On Family

I’ve been dealing with an unpleasant family issue lately in my personal life. Not anything I intend to talk about here, and I’ve found a good therapist so don’t worry, but thinking about these things triggered some thoughts about family in The Fifth Season that I wanted to share.

Now, As You Know Bob, I am not a perfect writer. It’s entirely possible that I did a poor job of trying to depict the relationships in this story, which are admittedly complex. But here’s what was in my head: the black family. Really, any families formed under oppressive conditions — but obviously black families are what I know best. Now please note: I am not talking about The Black Family ™, which I’m labeling this way because it has been pathologized, idealized, fetishized, stereotyped, and essentialized to such a ridiculous degree that it bears no resemblance to the actual, wildly varied, humanly complicated families that make up any group of people. I’m talking about real families: how people grow and protect and survive together when their very personhood is in question. How love camouflages itself when it’s under constant threat.

There were three families in TFS, roughly matching each of the three protagonists. Spoilers, obvs.

The first family depicted was the one into which Damaya was born: her parents, her unseen grandmother, her barely-seen brother. Not an orogene family… until it became one, when Damaya outed herself as such. But the looming threat of having a child suddenly “turn orogene” must terrorize every family in the Stillness; after all, Father Earth never forgets. No matter how many orogene children are killed by mobs or corralled into the Fulcrum, the trait always surfaces at random in the population. So this means that even families which have produced nothing but stills for generations must constantly be terrified that at some point one of their children will become a monster.

There’s a real-world parallel for this, though: families in racist America. In a world where being even a little bit black doomed families to perpetual second-class citizenship, there has to have been a whole lot of hiding and lying going on. (After all, there are actually six million more black Americans, per the one-drop rule, than the Census shows.) How does a family whose social status depends on its perceived whiteness prepare for the possibility that at any time, one of its children might be born looking like “one of them”? I wouldn’t know. But I suspect they’d be prepared to reject that child for the good of the family — as Damaya’s parents did, when overnight she became less than human in their eyes, unable even to feel the cold as humans do. I suspect that if a family like this chose to show love, it would be hidden amid uglier gestures. (Her grandmother’s quilt, given to Damaya by the same mother who’d locked her in a barn like an animal. Damaya’s brother watching her leave, but only through the curtains of the house, surreptitiously while their parents weren’t looking.)

Then there’s the family of the Fulcrum, into which Damaya was adopted. I’m going to count Schaffa as part of this family. The Fulcrum is run by orogenes, and ruled by respectability politics: its teachers concentrate on making sure the children are in control of their powers, clean, neat, and well-mannered, in order to make all orogenes look good. Its teachers don’t particularly care if the children have friends, though, or suffer from emotional neglect, bullying, or abuse (as long as it doesn’t create a spectacle). Love can exist in an environment like this, but it’s conditional. Obey the Guardians, pass the tests, follow the rules, and receive love and respect as a reward. Disobey and receive broken bones, whippings, public humiliation, and potentially torture and lobotomization in a node chair. It’s… hard for me to see this as a form of love, and yet I’ve heard this sort of thing described as love all my life. I grew up in a church “family” that was frequently loving and supportive… yet which publicly shamed underaged girls for getting pregnant even though they were too young to have legally given consent, and even though frequently the boys — or men — who’d knocked them up were sitting in the pews right in front of them. (This would be one of many reasons why I’m no longer a churchgoer.) And of course we still live in a society in which endless people try to excuse a girl’s brutalization because she silently refused to comply with authority. This is how we teach black people and women respect, some say. This is how we raise those children to be good adults. This is love.

…Sorry, my hand slipped. Let’s move on.

Then there’s the unconventional family that Syenite, Alabaster, Innon, and Corundum formed, later in TFS. I read reader reviews sometimes, so I’ve seen how readers engage with — or get confused by — this family. Some read the whole situation as a gratuitous, pointless inclusion in the plot, just me throwing in vaguely kinky sex for the sake of vaguely kinky sex. Some read Alabaster and Innon as a gay couple, with Syenite as basically their surrogate babymama; some read Syenite and Alabaster as a het couple with an open relationship; some acknowledge that the three of them are a polyamorous long-term relationship, but exclude the Syenite/Alabaster dynamic as platonic (or hateful). Some wonder how Syenite could possibly have loved Corundum all that much considering she left him with Alabaster and went off to be a pirate. (But no one asks this question re Innon, who did the exact same thing to an even greater degree.) Some wonder how she could have loved Coru at all, considering what she did in the final Syenite chapter.

