Beauty is Pain

By Sarah Bracy, Lauren Ngo, & Jose Romero

The first line of our blog post, “Starting Over After the End of the World” reads, “With pain there is beauty…” and now that we have finished reading The Stone Sky and have learned about Syl Anagist, we realize this line carries a much deeper meaning. We now know that Syl Anagist was built on the pain and suffering of stone eaters (at that time called tuners), who were treated as less than humans because they were created to emulate the Niess people, for whom the people of Syl Anagist had a deep distrust and hate. We were originally led to imagine Syl Anagist as a beautiful utopia, an unattainable ideal that everyone needs to work towards. But Jemisin soon revealed to us that the breathtaking Syl Anagist was only so beautiful because its people gleaned power from Father Earth without a second thought. In The Stone Sky, Hoa says at one point that these Sylanagistines used the magic that came from Father Earth because they believed he had no feelings — in short, they assumed he had no humanity.

The Niess are another example of a painful past. This people’s true name is actually the Thniess, but because of a lack of cultural understanding and sensitivity, the people inhabiting the rest of Jemisin’s world eventually simplified it to Niess because they could not pronounce Thniess. These individuals were targeted because they looked different from everyone else. The Niess attempted to assimilate to the rest of the culture, but were dehumanized to the point where they were taken as prisoners and studied by the rest of the world, as others worked to find palpable, physical and intellectual differences that would separate the Niess from the rest of the population to no avail. When the Niess finally stopped being targeted for their unique appearance, the rest of the population still needed someone, anyone to discriminate against and dehumanize. This is when they created the stone eaters and the orogenes. With the beauty of a Niess descendent in the modern Stillness forever comes a reminder of the pain these people had to go through for seemingly no reason at all.

As we also now know, Jemisin gained inspiration for Syl Anagist in part from Solarpunk. Solarpunk, as defined by, is “a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question ‘what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?” Through Solarpunk, we are able to depict a sustainable future that is resisting our present society and focusing on more radical societal changes. This is seen as a utopian society, one where technologies and better practices exist. Sustainability is a major theme in Solarpunk through its incorporation of renewable energy, urban agriculture, organic architecture/design, and more. Some examples of applications include a city that has towering vertical gardens, sidewalks that use kinetic energy of those walking, and even art formed solar  panels (Tumblr User- @brazenbotany).

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Syl Anagist is quite a befitting example of the facade of Solarpunk-esque sustainable beauty. It is a spectacular civilization, alive with magic and brimming with lush and blossoming flora, but then we find out that the power for Syl Anagist is actually siphoned from Father Earth, channeled through stone eaters. The Sylanagistines did not believe that Father Earth or the stone eaters, or tuners at the time, could be human at all, that they could have thoughts and feelings. The Sylanagistines disregarded stone eaters’ suffering for their own selfish reasons, and did not even consider those of Father Earth. Does remembering what has enabled Syl Anagist’s beauty to blossom in the first place take away from its beauty? We would argue that, unless some kind of hero or heroine has made a willing sacrifice, which can in itself be a different kind of beauty, it is more selfish than anything to make beauty out of others’ pain. If the Sylanagistines had discovered who rather than what powered their great habitance, would it have been considered selfish if they continued to live there with this knowledge? We believe that ignoring the pain others went through in order to create such sustainable beauty is taking a step backward. In The Stone Sky, Kelenli says, “Syl Anagist is based on delusions, and we are the product of lies.” (Jemisin 212) The stone eaters felt marginalized by the words and actions of the Sylanagistines, and this is clear from not only this quote, but from the entirety of Kelenli’s lesson to the stone eaters, including Houwha (Hoa). We must constantly strive to take steps towards positive change, and this means remembering suffering so that we can show others that it was not in vain. Ignoring history can create problems, like future, possibly problematic, misinterpretations. In The Stone Sky, Houwha says, “By our existence we glorify the world that made us, like any statue or scepter or other precious object.” (Jemisin 50). This shows how the stone eaters sometimes felt like a symbol of their own oppression. We must remember the past to prevent history from repeating itself.

We can relate Syl Anagist to the modern US because here, in order to meet our own sustainability standards, we make many efforts to recycle. However, many people either do not care or are not aware of where this waste is going. Many of us do not see the waste on a daily basis and have to deal with it, so we adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of attitude. E-waste, for example, is a growing issue with no viable solution in sight. Many people who have good intentions of recycling do not know that much of our e-waste ends up getting shipped to countries such as China and Nigeria, to name a few, who cannot get rid of it. This toxic e-waste then collects, and when locals attempt to recycle this waste informally, often for money because these areas are devastatingly impoverished, their health is adversely affected. For example, blood tests taken on children living near e-waste sites have higher levels of toxic metals than those of children living in outlying areas. We see the same thing in Syl Anagist; wealthier countries like the United States and various European countries dump their recycling in developing countries where impoverished people do not have the wealth or the infrastructure to advocate for themselves, and these people suffer because of it, whereas the Sylangistines harm stone eaters knowingly and Father Earth as well, not stopping to think that they are sentient beings with feelings, just like everybody else.

Beauty created from pain does not last, because whoever has to bear this pain cannot do so indefinitely. The evidence can be seen throughout history. When we look back in time, we see that countries that built their wealth and “beauty” through the pain and suffering of other people did not last. For instance, during the 16th century, the Spanish empire was in the midst of its golden age, peaking economically and culturally. However, this was happening at the same time as European countries were colonizing in the New World and Spain had established Potosí Silver Mines. These mines allowed Spain to become the richest empire at the time, but it came with a price, costing thousands of indigenous people who were forced to work under dangerous conditions their health and even their lives, in some cases.

Even today we can see people benefiting from the pain of others. Human history is no stranger to using the pain and suffering of others in order to benefit themselves. Jemisin seems to be commentating on this lingering problem in society today. So, next time you’re out and about, perhaps at a museum, analyzing a work of art as beautiful as Solarpunk, think to yourself, upon whose pain was this beautiful masterpiece built?

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