posted by Karen Burnham at Wednesday 29 June 2011 @ 3:40 am BST
Welcome to this panel on up-and-coming author N. K. Jemisin. Her debut fantasy novel has been nominated for six awards so far this year, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree awards. Last weekend (after this panel was concluded) we learned that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (HTK) won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Last year her short story “Non-Zero Probabilities” was also short-listed for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and she’s had short fiction appear in venues such as Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons since 2005.
We have four panelists to discuss Jemisin’s career to date. First up is Siobhan Carroll, a professor at the University of Delaware who also writes short fiction. Next we have Jeffrey Ford, teacher and winner of World Fantasy Awards. Maureen Kincaid Speller is an editor, academic, and critic. We’re also joined by multiple-award winning Rachel Swirsky.
As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.
Could the panelists start by talking a little bit about how you first discovered Jemisin’s writing and what you’ve read so far?
My first introduction to N.K. Jemisin was the free copy of HTK that I picked up at ICFA. I was astonished to find out that HTK was a debut novel, because Jemisin’s characterization of the dead/mentally-shattered Yeine was so masterfully done. I’ve seen fragmented first-person before, and while it often reads beautifully, I think it’s difficult for a reader to identify with a narrator who is as confused as Yeine is here. Yet it was precisely Yeine’s voice that drew me in and made me want to read more about the world Jemisin had created.
Since then I’ve read The Broken Kingdoms (TBK) and several of Jemisin’s short stories. Donating that free copy was a smart move on Orbit’s part — they’re going to sell a lot of Jemisin books to me because of it.
Well, one reason HTK may read so smoothly for a debut is that Jemisin had written a number of novels before then. I know that’s not uncommon, but I hope we get to read some of the ones that never found a publisher.
I started reading her work after hearing her talk on a Wiscon panel–she’s extremely eloquent and I was unsurprised to find that her writing is also really smart and interesting. She sent me a number of her short stories for consideration when I was editing the reprint market PodCastle; we ended up broadcasting “Red Riding Hood’s Child” which is a very dark retelling of the folktale that has some themes in common with HTK. (PodCastle has run several more of her stories since.)
I’d met Ms. Jemisin in New York a couple of times at different readings, just in passing or in a group of other people. At first, I had no idea she was a writer. I knew her name was Nora, that was about it. Then, I think it was at a reading for the Interfictions 2 anthology, where in a group of people someone mentioned she had a book coming out. Later on, I asked, I think it was Rick Bowes, if he’d ever read her fiction, and he told me she was a terrific writer and definitely worth checking out. OK, I squirreled that info away in my head and figured I’d run into her stuff some day. Then months passed, and I started reading on the internet about a new novel, an epic fantasy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It was by this writer, N. K. Jemisin. I had no idea this was the same person. The book sounded interesting, and I’d been thinking about checking out some more ”traditional” fantasy as it seemed there was a whole new crop of writers doing really interesting things in this field, like Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch, being two. The descriptions of the book were pretty fascinating. “Epic” or “High” fantasy, I’m not sure what it’s called now, was never really my first choice in Fantastic Lit., but I do like to read outside my favorite areas from time to time if just to mix things up. I figured I’d try this book because why mess around with anything else when you can get a Hundred Thousand Kingdoms instead of just one or two. The book’s cover appealed to me as well. Somewhere between my deciding to get the book and actually getting it, I saw on the internet a picture of the author, and I made the connection.
I confess I came to the novel with a boatload of preconceived notions based on other epic fantasy I’d tried to read in the past. Once into it, though, it soon became clear to me that this was a very original work and that inclination grew as I continued through it. I’m a sucker for the first person point of view, and Jemisin uses it expertly as a way of circumventing a lot of lengthy explanation and info-dumping. You learn about the world of Sky as Yeine (the main character) encounters it. And she is a wonderfully complex character, innocent, shrewd, feaful, courageous, smart and also capable of blunders. She seemed real as did the world to me. History, politics, economics, racial politics, religion, etc. are all layered into Yeine’s first-hand experience without lengthy asides. The story keeps moving. And because the world is so well grounded, the magic, when it happens, a lot of times suddenly, is startling, as magic would be if one were to encounter it. The writing was clear and compelling. The power and level of imagination and invention are visionary. More to say on all this, but I was very taken by the book. I’ve also since read TBK and two of the stories the author has online — “The You Train” at Strange Horizons and “Non-Zero Probabilities” at Clarkesworld.
I really recommend “On the Banks of the River Lex.”
Maureen Kincaid Speller
I was actually asked by Niall Harrison to review HTK for Strange Horizons. Jemisin’s name was unfamiliar to me at that point but I quickly became aware of a lot of internet buzz about the book, mostly because, as is my usual habit, I was trying to avoid reading it until I’d formed my own opinion. I found it very interesting on my first read through, though I think at the time I was initially drawn to it more for its presentation of issues than for technical accomplishment.
I was particularly interested in what I suppose we could call the political angle, as Yeine, as an outsider, navigates her way through the complex situation within the council chamber, but there was also the colonial/postcolonial angle.
And then the ending caught me completely unawares which I like, given so many novels seem to be so easy to second-guess.
