N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

A season of endings has begun. It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, from which enough ash spews to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

And it ends with you. You are the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where orogenes wield the power of the earth as a weapon and are feared far more than the long cold night. And you will have no mercy.

Learn more.

So, this happened

screenshot of Hugo Awards website, showing THE FIFTH SEASON among the Best Novel finalists

Yeah, so. Cool. This makes Hugo nom number three. Going to be an interesting year. But all things considered, I’m pleased; I’m actually going to have a hard time voting in my category because I like some of my competitors better than I like my own work.

Congrats to those of my fellow nominees who earned their spots with skill, creativity, and fair play!

Hello! You just used the “damned if you do/don’t” fallacy!

Hello! If you’ve been directed to this blog post, it’s because you just said something akin to “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t” (DIYD2) in a discussion about bigotry, misrepresentation, or cultural misappropriation in fiction. I’ve written this blog post to save me time so that in the future I won’t have to write a unique comment on each of the endless occasions that I hear this fallacy repeated. As you can probably guess, it happens a lot. So let’s get started!

Here are some common conversation topics which might spur the DIYD2 response:

  • White writers who write about PoC tend to get more attention than PoC who write about PoC.
  • This story setting should contain a lot more women than it does.
  • This queer character is a stereotype or suffers from overused bigoted tropes (e.g. Bury Your Gays [warning: TV Tropes]).
  • There are some depictions of marginalized groups that readers are simply tired of seeing (e.g. women being sexually assaulted).
  • Out-group writers shouldn’t pretend to be members of marginalized groups, for any reason.

Why is it a fallacy to respond to topics like these with DIYD2?

a. Because it’s not true, for one thing. You aren’t damned if you do; you’re damned if you do badly or in a way that hurts people. You won’t be damned if you don’t think and do research and do all the other things that good writers are supposed to do, but people will probably hesitate to apply the label “good writer” to you. You aren’t even damned — look, I like a hyperbole as much as the next storyteller, but what we’re talking about here is literary criticism, not the Spanish Inquisition. You will not be subjected to eternal hellfire, or even an internet “hate mob,” if you include a stereotype in your fiction. Have you ever really paid attention to how anti-bigotry shitstorms work? They don’t start simply because somebody fucked up; they start because the person who fucked up doubled down on it or got defensive rather than listening to the critique being offered.

b. Because it’s the wrong answer, to questions that haven’t been asked. See, you — the DIYD2-er — are making a number of assumptions that simply aren’t true. Such as:

  • The conversation is about you. It isn’t. It’s really about becoming a better writer, period, by understanding how things like colonialism and representation affect literature as a whole, and gaining knowledge about how the media and unquestioned biases work. These are things that all writers, of whatever background, should understand — but especially re those subjects where you have privilege, because you’re working against societal pressure that discourages thought on these matters. It’s also about raising awareness of issues faced by marginalized groups so that, for half a minute, we can turn our attention toward that group, and bring its issues from the margins to the center for consideration. But if (you’re not part of that group and) your first thought is, “Well, how does this affect me?” then you have missed the point. You have airballed it. You have ridden a supersonic jet away while the point is still slowly proceeding on foot over arid, rocky terrain. Get your head out of your own navel and come back to the actual discussion at hand.
  • This conversation is trying to put restraints on me, I mean, art! I have, very very occasionally, seen someone suggest that members of X group shouldn’t write about Y group, unequivocally and forever. That does happen, but it’s incredibly rare, and statements like that rarely go unchallenged by members of Y group so shouldn’t be taken as definitive or a consensus. That’s beside the point, though. What’s actually being said in these conversations is that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and good artists need to engage with the context in which their work exists. Are you taking opportunities away from underrepresented people and giving nothing back in return? Then your art is exploitative and probably inauthentic, and the people in question probably won’t think it’s good. Are you adding to a fallacy-laden Zeitgeist that is already harming real people in the real world? Then your art sucks because you’re not saying or doing anything new. (Also you suck at research.) And so on. Nobody’s trying to restrict art as a whole. They’re trying to minimize bad, harmful art. There’s a difference.
  • This isn’t actually a complex topic, it’s just [insert simplistic knee-jerk rhetorical obfuscation of complex topic]. Take “white writers who write about PoC tend to get more attention than PoC who write about PoC.” This is a statement of context. A number of complex issues create this context: colonialism and history, lifelong societal discrimination that makes it harder for writers of color to get that crucial “room of one’s own”, underrepresentation of PoC in the publishing industry and retail, unexamined racial bias on the part of reviewers, fallacies of marketing which suggest that PoC are a greater financial risk when there’s no proof of that, plain old racism. A good way to respond to a statement of context is to acknowledge that context, and to consider ways of changing each part. (Yell at publishers so they’ll know you want fiction with PoC protagonists by PoC authors; ask why they don’t have any editors of color; post your own “best of” lists and reviews featuring PoC to counter all the media that ignores PoC; take the Tempest Challenge or otherwise consciously shake up your own reading habits…) To reduce the topic down to “Well, does that mean white writers should, or shouldn’t, write about PoC? DIYD2!” shows that the person asking that question fundamentally does not understand the issue. And maybe doesn’t want to understand, because it’s a lot easier to toss forth the strawman of “Those People ™ are always making unreasonable demands!” than it is to acknowledge that white writers get extra attention because of white privilege, or to think about the years’ worth of work it will take to fix the problem.

