David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, N. K. Jemisin.
K. Jemisin: Thank you.
DN: The City We Became is the first book of yours set in our world in the sense that it takes place in the contemporary United States, more specifically, in New York City that, in a lot of ways, we recognize. But the book’s story is organized around an idea that some might find fantastical and others not at all, that cities are particularly unique systems, that like an organism, they have life cycles and conditions in which they thrive and they can also be killed. Can you orient us before we do a deeper dive into the book about this theory of cities from which the story emerges?
NJ: It’s not even really a theory, that part is reality. Cities, obviously, can be founded, obviously go through changes, periods of growth, peaks, periods of decline and decay. Frequently, cities are destroyed by natural disasters or political upheavals and things of that nature. They’re like all systems in that systems emulate life, but then there’s also the fact that life is, itself, a system of organization. We’ve found that you put amino acids in the right kind of chaotic conditions and order emerges from that, a form of organization emerges from that, and sometimes, a form of entropy. All I’m doing is really literalizing history in that sense. The speculative element of it is simply that the cities talk and have a spokesperson or spokes voice, for lack of a better description, that an individual human being can embody some element of that city or that city’s power. I think that’s the only real speculative piece, well, that plus a vaguely Cthulhu-like-monster from beyond, and who’s to say that’s not real too?
DN: Right. Immediately without orientation, we are dropped into an urgent situation in medias res. Our protagonist, a poor, hungry black-queer man finds himself central to a battle. A battle that is somehow both supernatural and very familiar to save a city and he’s called to be valuable essentially to a city that doesn’t really value him. He navigates microaggression after microaggression in those first pages of the prologue and finds himself in a battle with a monster that’s very fittingly called Mega Cop. But the enemy of cities being born fully into their potentials as places that incorporate newness and difference, this enemy takes many forms, but most notably, the form of what you call the Woman in White. I was hoping you could talk to us about the forces of the universe that amass against the birth of cities in general and then dial down to talk about the Woman in White and the way she personifies and executes the will of this force.
NJ: Some of this I can’t talk about because it’s a trilogy and there will be a lot more exploration of the nature of the Woman in White, the origins, and so on. I’ll talk a lot more about that later but the Woman in White is basically just representing the forces that are arrayed to destroy cities. In my experience and observation, those are homogenizing forces, things that strip away the uniqueness, individuality, and culture that becomes unique to cities. We’ve seen it in New York in the sense that the New York accent is fading away. You’ve seen old movies where you’ve seen that very stereotypical Brooklyn accent and things like that. That’s gone because a lot of the people that spoke it had to move away. They can’t afford it here anymore. The people who are coming in are coming, in a lot of cases, from the midwest so the accent is flattening. That’s just a simple example but the Woman in White appears in various forms throughout the book. Most frequently, she takes over the body of an existing white woman who happens to be near the protagonist. She can use anyone with a certain ideological inclination as a conduit for her will. She’s not limited to white women, it’s just that’s what we see. But she’s also not limited in her form. We see throughout the course of the story that she has many bodies that, in a lot of ways, is the same entity even though we see multiple things attacking the protagonist throughout the story. Basically, and I’ve talked about this in other settings in that the Woman in White, in a lot of ways, is meant to personify the social justice concept, encapsulation of whiteness, and whiteness being a created thing, a constructed thing. In Europe, there were many ethnic groups. They all tended to have white skin but they certainly didn’t think of each other as the same group of people. Ask any Irish person how they feel about being lumped in with British people and you’re going to get an interesting response depending on who you talk to. The French and the Germans never really particularly liked each other [00:14:20]. But in the United States and in other parts of the world that are descended from colonialism, there was a concerted effort to push whiteness in lieu of the ethnic diversity that European immigrants actually naturally brought and the end result of it these days is a flattening and homogenization. I can’t tell you how many of my white friends I’ve talked to who are like, “We don’t have any culture,” and I’m like, “That’s horseshit.” But they’re like, “I don’t have any particular food culture. I don’t speak the language of my ancestors who emigrated. I’m not sure what ethnicity my ancestors who immigrated possessed.” That’s the nature of how colonialism has manifested in the United States. The way to make sure that there is common cause between the wealthy-white-upper classes that need to control the country and the masses of middle and lower-class-white people who need to help keep the brown people in line is to create this culture of sameness and homogeneity and that is what we call “whiteness”. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all white people are bad. I’ve seen some interpretations of the book or reviews of the book that go there but that’s up to those folks and how they want to interpret it. At the end of the day, whiteness, in and of itself, is harmful to those ethnic groups as well as it is to people of color because of that flattening, because of that homogenization. When you’ve got a city like New York where you’ve got wave after wave of immigrants coming in, where you’ve got free Black people and free Irish people forming villages and working together to try and create new labor laws, or at least, that’s how it was in the 1800s until that got purposefully broken up, that’s the thing that I’m addressing. This is what created the city. The diversity of New York is what makes New York as unique and interesting as it is. As we see the current wave of gentrification coming in, gentrification is a flattening homogenizing force. It is a force that takes lots of different forms but frequently shows up in some of the forms that we see in the novel. There is a dynamic that we see a lot in New York City of white women coming into neighborhoods of people of color and calling the cops whenever they feel vaguely threatened. We saw an example of that just last week with the gentleman in Central Park who asked a white woman to put her dog on a leash and she called the police and basically lied in front of him on camera and said that the guy was threatening her when he wasn’t anywhere near her, he was just asking her to put her dog on a leash. But she was perfectly willing to deploy a dangerous force that could have killed that man because she didn’t want to obey the rules. This is an example of a pattern that we’ve seen again and again and again in American cities. That’s basically what it is.
DN: What’s interesting, because I thought of that very incident in Central Park between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper who are not related. The black birdwatcher and the white dog walker. The Woman in White does animate people in New York to do similar things. There is literally a person who calls the police on people sitting in a park in New York. In The City We Became, there’s a foundation, the Better New York Foundation which sounds like a benign or benevolent organization but is actually behind a lot of the gentrification happening in New York that the Woman in White is manifesting. But I don’t think it would be a spoiler for us to say since it happens in the opening pages that this narrator, this representative of New York City who discovers himself as an avatar for New York, something goes awry in his battle against Mega Cop and the responsibility falls on the five people who are the unknowing avatars of the five boroughs to discover their calling and find each other. This is based on a Japanese anime forum called the Sentai and I was hoping you could talk about the plot structure and the nod to this form as a way to organize the story.