I haven’t read TBK as yet but I ordered a copy as soon as I knew I’d be taking part in this, and it’s arrived today, so guess what I’m doing this evening.
Click here to continue reading.
I’m with Maureen in having heard the buzz about HTK before I knew much about Nora or had met her in person. When I picked it up, I was very impressed by the first person voice and the character of Yeine–she seemed strong, practical, and sometimes vulnerable in a strikingly realistic way. Since then I’ve also read TBK (second book in the planned trilogy, with The Kingdom of Gods due out later this year). Oree Shoth, the protagonist/narrator of the second volume, had a similar strength of character–which I liked even more since she is an older woman with more life experience. I thought both characters had pretty good senses of humor that helped see them through the high/epic fantasy narratives they get thrown into.
I also noticed the colonial/post-colonial angle that Maureen brings up. In these books the Arameri are the ruling family that has wielded the most political power for the longest time. Yeine and Oree both come from cultures that are more marginal, and the original homeland of Oree’s people had in fact been completed destroyed by one of the gods’ spats. I felt that the narrative of the outsider navigating the halls of more dominant powers–both the Arameri and the pantheon of gods–was done here in a way that felt more convincing and contemporary than the farm-boy-goes-questing-and-gains-political-power narrative that is so common in epic fantasy.
Rachel: I went and just read “On the Banks of the River Lex” and it reminded me somewhat of the characters of the fallen gods in HTK — characters both mythological and possessing idiosyncratic personalities as well. An interesting story. Thanks for the suggestion.
Yes, both Yeine and Oree were very strong. What I thought was a nice touch of irony was that although Yeine lives in Sky and has the advantage of being part of the court, her world is full of guile and deception. Sky appears beautiful and glowing, but in many ways is actually dangerous and run down. Oree, who lives in the area beneath the monolithic city, has a somewhat freer life on the street selling her art, and although she is “blind” has a life more filled with beauty. This isn’t something that, as the reader, you get hit over the head with, but just something I perceived later after putting the books away. Did anyone else come away with this impression?
Another aspect of the book that really made it for me was that the time it took place in was not the usual pseudo-medieval era you get so often. What’s represented in the novels is an age that borrows from both the distant past and the modern, not mechanically shoved together, but intricately blended to create an original time in an original world. This as much comes out in the style of storytelling as in the technology and cultural trappings – in the narrator’s humor Karen alluded to and in the direct address concerning the narrator’s discussion at times as to how the story is being told. These techniques are blended with styles of story telling that harken back to oral culture and the retelling of history and myths from earlier generations. A very cool effect that the author pulls off without stumbling. It kept me always curious about the world of both books, always on the lookout for what else I might learn about it. These revelations are meted out at a steady, natural pace throughout.
Let’s talk about the setting of the Inheritance Trilogy a bit. We’ve already mentioned that it is not a typical pseudo-medieval European setting as you see in a lot of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, even though HTK deals primarily with court politics. Even though we didn’t see a lot of the other cultures directly, this world feels less homogenous than those that only have one or two important kingdoms and maybe some barbarians. I’m also interested in the way Jemisin’s work tackles colonialism in a way that a lot of fantasy does not. Anyone want to elaborate on that at all?
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of colonialism in the books is the supression of the old gods. One of the first steps of colonization for European states as they spread their oppression around the world was to send missionaries. Missionaries were some of the first to arrive in North America, Africa and Asia. Their job was to suppress native spiritualism (the old gods) by supplanting them with the hierarchical (top down), male dominated, monotheism of Catholicism or Christianity. For the invading political entity it is as important to erase native culture as it is to win military victories. The old gods, though enslaved, are not so easy to erase. There are those in the native culture who secretly keep the memory of their power alive through stories and clandestine ritual practices. As we see in Jemisin’s books, the old gods are hobbled but they are ever ready and yearning to again break free and lend power to the original culture. The true nature of the old gods is not understood by the colonizing culture, it’s frightening, appears “irrational” and must be subdued. I’m reminded of the scene in Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography where, due to his intelligence and “attitude,” Douglass is sent by his master to be “broken,” as one would a wild horse, to this guy Covey’s farm. Covey had a reputation as a “negro breaker.” Basically, what Covey does is just beat the shit out of slaves until they are subdued. He beats Douglass badly once and Douglass runs away to his owner, but the owner sends him back. Douglass has no choice but to return to Covey, where he knows he will be beaten again. On the way, he meets another slave, Sandy Jenkins who tells Douglass about a root that is both native to Africa and the American South. He says that if Douglass were to find this root and put it in his pocket, no man would ever beat him again. Sandy helps him find the root. Douglass goes back to Covey’s, Covey attacks him, Douglass stands up for himself and beats Covey, who from then on leaves him alone. In the 1881 edition of the Autobiography, Douglass says of Sandy, he was a “true African.” I take this to mean that he was in touch with one of the traditions of native spiritualism of Africa. To a European mind, this doesn’t make sense. It seems a superstition. Whether there was actual magic in the root or its presence helped Douglass tap into the power of the “old gods” and merely gave him a kind of courage, it worked.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
SC >> I was astonished to find out that HTK was a debut novel, because Jemisin’s characterization of the dead/mentally-shattered Yeine was so masterfully done.
