We had the honour of chatting with Natasha Bowen on her West African mythology-inspired story Skin of the Sea.
Simidele is one of the Mami Wata, mermaids duty-bound to collect the souls of those who die at sea and bless their journeys back home to the Supreme Creator. But when a living boy is thrown overboard a slave ship, Simi saves his life, going against an ancient decree and bringing terrible danger to the mami wata.
Now Simi must journey to the Supreme Creator to make amends – a journey of vengeful gods, treacherous lands and legendary creatures. If she fails, she risks not just the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.
Thank you so much for sharing the stories of Orisha to us! I am sure readers had a lot of fun learning about them. When was the first time you learned about these stories yourself?
I’d heard a few stories over the years but it was only when I began to write Skin of the Sea that I delved deeper into the Ifa spiritual belief system and the deities within that. To find out more about Black goddesses and gods, the powers they have and the origin stories that have evolved and spread across the African diaspora has been an amazing experience.
Often with mythology and folklore, there are different versions. How do you pick which version to follow and also how much to follow and keep in Skin of the Sea?
I was mindful of respecting a spirituality still practised today so I stayed close to West African origins with a few twists of how Black mermaids were seen due to the transatlantic slave trade. Skin of the Sea is also fantasy and so I blended these different versions of mythology and folklore into a story that I would love to read.
Of all the orisha mythology, what drew you to the story of Yemoja and Mami Wata the most?
Their connection to the water as well as their fierceness and beauty as women. Water spirits and mermaids are mainly viewed with a Eurocentric lens yet here we have these strong Black women with a magical and spiritual connection to the sea. What’s not to love?!
Many branded Skin of the Sea as a re-telling of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which is of course understandable as this is what the western audience are used to. However, of course, African folklore is completely separate from and independent of the Andersen fairy tales. How does it make you feel when such comparisons are drawn?
I think that when your main reference points are the Eurocentric representations of fairy tales, this will happen. I’m excited that Skin of the Sea, a book that explores the glories and excellence of West Africa, will reach new audiences, and expand readers’ ideas and views of mermaids.
Skin of the Sea also weaves in the history of slave trade, which work very well with the mythology as orisha bring about peace and hope. In real life, how did the slave trade interact with such mythology? Did the slave trade prevent the mythology from passing down generations as people lost their homelands, or did it help bring such stories to wider lands?
Enslaved Africans refused to be stripped of their spirituality, their stories, and in essence, their humanity, and so they took them with them. You can see these connections across the diaspora, from similar tales, a Yoruba speaking community in Colombia, to the deities worshipped in the Caribbean and beyond. Even when it came to religion, Africans showed ingenuity and tenacity in holding onto what mattered to them. One example of this is, after being forced into Christianity, some enslaved men and woman aligned each orisa with a catholic saint in order to keep their beliefs and worship alive. It is so very powerful to see how stories, spirituality, and languages have been passed down.
Other than the mythology and the history, luxurious descriptions of the African culture, such as of spices and colours, also feature heavily in Skin of the Sea. What do you enjoy writing and researching about the most?
I’m always looking to learn something new which is why I enjoy the research side of writing. In Skin of the Sea, I lost myself in fractals (never-ending patterns) for just over a month. Ron Eglash, an ethno-mathematician, found examples of these in African architecture, cloth, hairstyles and more, theorizing that the concept of infinity was prevalent in the continent well before it was ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the nineteenth century. I love learning details that will build a rich and exciting world in my stories.
Get your copy of Skin of the Sea here.