NJ: Mostly, it was just me trying to have some fun after the Broken Earth trilogy which was one of the ways that I expressed a lot of the stress that I was feeling over the Ferguson Uprising, and here we go a fucking again, anyway. Basically, it’s not that something really goes wrong in the fight between the avatar of New York and the enemy. It’s just that New York is too big to encompass a single person. The boroughs in New York, for those who are not familiar with New York, each borough of New York is a city in and of itself. Brooklyn alone is bigger than most American cities. Queens, spatially, is bigger than most American cities. Brooklyn in terms of population, Queens, in terms of just sheer size. Even Staten Island is half a million people which is bigger than the town that I partially grew up in (I grew up in New York City in Mobile, Alabama). A lot of people don’t really understand that when you’ve got a city that’s big, you’ve really got a collection of smaller cities. In some cases, cities that grew together like Boston, just through sheer proximity or in some cases, it’s just like each neighborhood of the city, back in the days when New York was being founded, because there is so much segregation and I don’t even know what to call it, clannishness, in a lot of the ways that New York has always operated, each borough developed its own very, very unique culture. The individual people who become the avatars all have to work together because it’s still one city, but at the end of day, New York is a bunch of squabbling very angry people, so that seemed fitting. [laughs] The whole Sentai thing just seemed like a fun way to put it together. People who aren’t familiar with Sentai, if you’ve ever heard of Power Rangers, you’ve heard of Sentai so basically, with Sentai shows, it means a five-man team. You’ve got five people who have to come together frequently. They wear color-coded clothing to designate their vague personalities like the person in red is the leader and is very hot-headed sometimes. The person in blue tends to be a little bit more cool, the planner. That was just me being silly but they all have to come together despite their differences and fight as one in order to defeat the evil monster. That was really it.
DN: In case you just tuned in, we’re talking to N. K. Jemisin about her latest book, The City We Became. It feels like one of the lenses through which we can look at this book is as a book that both evokes and interrogates stereotypes and the violence that stereotypes can enact both by commission and omission. It feels like you’re doing both simultaneously giving us something familiar like the Sentai forum which has a somewhat predictable way it unfolds as a narrative but then when we least expect it, after you’ve lulled us into some familiarity pulling the rug out from under these expectations.
NJ: We’re talking about spoilers in this podcast or no?
DN: Maybe no.
NJ: Yeah. Okay. [laughs]
DN: What do you think?
NJ: I mean you know your listeners better than I.
DN: Let’s not name the things near the end that you’ve pulled the rug out from under.
DN: But I want to talk about the question of stereotypes and the use of stereotypes around the questions of representation of New York City itself as a city. Because on the one hand, each of the five characters who are the avatars of the five boroughs, they do indeed represent characteristics, attitudes, and stereotypes that we come to expect from those boroughs. On the other hand, the five avatars of the city seem to be interrogating media representations of the cities. The five avatars are four women and one man, four people of color, indigenous, South Asian, black, and one white person. The avatars are not all citizens. The avatars are queer and straight and these representations feel like a far cry from the typical things you’d see on TV like Friends or Sex and the City. I guess I was hoping that you could talk about this balancing act of delivering what we expect and lulling us into, perhaps, the stereotype itself and then flipping the scripts.
NJ: What you’re asking me here is how do you write. [laughter] It’s not really a thing I can articulate easily. I will say that I was explicitly thinking about Friends and Seinfeld and all these other shows, Girls and just endless iterations of New York that don’t look anything like the New York that I’ve lived my life in. Granted, I am a black woman, my experience of New York is probably going to be very different from that of Lena that made Girls. My experiences are obviously going to be different but we aren’t seeing those experiences represented on TV to the same degree so I decided to write the New York that I know and the New York that I know is overtly queer and overtly immigrant. The percentage of different groups of people that you see in New York City is not represented in our television of New York City so I deliberately decided that I was going to go with those less shown but equally valid and equally numerous representations, and I guess, proportions of New York City and go from there. To a degree, there were stereotypes involved, obviously, like Iceland, Staten Island is coming from a very conservative family. She is herself very conservative, very racist and that’s Staten Island. Staten Island is like the red state of New York City. It’s the one borough that consistently votes Republican. They’ve voted to secede from New York a few times and never managed to actually do it. [laughs] It’s always been the stand out from the rest of the city in a lot of ways. I made Iceland literally stand out in that she doesn’t want to join the rest of the avatars. She doesn’t want to be particularly part of the group and so on. That applies to nearly every chunk of New York in some way or another. The Bronx isn’t particularly interested in being part of New York City either. Each of the boroughs of New York City are perfectly aware of the fact that they are cities in and of themselves and that they can stand just fine on their own. [laughs] It is necessity that forces them together but on the other hand, when you mess with New York, you do get the whole city tending to respond to that, Staten Island included, and so that’s really all I wanted to touch on.
DN: Perhaps the biggest way you grapple with stereotypes and the violence of them is your overt engagement with the master of stereotype, H. P. Lovecraft, where you both use and invert his tropes. I was hoping for listeners who aren’t aware of Lovecraft, you could, perhaps, orient us to Lovecraft in the world of sci-fi fantasy and its history and then touch on Lovecraft’s connection to New York specifically.