I’d certainly agree with this. I must admit my heart often sinks when a ‘debut novel’ features a first-person viewpoint as I think it is a lot harder to write than many people realise, but I was equally impressed with Yeine. One of the things I particularly liked was Yeine’s sense of confusion, the need to observe and work out what was happening from the various small clues. This may of course be because it corresponds to my preferred modus operandi, but I welcome anything in which the viewpoint figure doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t have a raft of people to explain everything impartially.
However, I do wonder if Yeine’s voice doesn’t sound rather like Oree’s in TBK. But as the circumstances are very different, I may be being unreasonably picky over that one. It might perhaps be some sort of nod at their parallel experience as outsiders in the city.
JF >> I confess I came to the novel with a boatload of preconceived notions based on other epic fantasy I’d tried to read in the past.
Without getting embroiled in a taxonomic discussion (of which no good will ever come), I’m fascinated that these novels have been described as being ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, as they seem to be about as far as that as one can get, to the point where she seems to me almost to be deconstructing something like Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, but not in an ironic way or by self-consciously drawing attention to the fact, which I like.
RS >>I really recommend “On the Banks of the River Lex.”
I enjoyed the two stories mentioned by Jeffrey, but this story really hits the spot for me. Has a certain flavour of Beagle’s “Come, Lady Death” and A Fine and Private Place about it but is very much its own thing as well.
Thanks for all three recommendations.
Actually, I’ve just realised this picks up on another thing I find really, really interesting about both novels, and that is the manifest nature of the gods, and in the second book, the godlings. Particularly in the second book, in fact, in the wake of the fall of Itempas and the opening up of greater opportunities for expression of faith and belief.
Maureen: I agree. The books really do transcend the usual categories. I was expecting something more along the “traditional” lines as I’d described, but the actuality of them is much more original.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
As I think I said elsewhere earlier, in both cases I’m struck by how far they are from the standard model in which, as Karen says, ‘farm boy goes questing’, accompanied by the sense that the narrative is already stacked in his favour and it’s unlikely that he won’t succeed. In both novels, the uncertainty seems palpable, in terms of what’s going on and, indeed, whether they’ll succeed at whatever it is they’re supposed to succeed at, if they can work that out. There is no prophecy to fulfil and no simplistic wrong to be righted, either.
I find it interesting too that they are both positioned as women from if not actual matriarchal societies – I’m not entirely clear about Oree’s home region/country – then from cultures where women enjoy considerably more power and privilege than they do in Sky. And yes, I know there are powerful Arameri women but it feels, perhaps because of Bright Itempas, masculine.
I am wondering if we will see, with vol. 3, more of what goes on beyond the city, as we’ve now moved down the tree, to its roots, and vaguely beyond. I found myself noting all sorts of little colonial markers, such as the insistence of Semnite being taught before the home language, the White Halls in every town and village (colonial administration), Sky positioned as the city (almost literally the fatherland), and so on. I might want too to tease out something about the way in which the brightest and best of the ‘half-breeds’ and those from other cultures are assimilated into the Arameri.
In two minds as to whether the issue could have been brought out more strongly, but I suspect that if it had been it would become an overbearng ‘theme’ whereas I like the way it’s just one more part of the confusing mix.
I wanted to briefly return to the colonial/post-colonial issues raised in the Inheritance Trilogy. High fantasy (yes, I would call HTK that) has certainly engaged with imperial themes before. However, HTK does so with more nuance than most.
Yeine is from a marginal culture but she’s also a member of the ruling family. Much of the plot hinges on her need to reconcile these two identities – ruler and ruled, exploiter and exploited. She needs to learn to negotiate the metropole’s corridors of power while still acting in the interests of her homeland. This essential conflict is mirrored in the present-tense portions of the novel, where Yeine tries to heal herself by reconciling two very different parts of her identity. For me, this is the strongest marker of the novel’s postcolonialism: the fact that both the protagonist’s and her nation’s future depends on her forging a new identity, one that acknowledges the crimes of the past while also admitting that the past can’t be undone. Or, to quote the novel, “I was what mortal life had made me, what Enefa had made me, but that was all in the past. From henceforth I could be whomever I wanted” (385).
Also interesting in the novel is its representation of slavery. In many fantasy stories, liberating slaves is obviously a Good Thing To Do. In HTK, this is not so obvious. Jemisin’s slaves have immense power — they’re gods, after all — and they’re genuinely dangerous. Yeine’s first encounter with the unleashed Nahadoth drives this point home: she has to run for her life, and only survives because she’s aided by another god. She’s continually being reminded of the frightening Otherness of the gods, and the dangers they pose: “Had I thought him merely an embittered slave, a pitiable creature burdened by grief? I was a fool” (199). As much as she comes to want the gods’ liberation, Yeine also knows that freeing them could have some pretty severe consequences. I think this makes her choice to aid them more meaningful.
MKS >> In both novels, the uncertainty seems palpable, in terms of what’s going on and, indeed, whether they’ll succeed at whatever it is they’re supposed to succeed at, if they can work that out. There is no prophecy to fulfill and no simplistic wrong to be righted, either.
