Function of Second Person Chapters

In The Fifth Season, Jemisin uses the unusual literary technique of second person point of view in her chapters focusing on Essun. Essun is an orogene on a journey to find her daughter, who has been kidnapped by her husband after he murders her son. At first, I found the second person point of view to be off-putting: the only other time I can remember encountering it was when reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series when I was in middle school, and I never enjoyed those books. However, after the first few pages of the first chapter I began to appreciate the use of a second person narrator. I think the obvious function of the “you” is to emphasize Essun’s dissociation from herself after the trauma of finding her son’s dead body and realization that her daughter is missing. The chapter begins with “You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember? The woman whose son is dead” (Jemisin 15). With this opening line, the reader immediately feels Essun’s disconnection with her own body, while at the same time forming a connection with Essun’s feelings. The use of “you” in a sense places the reader in Essun’s body while she is detached from her own. The reader feels Essun’s trancelike, traumatized state as Jemisin writes, “You sleep a long time. At one point you wake… You puzzle over this, then feel the imminence of thought and have to fight, fight, fight, to stay in the soft warm silence of thoughtlessness” (18). In the days following her son’s death, Essun is capable of doing little more than sleeping and suppressing her thoughts. Jemisin’s use of second person becomes a powerful tool to allow the reader to experience and empathize with her suffering.

Aside from this function of second-person narration, I believe that Jemisin’s use of “you” relates to the prevalent theme of self-hatred rooted in oppression throughout the book so far. Essun experiences self-hatred resulting from her society’s rigid caste system that places her as a subservient outcast. After her loss, Essun thinks “You’re still trying to decide who to be. The self you’ve been lately doesn’t make sense anymore; that woman died with Uche” (Jemisin 42). She blames herself for her son’s death, thinking “I killed Uche. By being his mother,” and she even likens herself to death: “Stupid, stupid woman. Death was always here. Death is you” (Jemisin 60). Essun hates herself for having a child, and for being the reason for his death (since she passed her trait of being an orogene, which he was killed for, to him). I think this correlates to the self-hatred that many minorities, including the black community, struggle with today, as society has internalized white-defined values of beauty that are both a result and cause of racial oppression. As Essun dissociates from her own body, it reveals not only a reaction to trauma, but that she wants to be anyone but herself because of internalized self-hatred of her existence (as an orogene). As much of The Fifth Season appears to be an allegory for racial oppression, with the enslaved orogenes representing black oppression, Essun’s self-loathing induced dissociation mirrors the struggles of the black community with their own images and standards of beauty today.

This theme is woven throughout the book, as other orogenes experience self-loathing, including Syenite as she learns more about the way her society controls and oppresses her people. She no longer wants to call herself an orogene, and chooses to use the derogatory term for one: a rogga. Jemisin writes, “‘Even two roggas—’ It’s hard to say the word, but harder to say orogene, because the more polite term now feels like a lie” (145). The term rogga immediately reminded me of “n***a,” a form of the racial slur “n****r,” and I think Syenite’s insistence on calling herself the derogatory term for her people reflects her developing self-hatred. By portraying orogenes oppressed by society and struggling with their images of themselves, Jemisin explores connections between these characters and black women today who struggle with self-loathing as a result of internalized white standards of beauty.

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