Author Bethany C. Morrow is known for her ability to weave current and timely themes with speculative and fantastic elements seamlessly, first in Mem and now in A Song Below Water, a book about Black sirens, the power of Black voices, and the oppression they face in a world built on racist structures. Both a luscious fantasy and a searing criticism of the way we silence Black voices, A Song Below Water is instantly gripping and deeply emotionally resonant, and it has quickly become one of my favorite books of 2020.
A Song Below Water is available in stores now. Please consider buying your copy from an indie, and preferably Black-owned, bookstore, or requesting it from your local library if you are able. Read on to learn more about how Morrow created her mythology-filled world, how she uses sirens as an expression of Black power, and what it means when the world refuses to view Black women as victims of the violence enacted upon them.
TheYoungFolks: Your book, A Song Below Water, is set in a world much like ours, but it is one where hipsters live alongside elokos, and sprites— not failing memories—are the causes of missing keys or winter gloves. Can you tell us more about the setting and how you created it?
Bethany C. Morrow: The entire conceit for A Song Below Water came to me through the phrase, My voice is power. Realizing it was spoken by a Black siren because of the oppression and silencing she faced, I knew that the fantasy had to be contemporary. It depended on the parts of the real world that perpetuate misogynoir, or the specific kind of misogyny directed toward Black women. From there, I chose fantastical elements that likewise could blend with the world we know, that did not require their own ecosystem.
TYF: At the heart of your book are two sisters, Tavia and Effie. They share many things—tragic backgrounds, found families, a love for hair tutorials—but they each have their own strengths and obstacles they are trying to overcome. Can you introduce us to each of them? Where do we find them at the start of A Song Below Water?
BCM: Tavia was born in California, but after a traumatic experience involving her siren call, her parents moved her to Portland, Oregon, her father’s hometown, because it had a network. Networks are tiny communities within the Black community that protect the identities of their local sirens. Because of all this, Tavia is living with a secret she knows to be dangerous, and she takes a lot of responsibility for not endangering her family—particularly her father whose adherence to respectability politics have made her feel unsafe and uncertain of herself at every turn.
Luckily, upon moving to Portland, she meets Effie, a girl who at first doesn’t present with a magical identity. Effie is being raised by her adopted grandparents after the death of her mother, having never known her father. She’s also a cosplay mermaid at the renaissance faire, despite that her grandmother has an inexplicable aversion to that side of her life. Effie moves in with Tavia’s family when the girls form a powerful bond, and Effie really looks to Tavia to help her navigate the fear and confusion she feels as an orphan, as a trauma survivor, and surrounding the issues she begins having with her body.
At the beginning of ASBW, we find them at the community pool where Effie trains for the ren faire, and escapes the discomfort of her dry skin in the water. While waiting for her sister, Tavia sees that a Black woman who was recently murdered by her live-in boyfriend is being called a siren by the boyfriend’s defense team. Tavia is immediately aware that there will be increased discussion and scrutiny of sirens, and the fact that the world does not view them as victims. From there, the girls’ lives only get more hectic.
TYF: We’ve already discussed how your book blends the fantastic with the real, but what sets A Song Below Water apart is how successfully it weaves in real world issues like racism, the silencing of the “other,” and what it’s like to be a Black woman in a world that is still firmly rooted in racism. Was it always your goal to discuss these topics, or did they emerge organically as you wrote?
BCM: As I mentioned, the idea of abused Black sirens is where I began. Sirenness as an expression not only of the power Black women wield, and for which they’re alternately hated and called upon to lend it to someone else’s care. The gaslighting Black women endure when they speak truth they uniquely understand, standing at the intersection of the most despised racial and gender demographics, and part of the world’s assault on them involves the lie that they have no power at all. There would be no ASBW without that indictment of misogynoir, because it was what made me realize Black women are the real world sirens.
TYF: Running parallel to Tavia and Effie’s stories of growing into themselves and their powers is the viral media story of Rhoda Taylor, a Black woman murdered by her live-in boyfriend. Tavia knows about Rhoda from the viral hashtag urging people to “say her name” and remember her, not her murderer. What fueled your decision to insert Rhoda into the story?