Let’s consider first Syenite/Essun and Alabaster’s relationship. There are aspects of this I can’t talk about yet; it will be explored more in TOG. But while it’s true that they only had sex because they were forced to, the one thing they had a choice about was whether to love. It would have been wise of them not to. Alabaster had been through the breeding cycle before and knew he wouldn’t be permitted to stay with Syenite, and Syenite knew that if she wanted to achieve a high rank in the Fulcrum, she needed to appear to be the consummately professional weapon the Fulcrum wanted her to be, free of personal ties. Also, Alabaster’s gay. But gay men have loved women — and vice versa — since the dawn of time, particularly in situations where people don’t have the freedom to pursue their preferences. (Not sure this was ever made clear in the text, but there’s no such thing as miscegenation in the Stillness and queer people can marry, but orogenes can’t.) Sometimes survival means you take love where you can get it, even where it wouldn’t be your first choice.

So I think they didn’t start to love each other until the situation started moving beyond the standard Fulcrum mission they’d been sent on — that is, once the garnet obelisk appeared, shit got real. For two people who went through as much as they did together, it would be strange for them to feel nothing for each other. Call it deep friendship if you want; the lines get blurry. But IMO, a woman doesn’t procure a lover for just a BFF — not when (she thinks at the time) it deprives her of someone who could end her own loneliness. She doesn’t empathize so powerfully with a BFF that she gets off on his pleasure as her own (ditto Alabaster, empathizing with Syenite). These are acts of love so thoroughly camouflaged by snark and conflict that the people in question aren’t even sure what they’re feeling… but it’s there. Gazing at each other across the shoulders of their sleeping third partner. Rings given in the dark like an afterthought, and apparently rejected… even though Alabaster actually put hours into making them, and even though Syenite later put them on. Letting Innon do for each of them what they could not for each other, and sharing his love unselfishly. What I hoped to get across was that romantic love doesn’t have to be sexual, it sure as hell doesn’t have to be traditional (especially when traditional families are a privilege denied to the members of an oppressed group), and it doesn’t have to look like love. It just has to be love, where it counts.

Now let’s talk about Coru.

I think the historical incident that most influenced this family for me was the story of Margaret Garner. Now, I don’t have kids of my own; I may never understand the parent-child bond on that direct, personal level. But then again, most of my readers who are parents aren’t going to be able to imagine killing their own children. (I know some readers can’t even get through TFS because of this… and I’m sorry. But while I might use allegory or vary the details because it’s a secondary world, there’s nothing that happens in TFS that hasn’t happened in our own world, in some way or another.) How many of us can understand how a woman could love her children so much that she would rather see them dead than enslaved? Because though some might disagree, I cannot help but see Garner’s filicide as an act of love. How can it not be? To know the myth of the kindly slaveowner for what it is — propaganda meant to placate guilty consciences and lend the enslaved false hope — and then willingly give an innocent child into the hands of someone who might do [TRIGGER WARNING I AM NOT KIDDING TRIGGER WARNING]this to them? Oh hell no. Garner’s act was how love looks in a woman who doesn’t believe a bigoted society’s lies. Love is mercy. Love is laying claim to the only freedom that remains available to you.

How, then, was Syenite to show love for her child when all she knew of love was betrayal and backhanded kindness? She left the bulk of childcare to someone who clearly could handle it better: Alabaster, who was raised by his mother in his formative years (you’ll hear a little more about that in The Obelisk Gate) and clearly had a better time of it, at least for a while. But she did what she could, nursing him and changing diapers and playing with him. She also chose to contribute to the island’s safety and wealth so that her family would want for nothing and wouldn’t have to live in fear. And deep down, she yearned to give Coru the impossible: a whole world in which he could be safe and happy and human, rather than just one island.

She failed. And when Coru’s safe world fell apart, the only thing she had left to give him was a future in which his mind and soul and happiness would not be systematically shredded. I don’t know if I succeeded in depicting this, but I wanted this to come across as an act of love. Family love, too, doesn’t always look like love, even when it is.

I’m not going to get into the fourth family of TFS — Essun, Jija, Nassun, and Uche. That will be covered a lot more in The Obelisk Gate and the so-far-untitled third book of the trilogy, which I broke ground on this week. But now that you know what’s driven the family narrative so far, you’ve probably got an idea of what to expect in the next two books.

Or maybe you don’t. It’s not like families are easy to figure out, after all. But hopefully this will help.

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11 Responses »

  1. Just read Fifth Season last week and loved it. I think the complicated relationship between Syenite, Alabaster, and Innon was one of my favourite perts (partly because it was nice to see poor Syen get a break, but partly just because it’s rare to see such deep love written like that).

