JANUARY 6, 2022
I HAVE ALWAYS loved mermaids. I was a young Black girl in South Los Angeles and did not know how to swim, although I lived just a few miles from the sea. Yet I loved water and was fascinated by it as much as I feared it. I would often lay in my bathwater with my black mermaid doll, whose bejeweled tail I could squeeze to make her sing. I vividly remember holding her under the water with me and praying that I could flow down the drain and into the ocean where I would become a mermaid too.
As I got older, I learned my brown skin that was different from most people I saw on television was not a result of the cocoa butter soap that we used; I was descended from enslaved people who were brought on ships from Africa. I came to the conclusion that all of the mermaids in the ocean, which I fervently believed existed, must be Black because so many African people had gone into the sea. I even started world-building for a story about a race of merpeople (the Marjani people, I called them, after a Kiswahili name that I found in a well-worn Black baby names book), descended from the African people who had jumped or been cast overboard. I never finished this story. As I grew older, I was frequently told to get my head out of fantasy and to focus on the real world.
While studying creative writing in college and graduate school, I received the message in subtle and explicit ways: these were not the kinds of stories that were expected from someone like me. As a Black girl, I was told that I had to be realistic, both in my plans for my life and the things that I created. Overwhelmed by such limitations, I allowed rationality to take over even my fantasies and dreams. I let my imagination be throttled not only by questions of how mermaids breathe and survive and transform, but, more importantly: why don’t they just sink all of the ships and flood the world that would put people in chains?
Natasha Bowen takes on these questions fearlessly in the captivating fantasy adventure novel Skin of the Sea, which brings together mermaids, African folklore, and the transatlantic slave trade. Set in 15th-century West Africa, Skin of the Sea tells the story of Simidele, a teenage mermaid who was created to deliver the souls of those cast into the sea from enslavers’ ships to the Supreme Creator. Simidele is driven by a sense of justice, asking, “Why do we not smash the ships to pieces? Why do we not drag all those who sail them to the black parts of the sea?” This internal hunger for justice eventually leads Simidele to a violation of her duty that imperils all of her kind.
The novel builds upon and collages West African cosmologies. Simidele is created by Yemoja, the orisa and mother of the ocean. In Yoruba religion, the orisas are intermediary divinities, linked to natural elements, who exist between humanity and the Supreme Creator Olodumare, who has withdrawn from the world. Mami Wata is a water goddess, and also a name linked with many deities and folk figures of Africa and its diaspora, reflecting a fusion of Indigenous African water spirits and mermaid lore. Though the orisa and Mami Wata usually belong to distinct traditions, Mami Wata is sometimes associated with water orisa such as Yemoja. In Bowen’s world-building, Yemoja, who also appears in the form of a mermaid, creates the Mami Wata to bless the souls of those who die during the transatlantic Crossing. Yemoja explains,
The òyìnbó first came to our lands this year, greedy for power and resources. I watched as they began to steal people, taking them away on their giant ships. And so I left the rivers and streams of our lands and made the sea my home. […] I wanted to ensure that those who lose their lives on the sea receive comfort in our prayers before they return home to join Olodumare.
Skin of the Sea therefore continues a theme in contemporary children and young adult literature previously explored by Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Bayou Magic (2015), Leila Vrhel’s Mami Wata (2017), Tracey Baptiste’s Rise of the Jumbies (2017), and Zetta Elliott’s Mother of the Sea (2017), in which an African water deity in the form of a mermaid supports or protects those enduring the Crossing. Skin of the Sea joins these books in their use of mermaids to mediate the traumatic history of the Middle Passage for young readers.
In addition to these African cosmologies, Bowen draws loosely on the structure of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” However, Skin of the Sea’s setting in 15th-century West Africa amid the burgeoning transatlantic slave trade complicates and deepens the familiar story line, offering more agency to its protagonist and larger implications for her actions. Rather than seven mermaid princesses, we have seven Mami Wata with the responsibility of blessing and delivering the souls of those killed during the Crossing. Where Andersen’s unnamed little mermaid filled her garden with human things and desired a human soul, Simidele enjoys retaking her human form in which she basks in fleeting memories of her former life: “I spread my hair over the white of the beach and close my eyes. With the sun burning my skin and my hands grasping fistfuls of sand, I let myself dream in a way I never can in the sea.”
The barrier between the mermaid and human world in “The Little Mermaid” is made sense of in Skin of the Sea through the strict orders of Olodumare that Yemoja and the Mami Wata are not to intervene directly in the human affairs of the slave trade: “All that you need to do, all that you must do, is to gather any souls of those who pass in the sea, and we will say a prayer to ease them on their journey back to Olodumare. […] Nothing more, nothing less.” The little mermaid’s forbidden rescue of a shipwrecked prince is echoed in Simidele’s fateful choice to save Adekola, the teenage son of a village leader, when he is cast from an enslaver’s ship. Rather than the sea witch who enables the little mermaid’s pursuit of her human prince, Yemoja tasks Simidele with traveling to the mainland to retrieve a set of magic rings through which she can appeal to Olodumare for forgiveness. Though both mermaids experience terrible pain when walking on human feet, the little mermaid charms humans by dancing gracefully on land, where Simi recovers the warrior training of her former life to defend her friends and achieve her mission. While the scope of Skin of the Sea is too large for it to be considered simply a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” these clever parallels utilize the familiarity of the story beats and details of the fairy tale — but imbue each moment of likeness with a different set of meanings and a much higher set of stakes.
Simidele’s choice to save Adekola threatens not only her life but the fate of Yemoja and all Mami Wata. She thinks, “The need to make everything better thrums within me. I think of Folasade and the others, of Mother Yemoja and the wrath she risked to make us. I have endangered them all.” At the point at which Simidele and Kola depart on their journey, Simidele’s story departs from the silent passivity of the little mermaid’s quest for human love to a gripping fantasy adventure. The plot structure follows a companion quest arc: an unlikely pair of characters meet, dislike one another initially, and go on a journey to achieve a specific goal to prevent a large-scale disaster, meeting fantastical obstacles and vibrant characters along the way. This familiar fantasy story structure is made fresh by a landscape that draws on African culture, cosmologies, and folklores. Its pirates, fairies, spirits, and enchanted forests look, sound, and feel very different from the well-worn tropes of vaguely medieval European fantasy worlds:
The drums stop. The dancers freeze, their plaits cascading down narrow backs. Turning almost as one, they regard me with pale golden eyes. […] No higher than my hip, with gleaming ebony skin encased in ivory wrappers and silver hair in skinny plaits, the fairies number at least a hundred.
Simidele and Kola’s adventures are also grounded by a sensitive and sparse interweaving with the coexisting reality of the growing transatlantic slave trade. Bowen shows some of the effects of this encroaching violence through the lasting scars on Kola’s body and the destabilization of the regions that the characters travel through. But the novel never lingers on brutality, prioritizing instead the relationships, resistance, and resilience of the characters. The transatlantic slave trade is pivotal to the story in some important ways — Simidele would not have been created without it, and Kola would not have been kidnapped and cast into the sea. However, it does not make up the totality of the characters’ trials, struggles, or contemplations.
This book enters important conversations surrounding the role of racial trauma in media and art centering Black people. Many (and I would include myself within this many) believe that the horror of racial chattel slavery requires witnessing and remembering. However, many (and I would only sometimes include myself within this many) also critique the preponderance of Black pain and trauma in literature and film, and question the purpose that the repetition of images of racialized violence against Black people really serves for audiences. While I would never argue that depictions of the histories and continual horrors of white supremacy should not exist, and I tend to cringe at the reduction of content featuring historical Black experiences as only being about “trauma,” I understand the concerns that so many Black critics and artists have brought up about the paucity of stories that center other aspects of Black pasts and Black life. Joining novels such as the aforementioned young readers titles, Nalo Hopkinson’s 2007 The New Moon’s Arms, and Rivers Solomon’s 2019 The Deep, Bowen’s Skin of the Sea, with its fusion of mermaids and the Middle Passage, commands attention to the horror of racial chattel slavery alongside images of awe, rebirth, and possibility. Simidele and Kola’s journey is also full of fears and dangers and griefs in which white people play no part. The external perils of booby-trapped islands and carnivorous monsters are reflected in more internal challenges — the pull between duty and desire, the risks of love, the difficulty of faith, the desire and pride that drive conflicts between powerful and sometimes petty gods.