BCM: I don’t know when I thought of it, I just know it was in the first draft, and it only gained prominence in the story from there. I wanted to demonstrate that in this world, it isn’t just Black women who are known to be sirens who are at risk. It’s Black women, period, as in our world. Siren becomes synonymous with Black women, and it just becomes the provocation the world needs to do in the open what they’ve always done and wanted to do. Even when the woman is already gone, it isn’t enough to take her life, they want to bury or besmirch her memory. When fellow Black women demand her name be spoken, the attention pivots to all the ways that perhaps she was never a victim at all. She was siren is shorthand for she was angry, she had an attitude, she was belligerent, she was loud, she took up too much space.
TYF: Though the case of Rhoda Taylor is one that is initially familiar to us, your story turns it on its head when the defense team suggests that Rhoda might have been a siren. If this is true, her death will be “justifiable,” for sirens are feared and hated in the world of A Song Below Water. In perhaps my favorite line of the book, you write, “Danger, they report, and they’re talking about the danger she posed, never the danger we face.” Can you unpack this line for us?
BCM: It’s difficult to talk about right now, with the recent murder of Breonna Taylor. It hurt so badly to realize that was her last name. Not because of the details of that horrific crime, but because in the aftermath, we are watching her name get a little lost, because a man was killed in the same news cycle. I don’t know how to talk about the reality that in many ways, and historically, because of the crucial intersections of our identities, Black women are expected to show up for people who don’t always show up for us. And if it weren’t such an observable truth, one could look at the demands for allegiance placed on Black women and think the people demanding it were completely unaware of the cost to us. That we are constantly in that same danger. We lose our lives to that same violence, but it’s almost like we’re supposed to pretend we’re not so that we can care for someone else. Because at the end of the day, we are the last demographic whose anger is permitted. It’s not. A man’s anger can be righteous, and earned, and understandable, even when he’s a Black man. So I guess my response is a question: how do you look at the most vulnerable demographic, the demographic you are terrorizing from every side, and call her a danger? How do you overlook medical, educational, economic disenfranchisement, and have the audacity to criticize her anger instead of the terror she’s faced, that upsets her?
TYF: Following the reveal that Rhoda might have been a siren, the girls’ favorite YouTube guru, Camilla Fox, takes a stand, claiming that she can no longer stand aside and that it is time she put her voice to use. How does this reflect your own feelings about the power of social media and the impact of influencers, especially on teens?
BCM: It reflects the reality of what Black women give up, knowing what they have to lose. In the book, there is no march organized for Rhoda Taylor, though there is for a Black boy killed by law enforcement. It should never be misconstrued as an either/or scenario, it’s simply an observable fact. Few Black women are honored this way, and so Camilla Fox is taking a stand with the full weight of what might happen should it end badly for her. But she is going to honor her slain sister, though it cost her everything.
TYF: I mentioned earlier that Tavia and Effie share a love for hair tutorials, and though your book is about so many complicated and controversial subjects, there is also a quiet celebration of beauty—and Black women reclaiming their natural beauty—always shimmering in the background. What do you hope your readers take away from the girls’ discussions of hair and beauty? Did you watch a lot of hair tutorials as research?
BCM: I hope the celebration isn’t too quiet. It’s emblazoned on the cover, just like I wanted! I’m so eternally proud of that. It’s important to me to undo some of the harm that comes from appearance-related misogynoir, and demonizing the Blackness of our features and hair textures and hair styles (until appropriated). I want all of my readers to recognize western culture for what it is: pro-white beauty tutorials. Shampoo commercials, make up commercials, movies, tv shows. They’re constantly operating with Eurocentric beauty as the center or default. The damage done to our spirits by this is matched by the damage done to our hair and skin, having products that were made for someone else shoved down our throats. Required to squeeze our appearance into a mold that doesn’t fit us.
I didn’t watch any hair tutorials as research, because I always watch hair tutorials, lol. I’m a naturalista, which means I don’t chemically straighten or relax my hair, which means even when I wear it straight, it’s from heat, and is impermanent. I went through my own journey, as many Black girls do, to finding out what texture of hair I even have, and that there are many! And that I have many on my own head! About four, by my count. So it was something I hope to steer my young adult readers toward, as they step more fully into themselves.