NJ: Anybody that’s familiar with Lovecraft already knows this. In the book, I talk explicitly about the fact that Lovecraft saw the energy of cities, saw the diversity of cities. It’s clear from his writing if you read any of his pieces about New York City such as The Horror at Red Hook, that’s a short story. Anybody can find it. It’s probably free online in a lot of places. If you want to judge for yourself, go read that story and see how he depicted the people of Red Hook which is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that has had large numbers of immigrants over its history. Large numbers of people of color even to the present. Right now, it’s best known for IKEA. But when you read Lovecraft, you see that he recognizes some metaphysical quintessential energy in the diversity that cities produce, the languages, the foods, all of that and his reaction is abject horror. His reaction is, “There’s something horrible happening here that is a threat to white people that needs to be stopped. These people are somehow degenerate. They’re not human like the rest of us. They are doing harm to us by their very existence and by their continued being allowed to operate and function unimpeded.” All I basically did was also feel the same energy of cities, most people who live in cities feel that energy. I think that energy is a good thing and I just decided to write it as, “What if the energy of cities that Lovecraft was terrified of was actually the thing that was keeping us safe from the stuff that he thought was great?” That was it. Lovecraft, for those that don’t really understand his context in science fiction and fantasy, he’s considered the father of modern fantasy. I don’t particularly agree with that interpretation but there are a lot of people who are very invested in that idea to the degree that The World Fantasy Awards for many years, until about maybe two or three years ago, their award statue was a bust of H.P Lovecraft’s head and many authors complained about that, China Miéville most notably, and Nnedi Okorafor who is a science fiction writer, Nigerian-American won the award for her phenomenal Who Fears Death a few years ago. When she won the award, she wrote an essay which you can find online—if you just Google Nnedi Okorafor and Lovecraft—but she wrote a powerful essay online talking about how it felt to win this award and this honor and then be given the head of a person who would despise her and despise everything that she’s writing about and everything that she’s trying to do. As a result of the controversy that came out of that objection after years of back and forth and resistance, The World Fantasy Awards people changed the award statue. Now it’s a lovely tree. But it took years of discussion, and during those years of discussion, you just saw science fiction writer after science fiction writer—and I use that as a lump term for all people in the genre—but you just saw writer after writer and personality after personality coming out and saying, “Sure, he was racist but…” and there’s just not a good ending to that damn sentence and Lovecraft, even for a man of his time, for people who are like, “Oh, he was just a man of his time.” No, no, people in his time were like, “Oh, God. This man is exceptionally racist.” I’ve never really bought into the “man of his time” argument anyway because, in every time of American history, there’s always been someone who was opposed to racism. There have always been anti-racists so that’s a choice that people have made. Anyway, that was basically where I was coming from with that.
DN: It’s noteworthy, I think, that China Miéville, someone who is very sconced in weird fiction, which is associated with Lovecraft and uses a lot of tentacled cephalopod creatures, was very opposed to the Lovecraftian legacy in The World Fantasy Awards too I thought.
NJ: Yeah. No one objects to acknowledging Lovecraft’s impact on the genre. I acknowledge that impact as well. Lots of people like writing about creepy tentacled old ones’ entities, dark gods from beyond, whatever you want to call it, it’s interesting material but this isn’t necessarily something that you want to treat as an honor. You have to recognize the fact that Lovecraft’s material came from his hatred and fear of the other. His hatred and fear, specifically, of his fellow human beings. He literally saw the people of Red Hook as monsters, as something sub-human that was calling to something even worse and threatening all reality. You have to acknowledge the fact that as powerful as this imagery is, it’s powerful because it’s driven by fear and hatred and that is something that we need to acknowledge in our society. That fear and hatred drives so much of it. Fear and hatred is the root of so much of American art. Sure, you can acknowledge that, you don’t have to be like, “But that’s a great thing.” [laughs] That’s what’s making him as a symbol of the award implies, is that his fear, his hatred, his paranoia was somehow a good thing and it’s something that people who are performing well or doing good work in the genre should be honored to be recognized as a similar hate monger and frightened paranoid person. That’s terrifying to me—the idea that someone thought that was a good idea. Fortunately, they’ve changed it.
DN: When Daniel José Older was on the show, who was one of the people behind the petition to change The World Fantasy Award statue, we talked about Lovecraft also. He wrote this piece One Hundred Years Of Weird Fear. On H.P. Lovecraft’s literature of genealogical terror.
NJ: I read them.
DN: It’s quite good. He talks about how Lovecraft believed Asians didn’t have souls, black people were childlike half gorillas, Jews were a curse on humanity. But I want to read a little section of a letter that he quotes that Lovecraft wrote while he was living in Brooklyn, not for the racism but for the language, because the language is extreme, it’s verbosity. I’ll just read it and let people hear it. Then I want to talk to you about the way you use it yourself. So here is describing Brooklyn and its inhabitants.
“The organic things inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They—or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed—seem’d to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses … and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness. From that nightmare of perverse infection I could not carry away the memory of any living face.”
The reason I bring this up is because I think one of the joys of reading The City We Became is how you use these tropes for completely different ends, because the Woman in White, the Mega Cop, and the threat to the city of New York, like you’ve mentioned, they are described with the language that we just heard. They’re oozing-tentacled-alien force that indeed evokes fear, disgust, and dread. But now that fear, disgust, and dread is towards them, these white tentacles, this white, oozing-homogeneous-alienness.
NJ: Yeah, that’s definitely where I was going with that. I actually have to work on that because in real life, I’m actually fascinated by cephalopods. I think they’re cool and it’s difficult for me to come up with a language describing tentacled things as scary, because it wasn’t scary to me. I’m just like, “Oh, that poor man’s got squid on his face.” [laughter] Poor giant man. [laughter]
DN: It’s true because cephalopods are amazing.
NJ: Yeah, cephalopods are very alien in and of themselves. They can be terrifying, I suppose if you really pay attention to them. They’ve got those weird eyes and they’ve got beaks where they can bite you, but they’re also cute, cool, and stunningly intelligent. I am a giant fan of sushi, and I was a giant fan of octopus sushi. Then once I realized how intelligent they were, I stopped eating them just because past a certain point, you have to just acknowledge that there’s something else going on there. All that said, it hit me as you were reading that. But I really didn’t want to hear Lovecraft today and I had to make myself continue listening. It was a reminder of part of the problem of valorizing Lovecraft instead of just simply analyzing and taking his word or his work at face value. In order to read Lovecraft, you’ve got to absorb a certain amount of his hate. You’ve got to just detach yourself from realizing that all of these words, where he’s talking about, basically, “You’re the scum of the earth. You’re the ooze,” whatever, you’ve got to acknowledge the fact that this man is talking about his fellow human beings with this language. As I said, you’re recording this right now in my city, we are having repeated incidents of cops attacking peaceful protesters. You hear the protesters talking about the fact that the cops are saying these hateful things to them, and calling them names, and so on. It doesn’t really matter whether the hate is coming in the form of modern language and profanity or Lovecraft’s very ornate language. It doesn’t matter whether you dress up that same language with the ornateness that Lovecraft is known for or not. It’s the same hatred and it hits the same way. I’ve never been an advocate of “Don’t listen to hateful people,” “Don’t listen to problematic creators,” or “Don’t read their work,” “Do what you can to not give them extra money to further their hatred,” in Lovecraft’s case, he’s dead, so all right, it’s fine. But I’ve never been an advocate for, “Don’t absorb that”. But come to it with your flak shields in place. If you don’t have your flak shields, if your flak shields have been worn down by the crap that you’re living in reality, maybe it’s not the best time to visit Lovecraft. Just a thought.
