How does one deal with existential horror from beyond?
That’s one question at the heart of The City We Became, a new novel from Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin, in which New York City literally comes alive in order to fight off “creepy tentacle monster creatures.”
Nerdette host Greta Johnsen talked to Jemisin earlier this week about the novel, how all cities have personalities, and why she doesn’t describe racism with subtlety. Below are highlights from the conversation.
A not-too spoilery description of the book
N.K. Jemisin: It’s set in the real world, in the New York City of right now. And in the mythology of the story — for reasons that become clear over the course of time — cities, when they reach a certain point of development, become alive. They become sentient entities of their own, able to act on their own in various ways, and they choose a single human being who is the representative of that city’s spirit and the kind of director of its energies. You can call that person an avatar if you want.
So New York’s avatar awakens in the prologue, which is actually based on a short story that I did a few years ago called The City Born Great. And New York’s avatar awakens and fights off an existential evil that tends to show up whenever cities become a thing. Then, because New York is too big for a single person to embody, he falls into an enchanted slumber and the five avatars that represent the boroughs awaken. So the story is all about the avatars kind of figuring out what the heck is going on, what they are supposed to do. Also, they are being attacked by creepy tentacle monster creatures.
On the personalities of cities
Jemisin: When you visit a city or when you move there, in a lot of cases you feel this sense of immediate, “I am welcome here. I am comfortable here. I could live here.” Or the sense of immediate, “Oh I don’t like this city. It doesn’t feel right. It smells weird.” Whatever. And sometimes you get that sort of in between. You don’t quite know. You have to live there for a while to really pick up on it. That’s how I ended up living in Boston for eight years. But eventually you get a very clear sense of either this city’s character agrees with me or it doesn’t. And that’s a thing I’ve heard other people talk about it.
So if a city’s got that kind of character to it, that kind of energy and personality, then there must be something there that we’re all picking up on, so I just made it literal.
Why she doesn’t describe racism with subtlety
A late-afternoon revision-mode thought: People ask me sometimes why I'm so *blatant* re racism and other bigotries, in my fiction. Wouldn't a more subtle approach work? Answer: No. A more subtle approach doesn't work.— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) March 13, 2019
Jemisin: So there’s two things at work here. One is that we are not used to seeing certain things called out. The nature of our society — for those of us that come from English speaking societies — the nature of our society is such that a lot of its racism goes unspoken, on purpose. Only certain things are supposed to be marked. Everything else is the default, effectively. So when you read most fiction, usually you see “the woman” and then “the black woman” in how the narration is usually handled. And you know that “the woman” is white because she’s not marked. You know that “the black woman” is black because she is very conspicuously marked. And that is how fiction has worked in English for generations. So when you deliberately mark the unmarked, that’s going to stand out to people. That jumps out at people as hugely blatant or kind of like a little slap in the face.
So that’s one mechanism that’s happening. The other thing that’s happening is that the nature of our society also discourages us from talking directly about the power dynamics of our world. So you see tons of science fiction for generations which talked about racism and bigotries of whatever kind, classism, sexism, colonialism, and so on.
Greta Johnsen: Right, as allegories in different worlds, essentially.
Jemisin: Right. Because those stories basically created, you know, aliens, one of whom were black on one side and white on the other side, and then, you know, aliens who were the two colors flipped. Then we had this very special episode where we talked about racism for a hot minute using people that didn’t exist in our world. And the very same readers and science fiction fans and in some cases science-fiction writers who were able to talk about these issues in a good way when you were dealing with allegorical versions of people then went on to say horrible things sometimes about real people in the real world. They weren’t able to make that transition. They weren’t actually carrying the values into the real world.
So I don’t mind working with proxies and allegories, but I’m also going to work with people. I’m not going to write a fantasy story where the orcs are the only coded people of color and all of the human beings are white. I’m going to make the humans a range of stuff. I’m going to have power dynamics among the humans, and I’m going to write about orcs — I’m never going to write about orcs.
The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.