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.

Diaspora of the Fantastic this Thursday!

Just a reminder — this coming Thursday I’m going to be doing a reading with some other phenomenal black women writers at BlueStockings Books in NYC. Details and RSVP here, though the RSVP isn’t absolutely necessary. The readers will be li’l ol’ me, Bram Stoker award-winner Linda Addison; Alaya Dawn Johnson, who’s already got one novel out and two more on the way; and K. Tempest Bradford, who’s got several shorts out in current collections, including John Joseph Adams’ Federations. We’ll be reading for about an hour, followed by a discussion about race in sf/f/h. Should be fun, so come out!

On Book Covers and Race

I’ve been following and participating in the “Ain’t That A Shame” post over at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, in which she takes the risky (for an author) step of calling her publisher on its decision to post a white face on the cover of her forthcoming novel Liar.

Whitewashing — the fannish term for when fictional characters of color are depicted as white in cover art — has long been a problem in the book publishing industry. Its root is racism, of course: the pervasive belief that people of color’s stories aren’t universal enough to play to white consumers. (Though white people’s stories are deemed universal enough for everyone, hence the white cover figures.) We see this in other industries, as with the current fanrage over M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film adaptation of the fantasy cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. The film version casts the heroic leads — for a series set in an all-Asian world — with Caucasian actors. The same thinking was behind the book industry’s bizarre reticence to publish “black fiction” for years, except from those few authors who were embraced by white critics (e.g., Toni Morrison)… until black authors started self-publishing to bestselling numbers, which forced the industry to take notice. Even then, the underlying racist beliefs lingered. At the National Black Writers Conference (put on by the Center for Black Literature a few months back), I got to hear Octavia Butler’s agent relate the story of a publisher she met who still insisted, in the late 1990s, that black people didn’t read. (Incidentally, Octavia used to get whitewashed too.)

So I wasn’t really surprised to hear that Justine had trouble with this. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was something I was really worried about when The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sold. In my first meeting with my editor, I said to her, “If you put my protagonist on the cover — and I’d rather you not because I’m one of those weird folks who hates figures on covers, but if you do — please don’t make her white.” But because I knew the history I was up against, in an effort to be “realistic”, I mentally prepared myself for a white cover figure.

But here’s the thing. My publisher is Orbit — one of the newer publishers in the US, though they’ve been around in the UK for awhile (they’re a subsidiary? imprint? offshoot? of Hachette). So they’re essentially a big old company that’s also small and new. Possibly because of this, they’ve got a new-paradigm way of looking at things, which over the past few months has increasingly impressed the hell out of me — to the point of catching me by surprise at times. So even though my editor is one of the only (or maybe the only) editors of color in SFdom, and even though I’d seen that Orbit was bucking some traditions in other respects, I was totally caught off-guard when they sent me the preliminary cover art for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. There was my character, front and center, looking striking and tough-as-nails… and gloriously brown. I’d absolutely convinced myself that a brown woman on the cover of a mainstream SF novel, from a new novelist, from a big publisher, just wasn’t going to happen. And yet there she was.

I felt a bit ashamed of my pessimism, actually.

Later on, though, my editor called to explain that they were making some changes to the cover — which included removing the character. I got a bit anxious about this, because I’d liked the prelim, but she broke it down: the preliminary image was just too busy, particularly once the final text was applied. It was also too dark, some other stuff. The final version ended up even more beautiful, and all my concerns vanished the instant I saw it, because it was glorious. It kicked ass. I was very happy.

But here’s the thing. Because I’d seen that preliminary cover, I knew the publisher had been willing to put a brown woman on my book. My fears were allayed at that point — such that when my editor said she was removing the character for aesthetic reasons, I believed her. But given the pervasiveness of whitewashing in the industry, I do wonder what readers are going to think when they see my book, read that the character is brown, maybe see my author photo and realize I’m brown, and then see there’s no character on the front. Will that feed into the notion that PoC on book covers don’t sell? And I can’t help wondering what might’ve happened if they’d kept my protag on the cover, aesthetic considerations aside. Even if the publisher had been willing to run with it, would the buyers at the chain stores accept it? Would retailers take one look and shove it in the African American Interest section? Would SF reviewers pay any attention to it? Like I said, this is a pervasive thing.

So I guess I’m still wondering what role my race (and my character’s race) will play in the business end of things.

I’m incredibly glad that someone with Justine’s profile is trying to call attention to the problems, though. I’ll be blunt here: authors (and readers) of color have been complaining about whitewashing for years, and it hasn’t changed much. So maybe it’ll help to have a big-name white author make a stink, and get a (largely) positive response from her readers. Every little bit helps.

