reverse” sex in the egg, leaving them with a traditionally-understood-as male ZZ genetic profile (vaguely analogous to human XY) and with the egg-laying abilities typically associated with the traditionally-understood-as female ZW (vaguely analogous to human XX chromosomes). A number of different fish—clownfish and moray eels, for example—are typically born with one genetic sex, then some change later.

It felt natural to incorporate this reproductive diversity into the book. “Queer” exists as a category because there’s an enforced norm. Looking at the animal world is one way to see that life is vast and many of the gender and sexual constraints of human society are manufactured.

Would you consider Yetu’s community to be utopian? So much of it seems idyllic, but at the same time it’s a major source of anguish for her because of her role as Historian.

It’s utopian in the sense that the wajinru occupy a realm that doesn’t have to contend with artificial scarcity and hunger, social inequality, poverty, colonialism—capitalism. Under the sea, there are no landlords hoarding property so that the poor have nowhere to shelter. Food is not produced and commodified by landowners, unavailable to those who cannot afford it.

But I don’t think any community can ever be utopian, really, because part of the human project is contending with the fact that we are both individuals and social animals, and there will always be some dissonance between those two bodies. Yetu is an example of someone whose own individual needs are at odds with the cultural practices and traditions of her community, but certainly, she can’t be the only one.

Her role as Historian reminds me a lot of Jonas in Lois Lowry’s The Giver and of the scapegoat child kept in perpetual misery in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Is The Deep in conversation with these two works? Does it draw from them (or others) as a source of inspiration?

I think about “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a lot, but I hesitate to relate Yetu to that sacrificial lamb figure that comes up often in science fiction. The Historian is a sacred role and it carries a lot of honor with it. Historians that have preceded Yetu have not necessarily struggled as she has. Yetu’s position as someone who challenges tradition in some ways makes her the opposite of the poor, abused child in Le Guin’s work. She’s an impetus for change. In many ways, she’s one of the ones who walks away from Omelas herself.

She has to take on her responsibility as Historian at a young age. That’s an intense burden to shoulder so early. How did you decide to make her fourteen?

Fourteen is a tender age. The emotions are so very raw. It’s also an age where young people are often for the first time negotiating that tension between individual needs and community needs, between how they’ve been raised and how they think the world should be. Adolescence is often about coming into independence, but it’s also about taking on greater social responsibility. Given those things, it seemed to me perhaps the worst possible age for a young person to be required to take on this task. Instead of dedicated time for exploration and discovery, Yetu receives what amounts to her as a collar, a muzzle. Her future has been decided.

When I write, I often gravitate toward the “worst” or most extreme, because that’s where the answers are. That is the void we tend to want to shy away from but instead need to confront. A younger Yetu might have adapted more easily, raised with the histories from early youth. An older Yetu might’ve had the knowledge and experience to deal with them more effectively. Admittedly, I like to go where the pain is. That’s the only way to undo it.

Without their history, the wajinru have no identity. Yet Yetu flees from the ocean because preserving their history doesn’t allow her to have her own identity, and the memories are literally killing her. She wants to reclaim herself, discover and fulfill her individual needs outside her role as Historian, and she does so with her budding romance with human Oori. Would you say there’s a connection between preserving collective memory and existential crisis?

I’d say there’s a connection both between memory and trauma and memory and identity. The trick is figuring out how to have a sense of self, a sense of purpose—which requires memory—when that memory is also a source of great pain.

There’s a part in the novella where we find out that Historians before her performed the Remembrance to melody. Yetu doesn’t want to. She wants everyone to experience it as she does—with screams. She doesn’t want the Remembrance and her own struggles of being a Historian to be entertainment. Is this a meta-critique of slavery history and narrative turned into art? This got me thinking about the ways Black trauma is turned into art, how the realities of Black suffering and its history can be overlooked because of the medium—adversity or tragedy porn. I was wondering if you were thinking about this in relation to other pieces of art out there about American slavery and this novella.

It’s not so much a critique as a recognition that most art and literature, as a matter of necessity, dilutes some of the pain of the lived experience by making it into something beautiful, into a product with aesthetic appeal. This shine that we put on our historical traumas in the form of art allows us to go dark places in a way that can turn them into something useful, something that is pleasing to experience rather than merely a wound-source. There is a reason we sing dirges. This is an important human expression.

Yetu is not helped by these expressions, however. Her concern for her people is not healing. She wants them to experience the phenomena as she does. Direct traumas. Nothing is sung to Yetu. She wants to transform this ceremony from an act of artistic expression into a shared traumatic experience so that she’s not alone in her grief.

And what’s coming up next? What future writing projects can you tell us about?

I’m pleased to share that my next novel, currently titled Sorrowland, has been picked up by Sean McDonald at MCD, an imprint of FSG. It’s been an intense ride writing it, and I’m pleased that it’s found a home so that readers can join me in the funhouse, and what a fun house it is! Sorrowland, a gothic novel with its toes in multiple genres, is about a young Black woman who flees the strict, religious compound where she was raised, only to begin a physical transformation into a creature she doesn’t recognize following her escape. Untangling what’s happening to her will force her confront the US’s dark, racist history. This is a more contemporary setting than any of my previous longform work, but there are many themes in common with The Deep and An Unkindness of Ghosts, as well.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.