Our Mermaid Craze / The Stories We Need: Mermaid Fantasy in the Wake of History

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

Whatever else they might be, mermaids are incitements to tell stories. Narratives trail in their wake, whether they be about the mermaid’s own origins, or about the possibilities and risks of interactions between (usually male) humans and mer-kind. As the British Royal Museums in Greenwich remind us, “tales of mermaids date back to the first written accounts of humanity.”1 It seems that humans have been telling stories about half human, half fish creatures for almost as long as we have been telling stories about ourselves. In these stories, mermaids are almost always invitations: Mermaid lore frequently depicts these creatures as enchanting feminine figures who call us to them with offers of aesthetic and other pleasures. The trope comes close to being a defining feature of a mermaid narrative. In this essay, I want to think about mermaids, the need to tell stories that feature them, and the occasions on which the stories we need to tell require mermaids who repel and frighten us rather than lure us to them.

Occasions for mermaid stories might arise from at least two sources. One is the figure herself, in the form of a body in need of an origin myth, or a body so entangled in a mythos that some sort of imaginative rescue feels necessary. Such a figure is a mermaid in need of a story. Another potential source is a set of narrative conditions that calls for a hybrid, liminal figure able to survive in a setting inhospitable to human life: a story in need of a mermaid. In thinking with and about the mermaid who needs a story, and the story that needs a mermaid, I follow in the wake of three contemporary texts: Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, Clippng’s hip-hop narrative “The Deep”, and Rivers Solomon’s remix of the Clippng song in the novella of the same name. All three narratives link merfolk to the need for new stories to be told in and about the aftermath of European conquest, slavery, and the racial trauma that resulted from the long, violent enterprise of colonization in the Americas. Indeed, merfolk figures prove to be central to the project of using narrative to attend to and reckon with the wounds inflicted by the (hi)stories many humans, particularly those descendants of the colonized and enslaved, live in and with today.

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A mermaid in need of a story

Monique Roffey’s title character in The Mermaid of Black Conch is a formidable creature. She is large, “heavy as a mule,” (13) with a “huge and muscular” tail, “like that of a creature from the deepest part of the ocean” (22). She is “strong as 6 men” (27). Her hair is like “a nest of cables,” (22) “black black and long and alive with stinging creatures—like she carry [sic] a crown on her head of electricity wires” (13). She is, as the man who will become her lover notes, “not pretty at all” (13). She is Aycayia, an Indigenous Caribbean woman whose mermaid form is the manifestation of an ancient curse that results in her 1000-year exile from her community and from the colonial history of the region. We are introduced to her as the trophy in a big game fishing contest. Biting into the bait of a giant squid, she has her jaw pierced by the hook, commencing an hours-long battle with the four fishermen who think they have caught a large marlin. Chapter two of the novel is a gripping and gruesome account of Aycayia’s capture, which Roffey renders as both Hemingway-esque trophy hunt and gang rape. It is a brutal scene that ends with Aycayia alive but “reverse crucified” upside down and “hanging next to a big marlin.”2

The men who claim her after catching her, Thomas Clayson and his father, are white Americans in the region for the tournament. Feeling simultaneously dazed, guilty, and satisfied about his role in the sexual assault, the young Clayson turns to romantic myth to both celebrate his conquest and soothe his troubled conscience as he contemplates the captured Aycaiya: “He would write poems about the mermaid they’d just captured, a crown of sonnets perhaps. He would do his best to commemorate her, his first woman, his Helen of Atlantis, his water-maiden.”3 “His” Helen, a “freak,” a thing “pulled from the sea,” but also “a woman,” lies at his feet, bound and bloody on the deck of the boat on which he stands. Moments before this, he and his father had just “tied her hands and gagged her mouth.” They also poured rum on her serpentine, electrified hair (“to quiet it down”) and “hooded her face with an old piece of tarp, so she couldn’t look into them with those silver-black, hate-filled eyes.”4

