The Unconventional Conceptions of Race in the Works of N.K. Jemisin

Some months ago, I wrote about the various ways in which the inherent social construction of race and the lived realities of race interplay in The Fifth Season. I dubbed this phenomenon the existential paradox of race, and defined it as the “conflict between the fundamental nonexistence of race [and] the salient effects of race in function”, arguing that race in Jemisin’s story deliberately differed from race in the real world in order to encourage readers to reflect on their own conceptions about race. Somewhat inspired by the critical race theory texts I was reading for another class at this time, I found myself understanding more about how race was manufactured in our world, and saw similar patterns within The Fifth Season. In brief, I argued that Jemisin presented the racialization of orogenes (humans with the ability to manipulate seismic events) by non-orogenic humans with three key distinctions to traditional conceptions of race in the real world: the lack of genetic basis for inheriting orogeny, the absence of any homogenous culture within orogene populations, and the outward discrimination towards orogenes, a much more clear-cut discriminatory culture than the subtle subjugation in our reality. In differentiating her created race from our modern conceptions of race as geographically & genetically relevant and more or less determinable by appearance, Jemisin’s world communicates that there is no reality or truth in how races are created and determined, but that they are a product of arbitrary classification criteria. Our world chose to care about skin color and – to a lesser extent – geography when creating the races in our zeitgeist, the world of The Fifth Season chose orogeneity. Neither of these classifications are accurate or necessary ways to group people, as both are just as absurd and arbitrary as the other.

As I have read the other works in this trilogy, my opinions on the central method Jemisin demands the reader introspect on the existential paradox of race has remained, but it has been applied in different ways to different groups within the world she has created. This expansion of the strategy she uses follows the central strategy of separating racialized traits in the book from racialized traits in real life, but the specific traits may change based on the group being racialized. Whereas orogenes do not share any specific features or genealogy, and this is the vector through which the arbitrary classification of race is elucidated for this group, the stone eaters are, in part, grouped by their behavior and elusive origins. The stone eaters are a group of sapient statues entirely made of various kinds of stone, and are few in number. While the appearances of stone eaters are, of course, very distinct from those of any other peoples in the world, the ways other characters within the text speak of stone eaters indicates that this difference in appearance is not the primary trait that leads stone eaters to be othered. When characters describe stone eaters, their behavior, speech, and mystique come up quite often. The way stone eaters speak without moving their mouths, their inscrutability of expression, and their movement are all reasons they are described as “uncanny” and “so like humanity and yet so wildly different” (The Stone Sky, p. 27). In distinguishing stone eaters from other peoples through their atypical behaviors and the lack of general knowledge about them from the public, it seems to me as though Jemisin is exploring how culture and behavior can be used to judge personhood, and thus racialize. When Hoa – a stone eater – and Essun – and orogene human – encounter a stranger who seems as though he “maybe didn’t quite believe” in the existence of stone eaters, the man addresses Essun with a “hi” and Hoa with a nervous “uh, hi I guess?” (The Stone Sky, p. 162). This interaction stuck out to me, as the man seemed to not know if he should address a stone eater as he would another person, even one he knew nothing about. Stone eaters seemingly fall so far outside traditional conceptions of humanity that interacting with them is a challenge to non-stone-eaters, which can only serve to widen the divide between them.

Another group to which Jemisin implores the reader to introspect is the Niess, a group designation for peoples of the Niess kingdom millennia before the events of the novel. In The Stone Sky, the narration often offers a glimpse of a world back before there were orogenes or stone eaters, but far from an unracialized world. These sections are told from the perspective of a tuner, an artificially created group of sapient humanoids with the ability to “tune” to esoteric obelisks to provide power to their kingdom of Syl Anagist. Tuners hold many human traits, superficially and internally, but are also intended to lack emotion and human experience (The Stone Sky, p. 211). While these facts are themselves reflective of a gross denial of personhood from Syl Anagist, to understand Jemisin’s correlation to racialization requires a look at the history of this society. Syl Anagist was a growing superpower before this time, and eventually came to control all but one land that housed the Thniess people (whose name was bastardized to Niess due to mispronunciation). The Niess could be described as hedonistic, and in their love for life and art, they were able to create technology far more efficient to those of Syl Anagist. Syl Anagist, in their belief that their society was inherently superior, saw this technology far exceeding their capabilities being used simply for art, and in an effort to reaffirm their superiority, killed nearly all of the Niess (The Stone Sky, p. 209-211). Now, the Niess were a short-statured, kinky-haired people with nearly colorless white skin, and when Syl Anagist turned against them, even as the few remaining Niess were scattered and assimilated into various cultures, these traits were reviled by those who saw the Niess as an undesirable race of people. When describing the appearance of the tuners, however, these features of the Niess are described, and seeing as the appearance of these artificially created humans cannot be anything but intentional, the tuners were clearly intended to be perceived as part of the subjugated and discriminated race of the Niess. Despite being artificially created, with no relation to the Niess in origin, the tuners come to understand how the world perceives them despite this: “to them, we are [Niess]” (The Stone Sky, p. 257). Again, Jemisin separates the racialized peoples in her text from traditional conceptions of how race operates. The question then is raised: what is the purpose of appearance-based race categorization in a world where such features may have no connection to any peoples or groups to which a race typically refers? In Syl Anagist, there is an answer – to justify the subjugation of the tuners and the genocide of the Niess – but how the subjugation of the tuners works when they do not and cannot have a race ties back to the existential paradox of race. Syl Anagist’s manufactured race of tuners almost embodies this thought, a group that cannot be related to any existing race, but still – very intentionally – feel the effects of their racialization by society.

Upon reflection, my take on the way this trilogy has handled racialization has not changed significantly. From the beginning, I felt that Jemisin was encouraging readers to understand that the racialization of a people is only ever a reductive classification based on arbitrary traits. Race is not something that exists and thus can’t be reduced to any number of traits a person has, but race is absolutely something one can experience in a racialized society, regardless of the traits a society chooses to associate with a group of people. The existential paradox of race will always exist as long as society chooses to racialize people. In fact, in my sameness of thought as the trilogy progressed, I don’t believe that it was too terribly important for my opinions to change on this matter, especially when the way Jemisin’s handling of racialization in the first text was so inspired. The way Jemisin portrayed the racialization of orogenes in The Fifth Season was incredibly poignant, especially in her separation of skin color and genetic factors from the orogenes. Showing how people who, in every sense other than an innately bestowed ability, are just like everyone else in the story in their diversity of culture, ancestry, and appearance but were subjugated so intensely for a trait which society deemed undesirable was immensely affecting for me as a reader. I wrote about how when orogenes are forced into a group, there is no cohesive identity, as orogenes can be just as culturally and socially distinct from one another as orogenes and non-orogenes. Reminiscent of the ways in which the slave trade served to group people across the African continent who all had unique cultures and identities under a single banner because of their skin color, the orogenes likewise were never one people, but various peoples who happened to share a trait their society chose to essentialize. While the analysis of the stone eaters as a manufactured race does merit discussion, as with the purposeful likening of the tuners to an undesirable race, the cultural dissonance present between orogenes communicated to me that a single trait does not and cannot embody or define a people. Despite orogenes having no collectivity, no meaningful commonalities except being victims of prejudice and intense reprehension, they are grouped into one people, one race by larger society, and this assumption of a collective “other” allows people to hate collectively. This is the foundation of racialization, and is embodied so clearly and poetically in just the first text of this trilogy that Jemisin was able to capture my curiosity and command introspection with how well the racialization of orogenes provoked reflection on the existential paradox of race.

Ferns, Cats, and Reality: Reflections on Superposition when Reading Scaling ‘Realness’ in The Water Cure

The Water Cure by Percival Everett centralizes on Ishmael Kidder’s experience after his young daughter Lane was raped and murdered. The Water Cure has an extremely unique structure and style. Some sections are composed of a traditional narrative form. Other sections are not written in English or are misspelled. Some are riddles or drawings, and there are countless other forms. The Water Cure was introduced to our class as a book of “may or may not”s which prompted an investigative journey as I waded through the structure, style, and story. For me, the prompt had boiled down to ‘what is real in The Water Cure?’ and ‘what is not real in The Water Cure?’ In the back of my mind was the nagging idea of ‘what if both are true at the same time?’ I dismissed the idea when most of the secondary questions were based on assumptions that it was real. This reflection led me back to the excitement and overly complicated thought processes involved in ‘may or may not’— ‘real or unreal’—and ‘why not both?’

