N.K. Jemisin

Out now!

The Killing Moon

The Kingdom of Gods

In the desert city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Along its ancient stone streets, there is no crime or violence. Priests of the dream-goddess, known as Gatherers, maintain order: harvesting the dreams of the citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife. . .

When Ehiru-the most famous of the city's Gatherers-is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war.

Learn more.

We Need a Hero! We Don’t Need Another Hero.

There was an interesting convo in the comments of the last post about how a writer’s background impacts writing — specifically re epic fantasy, but by extension pretty much everything. Foz Meadows summed it up best, I think:

Prior to doing this, I might never have stopped to consider whether a white author’s race were impacting their storytelling, but the more I read, the more relevant a question it becomes: not because there’s some obvious stylistic contrast between white and POC authors or anything like that, but because there’s something meaningful in asking why we authors choose to tell the stories we do – at the very least, we’ve cared enough to write them, and some of the reason why must necessarily be connected to who *we* are – and the more widely I read in terms of authors, the more diffuse and interesting those whys start to seem.

Emphasis mine. Anyway, I thought about this again thanks to playlist coincidence. For various reasons yesterday I was briefly stuck listening to a Totally Eighties! radio station — yes, I know, thanks for your concern, I’m okay really — and by chance this song came on, immediately followed by this song. OK, it probably wasn’t chance; either some playlist-assembler somewhere was having fun, or the playlist was put together by keyword. Anyway, then it hit me: A white woman yearns for heroes; a black woman says no thanks. (With the added nuance of the black woman saying it to Mel Gibson, figuratively, who’s since let his bigot flag fly.) I couldn’t help applying Foz’s analysis here, and wondering what each woman’s background — not just racial; consider Turner’s history as an abuse survivor, and also Tyler’s childhood as the daughter of a Welsh coal miner — contributed to these songs. More specifically, I wondered what those backgrounds contrib’d to why they chose these songs. It makes perfect sense to me that a black woman, given the usual patterns of racism and sexism in this country, would sing about the unreliability of heroes and the need to look elsewhere for rescue… but then, it also makes seems to me that another woman who grew up literally dirt-poor in a society with its own history of oppression would sing that same song. Instead Tyler chose the opposite.

‘Course, that’s the problem with trying to understand an individual choice in the context of broad cultural assumptions: you can’t. Backgrounds matter, but people are not their backgrounds. Gonna paraphrase Nahadoth here: we are certainly what our pasts and societies have made us, but the future is ours to create.

Anyway, then I thought about fantasy, and binaries — but not the Christian good/evil binary of Tolkienesque fantasy, which we discussed in the last post. I started thinking in terms of “we need a hero” fantasy versus “we don’t need another hero” fantasy. The pro-heroic stuff is easy to find; it calls itself heroic, for one thing, and it’s been around for quite some time (note that HFQ hopes to “hearken an older age of storytelling”). But there’s been a lot of attention paid lately to a newer, “gritty” sort of fantasy, a la Joe Abercrombie and Brent Weeks, both of whose works seem to start with the presumption that there are no heroes and roll from there. There’s been some discussion already about what all this gritty stuff means, and whether it’s just the latest iteration of sword and sorcery or something actually new. But I haven’t seen much discussion about why it’s so popular, and why so many readers seem to love it. I suspect a generational difference at work. The gritty writers I’ve met all tend to be my age or so — Gen X, supposedly a generation of ex-latchkey-kids who view the future with a distinct cynicism. I also suspect the biggest fans of gritty fantasy are in this age range or younger, too, though I have no empirical proof to support this belief. If it’s true, though, I wonder whether attitudes like this are the “why” behind gritty fans’ embrace of the “we don’t need another hero” theme. (Again, let’s try not to apply the broad brush too thickly: I’ve met two of the guys behind Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and they’re my age or younger too.)

So anyway, here’s your question for the day. “We need a hero” fantasy vs. “We don’t need another hero” fantasy — which is your preference? Or do you like both — and if so, are there times/situations in which you prefer one over the other? And why do you like one or the other, if you do?

If Tolkien Were…

Didn’t mention this here ’til now because I wanted to think about it a bit, though those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably saw it already. But anyway, last week I had an interview with columnist/critic Laura Miller from Salon, who talked with me and David Anthony Durham on the recent incursions of people of color into epic fantasy — which as she noted is a traditionally very Eurocentric sort of bastion. The interview was a lot of fun and the resulting article is phenomenal; she made me sound much more coherent than I actually am in everyday conversation! An excerpt:

Nevertheless, when Jemisin decided to write her own epic fantasy in grad school, she found herself abiding by some of the genre’s most shopworn conventions. Her main character was a man. “I was thinking it had to have a quest in it, with a MacGuffin of Power being brought to a Place of Significance,” she said. The book didn’t quite work, so she set it aside, and when she returned to it a few years later, she decided to start over. She made the main character a woman and, in an even more marked departure from the norm, she decided to have that character narrate the book in the first person. “I knew that what I was writing was inherently defiant of the tropes of epic fantasy,” Jemisin said, “and I wasn’t sure it would be accepted.”

