” In love, then, we shall seek understanding.”
- – N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate
Oftentimes, when I’m writing, I feel as though I’m carving something out of stone — I’m writing and writing and writing and slowly an idea emerges from the haze of dust and rock, at first realized only in rough outlines, in the hint of a general idea, and slowly, s l o w l y I polish away the hard edges. I have, truth be told, perfectionist tendencies that come into play when writing (when doing anything, really, god, you should have seen me try to play sports — practice does not make perfect when you expect yourself to be perfect on the first try) and these tendencies are most definitely not unusual, especially when many of us are released from a schooling system that incorporates in us a certain idea not only of writing (how to write, what qualifies as effective and acceptable writing) but how to work. Even now, in writing this, I feel the perfectionism — which is in turn symptomatic of both my education and my anxiety— rising up inside me, in the constant questioning (Is this good enough? Is this long enough? What will they think of this? Is this comprehensive enough? Is this good? Is it great? Is it the best it can be?) of my own work. In writing I sometimes feel trapped in my anxieties, in my thoughts, so judgemental of my own self, my own art, my own individual stories; I am caught in a spiral constantly folding in on itself as I question and question and question.
But writing this essay has been different. I wrote the first sentence of this essay thinking that it is an empty sentiment, just a filler until I think of a better, actual idea — until the others I am working with say that they can relate. Maybe it is due to the simple need for validation that this assurance lifts a weight off my shoulders. But we continue and continue, until I am scribbling haphazard ideas onto a whiteboard and suddenly I mentally stumble upon a realization and snap to look at Sabrina, who has had a realization in her own work at the same time — we trip over ourselves to excitedly relate the ideas to one another and Jonah, who is pasting post-it notes onto the wall (Sabrina and I hogged the whiteboards), and we reassure one another, revel with one another, build on each other’s ideas, relate our own work, study and experience to something that someone else has said. Thus, my work, and their work, begins to reflect not only our own personal thoughts but in including the influences and thoughts, and thus the experiences and insights and lives, of others, our writing is a conglomerate: the melding of our own individual pieces and stories to draw together a wider truth. This idea of multiple individual voices not only influencing but showing through your work is, in anthropology, called polyvocality — a word appearing in my work because Jonah Goldstein related it to me, as due to his own individual experience he was able to put a name to a concept I had been dancing around. Therein lies an overt influence of other voices, other individual experiences on my work. Thus, foundational to historical context, foundational to issues of social justice are individuals and their stories, thus in storytelling, in relating our own individual stories (and by “our own” I am referring both to our own interpretations in class, but also referring to a far more general “our,” one relating to every individual) we bring necessary perspective and subjectivity to the historical context and reveal perspectives previously omitted by the dominant narrative. It is thus our individual stories, and the interplay and influence between all of our individual stories, that we chisel out the wider truth of history.
We sit in our typical circle in class, holding the chunky tablet of paper that encompasses The Fifth Season, all of us admittedly enormously confused by the first pages we have read. The narrator was erratic, flipping from narrative to narrative, from third-person omniscient to the second person limited of Essun, to the occasional and unexpected first person of the Interludes. We do not realize yet that this story is not told by a detached omniscient narrator, but rather told by a subjective, single (though admittedly unnaturally powerful and immortal) person. As I discuss in the blog post Ex-Machina or That Which Was Formerly Machine that Hoa is most certainly a person is important in acknowledging that the narrative itself is one of an oppressed person whose story would not have been told — is in fact not told — by the society founded upon the oppression of the truth of his own narrative. In fact, it is only through the relation of his own individual narrative that any one person can come to understand the full context of history — he is thus (one) of the keys, the onyx cabochon, to a wider understanding. The overarching construction of Hoa’s narrative throughout Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy not only reveals but is arguably premised upon the idea that relating history through individual perspective allows for a comprehensive relation of history. Slowly, s l o w l y, as Jemisin carves out more and more of her story, we realize that the story we are reading is, in fact, Hoa narrating Essun’s own story to her, so that in her immortality, so that moving forward in creating a better world together she will have a full conception of herself. Hoa tells Essun (you, us), “I have told you this story, primed what remains of you, to retain as much as possible of who you were… It’s just what you need to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going. Do you understand?” (Stone Sky 397). Only in understanding all of her personal history will Essun have the full truth and a full understanding of herself; otherwise she may simply become like Alabaster, or Hoa himself, with a pumice memory full of holes. Further, in creating a narrative wherein Hoa’s narration is composed of the melding of this own life and Essun’s life, Jemisin emphasizes that it is only through the interplay of stories and experiences that the wider of truth behind one life — both his own and Essun’s — can be found.