In African Fractals, the author, Ron Eglash, introduces the idea of “scaling shapes.” Eglash explains ‘scaling shapes’ as “similar patterns at different scales within the range under consideration.” (17-18) Essentially, the largest example of the pattern/shape will still look similar to the smallest version of the pattern/shape and vice versa. For example, consider a bi-pinnate fern leaf. The shape of the pattern repeats on different scales—the blade and the pinna (the first division). [fig. 1.0]

The blade and the pinna form the boundaries of the range, which Eglash references because there is no example of the pattern/seed shape that is larger than the blade and no example that is smaller than the pinna. [pattern/seed shape fig. 1.1]

While Eglash applies the mathematical concept of scaling shapes (an aspect of fractals) to African culture and life, scaling patterns can also be applied to literature. At the beginning of the semester, our class discussed the Western storyline pattern of ‘order –> disorder –> order restored’ [fig. 2.0].

On the largest scale, the story begins in a state of order (calm/stability), then something occurs that creates disorder (problem/chaos), and then (typically, the main character) seeks to restore order; once order is restored, the story ends. Within each of these overarching phases, there can be found ‘mini-stages’—smaller scales—of the overarching pattern [fig. 2.1].

Hypothetically, this pattern could be nested infinitely, each recursive iteration being identical to the previous. Eglash calls this exact replication of pattern “exact similarity,” in which a replica of the whole pattern can be found within any smaller section of the whole (often referenced as scale invariance). (Eglash, 17) While exact similarity is mathematically and infinitely possible, in reality, as patterns repeat, they can become continually dissimilar with each subsequent iteration. Consider the fern again, but instead of a bipinnatehaving two levels of division—it is a tripinnate (also called a 2-pinnate-pinnatifid)— having three levels of division [fig. 3.0]. 

A type of tripinnate fern is the Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris dilatata).

Photo of the pinnulets of a Broad Buckler Fern (credit: Nature Spot)

The shape of the blade and the pinna (the first division) look similar. The pinnulet (third division) looks a bit different from the first division. The pinnulets are blunter and rounder. With each subsequent division, the shape looks less and less like the original. Hypothetically, suppose there is a fern with a fourth, fifth, and sixth division, each iteration being proportionately wider and blunter than the previous division. Each division would look just a little bit different than the previous. Comparing the sixth division to the first division would look nothing alike, yet they originated from the same plant and form the range of the scale. In this case, self-similar scaling morphs into dissimilarity as the range continues until the finite boundaries.

Consider self-similarity (or dissimilarity) scaling in the context of The Water Cure, with the scaling factor being size and realness. ‘Realness’ in this context refers to how likely these aspects are occurring/ could occur in the physical world that Ishmael Kidder lives in, assuming he lives in a world similar/ identical to the actual world (the reader’s world); and thereby, how likely readers are to assume it is real (occurring in Ishmael’s physical world). Audrey Taylor and Stefan Ekman described this as the “primary world” in their article “A Practical Application of Critical World-Building.” They define a primary world as “a fictional version of the actual world, with only minimal differences, a ‘simulacrum’ of the actual world” (3).

Sections and details within The Water Cure vary in their perceived ‘realness.’ For example, one section that would be very ‘real’ is when Sally, Ishmael’s agent, goes over to his house, and they converse about how Ishmael won’t eat food from restaurants, and she asks him why there is a wad of duct tape on his mantel. The section is structured as dialogue and description. A scene identical to this could happen within the actual world and not be out of place. Thereby, this scene would quickly be presumed to be real.

Alternatively, a section that is not real (yet, complicatedly, exists within the book, so it is actually real within the audience’s reality) is when the text states:

The blue house on the corner is synonymous with the house on the corner is blueShe makes everything beautiful is not synonymous with everything beautiful she makes. 

(Everett, 133)

While the statements are possible—there could be a blue house on the corner; there may exist a ‘she’ that makes everything beautiful—the section is not directly linked to the primary world. Like many sections in the text, it’s not exactly certain who is stating, thinking, or saying these statements of possibly fact, logic, and/or wordplay. While the previous scene occurred within the external primary world, there is no reason to assume that this second section occurs directly within the external primary world. Thereby, it is unreal. These two sections are extremes that help form the boundaries of the range from ‘real’ to ‘unreal.’

Traditionally, scale interacts with size. In the case of exact similarity, the shape/pattern remains the same while the size changes. The range is defined by size. The size of the division is directly linked to its sharpness/bluntness—largest/first division: sharpest; smallest/last division: bluntest—meanwhile, the range of the ferns scale becomes predominantly focused on sharpness/bluntness as the shapes become increasingly dissimilar with each division, but size still plays an important role. Consider the question, ‘is the fern sharp or blunt?’ The answer would vary based on scale—is it the blade, pinna, pinnule, or pinnulet? In The Water Cure, size and realness interact differently than in exact similarity. The size refers to the levels the text exists as—the book as a whole, a section, or a detail within a section. It is possible for different details, all within one section, to fall somewhere along the scale of ‘real’ and ‘unreal.’ 

These varying scales can lead to questions of ‘is this section real?’ even if it’s composed of details that the reader deems to be ‘real’ and details they consider to be ‘unreal.’ It is up to the reader to decide which details are real or unreal and how scaling aspects of realness interact and determine the overarching realness. The scaling patterns call into question the state of the book as a whole, ‘is the book real or unreal?’ much like the question of ‘is the fern sharp or blunt?’ 

As readers encounter The Water Cure, they determine their interpretations of what is real and what is not real. Each determination builds upon the last and shapes their understanding of the book. This process of definite determination, ‘either real or not real,’ is a common approach within our society. For instance, at a restaurant, if the waiter were to ask, “would you like salad or soup as your side,” the expectation is to choose only one option. This context refers to the exclusive form of the word ‘or.’ The exclusive ‘or’ means ‘one or the other, but not both.’ 

However, the inclusive form of the word ‘or’ refers to ‘one or the other or both.’ In formal Logic, a branch of philosophy, an ‘or’ statement (called a disjunction) utilizes the inclusive form of ‘or.’ I took a course on logic this semester that, upon reflection, I believe helped me to reconsider the question of ‘may or may not.’ Most everyday contexts in society (at least from my experience) reinforce the exclusive form of ‘or.’ When the class was prompted with a series of ‘may or may not,’ our minds were primed to assume the ‘or’ as exclusive. We can apply the inclusive ‘or’ to scenes within The Water Cure, meaning sections may be both real and unreal.

One scene that exists at values along the scale of ‘realness ‘ occurs in an early section of the book. In this section, Ishmael details that he has the man he kidnapped in his car and is having a conversation with “Thomas Jefferson’s ghost” who is in the passenger seat smoking a blunt (Everett, 34-35). The entire scene contains so many possible variations of realness and unrealness. [Fair Warning: it’s a bit messy and spiraling]

For instance, suppose it is Thomas Jefferson’s ghost: ghosts are a possibility/belief/superstition in the actual world. Deciding whether Thomas Jefferson’s ghost is ‘real’ in the book also entails deciding what is ‘real’ in the actual world. But suppose that, yes, ghosts are real in the actual world (real ghosts); therefore, they could appear as a real thing within the primary world (*real ghosts*). Then the question becomes, does Jefferson’s ghost adhere to the standards of a *real ghost*? 

In the scene, Thomas Jefferson’s ghost is able to hold physical objects as he hands Ishmael the blunt. Does this conform to common standards of the abilities of a *real ghost* (in the primary world)? In other words, if a real ghost (in the actual world) isn’t able to hold physical objects, then is Thomas Jefferson’s ghost a *real ghost* (in the primary world), or is he a ghost that is real in The Water Cure, but simply not conform to the rules for real ghosts in the actual world. These questions of what constitutes a ‘real’ ghost can continue along this scale of ‘real’ ‘ghostliness.’ 

Simultaneously, there are other scales of realness when considering Thomas Jefferson’s ghost. Is this the real ghost of Thomas Jefferson? A scale of ‘real’ ‘Thomas Jefferson-ness.’ Does “Thomas Jefferson’s ghost” differ from the ‘ghost of Thomas Jefferson’ or from the alive Thomas Jefferson? 

Speaking that this is Thomas Jefferson’s ghost and there is no difference between the previously mentioned variations. Then the question becomes, why would Thomas Jefferson’s ghost is having a conversation with Ishmael as he’s driving with a body in his trunk?

On the other hand, suppose ghosts are not real, so Ishmael may be hallucinating (or any of another multitude of explanations). If he were having a hallucination, the scene would be ‘real’ because hallucinations exist within the actual world. Simultaneously, if Ishmael is having a hallucination, what else is he hallucinating? Inevitably, this could disrupt the perceived ‘realness’ of the entire rest of the book. 

The purpose of this example is to show how all of the real and unreal possibilities/variations makes determining the answer of ‘realness’ all the more complicated. These multiple interpretations of varying ‘realness’ can all exist at the same time. Often, the idea of an exclusive ‘or’ leads audiences to assume and assert one of these possibilities as definite truth, but it is possible for all scales of realness to exist at once. This relates to a principle of quantum mechanics, called superposition.  

