Having read the entire Broken Earth trilogy, I’ve sometimes found myself frustrated at my constant preference and subsequent deference to its first installment, The Fifth Season. I first read The Fifth Season in the second semester of my sophomore year and studied it in isolation with no previous knowledge of N.K. Jemisin, her other works, or the trilogy, and no real intention to read beyond the first required book. But when searching for more English courses to take over the winter, Jemisin’s name alongside the lofty themes of “Justice” and “Love” intrigued me. I was eager to explore The Fifth Season and its younger siblings beyond a quick, sweeping read, and to see where Damaya, Syenite, Essun, and, of course, all of them turn out. This fact seems trivial now — that the three perspectives were really one all along, unified under the collective mindset of an older Essun; but the ingenious spectacle of this narrative decision, one that subverts expectations regarding character, perspective, and fantastical tropes, never evaded me. And though I do feel a bit naive or shallow-minded for having such an urge to return to the basics of a trilogy that quite literally explores the Earth’s depths, this is, after all, a self-reflective project, and my reflections always seem to lead back to Essun. My thoughts on the trilogy began with The Fifth Season, but they do not end with it (although I maintain that the novel does works just fine as a standalone given its excellent craft), and I will thus rely on this foundational text to explore aspects of identity, namely — what it means to identify as a black woman, how trauma creates identity fissures, and how perspective and identity are deeply-intertwined.
II. Essun the Epicenter
One fundamental question that seems worth addressing is why Essun? She is the trilogy’s de facto protagonist, but that isn’t necessarily why her story seems so fundamental to me. To start, Essun reflects the long-held mantra that the personal is political. In a 2015 blog post, Jemisin reflected upon a dream that eventually birthed the entire trilogy: I had a dream of a woman doing a Badass Power Walk towards me, with a mountain floating along behind her. I knew she was about my age — early forties, that is — and I could see that she wore dredlocs as I do, but it was very clear in the dream that she was not me.” Though I do not intend to assert that Jemisin crafted an entire trilogy fraught with ideas about expansive issues, namely justice and love, solely because she dreamt of a woman who looks just like her, I do think there is value in shared experiences, especially among marginalized identities. Jemisin frequently discusses the noxious effects of simply existing as a black woman in the workplace, in literary circles, online, and even as a fictional character. She feared — nay, knew — that readers would generally not take kindly to Essun: “in a society drenched in historical bigotries, a character who is brown-skinned and dredlocked and described as physically imposing and who is too old and ‘flabby’ to be sexually interesting to a lot of readers,” Jemisin reflected in a post on her blog written in 2015, “…I expected people to hate Essun.” To remedy this, she broke Essun into three — Essun herself, Damaya, and Syenite. In Jemisin’s words, “I suspected readers would find it easier to relate to an innocent child in a horrific situation, and a snarky, frustrated young woman journeying across a strange land with an irritating companion… even though these were literally the same person as Essun.” Employing and ultimately subverting standards of science fiction and fantasy, Jemisin pulls the ultimate rug out from under readers, who, necessarily existing within “a society drenched in historical bigotries” were not ready to simply like Essun — the abrasive, brash, disaster-prone, and yet ultimately sympathetic crux of the entire trilogy.
And for better or for worse, Essun is the crux — the epicenter. Jemisin’s authorial choices frequently mirror geological events which are, I suppose, my collective choice of “geological event” within this reflection. I found it difficult to pick just one aspect of the sweeping trilogy and its many magic and Earth-wielders, but Jemisin’s craft (particularly with Essun) is a geological hand in itself. Through Essun, Jemisin cleaves one identity into three and, as I will argue, perhaps even more. She subsequently classifies these identities — sometimes with overt geological references, sometimes not — into distinct, yet unified pieces of one unexpected heroine.