To give Essun the requisite full understanding of her origins of self and the wider societal context, Hoa composes her history through the melding of personal and societal histories, thus the societal changes, the issues of social justice, the oppression and its effects all are framed through the view of Essun (this melding can be seen as early as the prologue in The Fifth Season, wherein Hoa, the as of yet unknown narrator, notes in his relation of the beginning, “First, a personal ending… But you need context. Let’s try the ending again, writ continentally” .). In telling the story of the world not only to Essun, but through Essun, Hoa relates how Essun’s history is shaped by the wider historical context, how it relates to the wider context and relates issues of social justice through her experience. It is only through the relation of all of her stories, all of her selves, the story of how she as an oppressed person experiences and is affected by the wider system that through her individual stories we see and relate to this oppression and her own omitted histories (by both self and society — that is, she omits her own history as Syenite, but the Fulcrum omits her history as Damaya).. However, this layered narrative is far from simplistic in that Essun’s narrative is first related through a split narration — as I explored in my blog post Split Self: Essun’s Identities (and My Own Procrastination) Essun views herself as three different people (Essun, Syenite, Damaya), but in the end, as Hoa tells the stories of each of these different iterations of self, it is only in the acknowledgment of the stories of each of these selves, and the further acknowledgement that each of these selves are truly components of her wider identity and sense of self that Essun (Syenite, Damaya) can move forward; as Hoa puts it (as said above), “You need to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going. Do you understand?” It is thus only through understanding her polyvocality of self, in acknowledging the melding of her own seemingly disparate experiences into one wider identity that Essun is able to forge her own story and move toward melding her own story into the wider history.
Jemisin’s narrative is challenging in that it weaves together so many different viewpoints and histories all through the context and stories of not only Essun and Hoa, but through multiple points of view, such as those of Nassun and Schaffa; this thus acknowledges that Essun’s story is only one component of a wider web of interconnected stories and selves. This is first relevant to the narration because while Essun’s individual narrative reveals the effects and influences of the society, she cannot possibly know or be a part of every portion of the story. Additionally, and more relevant to the idea of polyvocality, these other narratives influence and interplay with her own and build and interact with her own to create the wider context in which the overall narrative takes place. In relating the story through multiple points of view, Hoa further acknowledges the futility of objectivity in historical narratives and acknowledges the polyvocality of stories and histories. Further, in acknowledging these narratives roles as a part of not only Essun’s story, but of Essun’s overall identity, Hoa acknowledge that we as individuals are polyvocal — composed as much by the stories of those we love and hate and teach and are taught by and oppress and are oppressed by as by our own individual experiences. As Hoa states in the beginning of The Obelisk Gate, “Hmm. No, I’m telling this wrong. After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being” (1).
It is only through this narrative tapestry of multiple voices, through the melding of multiple individual stories in order to reveal the all-encompassing story — to reveal all those narratives and stories which were formerly oppressed within the dominant narrative — that Jemisin’s narrative is able to work toward social justice; that is, just as Essun was only able to grow stronger through reclaiming all of her identities (Stone Sky 128), so too is the narrative only able to achieve change through the revelation and acceptance of all aspects of the story. That it is only through acknowledging the relevance of formerly oppressed stories within our own histories that a society can move forward is something I also explore in my blog post Slavery Broke the World, wherein I begin a journey toward acknowledging the truth in Toni Morrison’s sentiment that our society is built upon slavery. Thus, it is only through beginning to acknowledge this truth, in beginning to acknowledge those oppressed histories and stories whose silence the current repressive hegemony depends upon that we can create a more just society (in fact this is a theme I further build upon in my post on the world Palimpsest).
Yet, this concept of polyvocality (or perhaps, the acknowledgment thereof), though taken from the study of anthropology, is not as present in our contemporary society as is necessary. There are so many oppressed narratives, so many repressed stories and omitted histories with which some of us may never become familiar. However, it is only in acknowledging the existence, the relevance, the absolute necessity of these other individual narratives to our own and to the overall narrative that we can even begin to conceive of this wider narrative. This idea was first actualized me to me when I read (admittedly, had to read, for my Humanities course) Roger Rosenblatt’s “The World is a Thriving Slaughterhouse,” a deeply emotional exploration of the documents he has remaining from his time as a war journalist (it is an article I humbly request you consider to be supplemental reading to this essay, though you certainly don’t have to read it now). Rosenblatt muses on the nature of war and violence, coming to no resolution, through exploration and relation of these seemingly irrelevant individual stories. He thus relates social justice issues, contemplates the relevance and meaning of these issues not within the wider historical context, but through the lens of the individuals whose stories, whose lives, deaths, traumas, microcosms were told to him. In this article, Rosenblatt embodies the idea that in the end, at the foundation of all of our structural and social and economic and political and hegemonic and on and on and on are the individuals actually affected by these issues. In this sense, he too, like Hoa, relates that while the wider context is important, we cannot lose track of the individual. This point really, really hit home for me when another student who had read the article commented on how they thought Rosenblatt had committed an oversight in not relating the wider context of these traumas. I legitimately felt a wave of unexpected anger rise up in me in response to this judgment, because this critique, in my view entirely missed the point of Rosenblatt’s profound exploration of the individual impacts of societal trauma. It is in the very act of not subsuming these individual stories under the wider context that Rosenblatt reveals the absolute necessity of listening to the individual story in order to understand that there are more experiences weaved into the wider tapestry of history than our own.