Clayson’s impulse to overwrite violence by conjuring the trope of the enchanting mermaid lover refracts in provocative ways. For one thing, it points to Roffey’s own sense of her project in writing a mermaid novel as a “feminist” one designed to give power back to a figure that she believes is too often disempowered: “While she’s a hallucination of all humanity, she’s always been written by men,” Roffey writes in a 2020 essay, “ She is the product of the male gaze.”5 Later in the same essay, Roffey asserts, “Mermaids, in my mind, needed an 21st-century update, a feminist rewrite.”6

Clayson’s fantasy is precisely the kind of antifeminist imaginary that Roffey seeks to contest by giving her mermaid a new story. Building on an Indigenous Taino myth, Roffey rewrites the mermaid not only by giving her a narrative focalized around her own history, agency, and experience, but also by offering arresting descriptions of Aycayia’s mermaid form. Giving her mermaid a formidable animal body, large, grotesque, gorgon like, Roffey rejects the trappings and signifiers of conventional beauty, presenting the mermaid as a sea goddess, but also as a wounded animal, a victim whose scars testify to the viciousness and violence of the men who trap an assault her.

Foregrounding Aycayia’s brutalized and eventually disintegrating body allows Roffey to keep her readers’ attention on the violence the mermaid suffers. Importantly, that violence is not merely local and personal. The strong resemblance between the men on the boat and colonizers like Christopher Columbus, who is quoted in the epigraph of the novel, makes it clear that Aycayia’s assault recapitulates the violence of the history of the Caribbean region. In experiencing capture by hook and line, Aycayia lives through early Caribbean history in a compressed, personal, bodily way.

Roffey’s effort to tell this necessarily different mermaid story is enabled by a different kind of mermaid body: one that exceeds the terms of most conventional notions of feminine beauty. The novel features a number of references to Aycayia’s bodily abjection and the suffering that accompanies it: she has a strong smell, her tail rots away as she returns to human form, she defecates in the bathtub where David, her eventual love interest, keeps her after rescuing her from the dock. At times Acayia is almost grotesque. Because of that need for care—because she inhabits a wounded, disfigured body that is sometimes repulsive but also constantly threatened by the possibility of violence from the men who would capture and commodify her,7 Aycayia invites solidarity and affection from other characters, and becomes in many ways quite lovable to others, including the reader. Furthermore, As Roffey emphasizes in her comments on the novel, because Aycayia is also “liberat[ed] from her tail,”8 for a time she is free to pursue the desires that her mermaid form was created to deny her. This ancient Indigenous mermaid is marked by too much violent history to be merely beautiful and seductive. Roffey’s representation of her forces us to have more complex reactions to and appreciation for other dimensions of this mermaid’s body and being.

The result of Roffey’s portrait is that the reader is able to appreciate Aycayia as both victimized and powerfully superhuman. That in turn reminds readers that Indigenous peoples were dehumanized but not destroyed by the experience of colonization. Put another way, the mermaid’s hybrid form as Roffey imagines it allows her to do two important things simultaneously: honor Aycayia’s resilience and strength as an Indigenous woman survivor and acknowledge the intense suffering that Aycayia and peoples like her experienced.

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The story in need of a mermaid

If Monique Roffey’s Aycayia is the Indigenous mermaid who needs a new story because she must be liberated from the objectifying violence of the male gaze and the latest incarnation of the extractive colonial project, then The Deep is the story that needs the mermaid to signify the possibility of life in the bloody wake9 of the slave ship that meant death for millions of transported Africans. At the heart of The Deep is the racial trauma, grief, and loss of the Middle Passage. The songwriters and novelist who tell this mermaid tale10 endeavor to write life out of the deaths of millions of Africans who chose or were forced to drown rather than begin life in servitude. The Wajinru merfolk in The Deep come to represent unanticipated African survivance in an oceanic world between and separate from African and Caribbean shores. In place of the prospect of the total loss of African lives and futures, the authors tap into African folklore to conjure merfolk as the embodiment of life after physical death and before the social death of enslavement. Enslaved captives whose humanity was denied are given life in a new form by multispecies mothers: the ocean itself, which seems to cause the spontaneous evolution of human babies into aquatic creatures in the wombs of their dying mothers; and whales, who nurture, protect, and teach the newborn merfolk creatures to survive under water. A third African woman, Waj, is saved by the first group of these hybrid beings, communicates with them, and eventually gives them a name that connects them to her African heritage and kin.