And instead of being helped/protected by Providence (usually the source of those prophecies), Yeine is working in direct opposition to the all-powerful masculine God, while Oree serves as God’s protector.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Good point, and it links to what you said in an earlier post about nuance. With both these novels, the devil really is in the detail. While one could take a fairly superficial ‘feminist’ reading of them, i.e. subversive female protagonist inserted into place usually occupied by ‘stable boy prince’, both novels are so much richer than that.
KB >>We’ve already mentioned that it is not a typical pseudo-medieval European setting as you see in a lot of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, even though HTK deals primarily with court politics. Even though we didn’t see a lot of the other cultures directly, this world feels less homogenous than those that only have one or two important kingdoms and maybe some barbarians.
I have to admit to a sense of low-grade disquiet about the setting/cultures, something that I find quite difficult to fully articulate.
I agree that this world does seem to be less homogenous than the standard fantasy world (and no maps, at least not in my editions). Places are mentioned, and exist in conversation, background, etc. without immediately having to signify as metaphoric characters, which I find pleasing. (I do hate the way that in so many fantasy novels countries only exist at the moment they have plot significance or in such broadly generic terms as to be offensive.)
I think my problem is more with HTK than TBK in some respects, in that although Yeine comes as the outsider, the barbarian princess, and so on, she is also the insider and as such, despite the responses of some, such as Scimanna and Relad, she nonetheless still has that position of comparative privilege, as a … halfbreed, crossbreed … I like Vizenor’s term, mixedbreed.
I understand that we need that, in order to see how the Arameri and the Sky Palace work from the inside, and indeed that, given the very tight structure that the Arameri have established, drawing their family around them, to the nth degree, there is no other way to see what is going on. And, of course, it is a comment in itself, an incredibly extreme version of Macaulay’s Minute but I think there is an uneasiness in the text that is never quite resolved for me. I’m not entirely sure whether it is Yeine’s uneasiness or something that arises from the fact that her position of comparative privilege, however strongly she is aware of it, can never quite be addressed. There are certain undertones around blood relationships and what blood means (the clear delineation between Yeine’s general physical and mental robustness and the effeteness of Relad and Scimanna; I suddenly find myself thinking momentarily of Wells and the Morlocks and Eloi, which disturbs me).
This is perhaps why I feel more comfortable with TBK which, although it is mostly set in Sky, does exhibit a greater sense of cultural diversity and of everyday lives. Granted, everyone is coming into Sky, there is the metropole/periphery dynamic, and there is still that flavour of the Stars Wars cantina with the parade of peoples (and I wonder too if we should consider the significance of Oree for the most part not being able to see them, removing a particularly significant cultural marker). As I said, I am curious to see if Jemisin is consciously moving from the metropole to the periphery, to provide a greater sense of the world.
So far I like both installments of the trilogy, but I find TBK the more remarkable of the two. The balance of clarity of writing and complexity of plot and ideas was really something. TBK is both a stand alone novel and a shrewd continuation of the previous novel’s story. It’s at once a murder mystery, a search for Oree’s origins, a book about art, where every chapter is a type of painting, the story of someone learning to live with an affliction which they turn to their advantage, a love story, etc. So much is simultaneously at play here, and yet you never feel the gears turning. The threads effortlessly weave together. Above all it is an urban novel and an urban fantasy. I think Maureen does a good job of showing that these books do not fit the classic mold of the epic fantasy. One of the things missing from them is the outward journey, the quest. There’s not great travel to stand as a metaphor for the lengths to which one is searching for the truth. Here the journey is arduous, but it is circumscribed by the city and the self. What’s gained is every bit as fulfilling and important as the result of Parcival’s quest. This makes for a more modern fantasy for me. I also noticed in some of the online-interviews with Jemisin that she is a psychologist, and, oh, man, the temptation to play the pop-psychology game here with gods and godlings and characters is impossible to ignore. I’ll not reveal my own crackpot theroies about how this all fits together, for it shifts every time I think about it, but this, in and of itself, is a bit of idiosyncratic fun each reader can have with the text when it is recollected in tranquility. There are no easy, pat readings for this work if you try to entertain all of its various subjects simultaneoulsy.
So, I ended up in a fairly long debate last year about whether or not these novels were really post-colonial. The contention (of the people arguing that these novels were traditional epic fantasy, not writing opposite such narratives) was, I think, that HTK is like other fantasy novels in that it puts everything “to rights” the way it should have been at the end of the novel. Rather than restoring the rightful king to the throne, I suppose, it frees the slaves and puts the rightful God in the heavens.
Of course, to me, these are two very different conceptions of “normal.” One is a restored political hierarchy. The other is a setting to order of the moral universe that involves breaking the human political hierarchy. If we look at these novels from the perspective of a member of society, the experience, for say, the average Arameri, would be very different than the experience of person X from a restore-the-king fantasy–rather than beginning the novel in a state they consider abnormal, they begin the novel in a state that strikes them as perfectly normal, a state that has in fact endured for many centuries. The restoration of the celestial triad doesn’t return them to a comforting past, it throws them into an uncertain and tumultuous future, one without easy resolutions about the human balance of power, and in which even the gods are forced to adapt.
At the time we were debating, HTK was out, but TBK wasn’t–I wonder whether the other reader read the ending of HTK as somehow indicating a return to a past idyllic precolonial period.