This concept, this importance of both individual stories and the relevance of the melding together of these individual stories — and, in turn, the effects of not telling or melding these individual stories — became further actualized to me through New York Times journalist Tyler Hicks’ photos of Amal Houssein, a starving Yemeni girl. Amal is — was — one of many Yemeni people suffering due to Saudi Arabia’s acts of war (a gentle way of saying, bombings, killings, thousands of civilians dead — only one country in many, one place among thousands where gross injustices occur every day). *** Note: I am not inserting this photo directly into this post, because personally, I find it to be profoundly affecting and indeed deeply disturbing; I would most definitely suggest you look at the photo here, but if you feel that it would be too disturbing please do not feel the need.*** The photo, the relation of this individual story, focused many people’s attention on the crisis in Yemen. However, the fact that it takes a shock such as this, takes a starving girl, a child who will die a week after this photo is taken, to shock us into awareness of individual stories and experiences of people beyond our initial social awareness is, to me, horrifying. The truth is, of course, that we are not directly affected by this crisis, and are thus able to simply be caught up in the general context of the crisis — able to only attention to the wider strokes of Jamal Khashoggi’s death and our relationship to Saudi Arabia and the fact that we need oil (in fact, our dependence on petroleum leading to or relating to issues of social justice is also explored in my blog post, Utopetroleum). In being unfamiliar with the personal stories within this crisis we are both demonstrating and perpetuating the oppression of such individuals. Thus, the fact that our own personal stories as individuals are foundational and necessary to the relation of history and to the relation of issues of social justice is reflected in the oppression of certain stories, and in fact the perpetuating and creation of certain myths to oppress certain groups. I can live in peace only because I am not exposed to or have the ability to ignore such repressed stories.
So now. Back to our regularly scheduled programming, i.e. me.
But also you.
And together, us.
Our blog posts, our writing throughout this semester, including these essays, serve as a microcosm of the way in which we relate to and explore the wider context of history. In our exploration of our own relation to Jemisin’s narrative, in building upon our own experience (which is inherently polyvocal, inherently palimpsestic) and relating our own experience and interconnecting it with that of others in the course, we participate in creating a wider narrative, a wider body of work and history of our collective experience.
And yet… is it even a microcosm? If, in the end, as is the point of putting our collected, interacting, ever-building works online, our work becomes accessible to the wider conversation, to the wider world, then we are truly, actually placing our own narratives (or at least a piece of them) within the wider narrative. In beginning this journey on writing, we are able to actualize the relevance of our stories within the wider narrative and actualize the relevance of other stories within our own narratives.
I wrote as the epigraph of this essay: “In love, then, we shall seek understanding.” The full statement is:
“You know of Nassun, and she is part of you, but you cannot be Nassun… and I think we have established by now that you do not know her as well as you think. (Ah, but no parent does, with any child.) Another has the task of encompassing Nassun’s existence. But you love her, and that means that some part of me cannot help but do the same. In love, then, we shall seek understanding” (Obelisk Gate 181).
In beginning to understand and acknowledge that other people’s stories are important to us, are part of our own stories we begin to possess not only the understanding, but the empathy, and not to be a complete cheeseball, but the love necessary to move forward with one another. As much as we understand one another and are a part of one another we cannot become one another, but our interaction with one another, our understanding of our own interconnectedness allows us to begin to carve our own individual narratives, and, with the help — the chisels and tools and ideas and stone — of others, to carve our wider narrative and context.
So I suppose that this class has taught me this:
LOVE IN ROCK.
(And not to be entirely meta, but I can only make that comment because of its positioning within our wider mutual narrative. Because of the individual understanding and individual interpretation of our wider narrative.)
P.S. – That this history is living and constantly changing, and that it lasts for millenium and continues forever only relates more to the idea that in carving history, we carve out living statuary.