So when should I say DIYD2?

Here is Prince from the afterlife, throwing shade because you obviously haven't been listening to anything I've said.

Here is Prince from the afterlife, throwing shade because you obviously haven’t been listening to anything I’ve said so far.

Whenever you aren’t interested in an actual conversation.

DIYD2 is just a garbage thing to say, really. It’s a bromide tossed forth in response to, often, someone’s expression of real pain or justified anger. It’s the kind of thing you say when you don’t actually give a shit, but you want to sound engaged and worldly-wise. Most people who actually care about these topics will see right through it, and either dismiss you as unworthy of engagement, or be annoyed by your callousness.

Yikes! But that’s not fair. I actually do care; I just can’t think of anything better to say!

Then say nothing. Not like you’re required to offer your $.02 on everything. Listen, and learn, and think. Do that for awhile, and eventually you will have something useful to say.


Okay! This has been a public service message from N. K. Jemisin. Hope it helps!

The More You Know logo from old NBC TV

HAMILTON

I got a surprise opportunity to go see Hamilton last weekend — friend of mine got lucky with the ticket lottery, so there we were on the FRONT ROW, literally looking up the actors’ noses and screaming our heads off in squeeful delight. It was fully as amazing as everyone says. So amazing, in fact, that I needed a few days to process it, because otherwise the only thing I could’ve managed to say about it would’ve been AAAAAAAMYGODWHATISTHISIT’SSOHOLYSHITASDFJKL;WHAAARGARBL, which really wouldn’t have been any use to anyone.

There are an astronomical number’s worth of analyses and reviews of this musical already, and I’m not going to rehash most of what they’ve covered. Just to simple this up: go see it as soon as you can. If you can’t afford it and/or if you can’t wait the months it will take to get a seat via the regular route, try the lottery. If you can afford it and can wait that long, the creators of this masterpiece deserve every dime, as well as your patience. If you’re not in NYC, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to live in a city that the tour will go to. Whether you can see it or not, though, buy the soundtrack, though I do think it lacks a little something without the visuals and stage effects. Only a little something; you’ll still get a lot of the awesomeness by sound alone.

Anyway, here’s why I’m devoting blog space to talking about this history-based musical: because it is actually fantasy as fuck. (And yes, in my head “fantasy as fuck” has the same connotations as “metal as fuck.” Because it does.) Lemme ‘splain:

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It could’ve been great

You know, the thing I always try to remember when I’m borrowing from mythology is to be a shit-ton more careful with still-living traditions than I am with those long gone or transformed away from their roots. I feel relatively safe treading on the threads of Egyptian myth because there isn’t a centuries-long-and-ongoing history of using, say, the worship of Bast as an excuse to steal people’s ancestral land and children in the name of Christianity. But you know what? I’m still careful, even with “dead” faiths, because I don’t know how playing with these things might hurt real people. Nations have been built upon and torn down by the concepts I’m playing with. The least I can do is research the hell out of a thing before I put a toe in that ancient water.

It’s even more crucial for religions that are alive, and whose adherents still suffer for misconceptions and misappropriations. But these are easier to research, and it’s often much easier to figure out when you’re about to put a foot right into a morass of discrimination and objectification. All the evidence is there, sometimes still wet with blood. You just need to read. You just need to ask people. You just need to think.

And whether I believe in a thing or not, I always try to recognize that these concepts, these names, these words, have power. Power is always to be respected, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, present or past.

(For example, I was careful as hell with the Inheritance Trilogy, because so much of that was inspired by real, living traditions. Sieh is a combo of Loki and Anansi and Coyote and Japanese foxes and more, but I did everything I could to strip recognizable elements of those actual gods from him, leaving only the archetypal bones. It’s never wise to antagonize trickster gods.)