Quantum superposition refers to the nature of sub-atomic particles existing in more than one place or state at the same time. By being observed or measured, the particle’s position becomes finalized/determined. Superposition can be more easily understood utilizing the thought experiment called Schrödinger’s cat, which is used to describe the behavior of subatomic particles. The thought experiment proposes that a cat is placed in a box with a substance or device has a 50% likelihood of killing the cat in the next hour. After that hour, someone opens the box and sees that the cat is either alive or dead. 

Schrödinger proposed that during the hour before the box is opened, the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead—it is in a state of superposition: being in more than one state or position at once. It is by the box being opened and someone looking inside that the state (or position) of the cat is forced to become either alive or dead. This is called the observer effect

The observer effect is often referenced when considering the behavior of electrons, a subatomic particle that orbits the nucleus of an atom. Rather than the electron being in one particular place around the nucleus, the electron actually exists in multiple positions at once (in superposition), similar to how the cat was both alive and dead at the same time. If someone were to use a tool to measure the electron’s position, superposition ends (via wave function collapse), and the electron collapses to being in one place. It is by measuring (observing) the electron that the position of the electron collapses into one observed position within our reality at that moment. 

The general concepts of the thought experiment can be applied to our reading of The Water Cure. The sections/aspects are in a state of superposition—simultaneously, real and not real. When we read (observe) The Water Cure we determine what aspects of the book are actually occurring in the external (‘real’) world of the primary world. The audience is the observer, like the person who opens the box to find the cat either alive or dead; the reader’s observation collapses the aspects of the book into one reality, either ‘real’ or ‘unreal,’ much like the cat becomes either alive or dead. The possibilities of realness and determination also interact with the scale of the book. 

Considering “Thomas Jefferson’s ghost,” while it’s possible that this ghost could actually be his ghost or is merely a hallucination, it’s left up to interpretation. There are countless other sections and details that are also left up to readers’ judgment of what is and isn’t ‘real.’ (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing). By partaking in the act of reading, the audience (whether consciously or unconsciously) determines if a detail/section is real or unreal—what is happening in the primary world and what is not. Thomas Jefferson’s ghost becomes either real or unreal. Similar determinations are made as they continue reading. Determinations about details fall into determinations about sections, and sections into determinations of the book as a whole. Interpretation attempts to answer the ‘may or may not.’ I find myself still weary to choose a definite.

Applying quantum superposition to The Water Cure would suggest the possibility of an inclusive use of ‘or,’ meaning that instead of it being ‘may or may not,’ it’s possible that all aspects and sections ‘may and may not’ be co-occurring. In other words, before reading the book, these aspects and sections are each ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ at the same time. Every single scaling aspect, the scaling sections they compose, and the book itself as a scale may and may not be real, possibly, all at the same time. It is by reading the book and concluding that aspects are real or unreal that the audience exacts the observer effect and, by doing so, ends the superposition.

Applying the idea of quantum superposition to the practice of reading leads me to the hypothetical idea of (what I’m calling) ‘reading in superposition.’ Scientific experiments, like measuring the position of an electron, occur in the physical world, but reading and our interpretations while reading occur inside our minds. Physically, the particle is forced to collapse into one state when it is observed. For the sake of this argument, I’d like to entertain the idea that it’s possible to avoid collapse and maintain superposition while reading a text like The Water Cure

To backtrack for a minute, in the physical world the particle collapses into one state because of the observer effect. Thereby, it is impossible to directly observe superposition in the physical world. But in our minds, multiple things can be true at once. For example, the idea ‘I could either go to class or sleep in.” Both paths can be imagined, and the repercussions of both actions can be imagined. Considering The Water Cure, it’s possible to imagine an aspect as both real and unreal, as well as the implications of both. 

Reading The Water Cure in superposition would mean simultaneously interpreting (observing) every scaling aspect of The Water Cure as both real and unreal. As they continue reading, each subsequent aspect is considered real and unreal, branching off of the previous possibilities. This would create a nested system of possibilities. Reading in superposition only exists as an interesting idea because there are limitations—the human brain can only comprehend and focus on so many things simultaneously. Understanding gained from reading in superposition might allow an audience to understand many interpretations of the book, but to a degree, the amount of information and systems involved in this would be entirely tedious and repetitive. Meanwhile, understanding all the possibilities and variations of realness might not be all that valuable. For the sake of (even more) hypotheticals, reading the text continuously to attempt to absorb every possibility would not be reading superposition (and also be extremely tedious & repetitive). 

In the physical world, the experiment cannot be rerun under the same exact conditions. The electron will be thrust back into a superposition state when it is no longer being observed. The conditions cannot be recreated; time cannot be rewound. Likewise, after we read a book for the first time, we cannot ever read it for the first time again. The experience and ideas we interpret during our first read will inevitably influence our experience reading it for a second time and the ideas we form during the second read. It will be a different experience occurring under different conditions. Which would mean it is not necessarily ‘reading in superposition.’ Additionally, the same book, especially The Water Cure, could be read repeatedly, each time striving to pick out another way of understanding the book or another branch of varying realness. The overly blatant question I propose at this point, which possibly serves to upend the entire journey of this piece, why would understanding every possible variation of realness or conceiving the superposition of a book even matter?

In short, it doesn’t matter. From a utilitarian standpoint, picking apart and comprehending every variation is essentially useless. Knit-picking to the thinnest branching details of a combination of realness will, at some point, yield no significant dissimilarity between the related interpretations. [Diagram] The Majority of the information absorbed, thus, becomes repetitive—like taking up space on a hard drive that could otherwise be used for valuable, more diverse information. In practice, most of the information derived from all those understandings would never have any use. Someone could write essays on a single source material for the rest of their life, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily useful or nuanced. While thought experiments and hypotheticals can be cool, it’s not always their actualization that matters; it’s the takeaways and new understandings gained that matter. The understandings gained from the application of superposition functions similarly. 

Superposition can’t be observed, but the effects of superposition and how it governs the world can be observed. Superposition in reading is not possible (nor is it an actual term), but multiple different first interpretations of a book do exist at the same time because different people have different interpretations. That’s how people become aware of interpretations and understandings they have not previously or personally conceived. It’s a boring, basic given truth that is entirely understandable—human beings lead different lives, have different understandings, know different things, and thereby, form different interpretations. Different people assume different ‘real’s and different truths. This awareness of differences occurring simultaneously and all being true and real, relates back to superposition. 

Awareness of superposition—the principle that something can exist in multiple states at once—is far more important than an imagined reading practice that attempts to observe a superposition. Mindfulness that multiple things may be/are true at the same time has impacts on multiple levels. When reading ‘realness’ in The Water Cure, superposition reminds us that just because we observe/assume an aspect to be ‘unreal’ does not mean it is the only possibility. One section may seem more real than another (such as the scene between Sally and Ishmael compared to the section about “the blue house”), but both exist on multiple values of realness. In other words, it is not ‘real or unreal,’ but both ‘real and unreal.’ The fern is both sharp and blunt. Likewise, our individual interpretations are not the only interpretations and are not the only ‘true’ interpretations.

The concept of superposition also has applications outside of quantum mechanics and reading The Water Cure. In real life, the awareness of more than one possibility being true lends itself to openness. Self-awareness that while I may hold one belief, someone else may hold another view; interpretation and truth are not universally definite. Superposition serves as a reminder that although I may observe/experience something and interpret/believe to be the sole answer (functioning off the ‘or’) there are multiple truths. My individual experiences—and those I can imagine akin to mine—are not the only experiences.

After completing this piece (I am, of course, hesitant to give it a definite name like essay or reflection), I’ve realized I may have absorbed more connections than I originally realized. Math and physics have applications and connections in cultural and literary worlds, but they also translate beyond the physical and into ways of thinking. Although something may first appear as strictly one seed shape or form, it exists in multiple dimensions and variations. Each is a valuable truth, but it is entirely impractical and impossible to know every single truth. I am also now realizing that The Water Cure was the perfect end to this semester as it has so many connections to topics and areas outside of itself. 

Core Essay

You never know what you are going to get with a Professor Beth McCoy English class. I walked into English 111 ready to read about an author I had heard little to nothing about like many of my other English courses. Then McCoy threw us a curveball. We had to learn about seismology and geoscience, in an English course. 

Throughout the semester we would have little nudges back to seismology and  geoscience, whether that was playing with a slinky, learning about p waves and s waves and how they interact with Earth, to our first essay having the title of lithosphere. It was through these mini lessons and research that we came across this really cool fact about the Earth. Our class learned that humans have no physical data from the core, all the information we have learned about the core is from seismic waves passing through the Earth. This information gave us a basic understanding of the Earth and how Earthquakes related information to humans about the Earth’s intricate internal structures.