All this said, I am still blissfully, gleefully happy to be with Orbit, in part because they are willing to buck the dominant paradigm. (Also because they’re just frakkin’ cool.) When a publisher has a 21st century attitude, it shows in everything they do — from who they hire, to what authors they choose to sign, to how they market their products, to their professionalism, and to the quality of the final work. I think this is paying off for them — several of their debut authors have hit the bestseller lists lately — so I can’t help hoping that I’ll be a big hit too, not just for my own sake, but to help show the industry that being progressive is a good (and lucrative!) thing.

Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I got Mind Melded! Post Launch Pad

Am back from Launch Pad. Much to relate, in particular my conviction that Gay Haldeman is the nicest person in the solar system, but it’ll have to wait ’til I’ve processed things a bit and also until after I’ve finished the Book 2 revision, which I am now slightly behind schedule on. Going to finish the major riveting by tomorrow and then spend the remainder of the week and weekend spackling and painting, and then I can send it off to editor and agent with a smile. More on that later too.

In the meantime, enjoy these photos of Launch Pad attendees, taken by Jeremy Tolbert — note that they’ll be publicly available only for a short time. Also, those of you who are on Twitter can (if you didn’t already) follow my and fellow Launch Pad attendees’ in-the-moment thoughts and links by searching #launchpadworkshop. I especially recommend this video, which illustrates the astronomical in a really humbling, beautiful way.

In the meantime… I got to participate in SF Signal’s Mind Meld! Part 1 (with my answer) here, part 2 here. I feel all special now.

Random thought — I’m glad to be home, but I spent a few hours out on the balcony last night, realizing just how many stars I can see from Brooklyn and feeling quite smug that I know a lot more about them now.

3…2…1… Lift off!!

Am off to Launch Pad, the phenomenal NASA-sponsored astronomy workshop in Laramie, Wyoming. Will be hanging out for a week with phenomenal people, seeing phenomenal stuff in the sky. Phenomenal!! I’ve never been to that part of the country, either, so it should be interesting to see a real “old West” (if that counts as west and not midwest… what the hell do I know, I’m an East Coast city slicker) town.

So, boldly going… to the airport. Yay!

New post at the Magic District

in which I confess a certain uncouth interest in delicate matters; a.k.a., fanfiction.

Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF!

By way of fellow Fluidian Mercurio Rivera, good news: my short story “Playing Nice With God’s Bowling Ball” (Baen’s Universe, 2008) received an Honorable Mention in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction!

I write a lot more SF than I ever manage to sell — which tells me that maybe I don’t write it very well. -_- I’m hoping to partially remedy that by attending Launch Pad in a few weeks, and by continuing to plug away at it. But as I joked to Mercurio, I clearly have no objective ability to measure the quality of my own SF stories, because “Playing Nice” was actually a trunk story — for those who don’t speak Writer, a story I’d given up on trying to publish because I no longer felt it was worthwhile. But then I heard about the Baen’s Universe “slush bar” submissions process. With the Slush Bar, you submit a story to an online forum populated by Baen’s readers, and they read it and decide whether it’s worthy of publication in the magazine. On a whim, I decided to submit “Playing Nice”, since I did think it was well-written, and because I wanted to figure out why it hadn’t sold (see aforementioned inability to objectively assess my own SF). Going through the Slush Bar is a humbling, exhilarating process — kind of like going through an online writing group like Critters, but with a more concrete reward at the end, if you’re lucky. I was lucky. The readers suggested a few changes — nothing too major; they were much nicer than any writing group I’ve ever been in — and then a Baen’s editor contacted me; the response had been positive enough that they wanted it. So the story sold.

I have to admit; I kind of thought it was a fluke. Sure, the story — a police procedural about a hardboiled detective who encounters a very weird murder mystery involving a cute little boy, a Yu-Gi-Oh-like card game, and a black hole in a coffee can — was fun. I had fun writing it. But it didn’t have the weight of most SF stories I’ve read; it didn’t Say Anything important or try to blow its readers’ minds with goshwow science or gadgets. Basically I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, watched a few episodes of Law and Order, and did a mashup. I never, ever, would’ve expected it to get an Honorable anything, least of all in such a prestigious Year’s Best.

So, cool. =)

Yes, Virginia, I am procrastinating today.

But I’m making good progress on revisions, so it’s OK.