DN: When you say how unwelcome it was to hear those words now, I also think of this, the critique, the defenders of Lovecraft who say that he was just a man of his time that you mentioned earlier and that it’s just the racism of his time, but actually, another problem with that argument, other than the fact that that’s not true, it was extreme, is that our time is extreme, like you’re mentioning. If we were to judge America based on its treatment of refugees, immigrants, or black people who don’t want to be killed while jogging, birdwatching, driving, minding their own business in their own homes, or the epidemic of disappeared and murdered indigenous women that don’t even make the news. It’s not like Lovecrafty viewpoints are really that far. If you look at the rhetoric of the advisors like Stephen Miller in the White House and the groups that he associates with which embrace Nazi science and use a lot of the same language for immigrants, that would be similar to that letter, maybe not as ornate but perhaps, baroque in its own way. I guess I was hoping maybe you could talk about what has happened recently in the SFF community around Lovecraftian ideas, around white supremacy, especially since you were central to some of these battles. This book, it being in one regard, a similar battle. But for listeners, since people listen to this show who are very engaged with science fiction and fantasy and other listeners to the show are drawn for poetry or for memoir, can you talk a little bit about the way Lovecraft has been alive in the science fiction and fantasy world or at least, the ideas, in coded ways, have existed and the battle that has been happening?
NJ: Honestly, anybody that wants to know about this isn’t going to need my summary. They’re going to need to go and actually look at it because there’s no way for any summary to fully encompass it. It’s the same thing that’s happening in the wider world. Science fiction is not different from the wider world. It is a microcosm of the English-speaking world, which is the part of it that I’m familiar with. Hell, for all I know, this is happening in other language parts of science fiction. But the established status quo of science fiction has always been racist, patriarchal, a bunch of other “isms/ists,” and the world is changing. The world has constantly changed. As people who are not cishet-white dudes or committed to the aesthetics of cishet-white dudes, I guess if you want to put it that way, because it’s not just cishet-white dudes, but it’s people who don’t have a problem with the absolute domination of cishet-white dudes at the awards for decades and who get upset when, for maybe three or four years or hell, five or ten years, the awards get dominated by women. There’s a reactionary movement that exists within the genre. Many of them are committed to trying to do whatever they can to undermine the systems that are trying to accommodate the change that exists within the genre. The changes are not anything really, truly new. There have always been black people writing science fiction. There have always been women writing science fiction. Women have always been the backbone of the community, the organizers of conventions, and things like that. This is not a new thing. It’s just that finally, those of us that have always been here are starting to get recognition for the work and the creativity that we’ve done. There are forces that don’t like this change. They want the world to still be as it was where, basically, all you had to do was be a little above mediocre and you could achieve pretty well in science fiction. You could sell books, you could win awards as long as you looked a certain way. The fact that the playing field was never level doesn’t seem to be an issue to them. They were okay with the playing field being what it was. The idea of trying to create a more level playing field, they find offensive. They’re terrified of it. They regard the people who are creating things that they don’t understand as with the same abject horror that Lovecraft regarded the people of Chinatown, and their reaction is harmful, but also very typical American.
DN: Maybe as a counterbalance to Lovecraft’s words, I’m just going to read a couple of lines for the pleasure of it from one of your Hugo acceptance speeches. “This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers: every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s meritocracy, but when we win it’s identity politics. I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.” I love that. [laughs]
NJ: [laughs] A lot of other people seem to. It was definitely cathartic to say.
DN: Yeah. I want to return to the book and the way that we move around New York City in this book as if two different versions of the city are superimposed upon each other. Because this superimposition made me think of many things, actually. I thought of Colson Whitehead’s famous essay at New York where he says, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” That question of different time periods and the role of memory also made me think of William Gibson’s often repeated line, “The future is already here—It’s just not very evenly distributed”. But I also thought of China Miéville, his book The City & the City with the superimposed cities. I thought of the Many Worlds Interpretation in quantum physics, which you cite in the book, and which Ted Chiang also likes to create whole stories from. But the main thing I thought of, was actually Ursula K. Le Guin, who I think, mistakenly gets called a New Utopian writer who, I think more accurately, could be described as having books that gesture towards the promise of a New Utopia, but while existing among all sorts of countervailing dystopian elements.
NJ: [laughs] I’ve never heard that. That’s great.
DN: I was hoping we could talk about her most famous short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which was a thought experiment about what outsourced cost we are willing to accept to live in a New Utopia, how much suffering experienced by someone else are we willing to allow to have a great life ourselves. I was hoping maybe we could talk about it in relationship both to your novel, if you feel like there is one, and to the story you wrote in response to her story. But first, do you feel like there’s a connection between that story and the superimposed worlds in The City We Became?
