During class discussion on Friday, I noticed that I put all of the characters introduced in The Fifth Season into purely human racial groups based on my own sub-conscience assessment of earthly characteristics. While this did not appear to me as a big problem at first, I later realized that by doing that I was taking away from the uniqueness that Jemisin was trying to display in assigning character traits that were abnormal for the ordinary human, but relatable enough that they could be imagined. By thinking of the characters simply in terms of black and white, I completely ignored their other traits that Jemisin specifically placed to explain their abilities.
In Jemisin’s blog post she explains the reasons that she assigned specific traits to each character, for example when speaking about the Sanzeds equatorial group she says “Their skin is a shade of bronze-brown that can both handle intense equatorial sunlight during normal years and still produce sufficient vitamin D during Seasons.” This description makes me think of not just humanly brown skin belonging to someone of African-descent, but rather a rich bronze tone, glowing skin type that is humanly recognizable, however unique in a way that it has properties in relation to the Sun. This property is important because of the context of the book. A season is supposed to be something that most people are unable to survive, so by applying this skin characteristic to the Sanzed people, Jemisin is giving them an advantage and a distinguished role in the story.
The stone eaters are another group that I overlooked the properties of. In class we talked about the reason that when we think of a statuesque figure, our default is to consider the ancient greek statues, that to our knowledge, were white stone. It is interesting to consider that although greek sculptures in museum exhibits today are displayed to be made of white stone, these statues did not originate as white. The True Colors of greek statues were faded out over time through light damage, but often included a tanner skin complexion and colorful design patterns.
I am better able to picture a description of Jemisin’s characters like Hoa, and Antimony after looking at the African statues created by sculptor Charles Henri Joseph Cordier. The African Venus is a perfect depiction of what a stone figure could look like with ethnic differences than that of ancient Greek art. This discrepancy seems small but can make up all the difference in the story. The porcelain skin of the stone eaters is now not only a descriptive measure, but applies to the underlying social statement that Jemisin is making about diversity in her books. In her blog post she states “Everyone else in the Stillness is of a racial phenotype that we would be able to identify, though sometimes with add-ons (like icewhite eyes) that might confuse us.” She uses a humanly platform to introduce diversity into the Stillness but applies distinguishable traits, making each group unique in look and ability. It is for this reason I find it important to remember the traits assigned by Jemisin and avoid drawing sub-conscience assumptions.
It is especially interesting to note that we read in black and white. Even when character traits are described by the author, we as readers still apply our implicit thought processes to assess the traits that we are comfortable with or find suit for the book. This makes me pose the question of when I started reading and thinking like this? Did I always apply a default race description to the books that I’ve read, or is it a fairly recent assessment. Either way, Jemisin provides a detailed description of all characters, like Alabaster for example who she clearly states to have dark skin, but yet I somewhere along in the reading I still resort back to my mental default of him being a white male. For what reason, I am still unsure.
I wonder how problematic this default racial barrier is when developing young minds. I am not positive, however I do have reason to believe that my lack of exposure to diversity in books is the reason that I apply a default white phenotype to all characters that I imagine. Luckily, Jemisin has opened my eyes to this misconception of all characters having one race, and now moving forward I am able to pay close attention to the details of the characters and the way that their characteristics relate to their abilities and positions in the power structure of Jemisin’s works.