Anyway. This is just to say that there’s a number of ways Rowling could’ve made her Magical North America work without causing real harm to a lot of real people. That would be for her to have treated American peoples — all of us — with the same respect that she did European. Pretty sure she would never have dreamt of reducing all of Europe’s cultures to “European wizarding tradition”; instead she created Durmstrang and Beauxbatons and so on to capture the unique flavor of each of those cultures. It would’ve taken some work for her to research Navajo stories and pick (or request) some elements from that tradition that weren’t stereotypical or sacred — and then for her to do it again with the Paiutes and again with the Iroquois and so on. But that is work she should’ve done — for the sake of her readers who live those traditions, if not for her own edification as a writer. And how much more delightful could Magic in North America have been if she’d put an ancient, still-thriving Macchu Picchu magic school alongside a brash, newer New York school? How much richer could her history have been if she’d mentioned the ruins of a “lost” school at Cahokia, full of dangerous magical artifacts and the signs of mysterious, hasty abandonment? Or a New Orleanian school founded by Marie Laveau, that practiced real vodoun and was open/known to the locals as a temple — and in the old days as a safe place to plan slave rebellions, a la Congo Square? Or what if she’d mentioned that ancient Death Eater-ish wizards deliberately destroyed the magical school of Hawai’i — but native Hawai’ians are rebuilding it now as Liliuokalani Institute, better than before and open to all?

Sigh. She just shouldn’t have touched North America if she was going to gloss over everything that makes this part of the world what it is — the grotesque along with the sweet. This is who we are, for better or worse. Our history — all Americans’ history — needs respect, not pablum and stereotypes.

I’m a HP fan. It’s been tough over the years, as I’ve realized just how representationally flawed the books are (the real UK is far, far more diverse than Hogwarts, for example), but mostly I stuck it out for the seven books. Hadn’t paid attention to the whole Pottermore thing before now, though, because tooth-gritting frustration does not make for lifelong loyalty, surprisingly. But my interest in HP could’ve been reawakened by good worldbuilding. That would’ve shown me that Rowling has grown in the years since the books’ end, and that her afterthoughts are sincere, if belated. Also, this could’ve made for a much better story.

Oh well. Coulda woulda shoulda.

What I’ve Been Up To For the Past Week

So, I went on a boat.

camera photo of an island against a sunset sky, boats in harbor and lights glowing against its silhouette

St Thomas at dusk

This was my first time on a cruise ship, and while I have to admit that cruise travel isn’t for me — it was intensely frustrating to visit an interesting place for only a few hours, when I prefer to immerse for days or weeks — I did enjoy doing it with a buncha nerds, a.k.a. the SeaMonkeys of the JoCoCruise. The whole thing is a massive, 7-day-long immersive science fiction convention, except it’s also got cool stuff like comedy shows and performances by amazing musicians, so really it’s a thing all its own. Not cheap, and not extraordinarily diverse, and I did hear one woman mentioning some accessibility issues… though I get the sense they’re working on all these things. But if you’re looking for a nice nerdy vacation? This is the thing. I went snorkeling! I had conch fritters! Too many highlights to name.

I was there as a performer, part of the writing track run by John Scalzi and Pat Rothfuss. Giving a reading on a boat is a fascinating experience, not the least because your reading might be interrupted at dramatic moments by a shipwide safety drill complete with klaxons and the captain’s voice droning “BRAVO. BRAVO. BRAVO. ECHO. ECHO. ECHO,” et cetera, at the story’s climax. There’s really nothing to do but laugh at something like that. But I rallied and read the damn thing anyway, as loudly as I could, and most of the people in attendance tell me they were able to hear it. And they were so appreciative of my perseverance that they gifted me with this adorable, glorious creature, whom I have dubbed Bravo the Dolphin. Thanks, folks! ::still tickled pink::

stuffed dolphin decorated with sparkly things and a button that reads BRAVO! BRAVO! BRAVO!

So, that was my week. Today is recovery day, while I regain my land legs — really disconcerting to feel like an apartment building is swaying beneath you, hope that goes away soon — and get used to the northern winter sun again. How’s your week been, folks?

Gaming as connection: Thank you, stranger

Haven’t talked about gaming in a while. I still play, all the time, but with deadline after deadline looming I don’t dare buy anything new that might actually be good. (Side-eyes Fallout 4, warily.) I’ve been settling for comfort-gaming instead. You know, some soothing State of Decay and Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, and my favorite real estate investment simulator, Skyrim (with Hearthfire DLC).

