Representation in The Stillness

Representation is an interesting topic that Jemisin clearly implements within The Fifth Season. Within her writing, she makes careful note to include many otherwise ignored groups into her world, presenting these perspectives. In a genre saturated by common perspectives, this presented myself with an interesting lesson to learn of character representation.

I have long been a fan of fantasy, particularly those with deep worlds that you can easily get lost into. I find it easy to get lost in fantasy world characters, whether they exist in a novel, film, or a videogame. I always felt connected to Bilbo (The Hobbit), Jon Snow (Game of Thrones), and The Warden (Dragon Age), able to live almost vicariously in a fantastical world through their experiences. Even with strange characters whose personalities conflict mine, such as Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher), I always felt connected. I had a clear level of excitement to get lost in Jemisin’s world in The Fifth Season, to enter another world once again.

However, I found myself unable to connect with the world I was presented with, at least at first. I could not determine why, but there seemed to be a layer of separation between myself and the experience. While at first I thought it was perhaps the environment, but upon thinking about it I found that the world was one I seemed familiar with. The orogenes, Guardians, and environment all felt similar, yet fresh. I loved the world, but it took me quite a long time to connect with the main characters. 

It took quite a while for me to find a possible reason. All the characters strongly represented within the novel were women, a unique strategy employed by Jemisin. Not only this, but they represented a variety of races and ages, as explained in her blog. While some side characters were very young, such as Hoa, or old, such as Alabaster, I had no direct window to look through. No character to project myself onto in a traditional way I find myself doing with most fantasy. To be perfectly honest, no male character in which I could relate with.

When I first realized this, it even began to even irritate me. Who could I relate too? Not the mother, whose goal was to find her child. Not the rebellious woman, who spoke from a female perspective on a variety of topics, including relationships. After realizing I could not immediately and easily relate to any primary character, in a way I felt a sort of betrayal. I grew annoyed with the characters, annoyed with Jemisin who seemed to neglect providing me with a quick set of eyes to view her world through.

Later on, I stumbled upon one of Jemisin’s blog posts. Surprisingly, I found that she was a fan of fantasy role playing Games, one of my favorite genres. Through her blog, she explains her viewpoints surrounding identity, and how this effects the player.  In her postDragon Age allows the player to create their own version of “The Warden”, customizing not only how they look, but how they are viewed by the world of Dragon Age. The character not only can have a variety of appearances, but can also approach the world within it differently through these appearances. Beyond the simple surface level of gender or race, the experiences the characters (and through them, the player) go through have great importance.

Within The Fifth Season, race also plays very important roles. It is clearly present within the texts, characters that are introduced are described by Essun within the internal groups presented within the Stillness. With the first introduction of Hoa, Essun looks to describe which of these groups he could be a mix of, “his hair is ashblown-coarse, that proof texture the Sanzed value so much…  There’s a broadness to his cheekbones, an angularity to his jaw and eyes, that seems wholly alien to your eyes… Maybe his race are all this white, then, whoever they are” (111). While the race and gender are not explicitly analogous to real world reflections  (gender roles are more equal within the world) Jemisin does make it a point to present a varied amount of characters. And the races of these characters in many cases do have implications in the surrounding world.

Further, orogenes themselves create a handy way to view the Stillness from the perspective of a oppressed group. Orogenes can be born into any group, but always face stigma. This creates a method for those who normally would not experience and oppressed perspective to easily slip into those shoes.

Fantasy protagonists are written to be relatable to what is often their largest audience, young (usually white) men. This exists in a number of famous fantasy worlds, and is visible even to the classics of fantasy such as Tolkien. Often times they neglect or even ignore perspectives from other groups, preferring to field the same, safe demographics within their cast of primary characters. This is problematic in many ways, but it can be difficult to understand these frustrations if you have never experienced it.

Through the representation of characters within the Stillness, I can at a level understand frustrations of representation, at least from the perspective of the reader. While I have empathized, I have never really understood the cries for representation in many fantasy properties. However, the usage of race and gender within Jemisin’s work gave myself a window into this world, even if I was resistant at first. By being placed in a situation where the characters differed greatly in race/gender/and general perspective from myself, I widened my views of representation within the genre. I am curious if any other readers of this text experienced this.

The perspectives in Jemisin’s work have created a unique experience within the genre of fantasy. While other works do present often under represented or outsider viewpoints, Jemisin’s world does so in a clever way. I hope that more worlds such as the Stillness crop up, creating more ways to explore fantasy.

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