After every interview and reading I do, I regret something. I think it’s just part of my writerly nature — I create, then critique — so I’ve learned not to angst too much about anything. But after this interview I couldn’t help wishing that a) I’d namechecked a few of the other authors of color doing fantasy of an epic nature, because the article gives the impression that there’s only two of us when in fact there’s maybe a dozen (a few offhand: Michelle Sagara/Sagara West; Saladin Ahmed; Charles Saunders; Carole McDonnell; Nnedi Okorafor; Eugie Foster; Karen Lowachee; Cindy Pon). And b) I kind of wish I’d hit harder on the point that a lot of PoC writing epic fantasy aren’t labeled as such, whether by themselves or their publishers or the wider literary community, for good or for ill, because the genre works so carefully to police itself. You may have heard the joke that magical realism is fantasy written in Spanish. It’s not true — there’s more to MR than that, IMO — but there’s definitely something to the way in which works which in every other way fit within the genre boundaries are consistently pushed out and called something else, when the major difference is the race, nationality, or first language of the writer.

Miller’s article hits on some of this, and I agree with her about the inherent conservativism of the genre. I’ve seen this tendency of epic fantasy readers to reject, say, works by women, or works by people coming from outside of the US or British Commonwealth (and even works by the colonized peoples of that commonwealth, rather than the colonizers). Or works set in lands too far removed from medieval northern Europe, like the slew of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese-set epic fantasy that’s come out in the past couple of decades. In some readers’ minds, it’s very clear that “Writing about brown people in Africa isn’t going to touch that child inside of us and bring back memories of our childhood when we could escape totally into that fantasy cocoon in our heads” (commenter “Ninaloca”, in response to Miller’s article). For those definitions of “us” who aren’t brown people, Ninaloca’s statement may be true. And even when a writer isn’t writing about brown people in Africa — I’m not (yet), David’s not — there’s some assumption on the part of readers that we are. Because of who we are. That this is epic fantasy’s purpose: to create new mythologies into which we the reader can escape… and that those mythologies must be ones which actually exalt our own cultural background. That’s why Tolkien did it, after all.

(There’s an extended and interesting discussion between several commenters to that exact effect in the Miller article, note, and exploring Tolkien’s intentional attempts to address bigotry re the Numenoreans. I’ve seen these arguments before and they never quite explain the LotR books’ bigotry re the Southrons and Easterlings, but maybe Tolkien didn’t intend that. Anyway…)

Stuff like this keeps me awake at night, sometimes. After all, in a few months I will be debuting a pair of epic fantasies featuring brown people in a fantasy analogue of Egypt (which is in Africa), and I suspect the Ninalocas of the world will decide to skip it. Which is why I have mixed feelings about articles like the one in Salon, which simultaneously confront the genre’s segregationist tendencies and yet by doing so, subtly encourage them. The article helps more than it hurts, IMO, because for every Ninaloca who writes me off because I’m black or whenever I write about black and brown people, there will be a reader who picks me up for those same reasons. And in addressing the issue, the article encourages epic fantasy to wake up a little more from its reflexive adherence to traditions that are underlaid by some seriously creepy assumptions.

And yet.

My race is relevant to my writing. Of course it is. Every writer’s race is relevant to their work, whether they believe it to be or not — whether they have the privilege of ignoring that relevance, or not. But my race is not the be-all and end-all of who I am, or why I write. That’s also true for every writer.

So I’d like to ask something of all critics, reviewers, interviewers, etc., who read this. Think of it as a challenge, maybe, or just a new way of looking at your work. A thought experiment. When was the last time you considered the impact of a white writer’s race on his/her work? Just curious. Maybe you can work that into your next interview, or something. Because I think there’s all kinds of nummy lit-crit goodness that’s come out of people considering Tolkien’s whiteness (c.f. that convo in the Salon comments). So try applying that brush to the whole genre, and see what comes of it.

Quick Question: What constitutes “hype”?

See the subject line. I ask because I’m genuinely curious: what’s hype? What’s “too much hype”? At what point is there so much hype that you’ll refuse to read something (“overhype”)?

When The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms first came out, I remember that the third review I saw complained about how much hype the book had received. I know this is a matter of perception and relativism. It’s entirely possible that the reviewer had been running in circles where everyone was talking about the book… but in my circles, no one was (at that time). And where did this hype come from? Like I said, it was only the third review. I’ve never been lucky enough to get the kind of ad campaign that I think of as hype — subway posters, Comic Con banners, TV commercials, full-page ads in schmancy magazines. But clearly my definition of hype does not match others’.

So what’s your definition of hype?

ETA: A great discussion popped up on Twitter (my feed) as a result of me posting this there, between myself, Cheryl Morgan, Niall Harrison, and several other bloggers, readers, reviewers, etc. Look at the Tweets of 11/8, from approximately 11 am EST.

The Two Shahars

It might seem a bit unfair to put both Shahar the Matriarch (whom I’m going to call Shahar1) and Shahar the — whoops, spoiler —

– Last Arameri Ruler –

— in the same Character Study. But since I deliberately constructed the younger Shahar’s life as a “what-if” reflection of her ancestor’s, I thought this might be the best way to do it. I’ll call the younger Shahar “Shahar2″ for lack of a better description. And as you noted above, this one’s full of spoilers; if you haven’t read The Kingdom of Gods and you care, stop now.

OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Continue reading ›

Thinking Out Loud

In honor of The Kingdom of Gods finally being out in all markets, I decided to share this: an old post from my other blog, which was originally friendslocked because it contained early thoughts on the latter books of the Inheritance Trilogy. Thought it might be fun to share because it’s a look inside my head during the earliest development phase of the book you can now hold in your hand and read, and because it contains one of my “eureka” moments — the kind of thing that led me to name this blog “Epiphany”. The “we” that I’m referring to below is, well, me and my muse, for lack of any better description. I don’t actually know. It’s just the way I tend to talk to myself when I’m thinking like this.

Beware profanity; my muse is vulgar. There are spoilers here, for those of you who haven’t read the latter two books. And note that a lot of things changed along the way, so don’t regard this as “canonical”! It was written after I’d finished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but before it sold, while I was noodling up the worldbuilding of The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods.

separator

Magic should have rules, conventional fantasy-writer wisdom says. You’re not supposed to have omnipotent beings running around being all omnipotenty. So even though the trilogy is about gods, I’m supposed to limit them. I need rules.

Eff that. Dungeons & Dragons thinking. Everything’s so mechanistic, quantitative; we’re too wedded to that. Somebody somewhere is going to want me to roll up Nahadoth’s damn stats even though by his very nature he can never have them — no. No. These are gods. If you can’t write them in a way that transcends game mechanics and the usual genre expectations, go write wizards like everybody else. Or become a better writer.

Must consider these gods qualitatively/holistically.

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Drinks from SLEEPOVER OF THE GODS

Belated — I got a request for this while at WFC, since we had the menu and ingredients available at the party but no one had pen/paper handy to jot them down. These were the drinks created and served by the incomparable Michael S (the guy behind the makeshift “bar”):

Peanut Butter & Jelly: Cachaca, Castries Peanut Creme, Welch’s Grape Juice
Rummy Bear: White rum, blue Curacao, lemon juice, simple syrup, with gummy bear garnish
Lollypop: Gin, Framboise, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup
S’More: Pinnacle whipped-cream flavoured vodka, creme de cacao

Some notes: Frangelico can substitute for Castries. Other notes, from Michael:

Brand recommendations: I don’t have a preferred cachaca; the one in my drinks cupboard is Pitu. I’ve already described the nut-liqueur thing. Any white rum will do, same for the curacao. Just make sure it’s blue (and do not buy Hypnotiq, which while it’s blue is quite narsty). My favourite gin is Plymouth; if you can find Old Tom that would be really cool. There’s an Italian wild-strawberry liqueur called Fragoli that, if you can find it, would be a fine replacement for the framboise. If you can’t find the Pinnacle whipped-cream vodka, buy any vanilla flavoured vodka instead. And finally, I tend to use the clear creme de cacao, but if you want a chocolatey-looking S’More, then feel free to buy a coloured chocolate liqueur.

So now you can have your own twisted childhood-themed party!

Recovery

So, last week was Launch Week, culminating in the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego. I flew out there on Thursday, came back yesterday on a redeye, and will probably be feeling the aftereffects for many, many days.

Because I had a little party, while I was there:

There was Twister involved.

Photo credit Paul Berger

The SLEEPOVER OF THE GODS (it’s supposed to be capitalized; imagine it in a Movie Announcer Voice) party was a hit and a blast. In keeping with its theme of slightly warped childhood (to honor our God of Childhood Sieh, protag of The Kingdom of Gods), guests were invited to wear pajamas and play silly kiddie games. Hungry Hungry Hippos proved to be an unexpected hit — people are serious about getting those marbles, man. And for those who wore jammies, they got special prizes including a free copy of the book, a badge ribbon (“Planets make great toys” or “GODS RULE”), and a drink served in a sippy cup. The sippy cups proved to be more aggravating than cute. Hey, I haven’t used one for 30-something years; not exactly something I remembered. And although I did attempt Twister, it was nearly a disaster, because I am not flexible enough to do a split, and yet I did one. Then couldn’t get up, because my footie pajamas had no traction. I wasn’t hungover the next day, just really, really sore. As one should be, after playing drunken Twister on a balcony, in pajamas.

