After reading through some feedback from Dr. McCoy on my first few blog posts, I have decided to go back through those previous blog posts to sift through and think about some of the things that I had begun to put together, but never revisited after the initial post. It was great to look back at the first posts I made to reflect on all the little, yet equally important things, that have happened throughout the course of The Fifth Season, as well as The Obelisk Gate.
What I would really like to focus in on a bit is the development and change we see in Essun’s character between The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate. Specifically, her negative self-esteem and self-worth is something worth noting. In my Optical Illusions post, I touched upon the shifting between identities that Essun experiences throughout The Fifth Season, and how this shift between three different, separate identities can represent a continuous growth of maturity in Damaya/Syenite/Essun’s character. Essun is able to change and grow stronger-both physically and mentally- while remaining in her current identity once she is introduced to a new society where she is not (for the most part) discriminated against.
When Essun left Tirimo, she was driven by fear and anger regarding the death of her son and the disappearance of her daughter and husband. Everything she did, including the instances where she used orogeny, all circled back to this. She wasn’t living for herself, she was living for the sake of her family. She wasn’t doing orogeny for the sake of understanding it and improving herself, but rather, for helping her daughter to understand and conceal it, and for protection. This power she had, despite her growing accuracy and increasing abilities, was still something that came with a lot of self-hatred. “Rogga” was still a derogative, hateful term for her, and presumably for everyone around her. Essun is aware (for the most part) of the power that she possesses, but until she finds a place where “rogga” is no longer a slur, she treats herself and her abilities with as little respect and admiration as the term suggests. Additionally, in her lessons with Alabaster her own self-esteem and confidence is very much lacking. She becomes frustrated with Alabaster, often attributing her struggles with being able to understand and perform orogeny to Alabaster’s lack of teaching ability.
Essun despises what she is, and everything that comes with having the term “rogga” following her around in every aspect of her life. However, when she arrives in Castrima is when this begins to change; an orogene is in charge, and not just of other orogenes, but of all different types of people. Stills live alongside orogenes, and orogenes contribute to the society just as effectively and relevantly as every one else. For the first time, Essun found a place where she didn’t have to hide who and what she is or be ashamed of it. She wasn’t being treated as a lesser person just because of a physical difference. She was even given a position of power and high respect. In this environment, we see Essun start to engage in orogeny more: for herself, for Alabaster, and for the sake of learning and trying to understand more because she wants to, not because she is being forced to. She notes how she keeps forgetting that she only ended up in Castrima because of her search for Nassun, yet she still stays. Granted, a Season is upon them, however there is a clear shift in Essun’s self-esteem and self-worth when she is in Castrima. I can see why she subconsciously wouldn’t want to leave!
Jemisin instills a lack of self-confidence and a presence of self-hatred in Essun, that doesn’t seem to improve until she integrates into the society of Castrima, where she is for the most part accepted and valued for who she is. I realized that this can be related to the low self-esteem that African Americans may experience in our own society.
When I began to do some digging about racism directed towards minority groups and how this can affect self-esteem, I came across a film by Kiri Davis, A Girl Like Me. Kiri Davis is a student from Harlem who recreated the famous doll experiment of the 1940’s by psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark. For those of you who may not be familiar with Clark’s doll experiment, it entailed asking black children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The dolls were the same except for their skin color but most children thought the white doll was nicer. Davis’s documentary “reinforces the popular belief that African Americans internalize, or come to believe, the negative stereotypes directed against them, and thus suffer from low self-esteem”. This was an interesting find that related to the self-hate I kept noting in Essun.
After finding this film, I then came across an article by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, that addressed the struggle with self-esteem that minority students faced in the classroom. I believe that pieces of this article can relate to Essun’s (Syenite at the time) struggle to learn and benefit from Alabaster’s lessons. A piece of the article touches upon how stigmatization can be self-protective: “If you are a minority student, for example, and you get negative feedback on an assignment or test, you can blame the outcome on yourself, or you can blame the negative outcome on discrimination. If you choose to do the latter, it’s possible to actually protect your self-esteem, and not let the negative outcome affect you”. I thought that this was a very intriguing point, and felt it in a way applied to what I touched upon earlier about Essun blaming her struggles and failures on Alabaster’s poor teaching skills in order to make an effort to protect her self-esteem.
Seeing how Essun has grown as a character and has learned to embrace who she is- every part of who she is- has been a very rewarding experience in working through this series. Being able to relate this initial struggle with self-worth and eventual growth in Essun to real-world occurrences dealing with the same properties has opened a new door of appreciation for Jemisin’s work for me, and hopefully for you too!