NJ: If there is, it’s not a thing I’m going to notice. People do reviews and analyses on my work and they frequently discover things that I didn’t notice. Then I’m like, “Oh, wow, cool. That’s what I was doing.” [laughs] I leave it to the scholars and the reviewers to figure out where those connections tend to be. But in terms of the short story that I wrote in response to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, I wrote a story called, The Ones Who Stand and Fight. It was also a thought experiment on a couple of levels, possibly too many levels. I will leave it to people to read it and decide whether it is worthy of speaking back to the great Le Guin. But basically, I realized somewhere along the way that I was actually having difficulty imagining a world without bigotry. I’m a science fiction writer among other things, if I can’t figure it out, then how can I expect other people to project that vision, to move towards that vision? If we can’t speak about it, if we can’t envision it, then how do we work toward it? I emulated the style of the Omelas story, tried to make it just simply like a utopian ideal, where speaking of it as, “Okay, can we talk about this as a possible utopian ideal?” and centering on the same notion that I think Le Guin decided to tackle which is, “You can’t have this beauty without some struggle. You can’t have this kind of progress without some kind of struggle.” If that is the case, if we are indeed stuck as a species, as a people, whatever you want to call it, if we are indeed the kind of society that’s going to have to fight to make sure that we get this utopian future where all are included and everyone has opportunity, hope, food, shelter, and so on, then at least, let us focus. Let’s be planful about it. Let’s be meaningful about it instead of choosing a random innocent child to be the focus of that suffering, which obviously, Le Guin is symbolizing Western society, capitalist society’s tendency to literally devour children in order to further its own progress, think about every sweatshop in Southeast Asia that’s producing our Nikes or whatever. We have to acknowledge the fact that if this is somehow part of human nature, if human nature eventually trends toward entropy, if you want to put it that way, then let’s, at least, try and harm only the people that are harming others, if that’s going to be the focus of it. I prefer for people to read my writing than for me to try and interpret it.
DN: The reason I thought of the story in the novel was because even though this isn’t central to the novel, at least not the first book, we do learn that millions die in other universes every time a city is born here, obviously, that was disquieting to learn because for the rest of the book, you’re feeling very much on the side of the city being born but then you pause at this question of cost. But do you feel like The Ones Who Stand and Fight, your story, do you feel like it’s a corrective on Le Guin’s the way Delany’s Triton was a response and critique to The Dispossessed? Or does it feel more closer to fanfic in a way? Are you writing in the Omelas’ tradition?
NJ: It is meant to be a pastiche, which is why I tried to emulate Le Guin’s style for that story. Whether it is fanfic or whether it is an overt response, I, again, will leave to the scholars to decide. It’s just simply a story that I needed to tell. In The City We Became or in, I guess, the mythos of The Great Cities Trilogy—and again, there are pieces of this I can’t discuss—I already framed cities as living entities. Living entities eat to survive. Living entities, at least, in our reality, consume other living entities in order to become what they are. Sometimes that’s horrific. That doesn’t mean that we have to leave it that way. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to mitigate the horror of our consumption of other life. Even the vegans out there are eating living plants. We’ve begun to realize that trees talk to each other, bunches of other things like that. There, basically, is no way to exist in this world without causing harm. That’s an acknowledgment that I simply wanted to do. If I’m going to posit that cities are living entities, then living entities do harm, and cities do harm in real life. We are beginning to understand that even pre-industrial cities had such a negative impact on their environment. When we find the sites of old cities that used to exist, we find areas around them where there were denuded of trees or extinction events, minor-scale ones until we hit the industrial era. We find that cities change the weather around them. There have been a number of illustrations of how prevailing air currents passing over, say Atlanta, basically, change into something entirely different. The city of Atlanta acts almost like a mountain in its impact on the rest of the area around it. I just wanted to acknowledge that. The fact that if you’ve got a living entity, that living entity is doing things. That living entity, the act of life is dependent on the deaths of others in a lot of ways. We, as thinking entities, can choose to direct that. That is a thing that I want to explore. We choose whether we want to eat ethically sourced meat. I made the decision many years ago to try and be a localvore as much as possible, and not eat stuff from feedlots or stuff that got shipped halfway across the planet, requiring like oodles and oodles of fossil fuels to get to me. I try to eat from small family farms when I can. It’s more expensive. It means that I eat less meat, and that’s good. I ain’t got it in me to be a vegetarian, but I can at least try and make sure that the animals that I do eat weren’t mistreated to the degree that I can. These are choices that sentient entities should be making, and that’s something else I’m going to explore. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] Forgive me for asking one last Le Guin-oriented question. She died just right before our book together was supposed to come out. Right when our book did come out, I was asked for maybe 18 months to write and think about her in various contexts for various publications. It seemed very natural to me when I discovered the Wired Magazine article that placed the two of you in conversation and discussed the way you had placed yourself in conversation with her. I see connections. But my last question that I wanted to raise, maybe in her presence, was around imagination and the speculative because when I was watching the American Masters, PBS series on her, one of the fascinating things about it, is how much her own work overtime is a corrective on her own previous work on the ways that it failed to imagine as far as it could have. For instance, in the beginning, she had mainly male protagonists and wrote hero-oriented stories which she moved farther and farther away from overtime. Similarly, if she could rewrite The Left Hand of Darkness, she probably wouldn’t have used male pronouns as signifiers for gender-fluid people. She herself has said the Earthsea books, as feminist literature, are a total complete bust because she couldn’t reach deep down and come up with a woman wizard at that point in her life. I have no idea if that, in any way, resonates with you but it did make me wonder about your experience at the time of the various attempts to squash the rise of non-white writers within science fiction and fantasy. You talked about one blog that reached out to just say, “Hey, if you’re a person of color who’s into science fiction and fantasy, can you speak up so we can get a headcount? You were under the impression that people like you were super rare that they were like unicorns.” The post of the blog was even called The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-in, but in fact, the numbers were huge. I guess I wondered about this self-perception of being alone or isolated, especially when the community at large seemed to also want it to stay that way, if you felt that, at any point, hindered your ability to imagine to your full potential that part of the writing process has been working against that, against the absence of having a lateral community or the depth of lineage that you should have had.