For the Lithosphere essay, I did not have an end goal in mind for this course as we are supposed to follow this course piece by piece and spend time slowing down thinkING and looking back on what we have learned. At the time I decided to focus on Orogeny in N.K Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy, and how it is used to discriminate against Orogenes as they have such tremendous power. Jemison has a glossary in the back of her books and describes that Orogeny is “The ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” These orogene’s have the power to control the inner machinations of the Earth’s lithosphere manipulating energy beneath the surface. This allowed us readers to recall and connect back to the previous science lessons we learned at the beginning of semester connecting real life seismology to a fictionalized depiction. Jemison did incredible amounts of research on geology and seismology just for accuracy of the real life scientific principles in the world she was creating. Dr. Scott Giorgis, Professor and Chair of Geneseo’s Department of Geology, someone who knows way more about geology than the average citizen, preached about the scientific accuracy of this novel, and he knows what he’s talking about.

 I needed to find a way to connect my lithosphere essay to my final Core essay, then I had an epiphany. I decided to look at this course as a mirror to the Earth itself. If we look at this course as a mirror of the Earth, we started at the lithosphere and we dug and dug into the Earth surface but we weren’t able to get to the core, where all the best knowledge is held. We needed to patiently wait and observe.  As we slowly thought through and waited, earthquakes caused seismic energy to pass through the core revealing important information to us because we spent so much time working and being patient.  This idea can be used as a reflection of the ending of The Broken Earth Trilogy. Hoa being the narrator, I would argue is the Core component of this story. If we knew Hoa was the narrator of this story the whole time It would not have had as much meaning. But since we saw Hoa’s journey through Essun’s perspective, we learned that he always had a soft spot for Essun because of her caring nature. In the first book of the trilogy The Fifth Season, Essun, known as Cyanite at that given moment, unintentionally had reached her Orogeny into an Obelisk, which are known to enhance Orogenic abilities, creating a seismic event that saved her life. It was in this moment, a figure known as a stone eater was trapped inside this obelisk. This stone eater turned out to be Hoa, who had been imprisoned in an obelisk for thousands of years enduring immense suffering and isolation. When Essun reached her Orogeny into the she asked this being, who she did not know was hoa at this given moment if he was okay.

This little moment of Essun’s care and empathy had a seismic-like effect on this story. This little interaction between Hoa and Essun, led to Hoa dedicating his journey to protecting Essun. Through this journey, we grew so close to these characters over the course of these books, we saw these characters develop. These little yet important layers of Hoa and Essun’s intricate identity, were very important to look back on after the finishing of this trilogy. These layers of identity and connection are like the layers of the lithosphere and reveal to us a deeper understanding of these characters and their motivations. Similar to seismic waves passing through the Earth to reveal hidden truths about the core, moments of care and empathy between Essun’s and Hoa’s can only be learned after the reader shows patience and spends time waiting and carefully observing and unlocking the mysteries that shaped these characters’ experiences and actions.

Iterations Final Reflection Essay

The idea of seed shapes has become a critical part of thinkING in my journey through Professor Beth McCoy’s English 337: African American Literature. In Ron Eglash’s 2007 TED talk, he defined a seed shape as the starting point of a fractal and to create a seed shape “you start with a shape and iteratively integrate smaller versions of the shape back into the design”. Understanding the concept of a seed shape was pivotal to our first essay which uniquely had the title of  “Seed Shape essay”. “We can look at these kinds of narratives as seed shapes on a fractal that represents Injustice against African Americans throughout history, with the theme of both oppression and resilience in each of many stories. These stories help represent the idea of a fractal, as these narratives serve as microcosms that reflect on the broader struggle of African Americans.” This thesis for my original seed shape essay carried an impact because it illuminated the interconnectedness of individual stories within the larger concept of African American history. These seed shapes helped serve to contribute to the larger fractal of the African American Experience.

Percival Everett is an author that has followed me through multiple of Professor McCoy courses. In this specific course we had the opportunity to read his novel, The Water Cure. Before reading this novel our class was introduced to one of Thomas Jefferson’s written work’s,  Notes on the State of Virginia: Query 14. This work of Thomas Jefferson could be viewed as a seed shape that prompted Percivial Everett to build upon this fractal.The famous quote in question was, “But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary,  narration is “the act of telling a story”, plain is “not decorated in any way; with nothing added”. So in essence plain narration is simply the restatement of fact. Percival Everett must have taken this statement to heart when writing his novel as there is only one account of plain narration in this story. The creation of The Water Cure is the combination of many different seed shapes coming together and building on each other to create a fractal. There is always some sort of real life reflection almost like a mirror that allows you to peer into another world. This allows the reader to see and connect why these ideas are in the novel. 

Our main character of The Water Cure Ishmael Kidder, is an author who writes under the pseudonym Estelle Gilliam. Everett writes that “Since the time of my child’s death I had been unable to make any mark on any surface that might be my own, but somehow Estelle Gilliam found a voice and life, such as it was”. Kidder was unable to write under his own name as there was such a deep void inside of him due to the death of his daughter. The exploration of identity and authorship reflected me back to Harriet Jacob’s novel Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl,  where similarly Jacob’s writes under the pseudonym Linda Brent. as she grapples with the constraints of her identity. Jacob’s was unable to write under her real name as she faced real danger and societal retaliation for attempting to expose the brutal realities of slavery. The use of pseudonyms by both Ishmael Kidder and Harriet Jacobs serves a reflection of the essential sacrifices individuals must make to reclaim their voices. Everett’s use of a pseudonym for his character serves as a mirror that reflects on the seed shapes used to build upon the larger fractal of the African American Experience.

Ishmael Kidder writes directly to his readers in what can be described as anything but plain narration. In a previous exercise given to our class, we discussed the idea of Ishmael’s Art being restrained. This question has so many layers to it because readers can say that the art that Kidder is allowing for us to read is not restrained. Kidder does not follow any formal writing convention, as on multiple occasions he would not use proper grammar, left out punctuation and would sometimes leave scrambled letters that would need to be unscrambled to find out the true meaning. The other answer to this question is yes, Ishmael’s Art is being restrained. Ishmael did not trust the police to find his daughter’s killer and took into his own hand. Kidder may or may not have kidnapped a man who he believed may or may not have raped and killed his daughter. Kidder kidnapped this man and referred to him only as Art. Art is physically restrained in Kidder’s basement, where he psychologically torments him. The very idea that we can discuss both Ishmael’s art, and Art in Ishmael’s basement, brings me back to the idea of Thomas Jefferson stating, “ never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration”. Jefferson’s racism allows readers to reflect on The Water Cure as a powerful rebuttal to such a narrow-mindset. It is through this lens we see the complexities of Kidder’s narrative, allowing for Everett to challenge this idea of  “plain narration” and is able to reflect on this ever growing fractal of the African American Experience.

 Everett challenges the reader’s morals by attempting to justify this torture of Art. We are never certain if Art committed this crime of raping and killing Ishmael’s daughter. The uncertainty surrounding Art leads readers to question whether such extreme measures are ever justified.  Everett mentions George W. Bush multiple through this text and when I began to think and make connections, it reminded me of Guantanamo Bay. This is a place where people suspected of committing terrorism, were detained without trial and subjected to interrogation. The idea that people justify the mistreatment of others on the basis that it is for the safety of the majority follows the same flawed logic that Ishmael uses to justify the possible kidnapping of this man. This idea connects me back to Thomas Jefferson’s plain narration quote, the idea that African Americans were incapable of complex thought and expression. If someone is able to put a label on an entire race of people, then one might also be able to justify the torture of a man who might have committed a crime.  Jefferson’s quote represents a historical seed shape of a racist ideology that dismisses the intellectual and moral capacities of African Americans. The Water Cure builds upon the concept of seed shapes building onto the ever-growing fractal of the African American Experience. The combination of many different seed shapes coming together. Serves as a real-life reflection that allows readers to peer into this world created by Everett allowing readers to connect and understand why these ideas are in the novel.

Core Essay

The elements of stratification, racism, and oppression at every level are vital parts of N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy, The Broken Earth. Throughout the novel, Jemisin works strategically to racialize characters and institutions, and this effort goes hand in hand with creating a parallel between her novel series and real life. An essential part of my Lithosphere Essay was the Fulcrum and how young Orogenes are raised to think about themselves. Most are taken from their birth homes immediately, and raised alongside other orogenes with Guardians leading them and ensuring they do no harm. They are taught to believe they’re dangerous, not human, terrible things and they are fully aware most people want them dead. Rather than knowing this is a flaw of the stills, they believe they are at fault for the way people hate them in the Stillness. While I still believe that is an essential part of the process of racialization in the novel, after reading the whole trilogy I realize that Syl Anagist has a lot to do with the way the world turned out at the end of the series.

