Invoking African gods of the water, this diaspora author conjures up a sweet tale for the children in all of us.
Embedded in stories of the antiquities are long held beliefs of entities, and even people, who live in the sea. While underwater worlds are often woven into mainstream magical tales, ironically, the old cultures of African mermaids and mer-people are absent. With author, Ananda Free’s new work, she literally shifts the narrative.
In her first children’s book, “YeYe Sweetwaters & The Mean Mermaids,” she captures African mer-culture by opening up an underwater universe with a perfect mixture of empowerment, self-love and African cosmology.
“The divine mother flows through me in such a beautiful and holy way,” said Free. “The book was birthed from a place of wanting to see a representation of ourselves that really goes back to ancient Africa, ancient Yorubaland and touches on our own stories, myths, [and] legends.”
In “YeYe Sweetwaters & The Mean Mermaids, ” Free taps into a rich African tradition through a modern fable, filled with relatable characters. The 32-page illustration by Cheryl “Ras” Thuesday takes readers on an enchanting journey with the main character, YeYe SweetWaters, and Puff Puff, her fairy sidekick. In the story, both must navigate the currents of growing up in an undersea paradise fraught with mean mergirls. Dealing with teasing and shunning from other mermaids, YeYe SweetWaters and Puff Puff discover how to heal hurt through the power of self-love, compassion and friendship.
Nothing new under the sea
Top: Mami Wata statue from Togo, West Africa. Middle. A wood and metal statue of Mami Wata in Angola. Picture found in John Drewal’s article, “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” Bottom: Candomblé devotees carry flower baskets onto a boat during the ritual ceremony in honor to Yemanjá in Amoreiras, Bahia, Brazil. Photo credit: Jon Sochor
In several highly-celebrated African indigenous traditions, the celebration of merpeople, and specifically, mermaids have gone on for thousands of years. So much so, that the coffee shop Starbucks uses the Benin deity, Mami Wata for its emblem. They won’t tell you, but I just did. The two-tailed mermaid is a known symbol in West African cosmology as either Mami Wata, Yemoja or Olokun, all deep water or oceanic gods.
Other groups, such as the Yoruba who largely live in present-day Nigeria, Benin and Togo, pay homage to Yemoja, a goddess who lives in the sea and is connected to motherhood. As a result of the African travelers and the recent slave trade, the concept of Mami Wata and Yemoja traveled and is intact in countries like Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. What Free masterfully does is spin old knowledge with new, fresh wisdom that is accessible to kids and the adults who read them the story.
Off of the highly successful animation, Hair Love, a story about a Black father learning to comb his daughter’s big, curly crown, other Black authors who write children’s stories and creative fiction are finally being noticed. With that, Free’s book comes at a time where concern runs high for the lack of representation of brown or dark-skinned main characters
A study by Cooperative Children’s Book Center, showed that out of 3,700 books received in 2017, only 340 of the books had a prominent brown or dark-skinned character. Out of that, only 100 of the authors were Black or African-American. For Latinos, it was less with only 216 characters, and even lower for Native and First Nation peoples as 72 books featured a character. Asians do not fare any better with only 310 significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content/characters.
With “YeYe Sweetwaters,” Free addresses bullying, and moreso, becoming, well . . . Free. When suicides and shaming run high in the high-traffic of a digital society, a book helping children to be happy with the skin they are in, Black mermaids besting a school of haters fit perfectly as a bed-time story and opens the door to multiple classroom discussions around friendship, self-worth, and conflict resolution.
Notes of freedom
A DC native, Free is the mother of three children and the principal designer for Sweetwyrdness, a home decor company, lifestyle and media she co-operates with her partner, Zaccai Free. In 2015, Free, penned, “How to Make a Love Cake,” a self-love story exploring the process of healing through. By using the creation of a cake, which is one of Free’s signature baking goods, she creatively adds each ingredient as a spiritual source to learn how to release and elevate.
Free’s partner in imagery is Thuesday, an illustrator who loves color and believes it has the power to ignite emotions and express the visual intensity of each narrative. Her electric and vibrant choice of various hues is seen in her work with clients including Penquin Random House, New York Times, Kaspersky, Lenny Letter, Covercent and Breathe Magazine.
You can snag a pre-order of “YeYe Sweetwaters & The Mean Mermaids,” by going to the Sweetwyrdness site.
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