NJ: Okay. There’s a couple of things here that I want to address. One is that artists, in and of themselves, should be improving, should be growing and changing over the course of their lives, should push themselves beyond the limits that they originally framed themselves for. Part of that process of growth means understanding what those limits are and realizing that the world is different from what you may have been told it was. Some of that is technological. The advent of social media is one of the things that allowed fans of color to start seeing each other and realizing just how big of a presence we were. Before that, we’d all been siloed and had no real choice about that siloing because the institutions of science fiction and fantasy weren’t particularly looking to elevate our voices, and in fact, in a lot of cases, we’re excluding our voices purposefully. The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-in was a live journal post from many years ago created by a fan known as “delux-vivens” who, unfortunately, has passed away since then. She used the power of social media to just hold up a mirror and allow us to see the reality that we’d all been told was not true. We’d all been told. Nerds of color have always been told that there’s something strange about you and that’s because, again, science fiction and fantasy is just a microcosm of America. America does everything it can; “in America,” obviously, it exists beyond America, [laughs] but I’m speaking about America because that’s what I know. But science fiction and fantasy in America is like the rest of the country in that it does whatever it can to remind marginalized groups of people that they are isolated, alone, and have no power. Even using a term like minority doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you look at humanity. Humanity as a whole is something like 80% people of color, [laughs] probably more than that. But we’re constantly told, “You’re small. You’re isolated. You don’t need to have more of a say or more of a voice because there’s only a few of you and you don’t matter.” When you start to realize the reality of the situation, when Americans began to realize, “No way! We’re 40 something percent of this country. We’ve always been here. We’re the people that helped build it. Our blood is literally in the soil, and in the case of the city, we became under Wall Street.” The idea that we should not have a say in anything, that we should not be visible in our media is ridiculous when you understand the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation for science fiction and fantasy is that they’ve always been black fans, they’ve always been black writers, they’ve always been marginalized fans and writers of whatever persuasion, and we’ve always been fairly large in number. But there has always been this narrative, this rhetoric that we are small, that we are powerless, and that we should shut up. The nature of art is that it evolves with the artist’s understanding of the world. Le Guin did that. I am also doing that, all good artists have to. If you aren’t telling the truth, if you aren’t improving and changing over the course of your life, then you’re not telling the truth about what you’re seeing around you, you’re in denial. That’s not good art.
DN: Yeah, and I loved watching the narrative of her own self-interrogation over the course of her career, at least, the way they summarize it in looking at her life which feels to be like a life that continues to push forward by looking back and seeing where one hasn’t been able to imagine as far as one could.
NJ: Yeah. I mean that she was a great artist. [laughter] I’m not a giant fan of Le Guin’s novels, I haven’t read probably most of them. I like her short stories more than anything else but what I really loved was her essays. When she got on blogdom, she had a blog for many years where she was just literally like raining fire down upon the world and that is what I want to grow up to be. [laughs] Her speeches, one of her most famous speeches was when she, I believe, won a National Book Award and she got up and used that speech to basically tell the entire book industry all about itself. She told Amazon representatives, “You were trying to commodify art and that is just wrong and disgusting. You have tried to homogenize and control a thing that you don’t have the right or the power to control.” She just told them all about themselves. That is the part of Le Guin that her art does this. Her art, obviously, is part of her voice but just as with Lovecraft, Lovecraft’s letters are one of the ways in which we begin to understand just how dangerous or just how pervasive his hatred is and his fear is in making his art as powerful as it is. With Le Guin, her essays, her letters, and her blog are how we begin to realize just how powerful her willingness to change the world and speak truth to power is throughout her art.
DN: I want to return to this question of representation in Lovecraft’s essay Notes on Writing Weird Fiction. He says, “Fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature defying illusions.”
NJ: That’s what a racist would think.
DN: Yeah. But it’s also interesting because this connection between fear and the creation of nature to find illusions made me think of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, in that line that is often quoted from it, “Because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying.” Rankine goes on to talk about how the officer that killed Michael Brown said “he looked like a demon.” I feel like you do a lot of work in this book with the avatar of Staten Island, not only the only white avatar, it’s the white woman who’s distrustful of otherness, who reflexively, and perhaps, unconsciously thinks people with darker skin, people with deformities, or people with wheelchairs are more suspect or bad. But also, I think most fundamentally, she can’t imagine a world where people who mean well can do any real harm which feels like one way, you could describe the violence of whiteness, but I wanted to hear about some of your ways in which you navigate your desire for not causing harm or damage to communities that you represent. Obviously, you’re probably not greatly worried about your portrayal of this white woman from Staten Island, but you’ve given yourself this narrative where you have all these avatars that represent complex communities but then also, at the same time, have to be individuals. I’m thinking of, for instance, maybe the most extreme example, Hong Kong, who seems, at least, in this book—and of course, I give you the caveat that this is the first book of a trilogy and I’m sure all of these things are going to get complicated—but he seems like the character closest to a total dick [laughter] and his city is even described as having a dick-shaped skyscraper [laughter] or Paris, which you say in an upcoming book, will be an asshole or insufferable.
DN: How do you balance this desire for sensitivity? Because I know you have sensitivity readers for when you did your indigenous character and your South Asian character, obviously, not wanting to cause harm or damage but then also you have these entirely complex cities which do indeed have personalities, but also you have to reduce them to something also as a person.
NJ: First of all, I’ve never been able to visit Hong Kong. I wanted to, I still want to, I haven’t been able to visit São Paulo. Basically, as I started to plan trips to both places, suddenly they elected fascist dictators or an uprising began. It was just not a good time to travel. I’m obviously operating on stereotypes there. In fact, I didn’t really fully know what stereotypes existed of São Paulo. I did have a sensitivity reader in that I spoke to a Brazilian woman about what do Brazilians think of São Paulo. I was basing my stereotypes on that. I didn’t even know that people from São Paulo were called Palestinos and so forth. I’m probably mangling the Portuguese, I hope I am not. I didn’t know enough about them to really give them a thorough or solid character, but it’s actually relatively easy to characterize a city because there’s always going to be somebody that thinks that a city is an asshole, [laughs] that this city is just inherently like a place of assholes. [laughter] There are so many people out there who hate New York, that’s not even funny. [laughs] When I do go and read reviews of the city, there’s always going to be that person out there who’s like, “I just hate the fact that New York thinks of itself as the center of the universe. New York is just full of shit.” That’s part of its character. This is one of the things that makes cities what they are, that is part of the legend. There are people that hate the legend. It’s not that hard to come up with the idea of Hong Kong being rude as fuck. He’s not a terrible person. He’s obviously on the side of the protagonist. He does good things, he’s just like, “I’ve got to be friends with you to help you.” [laughs]
DN: [laughs] He doesn’t try to be friends. I was curious if you’d read Open City by Teju Cole.