  2. I’m a parent, and I felt so deeply for Syenite. It’s been a long time since I felt so moved by a novel. Reading this helps me process that plot even better, which is great. But even without this character note I think you did get her struggle and the awful circumstances of orogene slavery across pretty clearly. After seeing what happened to Alabaster’s progeny, I completely understand her choice. It’s heartbreaking, and sickening, but the world she lives in brutalizes her kind.

  3. I think if I had to pick a label for Syenite/Alabaster, I’d have trouble. It’s clear they love and care for one another even if there’s no sexual desire there. Maybe it’s because their relationship is deeply rooted in Surviving Some Shit Together and from being the same terrible social role, and we don’t tend to give a name for relationships like those.

    I did see them as a triad with Innon, not a V: I don’t think they could have made it work without some kind of loving bond between Syenite and Alabaster. And, if anything, having someone else who understood all the shit in their past probably helped both’s relationship with Innon, who didn’t.

  4. Oh, I think that not allowing Coru to be enslaved is the only thing she could have done. It hurt less there (for me) than the death of the little boy at the beginning of the book, because by the time you get to the end, you know so much more about the characters and have seen the way they have been forced to suffer.

    I also hear you about that church “family” that you grew up in. So much, though I have never seen girls and women shamed in that way. But I know far too much about some churches where pedophile members have been allowed to do whatever they wanted and were never, ever reported to the authorities – and, of course, had marriage recommended as a “cure.”

    So.

  5. The depth of love that exists between Syenite and Alabaster also makes sense to me, and while I’ve never been in a triad like they were, that does, too.

    S. and A. try so hard to disguise how deeply they care for each other, and I think your narration brings that across (the causes and the effect, in trying to sound indifferent) very well.

    This book really hit me hard on an emotional level, in a way that would not have happened, say, 20 years ago. Because I would not have been able to empathize with S. – and A., too – as I do now. (Not saying I understand them – that would be presumptuous. But they make sense to me.)

  6. This post just makes me annoyed with myself for not having read The Burning Season yet. (It’s in my book queue but I’ve promised myself I’m going to wait until I finish the other six books I have going, not to mention all the [non-fun] stuff I have to read for my job.) Your comment about the character who murders her children rather than see them enslaved is indeed something that has historical precedence beyond Margaret Garner: at the end of the Taino rebellion against Colombus, when they knew they were about to lose and be subjected to slavery and the brutal colonial regime, La Casas claims that the fleeing Taino mothers drowned their babies for the same reason.

  7. I am a mother, and I read the Syenite’s choice as an act of desperation, knowing what their son faced, because she had seen another of Alabaster’s children. She knew the life he faced, and I did see it as an immense act of love of selflessness to do what she did. She obviously didn’t want to, but she did it anyway to spare him a worse fate. It tore me up, and it’s one of the spots I sobbed out loud at (I had to take a break because I could not literally read through my tears), but I understood she couldn’t let that bright beautiful boy become what she knew of his fate.

  8. I really liked your description of the connection between Syenite and Alabaster; too often love between people is depicted as inevitably sexual, and while sex is by no means a bad thing, there is more to human relations and devotion than it.

    And I understood, completely, why Syenite chose to kill Coru rather than let him be taken. The home she’s made for herself and her family is completely destroyed. Both of her son’s fathers, who she deeply loves in different ways, are either dead or probably dead. And the monsters who did it are here to drag her back to her prison and enslave her son, using and abusing him, or possibly lobotomizing him, as other commentators have pointed out happened to another of Alabaster’s sons.

    If I were in that situation – if I were terrified and cornered and despairing, remembering the node chair and the body of the boy in it and knowing that might very well happen to my baby boy, I think I’d probably do the same as Syenite. Better death than a half-life of misery with no escape.

  9. I am a mom who watched her son die a slow, painful, horrible death. I have said many times that if I had known what his last 60 days were going to entail I would have strangled him in his sleep and called it mercy.
    I watched the result of his suffering, and like Alabaster’s strapped-down child, I saw how his demise wrote deep into the souls of so many people, how the ripples of his suffering were transformed into determination and compassion for a better world and I wonder.
    I don’t know the answer.
    As far as families, I think some of the best shorthand stories about family relationships are on the Captain Awkward blog. If you’ve never read it, you may want to check it out. Don’t miss Darth Vader Boyfriend, The House of Evil Bees, or The Missing Stair. For a good laugh, see How is This Relationship Like Ill-fitting Pants.
    I hope your head gets straight about your family issue and your heart gets light. Thank you so much for your amazing books!

  10. That Girl,

    I’m sorry for the loss of your son, and for evoking any of those memories with this story. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. I don’t think there is a real answer.

    I am a regular Captain Awkward reader, tho. And I’m doing the best I can with the family situation, which is all anyone can do. Thanks!