The Fulcrum is in place to keep Orogenes oppressed, however, it was not the original institution. In fact, The Fulcrum came from an even bigger institution of oppression- Syl Anagist. In this civilization, rather than Orogenes, Tuners are the target of the systemic hatred we see in the first two books. They seem to face an even more harsh lifestyle than the one we read about before. One example is when Houwha, a tuner, goes on a field-trip outside of his usual living quarters with the rest of his tuner friends. Then they get a chance to see Kelenli’s home, in comparison to their own. “Nothing is hard and nothing is bare and I have never thought before that the chamber I live in is a prison cell, but now for the first time I do.” (Jemisin, 202.) Houwha has Kelenli to thank for his realization that he’s having in this chapter, for it is her resistance that is allowing her to share this information with the other tuners. Without this sneaky revolt that takes place during the Syl Anagist chapters, the Tuners might have never learned that information on their own- and that’s how Syl Anagist wanted it.

A parallel between present-Stillness and the past-Syl Anagist are the node maintainers and the briar patch. In The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, a vital component of these novels are the node maintainers. Nodes are defined as “The network of Imperially maintained stations placed throughout the Stillness in order to reduce or quell seismic events. Due to the relative rarity of Fulcrum-trained orogenes, nodes are primarily clustered in the Equatorials.” (Jemisin, 410) This official definition, however, leaves out the living, prisoner orogene part of the nodes. In each node, there is a 4-10 ringer orogene who is only able to quell earthquakes, nothing else. This is slavery and a terrible practice, but what is shocking is that it didn’t start in the Stillness. 

It started before the Stillness, and before the Shattering (the event that resulted in the Stillness.) In Syl Anagist, we learn about the Niess, the original users of magic, and how they were conquered and treated by those of Syl Anagist. “So when Niess magic proved more efficient than Sylanagistine, even though the Niess did not use it as a weapon… This is what Kelenli told us.” (Jemisin, 210) Here, what Syl Anagist did to the Niess is hard even for Houwha to recount. The discriminatory behavior and oppression of this group of people resulted in the creation of tuners, which Houwha describes as “the carefully engineered and denatured remnants of the Niess, have sessapinae far more complex than those of ordinary people.” (Jemisin, 211) Sound familiar? Orogenes! Jemisin’s display of history repeating itself through this flashback strengthens the core of her trilogy, which is showing the parallels between the treatment of orogenes/tuners to the treatment of underrepresented communities in real life, specifically the black community. 

During Essun’s lifetime in The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, orogenes at this point are one of the few things keeping stills alive. They quell shakes and minimize damage done to comms, yet when an orogene is found, most comm members want to kill them rather than send them to the Fulcrum where they can be trained for their benefit. This treatment of orogenes is normalized due to the fact that Tuners in Syl Anagist were considered not human. “This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.” (Jemisin, 210) This dehumanization of Tuners translates to the time represented in The Fifth Season, where Orogenes do not believe they are human, period. There is not a single thought in their brain that says maybe I am human, because of the years and years of oppression and forcing Orogenes to grow up in the Fulcrum. There is a parallel here to real life in regards to slavery in America before 1865. Slaves were treated inhumanely and suffered oppression, injustice, and torture at the systemic level and everything under it. This was normalized at the time, as white people claimed themselves to be “elite,” similarly to how the people of Syl Anagist claimed to be “elite” as opposed to the Niess. 

We can see similar after effects of these instances of slavery and injustice on both sides. In the case of the Broken Earth Trilogy, the end of the series does not bring equality and peace to the Stillness. Orogenes will have to fight to be seen as human, (if they don’t choose to annihilate all the stills with the absence of Guardians…) and there will always be stubborn, ignorant people to call them slurs and remind them of a time when it was okay to do so. Even to this day in 2024, minorities still experience racism, oppression, and injustice in their everyday life. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy really puts into perspective what it was and still is like for these groups of people who have been enslaved or exploited in the past.

“Personal Growth and Racialization: Insights from ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy’ and Beyond”

       In the context of our course, racialization refers to the process of imbuing individuals or entities with racial characteristics by categorizing and marginalizing people based on race. Racialization highlights the role of shaping different power dynamics and perpetuating inequalities within a society, all of which can be connected to the real world as well as The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. In this Trilogy, a world full of racial and hierarchical/political tensions is depicted in many instances. Racialization is a very real concept that warrants careful attention and analysis in the context of this course and its teachings. My opinion from the start of this course up until now has not changed in all honesty, however for the purpose of this essay I will elaborate more as my Lithosphere essay was geared towards more factual ideologies in relation to contemporary events as opposed to how I personally feel about the topic. 

         When the concept of racialization was first presented in class I certainly could agree with the importance in “talking about it” for educational purposes and ensuring proper understanding of a topic that plays an influential role in the U.S. As a conservative thinker, dominantly based on my religious beliefs and the words of God in the bible, I believe that the emphasis on racialization not only undermines merit-based principles but also feeds resentment among people who believe themselves to be unfairly targeted. Excessive attention to racialization overly intensifies divisions in society as well as fostering a victim mentality among certain groups which is why minority groups often struggle so much to make societal gains. One example of this can be seen in the treatment of orogenes, who are marginalized and discriminated against due to their inherent abilities. Throughout the trilogy, orogenes are subjected to prejudice and fear from non-oregene society members, leading to their ostracization and mistreatment. This continuous formation perpetuates a victim mentality among orogenes, who struggle to make societal gains due to the barriers imposed upon them. Circulating back to the first book at the very beginning, there was a quote that really stood out and even in this essay still speaks to me, “This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all, People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say, ‘the world has ended’, it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine” (The Fifth Season, pg. 14). This goes to show how history always repeats itself, continuously, and as I mentioned in my Lithosphere essay, nothing changes unless something changes, unfortunately this is not the case and the barriers keep coming back because the society cannot seem to keep moving forward, instead the characters in the novel live in the past, common to how real-life society works. We take two steps forward and five steps back until changes are made that set the pace to perpetuate society forward enough to make a long-lasting difference.

In the real world, just as characters in the trilogy suffer due to racialization, real-world individuals face prejudice based on their race or ethnicity especially in regard to the workforce and employment. Treating people differently based on race is unjust; as a society we have made monumental gains so that all humans, both male, female, as well as any race have equal opportunity for employment. Recognizing the value of every individual regardless of their background and promoting empathy towards all is crucial in dismantling oppressive systems and fostering a more equitable society. The bible says, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free” (Galatians 3:26-28). This verse emphasizes the unity in all believers regardless of their social or cultural distinctions, which particularly speaks well to me. Suggesting that excessive focus on difference can lead to division rather than unity. 

Unfortunately, where efforts have been made to equalize opportunities for individuals of all races, a paradoxical situation has emerged where being white can now pose challenges in securing employment. While the intention behind implementing diversity quotas is to address historical inequalities and promote inclusivity, the unintended consequence is that hiring decisions are increasingly influenced by race rather than the quality of work. From firsthand experience, aiding my own friends and family in joining the workforce, as well as learning a wealth of information from my mother who migrated to the United States from Honduras and her perspective on the way things work in the world,  it has been made abundantly clear the shift towards prioritizing diversity quotas over meritocracy in the workplace. This approach undermines the principle of fairness and equal opportunity, as individuals should be evaluated based on their qualifications and capabilities rather than their racial background. Although, of course acknowledging the importance of fostering diversity and inclusivity is imperative, ensuring that those efforts do not come at the expense of merit-based hiring practices is also essential for maintaining a competitive and productive workforce and society as a whole. 

In N.K. Jemisin’s the Broken Earth Trilogy, a sanctuary named Found Moon, run by Schaffa formerly Essun’s Guardian, I believe serves as a good parallel for the current border control issue in the United States. Found Moon shelters young orogenes and prioritizes protection and control over its boundaries in order to ensure safety. The community’s strict control over its boundaries mirrors the emphasis on border security in addressing contemporary immigration concerns as well as highlighting the issues concerning balancing security with humanitarian concerns. The oregenes are a racialized group and feared because of their unwarranted powers, the people in the Stillness do not entirely understand the positive function they serve only the negative side of things. That being said the orgenes do create a lot of turmoil for the stillness as well as do unfortunately cause substantial amounts of deaths. Like the border control issue in the United States, the two sides to this draw parallels to the oregenes. A considerable number of immigrants entering the United States may include individuals with criminal intentions, while others seek sanctuary from various hardships. However, this diversity of intentions can understandably lead to some apprehension among some U.S. citizens in particular, as unfamiliarity with diverse cultures and customs can evoke feelings of uncertainty and concern, such as those members of society who were afraid of the oregenes. Granted the fear of the oregenes was warranted by the potential dangers and destruction they can cause, such as the possible dangers undocumented immigrants and immigrants in general can pose. In contemporary society an example of this which was widely spread on the news was the murder of Laken Riley, a nursing student at Augusta University in Athens, Georgia who was murdered by a migrant who “allegedly beat her so brutally with an unidentified object that he disfigured her skull” (

However, even more applicable is when the wall was being built at the edge of the Rio Grande. This was the United States way of protecting the country and controlling who was entering and leaving which is similar to Found Moon. A closer comparison can be drawn between Found Moon and the construction of the wall along Rio Grande; as a sanctuary run by Schaffa, prioritizes the protection and control of its boundaries to ensure safety for its inhabitants, particularly orogenes. Similarly, the construction of the border wall along the Rio Grande represents the United States’ attempt to safeguard its borders and regulate the flow of people entering and leaving the country. Both Found Moon and the border wall reflect efforts to assert control and security within their respective territories, within of course different contexts.