There might be some who object to the license that the novel takes with uses of cosmology, particularly the characterization of the orisa Esu. For those who practice Ifá or African indigenous and diasporic religions, the orisa and Mami Wata are not just myths. Though Bowen makes a laudable attempt to portray their complexity, these figures’ duality and nuance is difficult to capture in an efficient, tightly woven quest plot that requires clear objectives, protagonists, and antagonists. However, I would compare Bowen’s use of these cosmologies to the countless authors who have built narratives around allusions and direct retellings of biblical theology for hundreds of years. The weaving of cosmology into art is never rigidly loyal to the source — and cannot be — in contested, fluid traditions that have existed and moved and transformed for thousands of years. The increasing presence of African-derived cosmologies in fantasy literature is a necessary development that not only decenters whiteness and diversifies representation — it reinvigorates the genre itself. While this different landscape of deities and folklore is important and pleasurable for any reader, I can only dream what it would have meant to me as a brown little girl dreaming about mermaids in my bathtub. I wish I had this book back when I knew that mermaids must be Black but had only ever seen them on screen and in storybooks as pale, wispy creatures with golden or red hair. I wish I had this book when I was being told that it was a waste of my time to dream about or to create other worlds.
Informed by this landscape of lore and cosmology, Bowen’s images veritably leap from the page, stunning not only in their sensory detail but in their cultural specificity. On land, shimmering mermaid tails transform into luxurious wrappers (traditional garments worn in West Africa) of the same colors. Bowen draws, with a mix of simplicity and wonder, the majestic entry of each orisa into the story — an onyx-skinned, blue-tailed Yemoja emerging from the sea, the heavily muscled thunder orisa Sango ripping open the clouds, a pearl-draped Olokun (another orisa of the sea) dragging his chains across the ocean floor. But Bowen brings the same deft, clear hand to more mundane moments, such as a young mermaid parting and twisting her curls. Simidele’s hair forms a motif in the text. It is constantly being tended to, constantly in motion, and comes to play in the plot in a particularly powerful moment that I won’t give away. The tenderness and intelligence of the various scenes involving Simidele’s hair stand alone. Yet these scenes are especially thrilling when one considers them in the context of the politics of Black women’s hair: the fluidity and swiftness with which we move through styles, the ways in which Black women’s hair creativity is appropriated and copied and punished, the sad fact that laws have to be passed (The CROWN Act, recently passed in California) to prevent discrimination against Black hair being worn in its natural state. This book is a gorgeous film waiting and needing to happen — with a Black production team, culturally conscious adaptation, and competent effects.
Skin of the Sea is incredibly timely, crystalizing several contemporary cultural developments. A subplot in which the health of the land deteriorates, resulting in dying fields and dwindling fish, speaks strongly to the climate crisis. Between a growing mermaid aficionado culture and high interest in Freeform’s Siren and the upcoming remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (with its lead role being played by African American singer Halle Bailey), mermaids seem poised to become the next major trend in supernatural being representation in popular culture, usurping the place of zombies and vampires through the last couple of decades. The centering of African characters and references to the transatlantic slave trade speaks to current cultural debates around the legacy of racial chattel slavery, the teaching of history, and the struggle for more complex and meaningful representations of African-descended people and Black life. While I welcome the recasting of beloved characters such as Ariel, Skin of the Sea is a beautiful reminder that there are so many other stories that need and deserve to be told.