DN: Because there was another book that I love that I was thinking of reading your book, a book that I would call one of the great New York books but it’s also I think one of the best books of fiction that enacts what intersectionality is through narrative. It’s a protagonist, he walks through New York, and by what he sees and also by his blind spots, the history of America is revealed through New York as the lens. There’s a way in which your book unfolds, we are also unearthing stories that are in plain sight but which go largely unseen at the same time. For instance, you’ve said that Manhattan—and I think this is a literal truth—is built on trash and blood.
NJ: Wall Street specifically, but yeah.
DN: Yeah. The African Burial Ground shows up in your book, and in Teju Cole’s, that Wall Street was built on the bones of thousands of black and native Latino workers who died and were buried on the spot.
NJ: And Irish, and basically lots of the early immigrants of New York died building the landfill, the foundations, the base that became Wall Street. They were buried in unmarked graves that were literally forgotten about for decades or centuries until they began to be unearthed with a construction site that suddenly discovered bunches of bones when they were building a new skyscraper if I recall.
DN: Another place that is significant in The City We Became, but perhaps, not that significant in most New Yorkers’ minds is Inwood Park. I was hoping maybe you could talk about Inwood Park itself and also the rock within it that both maybe play an outsized role in The City We Became for good reason but a smaller role in the minds of people living their day-to-day lives in New York City.
NJ: It actually had a relatively small role in the book but I framed it as a place of power because part of the myth of New York, for those that haven’t heard it, is that Manhattan island was purchased from the local indigenous people for [$24] worth of beads and trinkets and then it got turned into this economic powerhouse by the colonizers that did this. Of course, the story is always more complicated than the legend makes it out to be. At the core of it, the Lenape people who had guardianship of the island, the island had been used as a crossroads for lots of groups of people for many, many years, trading sites, a bunch of different things. No one owned it. The whole idea was that you can exist here for a while and we won’t bother you too much, but how can you possibly own the crossroads? It was a fundamentally different conceptualization of how land, property, and people should be used. This deal was made at the tulip tree in Inwood Hill Park. There’s a rock or a monument on the site with the word Shorakkopoch on it and a description of the deal between Peter Minuit, who was the governor of New Amsterdam at the time, and the people there. Manhattan, as he’s been in the city for like a whole few hours at that point, is able to use that site for power because it is a site that is given power by that legend and by the events that actually happened there. That’s how I tackled that.
DN: It’s also one of the last remnants of the original old-growth forest of Manhattan.
NJ: Yeah. That actually is the only piece of it still left. All of Manhattan used to be like Inwood Hill Park. Even then, it’s so manicured in some places. It’s got little paved pathways all carved through it and so forth. It’s an example, at least, in small patches of the old-growth forest that used to be there but it’s been so thoroughly colonized that it’s difficult to see. But even then, you can get an idea of what it was like. That’s the nature of New York. New York is a bunch of layers upon layers of history buried—and sometimes forgotten—and geography that impacts our lives to this day but sometimes is forgotten. People forget that one of the reasons that the Second Avenue Subway has been promised but only relatively recently and actually worked on—it’s been promised for basically my lifetime—but Second Avenue used to be a river and when you dig down deep enough in New York City in Manhattan, you hit that water table, you hit what used to be the river and it’s quite difficult to build there without flooding and so forth. If the power of New York comes in its creation from the various groups of people that have inhabited it over time and put their layers of energy onto it and those layers are building in a very theoretical-physics-like way, [laughs] those are all many worlds of interpretation of history, then why not use that as a source of power as well and a source of harm, danger, and fear? Manhattan is a very charming young man, very handsome, everyone that gets to know him immediately feels comfortable with him unless they are suspicious people themselves who are like, “Why do I feel so comfortable with him? Oh, there’s something else going on here because Branca does not like him immediately,” [laughs] but Manhattan is super charming, super friendly, seems to be very upstanding, hits all the notes for respectability politics with young black men, he’s light-skinned, he’s going to an Ivy League school, he doesn’t curse, he dresses preppy. But he’s also terrifying. He’s got the trash and blood that is the undergirder of Manhattan’s true power. It is part of his personality and it shows in various ways throughout the story. People realize that. They begin to realize that’s a source of power for him but it’s also a source of threat. It’s also something that literally has subsumed his personality. It’s something that all cities have to watch out for. The stereotypes are a source of power, the stereotypes are one of the things that make you what you are, but you’ve also got to fight those stereotypes if you want to be your own person.
DN: Yeah. I also love that you made Manhattan a newcomer that Manhattan has just arrived in Manhattan.
NJ: Yeah. That’s such a quintessential part of the New York experience. I say that as someone who wasn’t born here. I lived here, I jokingly say I’m 50% New Yorker but I went to school in Mobile, Alabama, I spent every summer here growing up in my pre-school childhood here. Then as an adult, I live here now pushing 15. But I’m not born and raised here and there are aspects of New York City that are brand new to me even though I’ve had so much time here. But one of the aspects of New York’s personality that I have noticed as a newcomer is that it is so wholly welcoming to newcomers. I spent eight years in Boston. Boston is not a city that is welcoming to newcomers. [laughs] I say that as someone who tried to make Boston work because Boston was cheaper than New York. It’s a beautiful city, I really liked it, but Boston was not a friendly city. In my experience, Bostonians are not super friendly people. I had Boston friends for whom I never went inside their house the whole eight years that I was living there. They never had dinner parties. They never invited anybody over to just chill and relax or whatever. I moved to New York and within like a week, I’d been invited to two different house parties. There’s a culture in New York that’s constantly trying to reach out and grab the newcomers and pull them in and make them part of it. New York is a greedy-grabby city and I’m going to touch on that.
DN: Thinking about these two realities or these two warring stories of what New York could be that happens in your book, I was wondering if you could talk about the warring mythologies between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, who you consider the anti-Robert Moses, [laughter] and how these real-life figures inform The City We Became.