But I did buy a new, old game that I’ve been wanting to play for ages, which I could finally get now that I have a PS4: Journey. If you’ve never played the game, it’s haunting and beautiful and cute and terrifying and any number of things for which its studio, thatgamecompany, should be commended… but alas, the studio broke apart after producing this game. Anyway, I can’t describe Journey partly because it’s just hard to describe. But I also can’t describe it to you because it’s literally a different gaming experience every time I play it. See — oh, spoilers from here on, though this game has been out since 2012 so I think we’re kind of past the statute of spoilerations —
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My 2015 Awards Post, For Those of You Who Keep Asking Me What Eligible Works I Wrote in That Year

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, shows a stone wall decoration that appears to be covered in flaking gold leaf.

…Well, that was easy.

My new side-gig

So, as those of you who follow me on Twitter and FB now know, I’ve been keeping busy in addition to working on book 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy.

photo of a newsprint page from the NYT Sunday Book Review. Print is too small to see.

photo posted by Pamela Paul

So, yep, my piecemeal gig from last year has just become a permanent thing. The new column is called “Otherworldly”, and the first one — which will come out in print on the first weekend of January — is already up online. (No, you don’t have to squint at the text in that image.)

I’m an eclectic reader, so the new column will obviously feature science fiction, fantasy, horror, some YA, some graphic novels, some anthologies, and even some nonfiction where it impacts the genre. I’ve got no problem with self-published or small-press books, although I believe the NYT has a policy forbidding selfpubs if they can’t be found in “general interest” bookstores, whatever that means. I like books that feature complex characters, period, but stereotypes piss me off and stuff I’ve seen too often bores the shit out of me. I don’t “believe in” the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, for pretty much the same reasons as Laurie Penny. Obviously I’ve got a thing for worldbuilding and secondary world or offworld stuff. I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that we all should get to dream, and I look for books that let me.

Some general things to note about this new column:

  • I am not a literary critic. I didn’t even take lit classes in college — AP’ed out. My graduate degree is in psychology. I don’t know Derrida from Adam. I’m not actually sure I spelled Derrida right, just now. I do have some interest in litcritty stuff that everyone in the genre is or should be talking about — e.g. Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. But I don’t have years of training in analyzing subtext, etc., other than what a lifetime of geeky reading and writing has given me. Just something to keep in mind.
  • How’d I get this gig? Somebody at the Times approached me through channels and asked if I wanted a freelance job. No, I’m not telling you who. No, they don’t want your number. Why me? Fuck if I know. I guess they like my writing.
  • Don’t send me books. For one thing, I live in a one-bedroom in NYC that’s already close to being a fire hazard. For another, I still have books of my own to write; I do not have time to vet the entire SFF book world. If you want your book to be considered for review, nothing has changed: send your books to the NYT. Weren’t you already doing that anyway?
  • …Okay, if you weren’t doing it anyway, do send them your books. I can’t review what I can’t read.
  • If you’re a close acquaintance of mine, if we’ve done a writing or critiquing date (or a date-date), if you’re one of my former Clarion students, etc., I can’t review your books. Sorry! If all we’ve ever done is sit on a panel together, though, or exchange occasional silliness on Twitter, that’s different. Where’s the line? Dunno. I know half the damn SFF world in one way or another. -_- But if I see your book in the pile and I want to read it, I’ll explain how I know you to my editor. He gets final say.
  • My editor gets final say about everything, actually. I get a lot of say in what gets picked, but it’s more of a negotiation.
  • Also, there are apparently several other reviewers at the NYT who are into SFFH! (Seriously, somebody keeps snatching the Stephen Kings. It’s not funny. I want to read those.) So even if I can’t review your stuff because you’re my bestie or something (hi, besties), somebody else might be able to.

I think that’s it. Questions? Feel free, in the comments.

Sharing — and contemplating — a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming

I get a lot of really nice fanmail, and I try to respond to all of it (though I can be slow). But I got one last night that really made me feel warm and fuzzy all over. Mentioned it on my FB earlier today, but the reader let me know it was OK to post her note, so I’m putting it here.

True Story: So I ordered a half dozen white cotton handkerchiefs (men’s) from Amazon and when they finally arrived (took forever) they were in a box with two copies of The Fifth Season by a writer I’d never heard of but figured was a woman because of the initials. Contacted Amazon – said mistakes were made, how to return, how to refund, never ordered…blah, blah, blah. Keep them, said Big A. Not worth the price of return when the error’s on them, their loss, my gain.
“Celebrated new voice epic fantasy,” on the front cover, more of same blah on the back, but what the hell – I used to read this kind of stuff when I was a kid; Tolkien out loud as my own kid grew up. No wizards or Orcs or Rangers or Elves. No fairies or witches and (thank God) none of that vampire-teenage romance business. To be honest, tough going at first – who are these, where are these people? But a mother’s just lost her son and the world’s coming apart at the seams and pretty soon it’s clear that I’m sucked down this rabbit hole for good.
Be still and be brave, he tells her for her own good, and I think, this writer knows the way of it, as my heart breaks right along with a little girl’s hand. Everything about this intricate, difficult, beautiful story just resonated for me and I can’t thank you enough for writing it. What a joy it is to discover a new writer who manages to not only tell a good yarn but to reimagine a dusty old genre in the process. I look forward to reading more, more, more! Sincerely, Kathy