Multiple multi-species mothers create the merfolk out of desperation to preserve Black life, expanding the scope of the Black diaspora beneath the surface of the oceans. The gap in the narrative of the Middle Passage, the space of death into which Africans are thrown overboard, is reanimated through the merfolk figures who offer signs of life. I would argue that The Deep offers one example of what Christina Sharpe describes as “creative texts holding out for the possibility of Black life.”11 And following Sharpe’s lead, I read Black merfolk in The Deep as performing a version of what Sharpe herself calls “wake work,” by adding their testimony to the “largeness of Black life… insisted on from death.”12 In addition, these merfolk signify what Sharpe also asserts is the tendency of Blackness to “refashion life where human life is not supposed to thrive.”13

The bodily form that Wajinru life takes is mermaid-like because that form preserves their African human heritage, enables them to survive under water, and also connects them to non-human kin. Fins, gills, and tails mean they are at home in the ocean. Hands, torsos, Black skin, and the ability to speak mean they are still connected to their human relations. But unlike many other mermaid figures, the Wajinru are not mildly playful or seductive creatures: they can be violent and ferocious. In my reading, this fierceness is a necessity, not just a capacity, of these Black merfolk. The ability to be ferocious is lifesaving for both their human and their animal selves. We see this quality revealed when Yetu, the main character through whom most of the novel is focalized, expresses her animal form as a warning to humans that she encounters for the first time:

“[Yetu] certainly couldn’t clear the large boulders separating her from the larger sea. She settled for a scream, opening her mouth wide, showing rows of sharp, long teeth, narrow and overlapping. Her eyes and nose disappeared as her mouth expanded, her face replaced with a black, endless pit guarded by fangs.14

Yetu also shows her fierceness when attacking a shark she plans to sacrifice in a bid to end her own mental suffering:

“she’d come on [the shark] like a sudden current from underneath. Opened her jaw and crush its throat… she bared her teeth. She reached out her fins, more flexible at the base than any sharks, and grabbed hold…. She pressed her teeth into the places where the arteries were juiciest and most prominent and then let the blood drain from it. She let the blood cover her.15

In a third instance, a Wajinru ancestor, caught on a human ship, attacks her would-be captors:

The two-legs [humans]… tried to grab and handle her, but she was more awake than they thought, and she bit every one of their throats until they died.16

Given that these creatures trace their origins to moments of violent death, and given that in the world of the narrative, threats to their lives continue in the form of petroleum extraction, these expressions of animal ferocity are lifesaving defenses, especially against those humans who never saw the merfolk or their ancestors as human in the first place. Their animal ferocity is both a sign of life and a marker of agency, two things their murdered ancestor mothers were denied.

As Black merfolk origin story, The Deep thus performs an imaginative rescue of Black lives in the Middle Passage from being lost in the detritus of racial capitalism. This rescue of lives from the past is accompanied by the possibility of the entry of merfolk into the present as an insurgent force that fights back against the violence of pollution and rising ocean temperatures, both of which accompany oil drilling. The Deep pictures a time of tidal wars in which Black merfolk rise up, recognize their connection to the world of the “two legs”, see the new threat posed by humans, and respond “like an army, better yet a Navy.”17 I read the Wajinru merfolk as the mermaids this story needs because they help suture the wounds of the Middle Passage and assert claims to community and futurity in the wake of enslavement.