Of course, that’s part of the issue with looking at colonialism with a frank eye. Imperialism is not like a malfunctioning monarchy which can be restored after a blip (although I am not convinced that monarchies are as much like that outside novels as in them). Colonialism is something that cannot be easily removed or reversed. It leaves enormous disturbances in its wake. It changes cultures; it changes relationships between cultures; it changes identity and power. Some things are just destroyed and you can’t bring them back. In the real world, there is of course the enormous loss of Native American life to guns, germs, and relentless campaigns to hunt them down like animals. Even where people survived, cultures often didn’t survive intact. Many African and Native American cultures (and probably others, as well, those are just the colonial situations I’ve got a little more familiarity with) were changed so deeply by the colonial imprint–and by the slave trade–that there is no living memory, and no written record, of what the precolonial societies looked like. Groups uprooted themselves, assimilated into other groups, suffered heavy losses and dispersed. I think we’re used to languages dying off–but the shock of colonialism was pernicious from the beginning. Even before colonialism itself reached a culture, its effect might already have been felt–the shock waves of violence and death from the slave trade and from the introduction of disease carried far beyond the initial points of contact. Cultures don’t live in isolation.
In the books, some of the destruction is more directly carried out–Nahadoth destroys Oree’s continent, leaving the diasporic survivors as the only remnants of her people. The cultures not represented in the diaspora are gone. They are disconnected from their physical history.
Colonialism destroys. There is no normal to return to. Only a new normal to be created.
I actually liked TBK better as a book than HTK. (This seems to be a minority position among people I’ve talked to.)
There was a closer-in focus in BK that I appreciated, which gave me a more rounded feel for Oree and her setting. I think Maureen said that Sky is supposed to be grand, but feels cold, while the city around it has a warmth and artistic vivacity. I think it also felt, to me, more real and more populated. I enjoyed the ground level view. HTK was busy building the abstractions of an entire empire; I preferred the concrete detail of a small part of it.
I also felt that HTK was very strongly structured as a mystery. It was an effective one. I page-turned like there was no tomorrow so I could finish it–and I had the swine flu at the time. (BTW, don’t get the swine flu, if you can avoid it; it sucks.) The world and the gorgeous gorgeous imagery had me immersed, and the mystery was just an amazing question, woven, through the text, that daaaamn, I wanted to answer.
But once it was answered, there was a bit of a let-down. First of all because I felt that the answer wasn’t as cool as the build up (not that it wasn’t cool at all, just not as cool as the buildup; I often feel that way about big reveals.) Because so much of my energy in reading the book was focused on getting-to-the-end, it sort of condensed the book in my mind as a sort of focused direction arrow. Or rather, a bunch of arrows, all winnowing down to a single point. And it’s not like the arrows weren’t cool; and it’s not like the point wasn’t cool; but instead of making the book lush and growing in my mind, it made it sort of a directed, finished object.
Oree’s story had much more room to grow. It had a closer point of view on a more emotionally accessible character and a city that was still imagistically gorgeous (although not as majestically so as the first book). For me, it was also a story that grew and diverged and had many different points of access and interest. I don’t think the plot itself was as good as the ploit in the other book, or at any rate, while the god-eating villain had his neat moments, I was more interested in the setting and the character than the plot. The book grows in my mind, post-reading, rather than becoming fixed.
There has been some discussion about how well BK handles disability. No one (that I’ve seen) seems to be arguing that Oree isn’t well-rendered as a blind character, but rather, the book evokes the ableist stereotype of a magical disability. Jemisin has written very smartly about it and other issues relating to Oree’s blindness. That whole essay is fabulous and extremely worth reading, but I’ll pull a bit relevant to what I was just saying:
…here’s the problem: I had effectively made demon-ness — that is, the inheritance of magic — a kind of code for disability. Which ran smack into another big stereotype: the magical disabled person. I’m not gonna lie here; this was a fuckup on my part. If I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t have made her sighted, or unmagical, because like I said, that’s what she needed to be to fit the character in my head. But… I would’ve severed the association between her magic and her inability to see, so that one did not cause the other. Like I said, I wanted her blindness to be part of her identity, as unremarkable as her gender or race… but by constructing her blindness as the result of her magic, I not only made it remarkable, I emphasized its abnormality. Imagine if I’d said she was only female because the magic made her that way. Or if I’d said she was only black because one of her ancestors was something inhuman that happened to have black skin. (We’ll discuss Laurell K. Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry books some other time.)
I figured this out, by the way, six months after I turned in the book to my editor. Specifically after I attended a great workshop at Readercon, called What Good Writers Still Get Wrong About Blind People, presented by Kestrell Alicia Verlager. (Note part 2 and part 3.) Too late to change the book, but not too late to learn from the
mistake. I am determined to do better next time — and there will be a next time.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
RS >> So far I like both installments of the trilogy, but I find the second book, TBK, the more remarkable of the two.
Couldn’t agree more. I’m glad I went to the trouble of hunting down TBK to read for this discussion because I think it is by far the more interesting novel.
JF >> The balance of clarity of writing and complexity of plot and ideas was really something. [...] So much is simultaneously at play here, and yet you never feel the gears turning. The threads effortlessly weave together.
