We’re living in dire times: Discrimination against marginalized communities is running rampant, with an uptick in hate crimes against Black people, Jewish people, and LGBTQ people, and there’s an aggressive push to limit civil rights rather than advance them. Bethany C. Morrow has been watching a chaotic world through her creative lens, and she explores these issues through an ecosystem of fantastical creatures in her debut young-adult novel A Song Below Water. Tavia and Effie are friends in high school living in Portland, Oregon, a city populated by a number of magical creatures, including charismatic elokos, who can captivate people with the melodies they hold in lockets, protective gargoyles, and sirens, who are treated as if they’re dangerous and are encouraged to use silencing collars that prevent them from using their siren calls.
Tavia’s a siren who’s fighting with her father about embracing her true nature, while Effie is running from a traumatic incident in her past as she also attempts to figure out who and what she is. Their unbreakable bond is the heart of this engrossing book, which follows multiple threads, including the importance of protecting those who are most vulnerable, how discrimination feeds into bias that can then be used to excuse harm, and the constant replicating of hierarchy, even among magical creatures. Though A Song Below Water is set in a fictional world, borne directly from Morrow’s imagination, there’s a lot of parallels to the world we currently inhabit, once again making it clear that a future world isn’t that far off.
Tavia and Effie live in a “monochromatic” community in Portland that protects sirens—who are exclusively Black women—and other magical creatures. How did you create this very insular community?
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Portland, Oregon, as my sister and her family have lived there for more than 10 years. I didn’t so much invent the small Black community inside a monochromatic community as I just wrote about it. Portland doesn’t boast a lot of ethnic diversity, which should be a kind of litmus test for the self-image of any supposedly radical progressive space. I basically wrote about what it feels like when I visit, and what it’s like in a lot of West Coast cities.
There are a lot of parallels between the discrimination sirens face in A Song Below Water’s world and our current world. What inspired you to write this particular book and focus on these particular issues within it?
Of course A Song Below Water is about the world we actually live in. Like much speculative fiction written by Black American authors, it’s very much an interrogation and indictment of what we literally experience. Often I think if and when we write about such things in a contemporary setting, particularly in a work that isn’t historical, we get a lot of skepticism, pushback, and dismissiveness from a world that would rather not believe they’re treating us this way. But very little happens in ASBW that isn’t happening to Black women. Victim-blaming is not fiction. Black women being Black women’s one defense is not fiction. Black girls voices having power is not fiction.
Sirens who assimilate, like Lexi from Lexi on a Leash, wear a call-dampening collar at all times so they will be perceived as “respectable.” You never say whether or not wearing a call-dampening collar is the right decision for a siren. Is that purposeful?
I don’t think it’s necessary to say. It’s apparent. Respectability is on trial in the book, not just with Lexi but within the main family, because Tavia’s father is constantly chastising her behavior rather than society’s. This book is for everyone, but it’s written to Black girls, and I don’t think I need to tell them that respectability politics are toxic. We know that.
Tavia has a strained relationship with her father because he wants her to be “normal” and not stand out. How did you craft their relationship in a way that honors both of their perspectives and feelings instead of painting her father as a villain or tyrant?
I didn’t really try to honor Tavia’s father’s perspective because I wholeheartedly disagree with respectability politics. I more so tried to demonstrate that it’s a logical reaction and the intended outcome of persistent oppression—to make the victim feel they’re responsible for their treatment. Instead of demonizing Black people who subscribe to it, I tried to be mindful of why they do, [though] it’s unhealthy. Tavia’s father is not the architect of respectability. He’s responding out of fear and a desire to keep his daughter safe, when he knows what society thinks of her.
Victim-blaming is not fiction. Black women being Black women’s one defense is not fiction. Black girls voices having power is not fiction.
You write, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma.” There’s a through line in the book about Rhoda Taylor, an alleged siren whose boyfriend is acquitted of killing her. Why was it important to include this storyline within Tavia’s larger journey around embracing being a siren?
Rhoda Taylor is proof that respectability is not our salvation. There’s no indication in the book that she was a siren, but it’s used to justify her murder anyway, which is a terror to the siren community, of course, but is also a terror to Black women in that world. It’s important to demonstrate that within violently oppressive systems and societies, there can be no model minority. There’s no way to opt out of oppression and dehumanization, and no way to opt in to the power majority. Showing Rhoda, Lexi, Tavia, and a siren who announces her identity herself, knowing what’s at stake, is necessary to crafting and reflecting our real world, fraught with pitfalls and nuance, and demonstrating that this is an enemy and attack coming from outside.
Effie and Tavia’s sisterhood really feels like the through line and the anchor of this book. How did you craft their relationship? Is there something to be learned from watching them lean on each other and evolve together?
Effie and Tavia are very much me and my sister, Jennifer, and they’re very much me and my girls. Black women are my lifeline, my life raft, my inspiration. We’re varied and individual. We can fall prey to the many traps and remedies of the anti-Blackness and misogynoir we’re inundated with, but we’re also the only people who understand the weight of what we face, how we’re treated, and what it takes to shine like we do. We’re the only ones who can speak to that and honor that without using cheap shortcuts that reduce us so that others can feel like they understand all our complexities. I cannot do life without Black women, and Effie and Tavia’s relationship is meant to demonstrate and honor that. I adore them with my whole heart.