A couple of weeks ago I found myself pondering Essun’s decision to kill Corundum, and what that meant in terms of a mother’s love. I wrote that “Her decision to kill her son is out of love for Corundum, who she knows is better off dead than having his mind and body enslaved for his whole life. While most see maternal instinct as caring for and showering children with affection, Essun’s maternal instinct in this dire situation leads her to do the right thing for her son.” I thought that a mother’s love did not necessarily have to be about affection, but that maternal instinct can manifest itself in other forms. Dr. McCoy commented on my post with a reference to my addressing Toni Morrison’s work, in which she mentioned that “you will find a great deal of her [Morrison’s] fiction questions that narrow definition of love as overt performances of affection. As your anticipating of naysayers indicates, there’s a lot of cultural investment in that definition. I wonder what you’ll find in Jemisin.” As we have begun The Obelisk Gate, I have begun to find many places in which Essun’s actions reveal how parental love is not always about displaying affection.
Nassun thinks about her mother’s process of teaching her how to control her orogeny, narrating, “That had been Mama’s command, along with all the others: Don’t reach, don’t ice… Endless commands. Endless displeasure. Occasionally the slap of ice in threat, the slap of a hand, the sickening inversion of Nassun’s torus, the jerk of a hand on her upper arm. Mama has said occasionally that she loves Nassun, but Nassun has never seen any proof of it” (Jemisin 77-78). I think that Nassun is too young to understand the love that is behind her mother’s actions. No child likes to be reprimanded, but Essun knows that this is necessary in order to teach Nassun to control her orogeny before she is discovered by the rest of her comm. If Nassun did not learn to control it, she may have been discovered just as Uche was, and Uche ended up dead at the hands of her father. Nassun resents her mother for not giving her “proof” of her love, but I believe once she is older she will realize that her mother only treated her like this because she thought it was necessary to preserve Nassun’s life. Essun had to give Nassun tough love, or she would not have become skilled enough to hide who she was from her comm.
Nassun compares her mother’s cold commands to her father’s displays of love, thinking, “Not like Daddy, who gives her knapped stone kirkhusa to play with or a first aid kit for her runny-sack because Nassun is a Resistant like her mama. Daddy, who takes her fishing at Tirika Creek on days when he doesn’t have commissions to fulfill” (78). Essun’s way of showing love is much different than Jija’s, who coddles Nassun and devotes time to having fun with her. This difference in parenting styles makes Nassun question whether her mother loves her. However, her mother is merely desperately concerned for her safety, and only has time to teach her how to survive. When Nassun is taken by Schaffa, he explains to her that her “training was substantially accelerated,” to which Nassun responds that her mother “said there wasn’t time to teach [her] the gentle way, and anyway [she] was too strong” (153). I think this shows Essun has a strong love for her daughter, but it manifests itself in a desperate desire to teach her to control her orogeny before she is discovered, which Nassun is too young to understand. I believe that when Nassun is older, she will realize the sacrifices her mother made to enable her to survive in the Stillness.
I also think that Essun is also unable to show affection because she grew up without it, betrayed by her family when they gave her away to a child-buyer. Essun has only ever received love from Schaffa, which may be part of the reason she does not show Essun affection. Essun was taken by Schaffa at a very young age, and the love she experienced from him was complicated. In The Fifth Season, Schaffa broke Essun’s hand (when she was a child called Damaya), and immediately following it, told her “I love you” (Jemisin 99). Essun was very confused, because she knew she was being subjected to torture, but also felt that he was the only person who truly loved her. In The Obelisk Gate, she breaks Nassun’s hand just as Schaffa broke hers, which suggests that Essun’s cold love is also a product of her imitating the only love she has ever experienced. Essun did not experience love from her birth parents, who thought of her as a monster. She shows Nassun the only parental love she has ever known, which was when she was a child named Damaya, raised by a Guardian who inflicted pain on her in order to teach her cruel lessons.
Finally, on my post about Essun’s love for Corundum, I wondered, “Is Essun cruel and inhumane for killing her own child to save him from a life of enslavement? Or does her act merely reveal an understanding of the toll that slavery takes on human lives and an attempt at saving her child from it?” Dr. McCoy suggested that maybe this question was not about “either/or,” making me wonder if the answer to my question (“or”) could really be “both.” I now believe that both statements are correct: Essun is cruel and inhumane but her act reveals an understanding of the toll of slavery and a desperate, loving desire to save her child from it. I think that Essun shows this in The Obelisk Gate. She thinks about her murder of Corundum and narrates, “what you felt in that moment was a kind of cold, monstrous love. A determination to make sure your son’s life remained the beautiful, wholesome thing that it had been up to that day, even if it meant you had to end his life early” (Jemisin 105). In Essun’s acknowledgement that her murder was a reflection of “cold, monstrous love,” she shows that an act can be both cruel and loving, and that love can manifest itself in the form of cruelty. Her situation of enslavement causes her maternal instincts to often be directed towards inflicting pain: whether it is killing her son to protect him from a lifetime of miserable oppression, or denying her daughter affection in lieu of teaching her in order to protect her from being discovered and killed by other Stills.