Freedom in Resistance: Ykka

Upon finishing The Fifth Season, I was confused about a lot of plot points. A lot of the characters jumbled together in my head and I felt like I was missing things. I felt as if there was just too much in Jemisin’s fictional world for me to take in in one reading, and wondered if I should reread the book. Pressed for time just like any college student, I debated whether or not I should do so. However, I went home for fall break resigned to reread, and I’m so glad I did, because I feel as if I gained a completely new, fuller understanding of the book. This inspired me to circle back to my previous blog posts, to my peers’ blog posts, and to Professor McCoy’s comments. I wanted to see if there was anything I had been unable to make strong connections to, that I now feel I have something new to say about. I’d like to tie in points from all three of these: Professor McCoy pointed me to similarities in Michee’s post about philosophical differences between Essun and Ykka to my post about those between Essun and Alabaster, and asked what points Jemisin is making about freedom and resistance through the differences in their attitudes towards their place in life (as orogenes in a highly oppressive society). In addition, in my first blog post, I had written about the self-hatred orogenes displayed as they called themselves “roggas.” Professor McCoy asked about the possibility not only of this slur reflecting self-hatred, but revealing an opportunity for “reclamation” of the word. I think that by discussing Ykka’s character, I can address both of these points.

Michee points out how Ykka and Essun’s views on orogeny differ because Essun has spent her entire life controlled by her oppressor, while Ykka has managed to find a different way to survive as an orogene in society, becoming the leader of the non-Fulcrum regulated lodging place, Castrima. Ykka points out how people in the Stillness are “stupid” about “the usefulness of orogenes,” to which Essun replies that people are not stupid about it anymore, and that “Everyone understands perfectly well how to use us” (Jemisin 333). Michee quotes Ykka’s reply:  “Fulcrum trained? The ones who survive it always seem to sound like you” (333). Ykka acknowledges the brainwashing that Essun has been subjected to growing up in the Fulcrum. Although Essun certainly displays an awareness that the treatment she is subjected to is not right, her response to Ykka reveals that it is second-nature for her to believe that orogenes should be “used” by the Fulcrum. Meanwhile, Ykka reacts with, “Well. Now you’ll see how much more we’re capable of when we’re willing” (333). Ykka leads a completely different way of life for orogenes in Castrima, where they are respected, and their “curse” is actually a gift: the geode, where they and stills live and coexist, runs on orogenic power. Essun immediately notices the difference this power makes in Ykka. She narrates, “There’s something in her face, though, that makes you flinch a little. You’re not sure what it is. She’s grinning, showing all her teeth; her gaze is steady, neither welcoming nor uneasy. It’s the steadiness that you recognize, finally, from seeing it a few times before: confidence. That kind of utter, unflinching embrace of self is common in stills, but you weren’t expecting to see it here. Because she’s a rogga, of course” (267). Essun is shocked and taken aback by Ykka’s confidence: she cannot believe that a rogga could possess this level of comfort and self-assurance. Essun often sees these qualities in stills, but never in an orogene. Ykka’s resistance is quiet, but it is strong: she defies her world’s subjugation of orogenes by leading an underground geode community that is (at least so far) successful while the rest of the Stillness is experiencing the end of the world. In her geode, orogenes are essential to the function of the community, but they are not being “used” for survival. They are leaders who are respected and enjoy full human rights. Therefore, they find freedom in resistance.

I think Ykka’s freedom and confidence allow her to reclaim the slur “rogga.” When Essun meets her, she introduces herself as “Ykka Rogga Castrima,” and Essun is shocked. She thinks “You use this word all the time, but hearing it like this, as a use name, emphasizes its vulgarity. Naming yourself rogga is like naming yourself pile of shit. It’s a slap in the face. It’s a statement—of what, you can’t tell” (Jemisin 268). Essun’s immediate reaction to this is an indication that she has not yet found freedom in her society. I think that Ykka is able to embrace the slur as a part of her identity, while Essun finds herself repulsed by the idea that this could be a “use name.” While Essun “can’t tell” what “statement” Ykka is trying to make, I believe that her statement is clear: she is reclaiming the word “rogga” in resistance to the subjugation of orogenes by other humans in the Stillness. Ykka is empowered by the slur, which she proudly wears in her name because her position as an orogene, or rogga, puts her in charge of her community and allows the geode in which all its members live in to function.

Ykka’s reclaiming of the slur “rogga” reminds me of how black people have reclaimed the slur “n****.” For centuries in our world, the n-word was used to degrade black people. However, over the past fifty years, the word has become increasingly used by black people in an effort to reclaim it. I think this effort is most visible to me through hip-hop culture: as someone who listens to and enjoys rap and hip-hop music, I notice the n-word repeatedly used by black musicians in their lyrics. In an opinion piece by a Bowdoin College student, Osa Fasehun writes, “Many rappers claim to have taken the power out of the N-word, dropping the hard ‘R’ and transforming the slur into a term of endearment for black people who share a history of oppression in an anti-black society.” I believe that this reclaiming is very similar to Ykka’s use of “rogga” as her use name. She attempts to remove the power of the word “rogga” to degrade orogenes, and instead uses it to denote endearment towards and solidarity with other orogenes who experience oppression by the stills.

Side note: I’ve noticed that the use of the n-word in music has definitely caused issues in cases where white people sing along and do not omit the n-word from the lyrics of songs. The first case that comes to my mind is when a white fan was called out by Kendrick Lamar for using the n-word while onstage at his concert. It is different for an in-group to say the word in an effort to reclaim it as opposed to an out-group, and it still unacceptable for white people to use this word even when repeating song lyrics. I’ve had many uncomfortable experiences where I have noticed white peers using the word when singing along to music and have had others, or myself have to correct them.

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