The Deep Blue Between by Ayesha Harruna Attah | Young Adult Fiction/Historical Fiction | Pushkin Press | 256 pages | Review by Aisha Yusuff
The Deep Blue Between is the latest novel by Ghanaian author Ayesha Harruna Attah. Tackling intra-African slavery, the young adult novel follows 10-year-old twin sisters, Hassana and Husseina, who are kidnapped by horse-riders during a raid in their village. After the attack, Hassana and their older sister are sold to a village near Accra, Ghana. Husseina is taken to Lagos, Nigeria, and ultimately ends up oceans away from her sisters in Bahia, Brazil.
Despite being forcibly separated, the twins’ dreams keep them connected and fuel their desire to reunite. They dream of the ocean, blue and vast, which has a recurring and varied presence in the story. This use of water is compelling because of a Yoruba saying, ‘Humans are like water that always flows to its beginnings.’ It is even more significant because of Husseina’s contact with Yoruba culture and how it shapes the woman she eventually grows to become. This detail and how it is tied to the story are evidence of the amount of care and research that went into creating Hassana and Husseina’s stories.
Slavery and Colonisation Through the Lens of Childish Innocence
The Deep Blue Between skillfully explores the dark and heavy themes of slavery and colonisation through the eyes of a child. This perspective is rarely seen in works that examine similar themes, but it is critical when understanding their larger effects. However, The Deep Blue Between does not focus solely on intra-African enslavement and also examines trans-Atlantic slavery. Even so, the novel does not minimize the vileness of the intra-African slave trade. Contrary to some arguments posed concerning this type of slavery, Attah’s characters do not try to justify trans-Atlantic slavery nor absolve white men of its sins – even when many white characters vehemently oppose slavery. This is profound because of the message it sends: Africans must understand their history with slavery. However, intra-African slavery does not justify or absolve the horrific ideology that fueled the trans-Atlantic slave trade, nor does it erase the dangerous systemic racism birthed by that ideology.
Readers also see the twins’ experiences with colonisation and its ramifications. Hassana does not understand why Europeans live in beautiful homes in clean areas while Africans live close to lagoons and are forced to breathe foul air. She also tries to make sense of why men in Accra wear hot black jackets when traditional clothes are more comfortable. Husseina attempts to understand why the local religion, Candomblé, is criminalised in Bahia while Catholic churches remain open. Husseina also struggles to understand why, despite how diverse Bahia is, the darkness of one’s skin seems proportionally tied to their level of poverty.
Culture and Belief Systems
The Deep Blue Between beautifully features aspects of different West African cultures. Attah narrates every new place and language with such depth that readers can feel the transition from place to place. From food to architecture and clothing, Attah immerses the reader in so many different cultures, giving the novel a colourful, pan-Africanistic touch. Equally important is Attah’s portrayal of the significance of twinhood in many West African cultures. The similarities in how twins are regarded in Lagos, Accra, and Bahia are even more apparent when the same reverence is absent amongst white missionaries.
Belief and religion are also heavily featured in the novel. This is not unusual; discussions regarding colonialism often include an analysis of the influence of Christianity and Islam. However, Attah withdraws the spotlight from these two Abrahamic religions and shines it, instead, on agnosticism and Candomblé. Agnosticism as a belief system was uncommon in African societies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Candomblé is a religion practised in Brazil that draws heavy inspiration from the Yoruba belief in orishas. Focusing on these belief systems as opposed to Christianity and Islam allows the twins additional room for growth. Despite the polarizing and divisive turn many conversations about religious beliefs can take, the common ground the twins manage to find is another brilliant portrayal of their innocence and growth throughout the book.
A Small Book That Packs a Big Punch
There are many more subtle but equally essential themes in the book, in addition to the larger themes of slavery, colonisation, and similarities and differences across cultures. One such theme is feminism. This theme becomes evident when Hassana argues with her friend Amerley after Amerley announces she is getting married. Hassana cannot understand why her friend has decided to get married at 17 to a man she does not like because of his good family name. Amerley declares that while it may seem stupid to other women, some women make life decisions based on their family interests, and that is okay. This incident tackles the ongoing conversation about the myriad of forms in which feminism can exist.
Another significant theme is the treatment of mental illness among African men who are tricked into fighting wars for their colonial masters. When the husband of one of Hassana’s guardians returns from one such war with severe depression, he is locked up in a deteriorating asylum. Hassana’s guardian, Hajia, points out the hypocrisy in the societal treatment of people with mental health disorders. She declares, ‘Mad people were the freest people’ because societal fears do not bind them. Haija asserts that her experience with people suffering from mental illness taught her that madness is not a crime. More importantly, Hajia suggests that the reason society is often quick to lock up ‘mad’ people up stems from our need to erase them from the ‘perfectly homogenous’ society we pretend exists. She concludes a speech on the topic by stating that hiding away the mentally ill is due to white colonisers’ influence and ‘the white man’s ways aren’t always the best.’
The Deep Blue Between is a fresh and beautiful exploration of West African history and culture told through the eyes of a child. It tackles the heartbreaking and harmful effects of slavery and colonisation.
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