         Throughout the course, I have explored the concept of racialization and its manifestations in both functional narratives and real-world contexts. My opinions on racialization have remained unchanged since the beginning of the course. However, the course has sparked a heightened curiosity in me regarding racialization, prompting me to dig deeper into the subject and conduct further research independently. It is essential for others to also engage in independent research on racialization, exploring perspectives from both sides of the argument to foster a deeper understanding and informed discussions/interpretations.

         The themes of racialization, discrimination, and societal divisions permeate the entirety of N.K. Jemisin’s the Broken Earth Trilogy. Throughout the trilogy, the treatment of orogenes serves as a plausible example of how racialization leads to marginalization and discrimination. Much like Essun’s journey of self-discovery and growth throughout the trilogy, my engagement in the class has led to a deepening understanding of complex societal issues as well as fostering a greater appreciation for diverse perspectives. Essun, from an early age was forced to conceal her orogenic abilities out of fear and necessity by her own family, she lived a life of secrecy and isolation. Throughout the trilogy she had to navigate the complexities of her world, assuming various different names and identities, each reflecting a new “chapter” in her life. Essun also embodies the goal of many oppressed individuals in real-life by transcending the confines of society’s expectations and emerging as a force to be reckoned with when she becomes a stone eater, which shows her true strength and resilience of those who have endured and persevered against all odds.

Orogenes, due to their innate abilities, face isolation and mistreatment from non-orogene society members, mirroring real-world dynamics of oppression and prejudice experienced by marginalized groups, as seen various times in the novel. This portrayal underscores the broader themes discussed in the claims, illustrating how excessive attention to racial categorization intensifies societal divisions and perpetuates a victim mentality among marginalized communities. Overall, my experience in this course has allowed me to dive deeper into the real circumstances of the current world we live in by reading the trilogy. The connections I made helped formulate innovative ideas and perspectives that have had a positive impact on my academic and personal wealth of knowledge. I feel as though I was able to hone my analytical skills by applying abstract themes from the trilogy for instance to real-life contexts, while sharpening my ability to recognize and interpret metaphors and parallels that are being drawn. All of these factors helped me to create writing with more “flow”, complete thoughts, and statements that can be backed up. Class was geared in a direction that aided all of these aspects and I appreciate all that I learned this semester all the more for it as it will help me in the future.


Archive, View Author, et al. Migrant Charged with Laken Riley Murder Disfigured Her Skull: Affidavit. 27 Feb. 2024,

Jemisin, N K. Broken Earth Trilogy: The Fifth Season, the Obelisk Gate, the Stone Sky. New York, Orbit, 2018.

King James Version. The Holy Bible. BookRix, 9 Jan. 2019.

How the Rollercoaster Ride of Jemisin’s Setting, The Stillness, Contributes to the Reader’s Understanding

After interpreting the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemison, I was curious as to how methods of manipulation that we saw with the Guardians could apply to subjugation of race and gender. The next two installations gave us an idea of how far back the oppression of those in the land of the Stillness went. The world had been turned upside down by a season (disastrous event), and our main character Essun and her friends were left to pick up the scraps. On their journey, they encountered the challenge of survival, along with the task of learning from their history.

            The GLOBE Integrative and Applied Learning outcomes states that transformational learning, “develops through such high-impact practices as international experiences, service and community-based learning, intensive research activities, internships, advocacy, learning communities, and capstone courses and projects.” These learning endeavors are crucially important and can be related to the life of our character Tonkee. They are a researcher at Seventh University, which is the authoritative higher learning institution of the Stillness. They spend their life’s work in nature, observing the life of Essun and the movement of the obelisks. Through their research they find truths of an ancient past, and are prepared to join Essun in her quest to calm the land.

            Considering the development of these characters throughout the novels, I am beginning to see the true subject of the story as being at the core of each individual we follow. Essun must grapple with her responsibilities as a powerful person in the land of the Stillness; this land is not for her, and she must work hard to keep her spirit alive amidst a time of great struggle. She attempts many loving connections in her life, and continues to fall into them despite her apparent aversion. Altruistically, the connections she forms end up inspiring her quest to end the seasons. While she is unable to restore the balance of the moon herself, an act of sacrifice inspires her daughter Nassun to complete her task for her. Essun’s spirit is then recycled into the body of a stone eater, and she begins her new life well prepared to advance her notion of peace. Alongside her, an old friend Hoa is there to recite the wonderful stories of the Earth’s past.

            This story shows us that there are more important battles outside of a fight against oppression. To know that they are at an uphill climb from birth gives the orogenes a reason to forgive themselves for their mistakes, and with this knowledge they can move on to continue their strife. Ultimately, it will come down to their peace of mind whether or not the world advances from their actions. Nassun must be convinced by her mother’s sacrifice in order to decide against destroying the world as they know it. Hoa describes how Essun realizes that the fight has become less important than her love for her daughter. He says, “You so wanted to make a better world for Nassun. But more than anything else, you want this last child of yours to live… and so you make a choice. To keep fighting will kill you both. The only way to win, then, is not to fight anymore” (The Stone Sky). Consequently, Nassun is inspired by the sight of her mother turned to stone, smiling at Nassun with tears in her eyes. She is unable to understand how someone was able to carry on with such hope, since her life has been full of death and destruction. She realizes that her mother’s life must have been this way too, and that she carried on nonetheless. This shared struggle gives her faith that her mother understood something that she does not, and she acts in accordance with her mother’s will instead of her own.

            My thinking therefore has shifted much like Nassun’s has. I am no longer looking for something or someone to cling to, but rather find assurance in the fact that others have. All of the people who have valued love of others above all else provide the inspiration that keeps life moving on. Instead of looking for inspiration, we can look for opportunities. There is a quote by the band Yes that I think relates to orogeny and the great change in the Earth that we experience during the trilogy. It reads, “Waiting for the moment when the moment has been waiting all the time. Reaching for the golden heights without a doubt you’re ready for the climb.” This reminds me of the revolution in the Stillness that is inspired by Essun and Alabaster’s use of the obelisks. The whole time that our story is in session, the obelisks float as apparent remnants of a lost time. There is always the opportunity for them to be used to restore the balance of the Earth, and it is only a matter of time until that opportunity is seized. A lost history delays this, but as we see in our story all knowledge is recovered in time.

            Another theme that has affected me since the conclusion of the first book is the idea of an underlying energy. The intricacies of orogeny and other magic are further dealt with by Jemison. We see that an understanding of invisible forces is something that has left the land of the Stillness. Our main characters reinvigorate themselves with their exploration of this, allowing them to channel their energy into great endeavors.

            All in all, I am very impressed by Jemison’s ability to construct a deep and layered realm of the Stillness. This stands out to me in comparison with other works of science-fiction, as the depth of the setting’s frame gives it a sense of realism. This makes it very enjoyable to follow not only our character’s developments, but also the development of the Earth. As a geography student, this is something that felt particularly exciting for me to experience.

Bad Faith Decision-Making in Literature

At the beginning of this semester, I was tasked with exploring race and oppression as it pertains to the work of N.K. Jemisin. In my initial exploration (Lithosphere Essay), I asserted that Jemisin’s novel, The Fifth Season, serves as a powerful tool for exploring and understanding structural inequalities in society. By weaving themes of oppression, power, and racial hierarchy into her narrative, Jemisin prompts readers to confront uncomfortable truths about discrimination and injustice. The essay argues that while the novel is fictional, its parallels to real-world events and experiences make it a valuable lens through which to examine systemic inequalities. I also suggested that Jemisin strategically utilizes her platform as a writer to provoke critical reflection and awareness of societal issues among readers, particularly those in positions of power. As opposed to immediately unpacking my own thoughts, it was first important to lay the foundation on which any following argument could be made. It was impossible to discuss my own experiences without proving that The Broken Earth trilogy is an appropriate vehicle for such examination. Ultimately, the purpose of my “Lithosphere Essay” was to highlight the potential of literature in challenging and addressing structural inequalities so as to now analyze my thoughts that have emerged.

