Review: Rebecca Chace on N. K. Jemisin

As if things weren’t scary enough, practically every bus station in New York City has a poster of an attractive couple looking out at us, seemingly unaware of the huge tentacles covered with suckers rising up behind them. We can’t seem to get enough of those slimy, uncanny limbs reaching out of the deep like a nest of overgrown octopi. From Jules Verne’s sea monster and Ridley Scott’s Alien to this advertisement for Lovecraft Country on HBO, our earliest fears lurk under the bed and below the murky water.

It’s 2020, and sometimes the supernatural is easier to battle than the headlines.

In N. K. Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became, our very own New York is under attack from an outburst of tentacles that are both a cataclysmic invader and an insidious infection from within. They are powerful enough to destroy the Williamsburg Bridge and yet grow parasitically from familiar people and places: from the nodes of bigotry, exploitation, and greed that, in both Jemisin’s world and our own, threaten the soul of the city.

Opposing this existential threat are the avatars of New York, occupants of the city’s crowded towers and neighborhoods, defenders of its essence, who are also flawed, complicated, and deeply human individuals. Each is an exemplar of one of the city’s five boroughs. That New York’s boroughs have their distinct characters is a truth known to every New Yorker, and they don’t always get along. “Manny” is smart and good looking, but he’s also a bit heartless. “Brooklyn” is a middle-aged former hiphop artist turned lawyer and city councilwoman. “The Queen” is a frustrated math genius studying financial engineering because she knows it’s a field where she’s likely to land a job. Staten Island, “Aislyn,” is an overprotected, fearful, xenophobic young woman whose father is a cop. A part of her longs to experience the explosive hustle of the city, to walk the streets anonymous and free with her eyes wide open—but she’s too scared to get on the ferry. “Bronca” is the toughest and oldest of this band of heroes, with roots going back to her borough’s first Lenape inhabitants. If these sound like clichés, they are to some extent, but it is more telling to think of them as archetypes. It is a measure of Jemisin’s success as a creator of fictive worlds that her creatures skirt stereotypes, becoming recognizable forms without losing their individuality; one of the pleasures of her genre is that she can engage the reader in recognizable typology while subverting and playing with it.

The epic scale of Jemisin’s creations makes intuitive sense to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a city. In Jemisin’s world, cities can live or die, like any other creature, and when a city has gestated for centuries, it is ready to be “born” as an independent entity in the larger universe. In The City We Became, contemporary New York is going through its birth pangs, a moment of great vulnerability. It is clear who the heroes are, and what side the author is on, but there is also empathy for the tentacled monster who must endure multiple deaths for the city to succeed. Of course, this unnamed, interdimensional being will fight back with everything it’s got—which calls forth the ugliest sides of the American caste system that the city itself has both shaped and rejected since the days of New Amsterdam.

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Jemisin won the prestigious Hugo Best Novel Award for science fiction three years in a row, one for each volume of her prior Broken Earth trilogy. She is the first Black woman to be so honored and the first author ever to win three years running. Her success was inevitably and terribly met with backlash by some science fiction fans. Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler notwithstanding, the genre has traditionally been dominated by an entrenched, predominantly male, white readership catered to by authors who look like them. At this year’s Hugo Awards Ceremony at the World Science Fiction Convention (“Worldcon’’), Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin, acting as host, outraged many of the young pioneers growing the genre by celebrating greybeards of science fiction with a history of overt racism. Commented Jemisin: “The result of continuing these Worldcon/ceremonial ‘traditions’ is that it makes all of SFF [science fiction-fantasy] look terrible. We’re supposed to be future-oriented.” Jemisin takes direct aim at these forces in The City We Became: the city’s redoubtable White elites (including in real life its slow-changing publishing industry) and nativist pseudo-intellectuals find themselves hosts to the tentacles that tighten their grip on change, mulitiplicity, and rebirth.

The novel is in conversation with the ugly forefather of the tentacle genre and the hero of generations of science-fiction fanboys: H. P. Lovecraft (among those celebrated at the convention by Martin). Lovecraft invented the original cosmic tentacled monster from the deep in his 1928 story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” the founding story of his “Cthulu Mythos” series that received a controversial “1945 Retro-Hugo” award at Worldcom this year. Lovecraft was a xenophobic racist and white supremacist, a troubled man with a history of mental illness. After a short period in Brooklyn, he gained a specific hatred of New York City, as seen in one of his most famous stories, “The Horror of Red Hook.” The “Dark Prince of Providence” (Rhode Island, where he spent most of his life) died a penniless cult figure at forty-seven, but left an indelible mark on popular culture—the creators of Lovecraft Country clearly understand the impossibility of disentangling Lovecraft’s writings from his fears of a hostile, unknown racial Other.

Jemisin subverts Lovecraft’s racist iconography by enlisting his own monster in its service in the very city whose streets terrified him. Jemisin’s waving white tentacles destroy neighborhoods and dispel generations-long inhabitants, visible signs of redlining and capital invasion. Tentacles cover the chain stores, malls, and high-rise apartment buildings that have sprung up in their place, threatening, in Jemisin’s reading, the life force of the American metropolis.

This is what makes The City We Became an important novel. Jemisin writes from the perspective of a future trying to be born,despite the threat of greed, racism, and xenophobia that erases differences at the cost of the essential character of the city. Against all odds, the city itself, like the very genre in which Jemisin writes, offers a vehicle for imagining another kind of future. New York, the iconic welcoming point of immigration, the famous statue in its harbor a lingering rebuke to mounting isolationism, border walls, and ICE raids, proves an ideal collective hero for Jemisin’s saga.

At the end of The City We Became, the first book in a projected trilogy, Staten Island has been subsumed, lost in its own fear, isolated by an inability to change, and drowned in a sea of white tentacles. The outrageously talented street kid who represents the union of all five boroughs is nearly gone, trapped deep below the city. But the kid is tough, and there may be help from an unexpected, up-and-coming die-hard: Jersey City.

And as everyone knows, you don’t mess with Jersey.

Rebecca Chace is the author of two novels, Leaving Rock Harbor and Capture the Flag; a memoir, Chautauqua Summer; a children's book, June Sparrow and the Million Dollar Penny; as well as plays, screenplays and nonfiction essays.

Book notes
Booker-Prize winning author (she anomalously shared it with Margaret Atwood in 2019), Bernardine Evaristo has selected and introduced six novels for a “Black Britain: Writing Black” series in the UK from Penguin Books. Five of the six books were originally published in the nineties by her contemporaries. “It was much harder back then to sustain enough interest in our literature and I suspect that in these more progressive times, these books will find larger readerships,” said Evaristo. “Each generation builds on those who went before and I’m keenly interested that today’s writers and readers will engage with novels that still feel current.” Nigerian Nobelist Wole Soyinka will publish his first novel in nearly fifty years (his third altogether), Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, which he wrote on lockdown. “You just find yourself literally rolling from your desk to your bed to the dining table, back to the desk for five months of continuous writing,” he told This Is Lagos. Book Riot reported that the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has issued a letter to the Burbank School District in Burbank, California, challenging a practice of teachers’ removing from the curriculum books that have been challenged by a parent while their case is under review. The letter says, the books “grapple with complicated and difficult realities of America’s past and present. But curricula have been developed that make it possible to teach the books with sensitivity and compassion.” The challenged books include: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Cay. The New York Times had a look at measures by major publishing houses to create more diversity in publishing decisions and staff.

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