It’s also a good point about not feeling the gears turning. I could appreciate that HTK was a well-crafted novel but for me there was always a little too much much of a sense of … not quite sure how to put this but a sense of someone – the author, the narrator, someone else? – observing the process of writing. I grant you I always read at a slight distance anyway, almost as though I’m reading over my own shoulder, but there was an extra space in there somewhere that I couldn’t quite account for, perhaps Jemisin watching over her own shoulder as she wrote. But I didn’t have that same sense with TBK. Much more absorbed in story-telling rather than being conscious of story-telling.
JF >> Above all it is an urban novel and an urban fantasy.
Absolutely, and in the old-fashioned pre-paranormal romance sense. I’d not thought about that until you suggested it but yes.
JF >> One of the things missing from them is the outward journey, the quest. There’s not great travel to stand as a metaphor for the lengths to which one is searching for the truth. Here the journey is arduous, but it is circumscribed by the city and the self.
Also, more practically, and most noticeably in TBK, everyone is coming into the city. Oree seems to be suggesting that those who come to the city are attracted because it’s a place where they don’t stand out so easily, particularly those with concealed magical skills, but there is suggestion too of the colonial impulse, the move from the land to the city (again, this is part of why I’m interested to see what happens in Vol. 3).
JF >> This makes for a more modern fantasy for me. [...] There are no easy, pat readings for this work if you try to entertain all of its various subjects simultaneoulsy.
Another thing that commends the novels, TBK especially. They are very chewy reads. I had certain reservations about HTK the first time I read it, in that I didn’t think it was pulling hard enough against the fantasy template but TBK certainly does.
RS >> At the time we were debating, HTK was out, but BK wasn’t–I wonder whether the other reader read the ending of HTK as somehow indicating a return to a past idyllic precolonial period.
I think it would have been hard to take a reading like that, given the cataclysmic nature of the ending. To my mind, there was no sense of restitution at all, but rather a shift in the balance of power, a change of ruler, an implication that the decadence of Dekarta’s rule would be a thing of the past (though I would as a matter of principle doubt that) and a radical shift in the pantheon.
RS >> Of course, that’s part of the issue with looking at colonialism with a frank eye. [...] Colonialism is something that cannot be easily removed or reversed. It leaves enormous disturbances in its wake. It changes cultures; it changes relationships between cultures; it changes identity and power.
I’ve been thinking a lot in the last week about literature as ideology (mostly to do with Native American writing, as it happens, and critical perceptions of that writing) and I am wondering if part of the difficulty some readers have in addressing HTK as anything other than epic fantasy (and this may link to the minority preference for TBK, a preference I note that most if not all of us in this small group appear to hold) is a sense of discomfort with the twin ideas of epic fantasy espousing a particular ideology (restoration, maintaining the (good) hegemony, and so on) and novels like HTK challenging that form of ideology. TBK is surely the richer novel in part because it looks at aftermath and, as we so often see in real life, it’s the aftermath that doesn’t fit neatly into the rhetorical structure.
RS >> Colonialism destroys. There is no normal to return to. Only a new normal to be created.
This, and it is clearly in part what TBK is about.
Slightly tangentially (and has anyone else noticed how when talking about these books, little bits of them suddenly come sharply into focus), it has just occurred to me that Yeine’s first formal encounter with the Arameri is not actually the meeting with the family but in the council chamber, with all that entails in terms of representing power, but a power that is presided over watchfully by a member of the ruling family, so it is in effect a sham, political theatre, unless someone really is sufficiently strong-minded to challenge the status quo. It is actually quite clearly signalled from the outset what is going on, and that’s another chalkmark in the ‘not epic fantasy’ column, to my mind.
RS >> Oree’s story had much more room to grow. [...] I don’t think the plot itself was as good as the plot in the other book, or at any rate, while the god-eating villain had his neat moments, I was more interested in the setting and the character than the plot. The book grows in my mind, post-reading, rather than becoming fixed.
I think you have put your finger on some of the reasons why I prefer TBK, even though HTK might be more technically assured. It is a messier book but if one takes its messiness as some sort of performative representation of the city, I’m happy with that. Plot-wise, I agree, but in terms of setting, peoples, stuff, far more vibrant.
RS >> There has been some discussion about how well BK handles disability. No one (that I’ve seen) seems to be arguing that Oree isn’t well-rendered as a blind character, but rather, the book evokes the ableist stereotype of a magical disability. Jemisin has written very smartly about it…
Ah, now this is really interesting. I felt bothered about Oree’s blindness because it seemed to me that there were times when she didn’t represent things in the way I had anticipated a blind person might. Or rather, I wondered how much the visual imagery at times could be justified by her ‘magical vision’ or whether some of it was careless writing/editing, or a perverse attempt on Oree’s part to narratve for a sighted person. This answers my reservations, I think, in part.
Actually, while I am about it, there is another thing which bothers me a little in the two novels so far, and if it turns up a third time, I may start to wonder what is going on, and that’s a … well, I suppose it is an extension of a ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope, but there is a moment in both novels when the women are effectively confined to a room, more explicitly in TBK, and I began to feel we were heading off into Gilman/Yellow Wallpaper territory. I have not really had time to sit down and tease out what is going on in those sections but I was surprised to see it surface in again in TBK.