OK, pause —

Everybody-squee

OK, just had to get that out. (A box of handkerchiefs! I got a new fan from a box of handkerchiefs!) Let’s resume.

There does seem to be a theme running through a lot of the fanmail I get, along these lines: people who’d stopped reading fantasy for whatever reason have been reading my work and then feeling pulled back into the genre. And that’s awesome. I love that my audience contains so many “non-traditional” fantasy fans. But this is the kind of thing that shouldn’t be happening just because of my fiction. There’s plenty of fantasy out there with “no wizards or orcs or rangers or elves”… and while I think there isn’t nearly enough fantasy out there starring middle-aged mothers of color (or biracial polyamorous proto-goddesses, or blind black women, or Asian male ex-gods with daddy issues, or gay black male assassins, or shy black female healers, or…), there’s some other stories like that out there, too. So what’s happening here, that so many ex-fantasy readers — readers who really just need one non-formulaic book to bring them back into the fold — aren’t aware that there’s stuff here they might enjoy?

(squee)

Whew.

That’s a sigh of relief. One less thing to feel conflicted about. One more thing I can celebrate freely, easily, and without reservation.

I’m talking about the World Fantasy Award, which will now no longer be represented by the head of H. P. Lovecraft. My feeling re the whole thing is a) ’bout time, and b) whew. Because while I have no idea if I’ll ever win a WFA myself — I’ve been nominated twice and that’s awesome — I have watched other anti-racist friends and fellow writers of color win the award. It’s impossible not to feel that visceral clench of empathy when they speak of the awkwardness of Lovecraft, of all people, as the representation of their honor. I’ve heard a number of winners talk about the ways they plan to hide or disguise or otherwise disrespect their own award so that they can reach a place of comfort with it. I’ve contemplated what I would do if I won, myself. (Was planning to put it on full display atop my cat’s litterbox.) I never show off my nomination pins, because I don’t feel like explaining when people ask, “Who’s that supposed to be?”

It’s not right, that so many of us should have a sour taste in our mouths when we speak of triumph and achievement. And yet that’s the position we get put into by the SFF genre again and again, because so many of its honors are… tainted. The Campbell is named after a man who rejected stories featuring black protagonists on principle. The Hugo’s namesake was not without his questionable ideas about black people. The Nebula was twice awarded by a jury that included Vox Day — and yeah, people knew exactly what kind of person he was when they put him on that jury. They did it anyway, because “back then” (as recently as ten years ago) the decision-makers in this genre just didn’t think hating black people or women or Jews or queer people was all that big a deal. A lot of people in this genre still don’t. (We’re so open minded, we dreamers and futurists.) But now here we are, and there’s hardly an honor in SFFdom that I can win without adding a rueful twist to my smile, or a sigh to the end of my cheer.

It wears on the soul, having to think about this.

(And I do have to. A good writer understands how the world works, and doesn’t flinch away from acknowledging what’s wrong with it.)

I’m not calling for the overhaul of all SFF awards — though if the various folks involved decided to consider making changes on their own, great. I get that other people don’t want to taste this sourness when they talk about our genre’s best and brightest. I don’t want to. Which is why it’s such a relief that I no longer have to re the WFA (provided they don’t replace it with something just as problematic). Whether I win or someone whose writing I love wins, I can now whoop and clap and stomp my feet with the same abandon as everyone else. This seems like such a small thing to be glad for… but some of us have to take our small pleasures where we can get them.

Thanks for that, Nnedi and Sofia and Daniel and all the other folks who named the elephant in the room, and pushed this conversation. Thanks to the World Fantasy decision-makers who finally realized you can celebrate an author’s work and still acknowledge that hating black people is a big deal to some of us. Thanks also to the fans, who’ve endured endless circular trollacious contributions to the conversation (e.g. “if we ban the imperfect we’ll have nothing left to read!” even tho nobody was talking about banning and “how much BLOOD on the FLOOR do you WANT, SJWs?!” oh ffs really and “but he was so polite” and so on), and kept it focused on what matters.

Whew. Gonna get back to revisions, now, with a little lighter heart.


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