Originally aimed at proving the validity of its basis—that being the Broken Earth trilogy—The “Lithosphere Essay” serves as a precursor to this thought-analysis/work. Months ago, we studied legal terminology for the purpose of understanding, generally and concretely, the circumstances under which one may operate in “good faith.” In that discussion, good faith was said to require a “belief or purpose, faithful performance of duties, observance of fair dealing standards, or an absence of fraudulent intent” (Cornell Law, 2023). In essence, one who operates in good faith truly and wholeheartedly believes that their thoughts/actions are noble and good. This concept stuck with me throughout the semester, and I imagine that it will continue to follow me beyond SUNY Geneseo. I have personally implemented this thinking into my own life, evaluating my actions, thoughts, and emotions. I have concretely achieved the most rudimentary outcome of this course. It is time, however, to move beyond my own interests and understand how this concept applies to broader sociological contexts. This essay will discuss good/bad faith decision-making such that the reasoning and impact of my own personal beliefs and actions are examined, broadly, in the contexts of race, oppression, and power.

When the question was posed, I didn’t quite grasp its complexities. What is good faith? The answer seemed simple and conclusive. Law journals, educational institutions, and even blogs each have similarly fixed definitions. Based on these sources, the class settled on a good amalgamation. From this, another question arose: in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, what are some good/bad faith examples? There were obvious depictions of bad faith in The Fifth Season; within the first chapter, the audience learns that Jija has murdered his son for being an orogene—a powerful, minority race in the Broken Earth Trilogy. In agreement, we nodded our heads. But was he really making a bad faith decision? The definition that we had so meticulously created didn’t include a list of “right” and “wrong;” good faith action only required one to believe that their intentions were just. Jija truly believed that orogenes were too powerful, creating destruction and chaos. The outcome was undoubtedly appalling, but the act, according to Cornell Law, was in good faith. I became infatuated with this discussion, searching for other misleading examples in Jemisin’s work(s). I would eventually come to find that the Broken Earth trilogy has more examples of this phenomenon than non-examples.

N.K. Jemisin works diligently to fabricate a world in which race, power, and oppression are poignant topics. Although the addition of orogenic powers make for a fantastical story, the Broken Earth trilogy does well to mimic real-life issues. She also portrays several instances in which characters may or may not have been acting in good faith. Exploration of these are pertinent in understanding how the concepts of race, power, and oppression are carried out in either good or bad faith. One of the most interesting paradigms that Jemisin creates occurs in her second novel, The Obelisk Gate, however, the results of this event are not revealed until The Stone Sky. Essun, the main character, possesses orogenic powers, meaning that she can manipulate, understand, and feel the earth around her. She is now living in a community (Castrima), located inside of a geode, that accepts people like herself—orogenes. Armed with their own division of orogenes, the Renannis military attacks Castrima. Essun realizes that they are in “serious danger of being murdered” (Jemisin 2017). Orogeny on her side, Essun takes a stand, deciding, perhaps nobly, to protect Castrima. She accesses an additional source of power, an obelisk, allowing Essun to “ensnare the attackers” within the crystals of Castrima’s geode (Jemisin 2017). Now, The Stone Sky opens on Castrima’s residents travelling away from their uninhabitable geode. Essun has “saved the community of Castrima at the cost of Castrima itself” (Jemisin 2017). At the time of our good/bad faith discussion, we hadn’t yet reached this portion of the trilogy. However, as I approached this reading on my own, the discussion reemerged. Had Essun acted righteously? Sure, the blood of her community members aren’t on her hands, but now they are alive and displaced. Is this a faith worse than death? For the orogenes living within the walls of Castrima, perhaps this is still a death sentence; they are no longer a protected community member and must find new acceptance. Just as Jemisin portrays it, throughout US history, it is reckless “good faith” decision-making that has displaced and killed so many.

Post WWII, the US government searched for ways to strengthen political, social, and economic growth. Legislators first looked to major cities, deciding to rectify urban issues. These issues of course, included clearing out inner-city families, primarily those of color. In order to stop the “disease” of economic stagnation, urban centers were allowed to abolish “slums” or “ghettos.” Local municipalities would apply for federal grants that funded the acquisition of property from poor families and the land’s redevelopment. Exercising imminent domain, families were now displaced from their homes, just as those in Castrima. Although they may not have seen such sums of money, redlining and other institutional practices disallowed relocation.

This class’ exploration of good faith, through literature and history, reveals an interconnectedness that is significant in shaping human experiences. At its core, the question of what constitutes good faith serves as a lens through which we examine morality. From the fixed definitions found in law journals to the nuanced portrayals in fiction like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, we engage with the ambiguity of intentions and outcomes. The narrative of Essun’s choices in defending Castrima mirrors the real-world consequences of well-intentioned actions, prompting us to confront institutionalized injustices. Through the lens of post-WWII America, we witness how the pursuit of progress can often come at the expense of marginalized communities, echoing the themes of power, race, and oppression woven into Jemisin’s storytelling. I will certainly continue to examine and criticize my own thinking while bearing in mind the core of this class and Jemisin’s work.

The Process of Racialization in Fiction and its Reflection of the “Core” of Societal Power Imbalance

By: Stella Kahnis

When returning to my previous essay written on The Broken Earth trilogy, I focused my writing on a claim surrounding the concept of societal power and the origin of its influence. I was considering how N.K. Jemisin uses the process of racialization in The Fifth Season in order to create a fictional society with an immense power imbalance. I concluded my previous essay on the Fifth Season by quoting our mini-collaboration in class, “The Fifth Season works to reverse the false assumption that societal power is an inherently dominant force by exaggerating the idea that people instinctively condemn themselves to systems of power in society”. I made this statement in order to rationalize the observation that orogenes continue to participate in a society that discriminates against them, despite their extreme advantage in power. I recognized that without the power of orogenes, society would be too fragile to continue to thrive. This realization may have caused the Fulcrum to need power over the orogenes, but I still did not understand why the orogenes succumb to this discriminatory system when they have the power in this situation. After reading the entirety of this trilogy, I believe I have more clarity on where my original claim came from and how it differs from my thinking now. It is easy to make a claim that people condemn themselves to systems of power, but not as easy to understand why or if that is necessarily true. In this essay, I aim to discuss the unanswered questions that sparked my original claims. I will revisit and reevaluate my past claims and develop my thesis in order to understand why and how society in the stillness is able to keep control of orogenes.

Jemisin builds a detailed fictional world throughout the Broken Earth trilogy full of supernatural abilities, extreme natural disasters, and a prejudiced and discriminatory society. In the first book of the series, The Fifth Season, we meet a woman named Essun. A main character throughout the trilogy, Essun quickly becomes a prime example of an orogene who willingly lives in a society that discriminates against her. When contemplating why orogenes were staying in this society, I looked to Essun in order to understand why she followed the Fulcrum’s orders as a young woman, and later on lived in the town of Tirimo with her family. By the end of the Fifth Season, it is revealed that the three perspectives in the book, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, are all the same person at different stages of her life. Syenite is a rebellious young woman who lives in the Fulcrum and is sent on a mission with a highly esteemed orogene, Alabaster. On top of their assignment, they are tasked with having a child. By the end of their journey, they have threatened the Fulcrum by discovering an immense power source. As the Fulcrum aims to find and control them, they hide with their child in Meov. In my first essay, it was difficult to understand why Essun might choose to live in Tirimo among the people who treat orogenes with judgment and cruelty, but after piecing together Damaya and Syenite’s stories as the entirety of Essun’s past, it is easier to understand where her priorities lie as Syenite, and how that coincides with how she lives her life as Essun. Syenite and Alabaster are attacked by Guardians, another supernatural race tasked with controlling orogenes. Alabaster is killed in this fight, and Syenite is left to defend herself and their child, Corundum. When she is cornered, she panics as she contemplates the plight of not having the power to protect him while also refusing to accept the fate that the guardians would put upon him. “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him— sometimes, even we…crack. Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die” (pg. 441). Syenite makes the heartbreaking decision that the death of her baby is better than the torture and control he would be under if she had let him go. 

