You Are Your Own Person

I believe that one of the most unfair parts of life, considering both reality and the world that resides in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, is generalization and the misleading, overarching idea that one individual can represent others as long as both parties can be remotely categorized into the same group. In the prologue of The Fifth Season, in reference to who I am assuming is Father Earth and a stone eater (because it does not explicitly say), it says, “She often treats him as though he represents his whole species. He does the same to her.” (The Fifth Season, 6) This line sets the scene quite well for the rest of the trilogy, because it emphasizes a very real and unfortunate phenomenon that is visible in both the way orogenes and other minorities are treated in The Stillness as well as how minorities are sometimes treated in our own society.

I would like to take a paragraph or so to shine a spotlight on a good friend of mine here at school who is Muslim. He is, of course, much more than this single superficial label, but for the sake of this post, I must demonstrate how varying numbers of other people choose to see him solely based on this. Despite the welcoming and friendly nature of the people in our area, my friend and I have had discussions about how, because of his minority status, he sometimes feels as if he must act like a perfect member of society every single day, or risk labeling himself and, by default, every other Muslim, as something undesirable. This struck me as especially unfair, because he was basically conveying to me that he feels as if he is never allowed to have an “off” day — maybe a day when he does not feel like socializing as much, or a day when he is too tired to smile. And why is this? Likely because some people perhaps have not had exposure to people of different religions or races. With this limited experience with diversity combined with misleading media, after an all too banal exchange or the absence of a smile, some people might tend to then label both my friend and all Muslims as unkind or rude, and consequently associate them with qualities they do not embody, even going so far as to treat them as such. I have been trying to understand what it feels like to be a minority in such a predominantly white area of the country, and Jemisin’s work ties in beautifully.

In The Stone Sky, the introduction of perspectives from Syl Anagist shed light on the ill treatment of stone eaters and orogenes since their creation. Stone eaters were purposefully created to be different, and orogenes were created as a sort of subset of stone eaters. Both “species” were created in order to have someone to commonly hate. Yet, because Kelenli was the first orogene, she became the standard, the “control”, as she frequently refers to herself, to which all other orogenes would be compared. Not only that, but Kelenli was judged more harshly for her mistakes, qualities that made her human. In The Stone Sky, she relayed to Houwha and the rest of the young stone eaters, “And so my every achievement was counted a Sylanagistine success, while my every failure or display of poor behavior was seen as proof of genetic degeneracy.” (Jemisin 207) This is problematic because of the successive unrealistic expectations of how minorities must act all the time, especially in comparison to the majority.

Even earlier in the trilogy, in The Fifth Season, there is a scene in which the deputy governor of Allia is incredibly rude to Syenite and Alabaster, presumably because she has made generalizations about how they would act, although her apparent superiority is also likely a contributor. Alabaster challenges her rudeness in a bit of a confrontational way and, although many of us readers were excited in the moment when he was standing up for himself and Syenite, his mannerisms, tone, and general handling of the situation might have made an impression on this woman forever that could not be undone. At one point in the conversation, Alabaster daringly, yet politely, retorts, “So the least you could do is first offer us some hospitality, and then introduce us to the man who made us travel several hundred miles to solve your little problem. That’s courtesy, yes? That’s how officials of note are generally treated. Wouldn’t you agree?” (Jemisin 158-159) In the future, if the deputy governor had not most likely died in the accident soon to follow, a very real concern might have been whether or not this woman would assume that all orogenes are as “rude” and confrontational as Alabaster had been, and treat them as such, before they have even done anything to deserve such treatment. A major challenge in such a situation for the person being attacked is to respond with nothing but love. One article titled “All Muslims Are Terrorists!: What should you do if you are a victim of Islamophobic bullying?” discusses the obstacles of dealing with an attack like this from a Muslim point of view, a people marginalized in our present society arguably just as much as orogenes and stone eaters are marginalized in The Broken Earth trilogy. It offers examples of situations one might be faced with and how to effectively deal with these types of aggressive people in order to avoid conflict, although this is easier said than done. The article implores those struggling with situations like these to take the Islamic Prophet Mohammad’s advice: “’You should not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you should deal with them with forgiveness and kindness.’”

The more we make generalizations about each other, the more we treat each other as less than human, the more those on the receiving end actually feel like less than human. In The Fifth Season, a line that I have gone back to from one of Essun’s chapters says, “For tonight, however, you can manage to be human for a little while.” (Jemisin 82) Now that I have finished the series, this line carries much more meaning because it is coming from the narrator, who we eventually figure out is Hoa. This ironic line is coming from a minority, one marginalized “species” in The Stillness to another, which makes it all the more powerful.

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