On the podcast Still Processing hosts Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham discuss pop culture and life in America circa now. On a recent episode while discussing Wortham’s tour of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation Monticello, alongside Bong Joon Ho’s film Parasite and the HBO series Watchmen, Morris says, “[Black people,] as a people, we are allergic to nostalgia” (33 minutes). Which makes sense. Legacies of trauma and structural disenfranchisement make the past less a gauzy vision and more a blunt-force instrument. That said, I recently read two works by African American writers and creators—The Deep and The Yellow House—that dive into the stormy ocean of memory to ask what it means to remember, to forget, or to be forgotten.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon builds on musical work by clipping. (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes), themselves building on albums from Drexciya. The story focuses on a race of underwater sea-dwellers, mer-people, descended from pregnant women thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. Some of those babies survived, evolved to breathe underwater, acquired language, and developed a rich culture.
These people, the wajinru, thrive by selecting one member to hold their collective cultural memory of suffering. The Historian exists in a constant twilight of memory, reliving the wajinru’s legacy of violence and trauma, while the rest of the wajinru exist in an oceanic bliss of short term memory. The chosen person forced to carry the memories and/or suffering of their whole society evokes both Lois Lowry’s YA novel The Giver and Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
In The Deep, the current Historian, Yetu, finds herself much more sensitive to the History than her predecessors. She fears that it might kill her. At the annual Remembrance, Yetu describes the need to remember: “Living without detailed, long-term memories allowed for spontaneity and lack of regret, but after a certain amount of time has passed, [the wajinru] 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, …”. At this year’s Remembrance, Yetu re-shares the memories with her people, and dares to wonder what would happen if she simply left them with the memories and swam away.
National Book Award winner The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom, also deals with memory and family, who carries the burden (or gift) of remembering within a family, who and what society forgets and what we remember. Broom grew up in New Orleans, the youngest of 12 children. Hurricane Katrina destroyed her childhood home, the titular Yellow House, and the city of New Orleans largely abandoned this worst hit section of the city known as New Orleans East. In this book—part family history, part memoir, part cultural history—Broom, now a journalist, writes her family and their house into the story of New Orleans. In so doing, she insists that the structural racism and classism that made New Orleans East a neglected city-within-a-city, one thereby more susceptible to a Hurricane’s ravages, also deserves to be remembered alongside French Quarter architecture, above-ground graves, and brass bands.
Broom seeks to understand her family through her city and its history, and to understand her city through her family and their history. She recognizes that this act of digging up and sifting through memories carries danger, writing, “Yet feelings of transgression linger; the conviction that by writing down the history of the people who have come before me—who, in a way, compose me—I have upended the natural order of things.” In the book, she returns often to her brother Carl, who seems resistant to her memory-gathering project while also being the sibling who remains drawn to the site of the Yellow House, to New Orleans East, to physically testifying to the existence of the Brooms and the Water.
I expected The Yellow House to be good—the reviews alone created that expectation—but also depressing. I did not expect to find, first, a bringing-back-to-life of the past few generations of Broom’s family, characters from a Toni Morrison novel in real life. The book then transitions to being a memoir of Broom herself as well as a testament of the Water and its ravages and aftermath, the effect it had on New Orleans and the Broom family. The Yellow House contains grief and rage, but also wonder and love and those vital, heart-beating questions that propel us forward.
Both The Deep and The Yellow House deal with African American memory—ties to family, the aftermath of trauma, the legacy of cultural neglect and rejection. They understand that memory can be both painful and vital, that history explains us but does not need to define us. They deal with the tension of holding collective memories while being yourself. Yetu’s journey leads her to discover who she is both with and without the History. Broom’s story is less a journey than filling in of a jigsaw puzzle, finding spaces for pieces forgotten, unrecognized, unseen, thereby creating a fuller picture, not only of Hurricane Katrina or New Orleans but of America ourself.
- Retellings of myths and fairy tales, bonus points for feminism, anti-racism, and/or realistic depictions of trauma and darkness;
- Fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world;
- Speculative fiction and magical realism;
- Stories that explore ideas;
- Memoirs that make normal experience seem extraordinary.