TYF: Activism comes to play a huge role in A Song Below Water, with the girls even attending a protest along with their classmates and their mothers. But as Tavia explains, the protest carries a different weight for her and Effie than it does for her white, non-siren classmates. You write, “I’ve been asked more than a few times whether I agree with destruction of public property….The question’s always framed so that bringing up destruction of human bodies sounds like a deflection even to my own ears.” Can you unpack this statement for us? What do you want your readers to learn from the protest scenes?
BCM: I’ve been watching first person footage in Chicago, Minneapolis, LA, and Atlanta today (as opposed to the same sensational clips played over and over on the news), and this is such a devastating thing to talk about while it’s happening again in my world.
It will never cease to amaze me that people who had nothing to say about the lynchings Black Americans face at the hands of police officers, and about the lack of penalty or appropriate consequences, will suddenly become very engaged when there’s a protest or rebellion. I’ve been reminded lately not to refer to these insurrections as riots, because that’s borrowed language designed to demonize. For one thing, I hate the idea of protesters being blamed for clashes when law enforcement shows up dressed for war. If we came in our day clothes, and you come in tactical armor, why are we the ones disparaged? I hate even more any attempt to downplay or make excuses for damages or looting, as though that requires apology, even when it happens. Even when it happens, it is not the crime. But the same people who didn’t seem to realize a community waited for justice to be done, pleaded for justice to be done, and then took to the street to demand justice be done, will begin their conversation at the point of the rebellion. That’s what they want an answer for. Because they don’t want peace, they want peace and quiet. No matter the cost to us. I want readers to know that the violence was the slaying. That’s where the violence begins. Not when we take to the streets. When our lives are taken, and in every unjust step thereafter.
TYF: Because your characters are teenagers, they spend a lot of time in school, and we see the best and worst of their teachers, from the ones who force the class to consider their own cultural competency to others who have no real understanding of the implications of their lessons. Were these teachers influenced by any of the teachers you had in high school or college?
BCM: I never had the cultural competency teacher, unfortunately. I had many variations of the well-meaningly racist teacher, throughout my entire education, straight through university. And I wanted to show what it is like to be a Black child sitting underneath that person’s authority, entrusting your socialization and education to that person, and how damaging that is. I also wanted to show, with Mr. Monroe, what education could be.
TYF: Tavia and Effie have very different experiences with water in your book. Though water is a recurring theme and element, I feel these lines sum up your uses of it: “I’m not in the euphoric, welcoming, safe embrace of water that soothes my skin on impact. No, this is the kind of water that weighs you down; it feels like shackles, keeping me from moving at the right speed, and it slows my brain too.” Can you talk about your use of water in A Song Below Water? Is it an element that has always interested you, thematically?
BCM: I think I might have a water fixation, but I hardly think I’m alone, so that’s okay. I grew up in Cali, and went to university in Santa Cruz, so I was often at a river, a lake, or a beach, when I wasn’t at a pool. (Just as an aside, living elsewhere, I was confused by people referring to some place as a beach when it doesn’t involve the ocean. I’m just saying.) I took swim lessons when I was young, and of course had swim in P.E., and the interesting thing is it is the most wonderful, relaxing experience—until it isn’t. I spent so much of my pregnancy in the water, alone in a swimming pool whenever I could. But I have distinct memories of when being in the water became terrifying, and in that way, I think the depictions and the girls’ experience with it reflect what I believe to be true of water.
TYF: Sirens, mermaids, elokos, sprites, gargoyles. Do you have a favorite mythical creature? If not, did you have a favorite one to research and write about?
BCM: I loved writing about sprites because they’re like haints. They give you no answers, they live among you, they refuse to assimilate. They’re the most chaotic of any creature included in ASBW, because I hate the idea of everything making sense. Of there being an answer for everything, a reason we all are privy to. That’s not the world I live in.
TYF: Last of all, can you give us any hints about what’s next for you? Or any genres or themes you plan to dive into in the future?
BCM: I can tell you that next year, I’ll have two releases, both YA! One with be another contemporary fantasy set in the world of ASBW, featuring a character from ASBW—and it isn’t Tavia or Effie. The other will be a remix of Little Women, featuring a quartet of Black sisters (the Marches, naturally) living in 1863, at the Roanoke Island Freedmens Colony, and is a historical fiction.
My brand is my commentary, so don’t expect to see anything quite like them after they’re out. I look forward to sharing more of my adult work, social horrors, second world science fiction, experimental speculative literary. I contain multitudes.