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Head and shoulders photo of a Black woman looking calmly to camera. Design elements around her, city buildings, statue of liberty.
NK Jemisin (Photo: Laura Hanifin; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksFebruary 10, 2022

Where the magic comes from: an interview with fantasy writer NK Jemisin

Head and shoulders photo of a Black woman looking calmly to camera. Design elements around her, city buildings, statue of liberty.
NK Jemisin (Photo: Laura Hanifin; Design: Tina Tiller)

The American science fiction and fantasy writer speaks with Alexander Stronach ahead of her appearance at the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts. 

It’s hard to overstate how big a deal NK Jemisin is. She’s one of only seven authors in history to win the Hugo Award for best novel more than three times and the only one to win it three consecutive times (2016, 2017 and 2018); each of those wins was for an entry in the same trilogy, her seminal Broken Earth. Jemisin’s writing is sharp, beautiful and strange, equal parts epic and intimate, often masterfully uncomfortable. She has a way of taking massive, earth-shattering conflicts and showing them up close, on ordinary people swept up in their thrall, forced to change or die, and many of them die. To quote the opening lines of the first Broken Earth novel, The Fifth Season: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over and move onto more interesting things.”

With that obvious affection for the human side of stories, it shouldn’t be surprising that face to face (via Zoom from her apartment in New York) she’s deeply disarming, warm and funny, a little bit pisstakey of the over-eager journo puffing her up. Her followup series to The Broken Earth is The Great Cities – the first book, The City We Became, came out last year to considerable acclaim and she’s just handed in the first draft of its currently-unnamed sequel. It’s a love letter to New York, but we’re saturated in love letters to New York; she stressed that New York isn’t that different from a hundred other cities. “It contains multitudes,” she says. “It is legion.” 

Later on I ask her whether The City We Became included a reference to infamous shock site After a very long pause, she deadpans “yes”. 

Whitman, the gospels, goatse. It’s not a combination of words any of us were expecting to read today, but Jemisin seems to delight in defying expectations. The trilogy that made her a household name is relentless and bleak, a story she wrote contemporaneous with the 2014 murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police and subsequent unrest, a story that opens with a promise to show us the real end of the world, that then cuts to a Black mother cradling her dead son. “My mother was dying as I was writing The Broken Earth and I think I was beginning to realise that when I started the book. Simultaneously, on a larger societal scale, I began to believe that the United States was dying. Still believe that’s happening.”

She calls The Broken Earth an exploration of “cultural grief as well as personal grief”. She wrote The City We Became after her mother’s death, in the early months of the Covid outbreak, during the darkest days of the Trump administration, but it is a celebration, certainly not blind to New York’s troubles but filled with music, laughter and song and also goatse. Doom has come to the city, but the five boroughs ain’t gonna take it lying down. What changed?

“I deliberately set out to write something upbeat because I needed it,” she says, “after the grimness of three books of the world ending I needed some joy […] There was a tonal mismatch throughout me writing this series that’s made it harder to write than The Broken Earth, trying to write lighthearted joyful stuff when you’re worried that you won’t be able to go outside again without wearing a mask, at the time that’s a shocking thing. I was still scrubbing my groceries at the time that I [launched] the first book, and fretting about shortages of food.” 

Two book covers, both ominous-looking.
The first novels of Jemisin’s series The Broken Earth and The Great Cities (Images: Supplied)

The word “hopepunk” has been bandied around a little in science-fiction circles over the last few years, it’s a fraught term that many hate and nobody quite agrees on, but if there’s a positive vision of hopepunk it’s this: radical hope, revolutions you can dance to, candles held up against the deepest night. Much of the criticism of hopepunk is that it blinds itself to cold reality, that it’s comfort food for the soul, and The City We Became is anything but; Jemisin couldn’t write a naive book if she wanted to. She writes with blades. Even the goatse reference is motivated – it’s a sculpture in a gallery show by a smug hipster who moonlights as an alt-right provocateur, a point about how the internet trolls of the 2000s have laundered themselves into a veneer of respectability and become something more insidious, supported by the establishment, but still, ultimately, gaping assholes. But this time they’re not sending you shock images, they’re gentrifying your neighbourhood, they’re talking about eugenics to their million listeners, they’re running for office and winning. It’s the sort of funny that makes you cry. Later we talk about 2012 video game Journey, a favourite of hers during lockdown, one of several that “acknowledge the dark and let me move towards the light”. That’s often what The City We Became feels like, an acknowledgment of darkness, and a path towards light. 

Jemisin seems uncomfortable with the weight of fame, quick to puncture anybody trying to gas her up. She laughs at gross old memes. She spent a lot of the pandemic playing Skyrim, trying to collect every cheese in the game and separate them out into discrete rooms for each flavour. She wrote over 200,000 words of fanfic during the pandemic, and no she will not link her AO3. I hope I’m not blowing anybody’s mind by stating that authors are ordinary people, but it takes some time to adjust for the daylight between the titanic figure of NK Jemisin and the low key reality of Nora, but maybe that’s where the magic comes from? The grand and the intimate, the mythic and the personal, the gospels and goatse. There’s always a human at the heart of an NK Jemisin story, and maybe it’s Nora.

Large parts of The Fifth Season are written in second person, a decision that rubbed some readers the wrong way, but it lends the books a directness, there is a feeling of sitting around a fire listening to a storyteller with deep stress lines and deeper laugh lines. In modern fiction, second person is rare outside of kids’ books and the occasional piece of literary fiction, common wisdom is to avoid it whenever possible, but the choice to use it was deeply motivated – the directness and intimacy are hard for other points of view to match. Jemisin details a time when, delirious with bronchitis that would turn into pneumonia, she found herself in an old-fashioned stone-walled blazing-hearth-and-everything inn in Milan. 

“An old man came downstairs and started talking. Gradually people stopped listening to each other and started paying attention to him as he continues doing whatever he was doing. I don’t know if he was deliberately telling a story, but people were interested in what he had to say. I speak no Italian, my Italian is bullshit, and I was riveted, by not only this man but by the way but by the way he slowly pulled that energy towards him. That is what a good use of second-person should feel like.” 

It carries over into her writing in the more traditional third and first-person – there’s a conversationality, a wit and flow. NK Jemisin is sweeping and epic, crafting worlds with a wave of the hand, smiling with teeth like blades; Nora Jemisin is sly, funny, stocking her room with stolen goats’ cheese. Sometimes the link between author and reader breaks down: The City We Became was a book about gentrification, but many readers in the pandemic took it as a book about plague. 

“Writers need to be more humble about the fact that they are not in control of the experience,” she says. That’s a little unbelievable coming from an author who seems so confident and in control, but that’s part of the appeal – it’s that low-key-ness, she’s sitting in a stone-walled inn, small in the firelight, effortlessly impossible to ignore. 

It’s hard to overstate how big a deal NK Jemisin is, and yet –

When she was an emerging author, she went to (science-fiction convention) Boskone to meet Octavia Butler, and had a panic attack, and Butler died several years later, before Nora had a chance to meet her again, and now she sees others panicking before meeting her. She laughs, and says, “I take them aside and say ‘I’m lactose intolerant and I’m gonna have to leave shortly because I ate something with cheese in it.’ I try to remind them I’m a person, I’ll pull them aside; deep breaths, you look like you have something to say, let’s talk like regular people.” 

That’s it in a nutshell; let’s move onto more interesting things; it’s not magic, it’s just us.  

NK Jemisin will be speaking (digitally) with Elizabeth Knox at the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts about the power of science fiction and fantasy to tell human stories, and Jemisin’s latest book, The City We Became.

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