Palimpsest: CLICK HERE to learn more about this weird disease (just kidding, it’s just a word I didn’t know but, hey, since you’re here, read this post)

I often say that my main activity as an English major is looking up the meaning of words that I don’t know the meaning of — the other day, in doing writing for another class, I came across such a word:


Any takers on the meaning of that one? Yeah, I didn’t know it, maybe all of you do (literary theorist Paul Gilroy certainly does, let’s all give a warm round of applause to Mr. Gilroy for his contributions). 

1.  Palimpsest can first refer to writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased.

Upon reading this definition I was immediately reminded of Hoa’s statement that:

The current Tablet Three was rewritten by Sanze.  It was actually rewritten again by Sanze; it had been rewritten several times prior to that.  The original Tablet Three spoke of Syl Anagist, you see, and how the Moon was lost. This knowledge, for many reasons, has been deemed unacceptable again and again down the millenia since.  No one really wants to face the fact that the world is the way it is because some arrogant, self-absorbed people tried to put a leash on the rusting planet (Stone Sky 313).

The history of Sanze, of the Stillness, was rewritten again and again — earlier history erased, written over, written again,  omitting that which is threatening to a historical narrative which supports the oppression of orogenes as the basis of society. Of course, this concept of an omitted and rewritten history may not apply to a literal interpretation of the word palimpsest, but it is where my thoughts on all of the palimpsestic aspects —  and the connotations of social justice resulting from exploration of these layers and strata related to the exploration of the narrative inspired by the idea of a palimpsest — of Jemisin’s narrative began.

In the prologue to The Fifth Season, Hoa asks us to remember that, “much of history is unwritten.” To add a further request, I’d like you to remember that much of history is, as in the case of Tablet Three, rewritten. The omission of certain stories, concepts, ideas, and event from the wider historical narrative is meant to shape a history in order to justify the negative aspects upon which certain dominant hegemonies depend.

Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco, 1633

An example of this omission of history, and its effects, is perhaps best seen in art, especially in still lifes created around the period of European engagement in the Columbian Exchange (that artfully constructed title, built around the name of a man who did not truly “discover” the Americas, a man whose narrative has been restructured, re-worded, re-built to justify not only his actions, but the further actions of Europe throughout the Americas [yet another artfully constructed title… there seems to be a pattern, no?]).  Those abundant goods on display, inconspicuously placed packets of pepper, a half-peeled lemon, a particularly strange bird or shell all may seem a boring, typical display of wealth, until one considers the stories behind the objects in these still lifes. The pepper, the sugar, the tobacco — even those goods which are not so directly related to slave labor, such as abundant silver and gold, spices — all are meant to reflect a wealth built upon the backs — and the prices — of the enslaved. In paintings made by and for the society creating the historical narrative, however, we are not shown the violent storyof the slave trade, we see simply the results thereof, simply the glorious results of successful trading ventures.  Thus, there is a separation between the good and the labor that allowed for such a good to be present (this is especially true of the above painting, as it was created by and for the Dutch — a country which did not necessarily engage in slavery itself, but did engage in the slave trade to further trade enterprises).

This style (and other, more subtle, more sinister rewritings) of marginalization and reshaping is, however, no archaic practice simply meant to justify the past actions of a past society.  As I stated in a previous blog post, our current society exists upon foundations built by slavery, genocide and oppression; however, the effects of this violence by the dominant society continue into the present day — slavery may not exist (in the United States) in its previous form, but the continuation of our society as we know it is dependent upon oppressive structures which, while having begun in slavery, did not end with it.   We encounter aspects of — layers, divisions, accumulations of — omitted histories and marginalized narratives every day; we see it in the classroom — where, in the second grade we are taught that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed across the ocean blue into the arms of a welcoming and helpful native peoples, and where, in sixth grade, Mrs. Hopcia, in triumph and truth, ripped away the petticoats of this version of history to reveal the framework of genocide below. We even see it in the very packages delivered to our very doorsteps.  Take a look at this New York Times article on the almost unheard of shipping company called XPO. How often do you think about the process behind those books that you have overnighted to your doorstep because you forgot to order them in time for the semester?  I never really do, but that doesn’t eradicate the fact that packages such as those are packed, thousands in a day, by workers stuffed into a factory in Memphis in 100 degree weather.  In the year of our Earth 2017, a woman died of a heart attack while working in this factory, and her coworkers were forced to work around her dead body (surrounded by cones for safety, of course).  One former worker at the XPO Logistics factory relates that the conditions were akin to “modern day slavery” (stated in this episode of The Daily).  Yet, to what extent do we pay attention to these issues beneath the surface of that which arrives at our doorstep? Of course, as said, there are far more sinister omissions  and manipulations of histories — the omission of entire genocides (the Armenian genocide),  the manipulation of medicine and academia (the Tuskegee Study; social darwinism; scientific racism), the marginalization of narratives of Native peoples (through assimilation, schooling, relocation, language erasure, etc.) and so on and so on.  These types of omission are apparent in Jemisin’s created history in the experiments on the Niess (done to justify their enslavement and oppression), in the lack of funding from schools to support research into past historical narratives that would undermine the present system (see the letter to Yaetr Innnovator Dibars from Alma Innovator Dibars on Stone Sky 285-6; this aspect of omission is also present in those Seasons which are not considered Seasons simply because they did not affect the right people; this makes you consider what events we consider to be disasters that we care about); in really anything to do with the Niess there are aspects of a history once written by the Niess, subsequently erased and rewritten by Syl Anagist, erased and rewritten by the following society and the following society.  