Knowing that this traumatic experience is a part of Essun’s past makes it easier to rationalize the fact that Syenite’s rebellion seems to directly conflict with Essun’s original desire to stay put and raise her children. Syenite was known throughout her story to rebel against the Fulcrum and its rules. In the Fifth Season, Essun is found by someone she knew as Damaya, and explains to them how she escaped the Fulcrum, “I died. That was the only way to hide from the Fulcrum. I died to get away from them, and yet I didn’t shake you.” (pg. 392). This quote shows how trapped orogenes are in this system. The only way that Essun could have children and live a life without discrimination was by faking her death and living under a new name. Syenite’s behavior translates to Essun’s life as we realize that Essun is in fact defying the Fulcrum by living in Tirimo under the alias of Essun. Further, we see that Essun’s rebellious attitude is still present in The Fifth Season, as she escapes Tirimo after her son, Uche, is killed and her daughter, Nassun, is taken. “People run out into the streets, screaming and wondering why there was no warning, and you kill any of them who are stupid or panicked enough to come near” (59). This quote not only proves that orogenes have the ability to leave this prejudiced society, but it is also a direct parallel to the death of Corundum which was a consequence of her rebellion and of Corundum’s power. The relation between her rebellious behavior and her compliance with the Fulcrum supports the realization that there is a reason why orogenes stay in this society when they have the power to leave. Living in the society that once controlled and hated her is the only way for her and her children to survive and live a comfortable life. 

Essun not only represents an orogene that complies with the Fulcrum, but she also shows us the consequence of living free from this society. When asking the question, why are orogenes continuing to live in this society? It is important to theorize as to what might happen if they were to leave. After Essun leaves Tirimo, we see these consequences- no safety, no technology, no food, and no community. Their standard of living is horrible and they constantly live on the verge of survival. Although Essun had the power to escape, she is still discriminated against in multiple encounters along her journey. We then begin to realize that without this system of power, orogenes may be free from this societal structure, but the preconceived judgements against orogenes remain for the most part. Even when Essun finds a comm that is run by orogenes, Castrima, she finds that people would rather leave the safety of a comm and risk death than coexist peacefully with orogenes. The consequences of leaving Tirimo are greatly amplified at the end of the trilogy, when she is finally reunited with her daughter, Nassun. Once Essun finally reunites with Nassun in The Stone Sky, she realizes that the trauma Nassum has gone through in her upbringing and her travels outside of Tirimo have not only completely damaged their relationship, but have irreversibly damaged Nassun. “So Nassun turns her back on you again and says, ‘Don’t follow me anymore, Mama” (pg. 376). 

These are the consequences that Essun looked to avoid by staying hidden in this society and not attempting to overthrow this power. I can imagine that many orogenes also feared the violence and damage that would be caused by setting off this societal structure. This can be related to our society because many people who have the power to make change may be afraid of the damage that would be caused by refusing to live in an oppressive society. The Fulcrum may have known that because they had a disadvantage in power, they needed to create a codependent society where the orogenes gained something from their comms or society while society gained the benefits of orogenic power. The Fulcrum balances out orogenic power with societal power because they know that they rely on the help of orogenes, but decided the only way to gain the help of orogenes was to discriminate against them so they could not survive without the help of society. Although the stillness was controlled by an oppressive society, everyone had some measure of safety from seasons and quakes. Although orogenes were treated poorly, they still worked with the Fulcrum in order to ensure their own safety and the safety of the stillness. In the Syl Anagist chapters in The Stone Sky, we can see how Hoa and his friends were discriminated against and treated as inhuman as well. This codependent society is the reason Essun stays for so long. She wants to protect her children and she knows that the only way powerful orogenes will be safe is by following the Fulcrum’s orders or disguising their identities. What I failed to realize in my Lithosphere essay is that powerful people are not always condemned simply by society, but by the consequences of refusing to participate in that societal structure. I think this trilogy was meant to show what happens when an oppressive society gets to a point where the consequences of dismantling it are less detrimental than the consequences of staying. The Fifth Season works to reverse the false assumption that societal power is an inherently dominant force by enforcing the idea that systems of power create codependent societies through prejudice and discrimination, thus confining beings otherwise capable of leaving.


Stella Kahnis, Lithosphere Essay, Lithosphere Essay- Stella Kahnis – Google Docs

English 111, Mini-Collaboration 1,

N.K Jemisin, The Fifth Season

N.K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

N.K Jemisin, The Stone Sky

Core Essay

Earlier this semester I was shown “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin, whom I have never heard of before. This is the first book of the “Broken Earth Trilogy” and in my opinion the most confusing of all. The more you go down the ladder of this trilogy the more it ties in with each other. These books slowly unravel real-world concepts, such as racism, discrimination, and catastrophic seismic events. “The Fifth Season” has a true definition to it “an extended winter—lasting at least six months, per Imperial designation—triggered by seismic activity or other large-scale environmental alteration” (Jemisin. 332) Similar to our harsh winters in New York, it feels as though our winters last six months, maybe not as much snow as there once was but the temperature has relevantly stayed cold. In the first book of the trilogy, we are evidently shown there is a hierarchy system diminishing certain groups’ freedom, “freedom means we get to control what we do now. No one else.” (Jemisin. 305). You are not technically free if a higher-up in power controls what you do and how you do it. I like to think Sir Little Baby has a great perspective on the real-world racism as he states, “It’s bigger than black and white, it’s a problem with the whole way of life, it can’t change overnight, but we gotta start somewhere” (The Bigger Picture). This quote points out that the issues at hand are deeply ingrained in the entire way of life and the structures of society. It’s not something that can be easily fixed overnight, but it’s crucial to start somewhere.

This trilogy takes place on a supercontinent called the stillness and in the first lithosphere essay, I expanded my thoughts on past and present America. The marginalization that happened to Japanese Americans during the time of WWII and the present with Muslim Americans and the wars in the Middle East. The main point of my first essay was to show that race is a structural relationship between real-world views to views from the book, as highlighted by the course epigraph from Geraldine Heng. Race is not about how a person acts or speaks but it is rather about how society as a whole views them. In the Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin orogenes get coined “roggas” by the stills which is a discriminatory word. “No one will demote him for anything so trivial as perversion or abuse. Not if his victim is just another orogene.” (Jemisin. 57) This quote from “The Fifth Season” suggests that in the world of the “Broken Earth” trilogy, the mistreatment or abuse of orogenes by others, even in cases of corruption or abuse, is often overlooked or dismissed. It implies that the value and rights of orogenes are diminished, and they are not given the same protections or considerations as others. The quote highlights the systemic discrimination and dehumanization that orogenes face within the society portrayed in the trilogy. I also thought about the idea of needing thick skin to not be affected by these racists. Racism will always be prevalent no matter where you go no matter how you act, and no matter how you look.

As I delved deeper into the trilogy, my thinking somewhat shifted but overall remained similar. The powerful storytelling and thought-provoking themes in the “Broken Earth” trilogy have challenged my perspectives and expanded my understanding of these issues. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the complexity of these topics and how they intersect with one another. I did not go into detail about seismic events in my “Lithosphere essay”. I was majorly focused on the racial discrimination that was prevalent throughout the entire trilogy. Now that I had some time to think and indulge deeper in the trilogy, I find more real-life connections such as Hurricane Katrina. It has been nineteen years since Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans but yet the damages are still very prevalent today. From Sarah Gibbens from the National Geographic, the damage affected “tended to be low income and African American in disproportionate numbers”. Even former President Barrack Obama stated, “What started out as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster—a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.” I am not stating that natural disasters are discriminatory but rather it is the social construct of society that has failed these people of New Orleans, and America.

The trilogy has forced me to confront the ways in which these systems of oppression are deeply ingrained in our society and how they impact individuals at their very core. The core to me is the very end of all, the core is what puts everything into place. It has made me more aware of the subtle ways in which these systems operate and the profound effects they have on people’s lives. The sameness and difference in my thinking do matter. While there may be some continuity in my understanding, the evolution of my thinking signifies growth and a deeper engagement with the themes presented in the trilogy. It shows that I am actively learning and questioning the world around me. Whether it be a fictional world or the world we live in today, I currently see myself diving deeper in the bigger matter of it all. To support my claims and insights, I can provide specific examples from the text. For instance, the character of Essun in “The Fifth Season” undergoes a transformative journey that challenges societal norms and explores the complexities of identity and power. Her experiences shed light on how racialization and class distinctions shape her world. “I don’t want you to fix it,” Alabaster says. “It was collateral damage, but Yumenes got what it deserved. No, what I want you to do, my Damaya, my Syenite, my Essun, is make it worse.” (Jemisin. 324) Alabaster expresses a desire for Essun, whom he refers to as Damaya and Syenite as well, to amplify the situation and make it even more severe. This quote showcases Alabaster’s anger and frustration with the injustices of the world they inhabit. It also reflects his belief in the power of causing disruption and chaos as a means of bringing attention to and challenging the oppressive systems in place. Overall, my journey of understanding has been shaped by the powerful storytelling and thought-provoking themes of the “Broken Earth” trilogy. It has prompted me to critically examine the systems of oppression in our own world and strive for a more inclusive and equitable society.

Hurricane Katrina facts and information (

“The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby