Black Lives Matter Inspired This Chilling Fantasy Novel
N. K. Jemisin is one of the most exciting fantasy authors to emerge in recent years, with popular books like The Killing Moon and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which feature diverse characters and non-traditional settings. As a black woman, Jemisin’s life experience differs greatly from that of most fantasy authors, who are overwhelmingly white and predominantly male, and that’s given her a much different view of authority figures than you’ll find in authors like Tolkien.
“I was raised to be very wary of the police,” Jemisin says in Episode 165 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I was raised to stay away from them unless you absolutely have to. Because they’re dangerous.”
Her new novel The Fifth Season is set in a world wracked by natural disasters that threaten to destroy civilization. In this world sorcerers who can harness the power of earthquakes and volcanoes are both feared and valued, and such people, known as orogenes, are subject to brutal oppression. Jemisin says that real-world events in Ferguson, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, helped inspire her story.
“This novel is, in a lot of ways, my processing the systemic racism that I live with, and see, and am trying to come to terms with,” she says.
The book was also influenced by the grim history of reservation schools in Australia and elsewhere, in which indigenous children were removed from their families in an attempt to erase their culture. In the novel orogenes are rounded up and taken to a special school called the Fulcrum, where they are trained to serve the empire. This cruel system is administered by other orogenes, which Jemisin feels reflects an important truth about oppression.
“It is not always a case of an evil overlord coming in and saying, ‘Mwuhaha! I’m going to make you my slave,’” she says. “In a lot of cases you’ve got people complicit in the system who are part of it themselves.”
The story also reflects another truth about oppression—that no amount of deference will ever be sufficient to appease those who hate you.
“One of the ways in which the orogenes were kept in line was that they are told repeatedly that if you act right, if you are respectable enough, then you won’t be hurt,” says Jemisin. “And it’s a lie. It’s always a lie when you hear that kind of thing.”
Listen to our complete interview with N. K. Jemisin in Episode 165 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
N. K. Jemisin on publishers:
“The Killing Moon is a bog-standard fantasy novel in every way, except that it takes place in Egypt and has an almost entirely black cast. … It was as traditional as I could make it without putting it in a very traditional medieval European setting and giving it a white male protagonist. … And so when I hear these statements like, ‘I’m not sure how to sell this. I’m not sure who its audience would be,’ the implication of that is, ‘I don’t think its audience would be the existing fantasy readership, and I don’t think the existing fantasy readership would buy this book.’ And I was angry about that, because it just kind of smacked of the whole, ‘We’re not racist, they’re racist. We don’t discriminate, they would discriminate. We’re just trying to look out for you.’ And I think pretty much every person of color has encountered that kind of attitude, and those kind of excuses at some point.”
N. K. Jemisin on selling her first book:
“I think the first inkling I got that the response was going to be positive was actually when the book went to auction. … Basically I was at work that day and [my agent] kept calling me throughout the day to say, ‘OK, so Publisher A has said X number of dollars, and they really like this book, and they would like to find out if you are willing to do a sequel.’ And then a few hours later, ‘OK, Publisher B doubled that offer and wants three books.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ And as the day wore on I was more and more shell-shocked, and my co-workers were sort of going, ‘What’s wrong with Nora today?’ Because I would periodically close the door and scream. It was a scream of excitement, but it was still a scream. So that was my first inkling that it was a better book than I thought it was.”
N. K. Jemisin on fantasy readers:
“Readers seem to really like the fact that what I’m writing is not traditional fantasy. Even the Dreamblood [books], which I said are traditionally shaped—just the choice of an all-black cast is radical enough to interest folks who are interested in that. … I think for people who are getting tired of traditional fantasy, or have left—I hear a lot of people saying, ‘I stopped reading fantasy because it was the same story over and over again, or the same setting, or the same kind of story over and over again.’ And people who are sick of fantasy seem to be pulled back into it by my writing. And of course there are some folks who never left fantasy who like it, but I’m kind of heartened to help further the genre by stemming some of the loss that we get. That benefits not just me, I think. But, you know, I’m glad that it benefits me.”
N. K. Jemisin on gaming:
“Around the time that I was just really wanting to play [Dungeons & Dragons], I found an early group that I got involved with, and they kind of soured me on it, because I wanted to be a paladin who was a black woman, and the Dungeon Master at the time was like, ‘No, you can’t. Paladins have to be white guys.’ We were kids, in this person’s defense, but that said it left a bad taste in my mouth, and I stopped playing. Until I got to college, and when I got to college I found a group of multi-racial, very geeky players who got me back into tabletop gaming, and I loved it then. … The Dungeon Master was perfectly cool with you having a black female character who was whatever, and because I could do that, I started having characters who weren’t just black women. Once I was allowed to be anything I wanted to be, I could then—and I did then—become anything I wanted to be.”