I also fully expect some karmic fallout because while New York was gripped by an early freak snowstorm, I woke up every morning to this:

the view from my hotel: palm trees, bright warm sunlight, mountains

There were cabana boys, you guys. Cabana boys.

I considered this party to be not just the launch of a book, but a farewell to the Inheritance Trilogy, which is now complete. In token of which, when I did my reading at WFC, I actually read the first chapter of The Killing Moon, first book of the Dreamblood duology, because it’s about time for me to start promoting that. Still, the Inheritance books were my first opus — not the magnum, because I’ve got lots more left in me — and that deserves a little celebration. So thanks to everyone who came to the party, and helped me say goodbye to my gods.

Also, many, many thanks to the members of Altered Fluid who were at the con, who a) helped me advertise the party, and b) saved my bacon when at the last minute my plans for going on a groceries/liquor run fell through. And many thanks to Orbit US, who helped me throw the party, and the WFC fellow congoers, who were remarkably tolerant of a group of noisy people in pajamas having a pillowfight above their heads.

No, I didn’t win the World Fantasy Award for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I’m OK with that; I think Who Fears Death is a fantastic book and I’m happy to lose to Nnedi Okorafor, who’s a friend. The launch was my main concern this weekend, and it went perfectly — and I’m stupendously happy about that.

Character Study: Sieh

Been holding off on this one for quite awhile, because I couldn’t think of a way to discuss it and avoid spoilers for The Kingdom of Gods. But now that KoG is finally out everywhere (!!!) I can tackle my favorite character in the whole Inheritance Trilogy.

Spoilers, tho’. Seriously. If you haven’t read KoG, might want to skip this one ’til later.

Continue reading ›

World Fantasy 2011

Heading off tomorrow, on Launch Day — I’m launching from the ground and flying to San Diego! GET IT? Launching — um, yeah, OK.

Anyway, while I’m there I’ll be doing a little of this and a little of that.

  • Friday: 8:00 PM: I’ll be at the mass autographing.
  • Saturday, 11:30 AM: Reading from The Kingdom of Gods or maybe The Killing Moon, I can’t decide
  • Saturday, 9:00 PM: SLEEPOVER OF THE GODS, the KoG launch party! Special prizes for people in pajamas.
  • Sunday, 1:00 PM: World Fantasy Awards banquet, at which I find out whether The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms won. ::ulp::
  • Monday, Stupid O’Clock in the Cracktime: I return home, and collapse into bed to recover from stress/hangover/lack of sleep/travel.

Aside from this, while I’m at the con I am doing nothing specific. Most likely I’ll spend a good amount of time in the hotel bar, because that is what a writer does when she has nothing specific going on at WFC. May be in my room frantically attempting to finish first pass edit of The Shadowed Sun, if I don’t finish it on the six-hour flight there. So if you see me out at the bar, I am most likely chillaxin'; come over and say hi!

Wait a minute Mr. Postman…

You brought me some cool stuff, and I’d like to thank you!

First interesting mailbag item this week was from the folks at French fan site Elbakin, who gave me an award a few months back for best fantasy translation (for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, or, Les Cent Mille Royaumes). I just received the actual prize, and it’s a gorgeous hand-tooled leather book cover —

front of a leather book cover inscribed with book's title, author, and Elbakin Prize 2011 in French

book cover held open to reveal French copy and inner surface

worked-leather logo of Elbakin, a stylized dragon in red

…Niiiiiice. It’s absolutely beautiful. Now that’s a prize.

Next up is something I ordered from Etsy: a cover for my new 11-inch MacBook Air. I wanted something more interesting than the usual stuff, and most of what I found in Etsy’s shop was Japanese print or steampunky designs. Not bad, but I fell in love when I saw one of this shop’s covers done in Malian mudcloth, with Dutch wax print interiors. I had to order a custom one, since they didn’t have an 11-inch size in stock, and this was the result:

case for a macbook air, made from Malian mudcloth. Has a gourd and star design.

This photo doesn’t do it justice, so go look at Threads of Change’s shop and see better images of everything they make. And in a beautifully ironic extra touch, mine is lined with wax cloth that has an Adinkra symbol imprint meaning “the supremacy of God”. Probably not aimed at my books’ gods, but I think they’d be pleased nevertheless.


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