I’d like to shift the topic over to Jemisin’s short fiction. Two of her most recent stories, both in Clarkesworld, have gotten significant attention. Both “Non-Zero Probabilities” and “On the Banks of the River Lex” do interesting things blending contemporary settings, mythical beings (or mythical knowledge), and world-building that feels almost science-fictional. Certainly they seem to indicate a much broader range than the secondary world/high fantasy setting of The Inheritance Trilogy. Would anyone like to talk about what qualities stand out in Jemisin’s short fiction?
I hadn’t read any of the short fiction, before undertaking this discussion. I’d read only the first novel of the trilogy, and after agreeing to “talk” about that, read the second. Just before we began I read two short stories and then another that Rachel suggested. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories were as accomplished as the novels. I agree with Karen that they indicate Jemisin’s potential success with different styles and structures. But in a way all that is already indicated in the novels. I’ll be interested to see if she continues to write many stories and in what directions they will head. I think I read that she’s already slated to write two more novels beyond the final installment in the trilogy (which, by the way, sounds like it’s going to be pretty incredible if she pulls it off). Jemisin seems at the height of her powers and more than willing to challenge herself, which is going to render interesting fiction, short or long, well worth reading.
I’ve read a number of N. K. Jemisin’s short stories, but the ones that stick out most in my mind right now are:
“On the Banks of the River Lex”
“Red Riding-hood’s Child”
“Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”
Some of the other stories I’ve read–for instance, “Effluent Engine” and “You Train”–are interesting in and of themselves, but they don’t feel as much like they contribute to a body of work that is particular to N. K. Jemisin.
Now, I should, like, define what I mean by a body of work that is particular to Jemisin. In short stories, I get a very strong mood from Jemisin–a kind of darkness, but also a thinness–not in the sense that the work lacks dimension, but in the sense that we’re seeing only a slice of things. The stories tend to feel a little bit brutal. “Red Riding-Hood’s Child” is probably iconic of that; even the hope in this story is dark. There’s a lot of helplessness. But the story doesn’t feel sad, per se, more like a factual statement. Bleakness presented in a way that does not flinch, excuse, or sensationalize. It is what it is.
“Non-Zero Probabilities” has that mood to it, for me–although I think it ends with hope, that always felt like an extra added onto the story, something that didn’t quite belong.
I think “Sinners, Saints” and “On the Banks of the River Lex” reflect a more complicated, growing aesthetic. There’s still bleakness–both stories can be read as post-apocalyptic–but there’s a sense of rebuilding afterwards, as well. One could compare this to the arc of HTK through TBK–HTK presents a system that, for the colonized peoples, has similarities to a post-apocalyptic world. HTK breaks it down; TBK begins to rebuild it.
Like her novels, the short stories have a preoccupation with power. I think that power can be analyzed either as literal political powers, or as unyielding natural crises. In “Sinners, Saints” the natural crisis is caused by political powers; the system causes and becomes a destroying force. “Sinners, Saints” imagines fighting systemic abuses as a literalized metaphor where one can attack them physically.
There’s also clearly a thread about sex and power that bears exploration, I think. Yeine and Nahadoth; Red riding-hood’s child and the Smith; Red riding-hood’s child and the wolf; sex is presented in all three cases as between people with unequal power. The smith, the wolf, and Nahadoth, can all kill. This seems to provide the erotic charge in the material (not that it has to; it’s just my reading of the texts that it’s intended to). So there’s something else going on in Jemisin’s body of work about people facing almost unbeatable systems. They’re fighting them; they’re also fucking them. They’re taking on the danger through sex or battle; and perhaps, in the cases where the dangerous lover is not also malevolent, they’re creating something that’s different and complicated out of lovemaking in the same way that they must rebuild a new world after smashing the systems that propped up the old one.
Those are just off the cuff thoughts, though; I’m not sure they’d bear close reading.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
I’ve not read enough of her short fiction to be able to make much of a comment, but of those I have read, those mentioned above, and “The You Train”, I’m most struck by “On the Banks of the River Lex”. I like what she’s doing in the way she mixes the fantastical and the science-fictional, and in particular the use of the contemporary/post-contemporary New York setting. I think ‘Lex’ seems to resonante a certain amount with TBK in the way it addresses the manifestation of belief. ‘Probabilities’ seems to be heading in that direction in the way it works with ideas of belief and empiricism, but ‘Lex’ has a wonderfully elegaic quality to it. There is something terribly touching in the way that some of the ‘gods’ and beings are trying to reconstruct a semblance of ‘normal’ life for themselves in the aftermath of an apocalypse that seems to be physical and epistemological.
I’ll follow the pack in saying that “Lex,” for me is a real standout. Thematically, I notice in Jemisin’s stories an emphasis on people choosing their stance towards unpleasant social circumstances that they themselves did not create: in “Lex,” the apocalypse; in “Non-Zero,” the explosion of the improbable; and in “Bittersweet,” an alien planet that demands a high price from its survivors. Even in stories such as “The Effluent Engine,” where “choosing one’s stance” is not a preoccupation of the main character, it still surfaces as an issue for secondary characters.