III. Fissures Galore
We are first introduced to Essun as, well, Essun, during a moment of intense stress through a second-person perspective: “You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember? The woman whose son is dead” (Jemisin 15). This first fissure through Essun — the hardened woman experiencing yet another trauma (though, to new readers, this is but the first) — represents, among many things, the stress of a broken familial unit as the death of Uche cracks the familiar familial foundation, one typically rooted in the strict real-world gender binary: protective father, caretaking mother, and children. When father turns from caretaker to murder, children from protected to dead and missing, and mother from caretaker to without anything to care for, these notions are entirely dismantled right off the bat, making for an instantly subversive identity through Essun. Furthermore, although Essun is the bearer of this horrid trauma, she is the more physically powerful party compared to her husband, a non-orogene. And although this aspect of her identity makes her more powerful in the purely physical sense, it also makes her powerless without this essential family unit, since orogenes are viewed under such negative societal connotations. More than just a source of rigidity, the typical familial unit was Essun’s protection from other aspects of her identity that put her in direct danger.
As for Damaya, this is Essun at her most vulnerable — in a state of girlhood, bombarded with the trauma of abandonment and the continued abuse of a male caretaker. As Syenite, Essun is a stubborn young woman, resistant to common notions of sexuality and fierce with ambition — the picture of a “Strong Female Character,” a trope Jemisin herself has had some gripes with. The latter two perspectives are the only instances in which readers gain insight into Essun’s actual thoughts; this may be a purposeful decision on Jemisin’s part — to strip her primary character of her own narrative voice, relying instead on Hoa throughout the entirety of the later two installments, and providing insight into her thoughts only when they exist firmly within the past. I think, though, that this decision may have been primarily narrative. After Jemisin successfully stirred and repaired the intentional fissures within Essun, she “hoped that by the time people twigged to the fact that they were all one woman, [she] could effectively “cash in” on the empathic capital built by the younger versions of Essun, and transfer it to the her,” she could then expand the world of the Stillness; this did not mean leaving Esssun behind, but it did mean leaving behind the voices of her past selves — though neither Damaya nor Syenite go forgotten throughout the remainder of the trilogy, thanks largely to the continued development of Schaffa and Alabaster.
As the subsequent novels garner new perspectives, I found myself missing the simplicity of three perspectives united under one woman. I thought that the initial narrative trick was deft beyond belief, although like any great plot twist, upon rereading The Fifth Season I saw it coming from the very first line. But still, there was something so intimate about exploring the psyche of one woman, and losing the familiar collective voice of the three Essuns took some getting used to. However, upon further reflection, I realized that these fissured perspectives never really went away, although they no longer appeared so overtly as Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Rather, Hoa’s perspective offered a new identity in itself — one that rarely gave insight into Essun’s thoughts, particularly on the matter of his budding and overwhelming love for her. When Essun ultimately becomes a Stone Eater, this amounts to a new fissure. Even Nassun herself — angry as she is, and rightfully so — acts as an Essun of sorts, equally powerful, stubborn, and, of course, directly descended from her mother. Though Essun loses her narrative agency, her foundation continues to crack as stressors become less personal and more global.
IV. Ground Swell
In his poem “Ground Swell,” a title which references the geological phenomenon of a “long-period group of waves created by a distant storm system over long distances,” poet Mark Jarman notes his consistent returning to his younger self as the subject of his poems: “Yes, I can write about a lot of things / Besides the summer that I turned sixteen. / But that’s my ground swell. I must start / Where things began to happen and I knew it.” Essun is Jemisin’s ground swell. As the trilogy extends beyond Essun and her younger selves, the stakes grow higher by the page. Questions of morality, just treatment, and civic responsibility grow massive to the point of becoming overwhelming — but each of these sweeping questions started with one woman conjured by a dream. As I tore through the Broken Earth trilogy, I often missed the unity of three perspectives woven into one woman. But I recognize that the broader questions at hand — ideas which made me think of the political implications of living among nature, the responsibility of the group to care about the individual, etc. — would not be possible without an epicenter that eventually cracked into many, many different identities. Finally, I do not wish to suggest that trauma is in any way a positive thing. Although the stress and trauma Essun endures through every stage of her identity are crucial in exploring many of the trilogy’s themes, it goes without saying that she, like any other human being, should not have to go through any bit of what she did and that she did go through terrible events of neglect, abuse, and discrimination because of outward, unjust social forces.
However, it would be naive to instead assert that trauma does nothing. The photo I’ve attached shows an ancient geological fissure that ultimately healed itself over many, many years; like trauma to the Earth, the trauma that people endure and the subsequent changes in their identity are not necessarily “for the better,” but they can lead to change and, ultimately, renewal.