NJ: It’s probably best if you look up both figures yourself and look at the details of them because I don’t want to get too deeply into contrasting the two because I’ve only read Jacob’s work, I have not read anything by Moses so I don’t have a good understanding of his ideology beyond his works. But it was very clear in a lot of ways in the things that Moses proposed, and so forth, that he was not a giant fan of the diversity of cities any more than Lovecraft was. He proposed, in a number of cases, changes to the city’s parks that were harmful, that would have turned say Battery Park into a highway and things like that, but basically did not have the same respect for how people operate in cities and how real community forms. His theories seem to be informed more by white supremacy and controlling large groups of people, controlling people through architecture through design. Whereas Jacob’s, her philosophy seemed to be much more you look at where people are going and you build things around those groups, you build things around how those patterns and those communities already develop. If you want to really dig into that, it’s a good idea to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities which is Jacob’s book. I have yet to read anything by Moses, like I said, I don’t want to get too deep into his philosophy. But look at what he did, look at how he tried to do things and got blocked, in a lot of cases, thank God because his choices would have made New York City a very different and probably much uglier place.
DN: But even things that are very iconically New York now like Central Park, we discover was built both to obstruct the movement of people of color but also to destroy solidarity and alliances between white groups and non-white groups.
NJ: Yeah. That wasn’t Moses, that was pre-Moses but he built on that. But it’s actually good to read a different book for that history. Seneca Village is the part of New York that I’m talking about. There used to be in a neighborhood in New York where Central Park is, now called Seneca Village, populated by free Black people and Irish people in the days when Irish people were not considered white. They lived together, they worked together, they fought to unionize and to work against the power establishment which was mostly cishet and Waspy in New York, descendants of British people and so forth, basically, anything but Irish. They worked against the power establishment of New York. A really good book to explore that is Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White where he talks about the fact that those early power alliances between Black and Irish people in New York City were such a threat to the city establishment. Central Park got eminent domain away from the people of Seneca Village, specifically because Seneca Village was where, according to many of the city fathers, all those people were sitting around miscegenating [laughs] and producing these ambiguously black people that could not be easily classified and easily discriminated against. That was one of the horrifying things to these folks. They destroyed Seneca Village and built a park on top of it. Moses continued the tradition of trying to make that park inhospitable to the very people that it had displaced, and other parks in the city as well.
DN: You’ve talked before about how, as a teenager, your father would give you a map and tell you to explore a new part of the city, and that for you—in contrast to say the provincialism of your Staten Island avatar, avatar whose family and herself are very wary of New York City, New York meant freedom—there’s also a map at the beginning of the book, like in so many fantasy books, there’s a map in the beginning of The City We Became and it’s a map that you really can’t fully parse until you’ve read the book or, at least, your way into the book and then return to the map. But one thing I noticed is that on old maps, on maps before we had entirely mapped the world, an uncharted territory would be marked with the phrase “here there be dragons”.
DN: So that’d be a place where the only thing that really lived was our imagination, we’d never been there so we’re imagining ourselves “here there be dragons”. But on your map, that phrase is right there on known territory, on the land right where we are.
NJ: It’s on the island. [laughs]
DN: It’s on the island, yeah. But perhaps it’s an inversion. I didn’t know if it was an inversion of the typical phrase, if perhaps the dragon is our ability to imagine ourselves forward into a better place, a utopian aspiration, or perhaps, the dragon is the dystopian monster. Either way, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that we are fighting this battle right now outside your window and outside my window for two different futures. I guess I wanted to end with anything you wanted to tell us about the process of writing book two of continuing this story into the future and how easy or difficult that has been to do while we’re under quarantine for a global pandemic and now with the social uprisings happening to fight for a different existence than the one we’ve had up until now.
NJ: Backing up a little bit, that was just a crack at Long Island, New Yorkers make jokes about it.
NJ: It is a reference, in some ways, to the fact that a lot of Long Islanders are New Yorkers who fled in the 70s and 80s as part of the big white flight from integration. The schools were heavily segregated just like the city itself, just like America, and as New Yorkers in black communities fought to make sure that their schools got equal resources, equal time—there’s a really good podcast I’ve been listening to called the School Colors Podcast which talks about the 1968 Brownsville teacher strike and just how terrible the schools were. They were sending black kids to school for only half days because they were so overcrowded, that was the only way they could get all the kids in. Of course, the kids in the black neighborhoods were literally getting half the education of the kids in white neighborhoods. The parents rebelled against this and as a result of those protests and those efforts to get to be treated just as equal people—those same kinds of protests we’re still having now—a lot of wealthy or middle-class-white New Yorkers fled to Long Island and Long Island is now one of the most racist places in the city as a partial result. That was really what I was referring to with that. That plus just New Yorkers have got to give Long Island a hard time, that’s just the nature of that beast.
NJ: Oh, gosh, I forgot the latter half of what you were asking.
DN: Just writing this we’re talking about double–
NJ: Honestly, I’m struggling a lot. I have a plot laid out. Some of that plot has gotten just by reality already so I’m going to have to redo the outline for book three, stuff that I had predicted would happen in the future of the story is happening right now. That’s going to be interesting to try and deal with. I also had not planned on a pandemic. People keep pointing out the parallels between the infectious way in which the Woman in White works throughout the city and New York in a time of coronavirus. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I wrote this book almost two years ago and of course, no one expects the global pandemic. Right now, I am writing very slowly. I’m actually hoping to just get some space to back up and look at everything that’s happening in a big picture and process more really before I get too deep and too much deeper into the story. But I have a deadline and I’ve got to meet that deadline so I have to write a little bit in order to get up to a point where I can finish it within the time that it’s due. I don’t like to be late.
DN: Plus you’ve put your hooks in us at the end of the first book so much that everybody’s on the cliff of anticipation.
NJ: [laughs] That’s good to know. But the whole Trump presidency has been a test for science fiction and fantasy writers because all of the dystopian nonsense that we thought was too unimaginable we are living—well scratch that, let me not say unimaginable because, obviously, Octavia Butler envisioned a society crumbling under a cartoonish demagogue who uses religion as a prop and has a slogan of “Make America Great Again.” In the parable of the sower and the parable of the talents, she figured that out back in the 90s, she saw that coming. I sincerely hope things don’t get as bad as Octavia saw. The rest of us are just trying to keep up so I’m doing the best I can.
DN: It was great having you on the show today, Nora.
NJ: Thank you.
DN: We were talking today to N. K. Jemisin, the author of The City We Became from Orbit books. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.