We’ve talked about the way that Jemisin’s postcolonial bent deviates from high fantasy conventions, but looking over her short stories, I’m struck by how her stories also work against the grain of Golden Age SF. My stereotype of Heinlein / Asimov stories, for example, is that they either feature strong professional men solving problems as they occur, or they feature people following the pattern laid down by them by the strong professional man (i.e. the Foundation series and, much more problematically, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies-”). In most of Jemisin’s novels and stories, her protagonists are operating without a map; they have to decide for themselves how to respond to depressing, bizarre circumstances to which there does not seem to be a “correct” response.
Frequently, the protagonist’s response to a dramatically altered world is to accept that the world has changed rather than (as in the case of “Lex” and “Non Zero”) expending energy on trying to retrieve the world that was lost. Yet at the same time, Jemisin really makes you feel the impact of loss on her characters. Unlike the protagonists of Hughes’ Invitation to the Game (for example), Jemisin’s characters were doing just fine in the World Before; they don’t look forward to the World After with unabashed eagerness.
The exception to this story pattern is “Bittersweet” and “The You Train.” “Bittersweet” seems to fall more into the Golden Age SF camp I mentioned earlier: the protagonist’s approach to her planet is modeled for her by the strong, professional man who visits her settlement and whom she eventually replaces. “The You Train” is a completely different kind of story: it’s a story about escaping from an alienating world rather than accepting it. It’s also the one Jemisin story I’ve read in which the protagonist seems to achieve self-fulfillment (the “You” of the title) entirely on her own terms. I haven’t read it in a while; I’d have to think more about the relationship between the speaker and her addressee before deciding whether self-fulfillment is also equated here with exclusion from society.
I think the discussion so far shows how well-earned Jemisin’s position as an up-and-coming new writer is. Last question for our panelists: Why do you think her work is breaking and resonating with audiences at this moment in the history of our field? Also, what do you see coming next for her?
Well, Jemisin’s work is building on other work; it’s work that adds something new to the conversation, that takes some academic and political ideas and applies them to the fantasy we’ve become familiar with. On the one hand, the audience has to be familiar with the basics of the genre before they can appreciate how someone is riffing off of it –but of course Tolkein derivatives have been around long enough now that there’s a real self-consciousness about that kind of writing, which isn’t new.
But it’s possible that this is a moment when people are prepared to hear stories coming from a postmodern political perspective. I can think of work that may have paved the way–the first that comes to mind is Mieville which includes strong politically centered critiques of epic fantasy.
I don’t want to underestimate the fact that these are just fun reads, though. Nora has said that her first goal is to tell an interesting story, and I think she’s accomplished that in the two novels. The imagery is striking; there’s a great sense of needing to turn the pages.
She’s even tapping into some of the romance stuff about sex with the dangerous–the god who can burn you, the god who represents death.
I want to say that the reason Nora’s on the rise is that she’s a seriously talented writer. And that’s true–she is. But she was writing for a significant period of time before her star took off, and I am not convinced that she was a significantly lesser writer at the time. So something does seem to have changed, whether it’s receptivity for post-colonial fiction from a black woman coming out of a science fiction community that’s finally starting to articulate some of its issues with racism and sexism, or whether it’s a series of coincidences in finding the right storm of editor, publisher, and marketer, when they needed to be found. Or some combination of both.
As far as what’s coming next–I would really love to see her take home the Hugo in August.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
RS >> Well, Jemisin’s work is building on other work; it’s work that adds something new to the conversation, that takes some academic and political ideas and applies them to the fantasy we’ve become familiar with.
One of the things I particularly like about her writing, and TBK is more explicit about this than, perhaps, HTK, is her willingness to address genre expectations, to play with them while also being respectful of the underpinnings. You have to fully understand how something is supposed to work if you’re going to turn it inside out, and she obviously does, but I like that she is not deferential when she does that. I’m not quite sure how to articulate this but I am struck by the way she subverts while understanding that the need remains for a satisfying story well told, and subverts without insisting that the reader stand there and admire the art of the subversion.
RS >> I don’t want to underestimate the fact that these are just fun reads, though. Nora has said that her first goal is to tell an interesting story, and I think she’s accomplished that in the two novels.
I think this is important too. I was struck when reading HTK that even when I wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing, and mulling over in my mind whether I was looking at innovation or retread, there was still a terrific need to keep on reading; more so with TBK. And heaven knows, at the crudest and most basic level, if a writer can keep me turning the pages in in enjoyment rather than horror, they’ve already won a hard battle.
I’m already looking forward to the third volume of the trilogy, but I am also keen to see how Jemisin develops her short-story writing, and also to see whether she moves on to novel-length work that isn’t in a secondary world. I’m struck by her engagement with New York in her short fiction. And yes, I know the ‘New York novel’ is a trope in itself, but I can’t help feeling that Jemisin could do a lot to refresh its tiredness.
And while I’m about it, I’d just like to say thank you to everyone for the exchange of ideas. Most invigorating.
Like everyone else, I hope for awards in her future. I’m also curious to see what she’s going to tackle next in her Inheritance trilogy. HTK featured a female protagonist grappling with the legacy of her mother’s political actions while TBK featured a female protagonist grappling with her father’s biological legacy (a nice gender-stereotype inversion on both counts). I’m curious as to what “inheritance” the protagonist of her third novel will have to grapple with, and how gender will factor into that legacy.