So, remember back in March, when I got my delivery of seeds and was eagerly planning my balcony garden? Well, just in case you were sitting around anxiously wondering, “How’s that working out for Nora?” — here’s a photo:

Those greens are looking mighty tasty…

Org Shuffle

Have decided to let my membership to the Authors’ Guild lapse, after it ends this year. I joined them hoping for two things: a) inexpensive health insurance, and b) in-person networking opportunities. I ended up going with the Freelancers’ Union instead for a, because theirs was cheaper and more comprehensive, and never saw any sign of b. And I’ve been annoyed by the Guild’s politics. Cory Doctorow nails it better than I ever could. This pissed me off too. It’s not an easy fix; it puts the burden of access on the visually impaired, rather than normalizing/easing access for all. And read-aloud software is nothing like an audiobook, damn it. Anyway.

Have decided to renew my membership to SFWA. Still have many reservations about this org, but they’re making herculean efforts to modernize, so I’ll give them another year. Check out their new website; holy crap it’s better than the old one. I can actually find stuff in it now! Amazing.

So to replace the Authors’ Guild, I’m trying out an org that I already know is pretty dynamic on the networking, etc., front: Romance Writers of America. I should’ve joined them last year, really, but didn’t want to jump into too many orgs and guilds at once. (Hey, I’m an RPGer; it’s never wise to join too many guilds at once.) Their conferences are expensive as all get out, but I’m told they’re worthwhile, so next year I’m going to try and scrape together my pennies and attend their 2010 con, and maybe even Romantic Times, after fellow Magic Districtee Diana Rowland’s ringing endorsement.

But back to RWA. I’m told the local chapter (beware — site’s color scheme is eye-bleedingly intense) is pretty active, so I’ll probably join that too. We’ll see if I qualify, given that their rules stipulate I have to be engaged in the romance genre; not sure how they determine that. I figure if they give me any guff, I’ll send them The Infamous Chapter 24 ™ of 100K. I can sneak in behind their backs while their glasses are fogged up!

…Or I can just become an Associate Member.

Radios down, readings a-comin’

For those who follow my Twitter feed or Facebook updates, you already knew about this: this past Saturday morning, I and my writing group went on “Hour of the Wolf” on WBAI (99.5 FM, for those in the NYC area), Jim Freund’s phenomenal crackadawn science fictional radio show. It’s been running for as long as I’ve been alive! (Since 1972.) I wasn’t reading — my esteemed colleague Rajan Khanna was — and my comments are pretty much limited to a sleepy sort of “bwuh?” and vague suggestions for his manuscript. But if you want to hear the whole thing, which is a great example of how a writing group works (on the air, at 5 in the morning), listen here.

Other upcoming events in Noraland:

  • Not going to Readercon. =( But I am going to Worldcon in Montreal, and World Fantasy Con in San Jose. Have received confirmation I’ll be on the program — somehow — for Worldcon (I’d asked to do a reading, dunno if I got it), and have applied for same at WFC. Shall keep you posted.
  • Am doing a group reading hereabouts in NYC: Diaspora of the Fantastic: Black Women Writers of SF/F/H (RSVP here if you’re interested), on Thursday, July 30 at Bluestockings, 7-9 p.m.. Not sure what I’ll read yet; only got 15 minutes or so, which none of my short stories will fit. -_- I don’t want to read from 100K, since it’s still more than 7 months off at that point, and since I’ve got more readings coming up and will quickly get tired of reading from the book, I think. Might do an excerpt from the Postscripts story, or something unpublished.
  • Waaaaaaay advance notice, but I’ll be reading at KGB’s Fantastic Fiction event in March 2010. Which gives me only 9 months to freak out about it!! The KGB events are my favorite reading series in the city, so it’s a real honor to be able to read there… but by the same token, I’m already anxious about it. (Strangely, the thought of reading at Worldcon and WFC doesn’t bother me at all. WTF?)

And in micro news, am now revising chapter 8 (of 21) of Book 2. Hopefully won’t have to rewrite it, the way I did chapters 3-7… -_-

Random thought.

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, human beings exploit their gods as literal slaves, using their magical abilities as weapons.

In Book 2 (name undecided), human beings exploit their gods’ very flesh and blood in various ways. For example, a drug called “godsblood” has become popular in the mortal world, and it’s exactly what it sounds like — small vials of blood drawn from (willing) gods. When humans ingest this, they gain magic power.

Book 3 is still in flux, but the core story is solid in my head, and it occurs to me that the gods are exploited in this one too — the protagonist uses one godling’s magic and knowledge to advance herself politically, and later she plays one god against another in an attempt to gain power over them all.

Maybe “Inheritance” isn’t the right name for this trilogy; maybe I should call it the Godsploitation Saga!