What Stillness Society Understands About Puberty Ceremonies That We Do Not

Life in the Stillness is flawed. Deeply flawed. As Hoa informs us, it has been so for a long time. Yet when it comes to raising children, there is something they get right: they have puberty ceremonies. This summer, I borrowed Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young from the Brooklyn Public Library. In the book, which is a compilation of speeches, Vonnegut, ever the fan of speaking at colleges, points out the ritual’s absence in modern American society–in his 1998 commencement address at Rice University, he said of the event, “This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown men and women — what you were biologically by the age of fifteen or so. I am sorry as I can be that it took so long and cost so much for you to at last receive licenses as grownups.” Jemisin, in her immaculate, historically inspired world-building, informs us that comms in the Stillness have these ceremonies which we lack.

As anthropologists Alister C. Munthali and Eliya M. Zulu affirm in their paper, “The Timing and role of Initiation Rites in Preparing Young People for Adolescence and Responsible Sexual and Reproductive Behavior in Malawi,” these rituals serve to “[mark] the transition from one critical stage of life to another,” helping to eliminate ambiguity of one’s purpose in society, and to facilitate a sense of belonging. Even in the Fulcrum, that most heinous institution, there is the first ring test which serves as a puberty ceremony. When Schaffa tells Damaya that it is time for her to go “to one of the crucibles, and…face the first ring test,” Damaya knows that upon passing she will be able to “[pick] a rogga name,” signaling to others that she is officially engaged in training for a career in orogeny.

In the glossary at the back of each book in the Broken Earth series, under “Comm Name,” it reads, “The third name borne by most citizens, indicating their comm allegiance and rights. This name is generally bestowed at puberty as a coming-of-age, indicating that a person has been deemed a valuable member of the community” (The Stone Sky 407, or a wherever Appendix 2 is located in the other books). This endows each person in a comm with a sense of belonging, a crucial comfort in a dangerous, unpredictable world. This psychological support, built directly into the culture, is significant beyond its immediate validating, solidarity-building effects. Vonnegut goes so far as to “suggest…that the withholding of a puberty ceremony from young males in our society is a scheme, devised cunningly but subconsciously, to make those males eager to go to war, no matter how terrible or unjust a war may be.” Comms in the Stillness may ruthlessly attack each other, as Rennanis does to Castrima, but ultimately this seems to be a utilitarian response to crisis (mercy during Seasons is not recommended by the Stonelore); they do not seem to wage war without reason. Perhaps a simple little ritual, one that we have largely forgotten, gave the people of the Stillness that crucial bit of resistance to demagoguery. Perhaps.

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