Again and again there is the surface — the crust, per se — of what we see, of what the dominant narrative chooses to tell, written over that unseen mantle of roiling stories underneath; the processes of history cover over that which was once was, absorb it, refashion it into the mountains and valleys and volcanic eruptions of the present.  In making this metaphor, and in Jemisin’s many allusions to the expanse of the geological timeline, it is shown that historical omission is not so much a conspiracy as a nuanced process reflective of the cumulative effects of a society based in oppression and enslavement. The historical narrative, like the earth, moves slowly, developing over centuries, over generations (that is, it moves slowly… until it doesn’t).

These cumulative, layered aspects of omitted history thus lead us to the second definition of palimpsest:

2. Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface

I feel like I should first state that, of course, Jemisin’s narrative is not entirely unique in its relation to this second definition, after all (to make a generalization, as we can save debates on literary theory for some other time), is it not the purpose of most literary work to reveal, through the stories they tell, the layers beneath those subjects which they address? However, Jemisin’s narrative is unique in that it often actualizes these diverse aspects or layers through the use of geological concepts, for what possesses more obvious layers than the Earth itself?  The aspects of omitted historical narratives are just one connection to this second definition.

Take, for example, the language of the tuners — to them, the vocal language of their conductors is as the crust to the earth: functioning solely on the surface level.  As Houwha observes of Pheylen, “The conductor speaks as her kind do, in thin vibrations that only ripple the air and barely stir the ground… I still have to remind myself that hair textures and eye shapes and unique body odors each have as much meaning to them as the perturbations of the tectonic plates have to me” (Stone Sky 44).  To the tuners, truth lies not in the surface level language of the Sylanagestine, but in the strata and layers of earth below the crust; truth lies in the asthenosphere, in the mantle.  In the earth, in the underlayers and undertones of the world, they express their reality.  The narrative of the tuners is apparent to them, beneath the surface, but not apparent to the conductors; they live, plan, converse, name one another beneath the surface (Houwha states in relation to Kelenli’s name, “The new woman, the conductor says, is Kelenli.  That’s wrong too. Her name is actually deep stab, breach of clay sweetburst, soft silicate underlayer, reverberation, but I will try to remember ‘Kelenli’ when I speak” [Stone Sky 44].).  And beneath all of this there is the core of the earth, life itself, Father Earth himself — perhaps not apparent, but still present.  From the Father Earth, from this initial, first layer, stems everything: magic, the beginning, the end.

It is only through investigation, through questioning, through storytelling that those truths that might be hidden or erased in the first definition can be revealed in the layers of the second. In The Broken Earth trilogy it is the lorists who  make these diverse layers apparent and in learning that which was written before on the tablet of history spread not only the truth of survival, but spread the remnants of the history of the Niess, that founding narrative of oppression.  Houwha declares, “Only Kelenli’s children, who did not stand out, whose strength hid in plain sight, continued.  Only Lelenli’s legacy, in the form of the lorists who went from settlement to settlement warning of the coming holocaust and teaching others how to cooperate, adapt, and remember, remains of the Niess” (Stone Sky 343).   Thus, Jemisin makes clear that only through continuing and investigating (as Yaetr Innovator Dibars and Alabaster do) the narrative, in continually telling the entirety of the narrative, and not simply the sanitized narrative of the dominant society, can we begin to create a world independent of oppression.

P.S. – While exploring the idea of a palimpsest, I think it would be an oversight not to consider the repetition throughout the trilogy of the statement, “A commandment is written in stone.”  Commandments imperatives, instructions, laws, ways of life are written in stone so that they may never be erased, so that they may never themselves become a palimpsest.  However, beyond this I’ve been struggling with an exploration of this particular phrase, perhaps because this particular post is rather long.

P.P.S – As a continuation of the thought of the last paragraph, one technique through which we can today tell otherwise repressed and omitted narratives is through revisionist works; these works are often used in Black Atlantic novels such as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea – a prologue to Jane Eyre – and Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts

P.P.P.S. – Edward Said, a postcolonial critic, addresses some of these concepts (especially that of exploration of undertones/unseen narratives in analysis of economic aspects of narratives) in his essay “Jane Austen and Empire,” in which he states, “Slavery and empire are shown [in revisionary works] to have fostered the rise and consolidation of capitalism well beyond the old plantation monopolies, as well as to have been a powerful ideological system whose original connection to specific economic interests may have gone, but whose effects continued for decades.”

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