Anita Kopacz’s debut novel Shallow Waters is a vibrant reimagining of Yemaya, an Orisha (deity) from the Yoruba religion, and her place in American history. The story of Yemaya was passed down through oral tradition, brought to the “New World” by enslaved Africans as early as the 16th century. In Shallow Waters, Yemaya exists in the flesh and makes the journey to the U.S., but not as a captive via the transatlantic slave trade. She instead follows the “pirate” ships full of stolen people while in her true form—a mermaid.
Yemaya, also known as Yemoja, is considered the mother of all Orishas and is the Yoruba divinity of the waters, specifically, Nigeria’s Ogun River. Kopacz’s vision has Yemaya released from captivity by a young boy, Obatala, who, while in awe of her presence, cuts her out of the fishing net before she is scooped up in his haul. Years later, when Obatala is taken by the ships, she follows them with the hope of returning the favor. Knowing that her mermaid form would not be understood by humans, and with a great deal of effort, she transforms into a human to continue her search. She awakens to a community of Indigenous people who are aware of her significance and take care of her, ultimately informing her that her journey is only just beginning. Obatala’s capture was the inciting incident that gets Yemaya moving, but the rest of the novel chronicles a path dotted with important destinations and historical figures along the way.
Kopacz’s use of traditional folktale techniques builds a truly colorful world for Yemaya as she treks through the States—from the Trail of Tears and sites along the Underground Railroad to meeting icons like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Fredrick Douglass. It may at first seem like a gimmick for such cameo appearances, but considering the figures she meets and how they help her to navigate important moments in history, it is actually quite clever. Yemaya’s presence centers a Black woman within the context of the memorable bullet points of the past. She is the key to why some history happens, or why it is successful, making her just as memorable. The story of Yemaya’s journey could presumably be passed down because of her direct association to American history and not just Black history.
The idea of a mermaid who becomes human to find love invokes a certain fiery-haired Disney princess with a fondness for human culture. However, Yemaya predates Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Andersen’s short story of the same name. Yemaya represents the healing of life-long trauma, both physical and cultural. She has the ability to heal her own injuries and that of others. She removes the illness from Ralph Waldo Emerson and sends him off to experience the world anew, inspiring him to write more profoundly. She takes on the “villain” of the book, a plantation owner who has never lost any of his “property,” and is able to heal her whipped and beaten body in order to save a generation of enslaved Black people.
Water is the source of her power just as the Earth’s sun is the source of Superman’s. But the idea that people who have been defined by their capture and transportation—by water—to the U.S. are able to survive and eventually thrive here is transcendent. Yemaya is able to heal the wounds suffered and wipe away the scars borne from a terrible history. Kopacz strives to provide similar healing by replacing the constant visual of Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies with chains around their necks and wrists and ankles and spirits with a counter-narrative; a balm:
I look up and see that the other people who were gathered around me have dispersed. Some are dancing to the drumming, and some have gathered around a fire, laughing and talking. The women are partially covered in brilliantly colored beaded cloth that they wear wrapped around their waists. The men and women both wear bright, beaded strands around their necks, wrists, and ankles. They also have elaborate headdresses adorned with beads and feathers. There is jubilation in the air.
Yemaya continues to mend hearts today as controversy boils over regarding the casting of a Black woman in the role of Ariel in a new live-action film of The Little Mermaid. The importance of storytelling and tradition continues to ring true as people who cannot fathom a mermaid who is not white because it is not part of their popular (or personal) cultural narrative is evidence that being able to tell more than one story from more than one perspective is essential, even if the story is fictional.
Kopacz uses the framing device of oral history being told to further emphasize that the only reason we are hearing this story is because it is being told. That may seem obvious, but the silencing of stories like that of Yemaya (e.g. current discussions around Critical Race Theory) is what has caused many people with ancestry outside of the U.S. to seek information to fill the gaps in their personal stories. It is no coincidence that we use words such as roots and tree when we discuss our family heritage—we all need a little water to grow.
By Anita Kopacz
Black Privilege Publishing/Atria
Published August 3, 2021