Hello fall, 2021 the long, hot summer is behind us and as we cast our eyes towards the fall, winter with a new year just 22 odd weeks away, the idea of moving forward swirls around our collective consciousness.
I’ve read a few books that I feel strongly will provide your mind with a kind of comfort while still engaging your mind in deep exploration and the first on my fall reading is Anita Kopacz’s gripping debut novel’s SHALLOW WATERS.
What immediately caught my imagination was that the main character was not only a mermaid but a reimagining of Yemaya, an Orisha (deity) from the Yoruba religion. This beloved deity has been kept alive with respect through an oral tradition brought to the new world by enslaved Africans in the early 16th century. You see, compelling, right?
Here, Kopacz crafted and breathed life into Yemaya, giving her a body who makes the journey to the U.S., not as a captive African slave who survived the brutal, inhumane transatlantic slave trade. Instead, she followed the ship filled with stolen Africans in her true form — as a mermaid.
Let’s rewind for those readers who don’t know much about this ancient religion. Yemaya, also known as Yemoja, is considered the mother of all Orishas and is the Yoruba powerful divinity of the waters, specifically, Nigeria’s Ogun River.
In this story, Yemaya is released from a fishermen’s net by a young boy, Obatala, who, while in awe of her presence. Many years later, when Obatala is taken by the slavers’ ships, she follows them with the hope of returning the favor.
Knowing that her mermaid form would not terrify humans, she transforms into a human with great effort to continue her search for the know-grown man, Obatala. When she awakes she finds herself in a
community of Indigenous people who are aware of her spiritual significance, and in taking care of her, she’s informed that she’s just at the beginning with Obatala’s capture just the inciting incident that gets Yemaya moving.
Kopacz’s novel is swift as it chronicles a path dotted with important destinations and historical figures that are woven into the story.
By using traditional folktale techniques, Kopacz’s builds a vibrant
world for Yemaya as she moves through the United States experiencing the tense, secret world of the Underground Railroad and the pain experienced on the Trail of Tears and meeting icons like
Fredrick Douglass, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
There is great intelligence at work with Kopacz centering on an African woman within the context of important markers of our shared past.
Yemaya (here, in this story) is the key to why some significant points in history happened and why they were successful making her presence just as memorable.
At first glance, many contemporary audiences might be reminded of Disney’s” Little Mermaid” which is yet another example of cultural reappropriation of which white people are known for. It’s important to know that Yemaya and the existence of mermaids [merpeople] predate all popular culture. What this Orisha represents is the healing of a life-long trauma, both physical and cultural.
Yemaya can heal her own injuries and those of others, removing an illness from Ralph Waldo Emerson and sending him into the world with a new point-of-view. In his literary piece, she steps into the shoes of the “villain” — the plantation owner who healed the whipped and beaten slaves, never losing any of his “property”.
And what is Yemaya’s source of power? Water just as the Earth’s sun powers up Superman. Kopacz strives to visually replace chains that were placed on the African and Indigenous bodies with them wearing bright colored beads around their ankles, wrists, and neck, and elaborate headdresses adorned with feathers and beads. And in the air there is joy.
Our tradition is important to remember and to demand that it not be diluted by the very people who enslaved us and tried to destroy our culture.
Mermaids have always been a part of our cultural heritage as passed down by a rich oral tradition. It’s no coincidence that our people have been searching for information to fill in the gaps. It’s not by happenstance that our people use strong words like [famiy] tree and roots and the need that water plays in helping them grow.
The reviews have been strong.
– “A riveting and heartbreaking story strengthened by Kopacz’s superb ability to create a sense of place. Fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer will want to take a look” — Publishers Weekly
– “A fairy tale for American adults, Anita Kopacz’s spellbinding first novel imagines the Yoruban mermaid deity Yemaya as she follows a fleet of slave ships across the ocean in the mid-1800s… A captivating debut.” — Harper’s Bazaar
– “We transcend time and space as Yemaya herself grows from a tentative young woman into the powerful deity she’s destined to become… this novel crosses genre as easily as it does time.”
– “Kopacz’s commitment to a vision of healing even while detailing tragedies shapes this tale’s themes of redemption and the universal soul. Most remarkable is Kopacz’s abilty to maintain a brisk narrative pace as she delves into the weighty issues and complex experiences that shaped Yemaya’s quest.” — Booklist
Anita Kopacz is an award-winning writer and spiritual advisor. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Heart & Soul Magazine and Managing Editor of BeautyCents Magazine. When she is not writing, you can find her on the dance floor or traveling the world with her children. Anita lives in New York City with her family
I only had one question for author Anita Kopacz about her debut novel SHALLOW WATER. Just. One.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: Ms. Kopacz with great respect, I only have one question. Were you guided by an Orisha to share this story, and if so, which one?
ANITA KOPACZ: I was deeply guided by Yemaya throughout the entire journey. It felt as if she was sitting on the side of the bed telling me what to write. I actually had a reading from a Babalowo (Priest) in the Ifá tradition who told me I would be sharing this story with the world. I asked how he knew that, and he said that Yemaya told him. It has been a journey of deep ancestral healing in order to birth this medicine story. Thank you so much for asking this question.
SHALLOW WATERS is the first work of fiction from Charlamagne Tha God’s imprint, Black Privilege Publishing.