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Both the story the mermaid needs and the story that needs the mermaid are narratives about racialized beings abjected from the category of the human in the course of European conquest in the new world. The fantasy figure of the mermaid, rendered fierce and even monstrous, enables imaginative engagement with that history. Such engagement involves—or even demands—celebrating and honoring Black and Indigenous agency. It also involves bearing witness to histories of violence that continue into the present, as well as evoking visions of possible futures apart from and beyond cycles of conquest and conflict.

As these mermaid narratives engage with historical violence and its continuities into the present, they take on new resonance in our contemporary moment in which a battle is raging over what kind of story about the past ought to be told , and intensified efforts to overwrite such histories with more politically palatable narratives are underway. From the expunging of history texts from library catalogs, to the curricular erasures that deny the violence of slavery and purport to “inspire future generations through motivating stories” instead,18 history seems to be very much in play, usually in a way that denies the suffering of whole populations of people at the hands of others. In telling different mermaid stories about fearsome racialized mermaid bodies, these mermaid texts put history in play in a different sense: they create new spaces for imaginative articulations of agency, community, and cross-temporal connection in locations that might otherwise be defined by history’s traumas. Instead of Indigenous Caribbean peoples subject to conquest, and pregnant African women sentenced to death in the Middle Passage, these texts offer readers other visions of possibility: a 1000-year-old Taino woman who remembers a time before Columbus, and African merfolk who thrive in an underwater segment of the Black diaspora and promise to aim their insurgent energy to fight back against the latest iterations of colonial violence.

Instead of denying the traumas of history, The Deep and The Mermaid of Black Conch choose to engage imaginatively with historical legacies in ways that recuperate agency, community, and signs of life for people who experienced death and loss on a large scale. As such, these merfolk tales testify to the power of fantasy, myth, and magic realist elements to help us reckon with formative, if traumatic histories in a less debilitating mode. Mermaid fantasy in these texts thus allows us to connect with the past while articulating needs and desires for futures that are more just, less violent, and more affirming of Black and Indigenous lives.

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This is part of the cluster Our Mermaid Craze. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Royal Museums Greenwich. “What is a mermaid and what do they symbolise?” (2023):
  2. Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch, 35. In her account of the origin of her idea for the novel, Roffey states that this image came to her in a dream: “one night, while staying there, my dreams threw up an image of a mermaid hanging upside down from her tail, from those same dreadful gallows, gagged and bound, her deadly hair writhing all over the jetty. She too had been caught during the fishing competition.” (Roffey, “The Mermaid C’est Moi,” 2022).
  3. Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch, 30.
  4. Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch, 30.
  5. Roffey, “The Mermaid C’est Moi,” 2022.
  6. Roffey, “The Mermaid C’est Moi,” 2022.
  7. Noting from the outset that “she’s worth millions,” Clayson considers selling her to the Smithsonian or some other high bidder.
  8. Roffey, “The Mermaid C’est Moi,” 2022.
  9. Christina Sharpe’s concept of “the wake” is an important lens for this reading.
  10. Since The Deep is a kind of open-source narrative, with the writers for Clippng producing the song that Rivers Solomon remixes for the novella, I will be discussing both the novella and the song in this section of the essay. I read the two as one narrative.
  11. Sharpe, In The Wake, 79. Jessica Pressman also notes this connection between the novel and Sharpe’s concept of “the wake” in her 2020 article “Disney’s Black mermaid is no breakthrough – just look at the literary subgenre of Black mermaid fiction.”
  12. Sharpe, In The Wake, 17.
  13. Sharpe, In The Wake, 139.
  14. Solomon et. al., The Deep, 73.
  15. Solomon et. al., The Deep, 103.
  16. Solomon et. al., The Deep, 128.
  17. Clippng, “The Deep”, 2018.
  18. From the Florida Department of Education website statement about revisions to the African American History curriculum.