Towards the beginning of this spring semester at SUNY Geneseo I created my first blog post discussing N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, from her series The Broken Earth Trilogy. In this blog post I discussed which of Jemisin’s uses of geological concepts I found most interesting and or challenging. At the time my understanding of the first novel of the trilogy was that it suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated and even created by impartial geographical circumstances. This was an overarching understanding of the entire novel. I explained how, time and time again, the story presents the reader with scenarios that demonstrate that, in a sense, justice is a luxury that comes secondary to survival. I then cited examples of this being the case. I noted the fact that the Stillness uses Orogenic child slaves in the Nodes in order to quell shakes that might harm or kill the larger communities. I also noted that the pirates of Meov have to steal and kill to survive due to the fact that their island is not fit for growing crops, or breeding cattle. This was a fairly pessimistic outlook on the novel and the future of the series as a whole. Although I was confident in these doom and gloom ideas, even as recently as the beginning of writing this post, I have had to meaningfully reflect on whether I believe these ideas are entirely true after reading the rest of The Broken Earth Trilogy. I do still believe that I was hitting at a grain of truth when I wrote these ideas, but I do think that they need to be more nuanced. I will begin with how these ideas have in some ways remained true over the course of the semester and then examine how they have evolved.
The Broken Earth Trilogy does in some ways still ask the reader to examine how geography and geographical events can cause or exacerbate injustice as I originally theorized. This is something that my peers and I noted in our collaborative blog post titled “Haiti’s Cyclical Suffering”. In this post we discussed how Haiti’s geographical location causes it to be hit by a recursive cycle of suffering that makes justice a luxury that is hard to come by. A history of colonialism and geographical hardship fostered gang violence, political corruption, and a near constantly unstable infrastructure. In many ways Haiti is a perfect example of the ideas that I argued The Fifth Season was presenting. The geographical location and the lack of infrastructure in Haiti fosters more injustice that harms the citizens. My peers and I argue that The Broken Earth Trilogy asks readers to examine the parallels between the fictional examples in the text of geographical injustice and the tragedies in the real world. I think that the idea I was pulling at the start of the semester remains true to this understanding that my peers discussed in the blog post. Injustice can be induced by geographical events and the frequency of those events.
That being said, there is more than just tragedy present in these horrible scenarios. Sure, there is constant suffering and injustice much like the real world, but The Broken Earth Trilogy challenges the reader to find beauty in it. The reader is presented with many examples of beauty that result from the hardship of people. There are the beautifully destructive obelisks that hold immense power, the beautiful crystal geode community of Castrima, there is the love of newfound family, love of birth family, and love of those lost. There are beautiful moments between characters, and even the trilogy as a whole represents a piece of art derived from tragedy. All of these things serve as glimmers of hope and beauty within a tragic time, and in many ways this combatted my own values. I do consider myself a realist but often I’m actually just a pessimist. I often have a hard time not giving the negatives all of my attention, so this understanding that there is beauty even in the hardest of times was very beneficial for my own mental health and personal growth. At first, when presented with this notion by my peers while writing our blog post discussing the earthquakes in Haiti, I dismissed it in my head. I thought “So what if there is some beauty to be found as a result of this tragic quake? We need to focus on how residents were harmed in Haiti and examine how people tried to help.” I closed my mind to the idea before I gave it time for consideration. This reminds me of the advice Professor McCoy gave me to slow down halfway through the semester. I believe that because we were talking about lives of real people being lost I became very absolute in my resolve that we needed to focus on the tragedy rather than the beauty that can come about. My own frantic concerns made it so I could not see that these ideas are not mutually exclusive, I was moving too fast. One can recognize the tragedy and offer aid or understanding while also being able to recognize the beauty in the resilience and artistic expression of human beings. I was encased in this exclusive mindset until my peers showed me the art that came out of Haiti after the earthquakes. After viewing the music, painting, and dance it was impossible for me to deny that beauty came out of tragedy in that case.
Once given that example, I remembered all the other tragedies that have produced beauty in their wake. The blues and soul music were an expression of pain from the disenfranchisement and enslavement of Black communities, as were many of the greatest genres of music. Rap is another one of these genres wrought from the darkness of injustice, and systematic oppression. Pray for Haiti is an album by Mach-Hommy, a Haitian-American rapper, that was released almost exactly a year ago today after the 2021 quakes in Haiti. I encountered this album while researching what art resulted from the quakes in Haiti for a collaborative blog post. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually loved the album and Mach-Hommy’s work. He raps in both English and Haitian Creole over watery, psychedelic beats, discussing his identity as a Haitian American. Finding new art that I love while also being proven misguided was an immensely rewarding learning experience.
Another way my understanding of the text evolved was through an intersectional understanding of vulnerability. Through examining the last two books of the trilogy, as a reader I was confronted with very unorthodox examples of vulnerability. I do not want to examine at length the power dynamics within the trilogy as that would be an impossibly arduous process that would go beyond the scope of this reflection. The most I will say is that power dynamics can flip in a flash. But within this world of unstable power dynamics, I also confronted my own privileges as a non-disabled person. One character named Maxixe is a double amputee who, due to his disability, cannot survive as well in the apocalyptic world presented in The Stone Sky. “ ‘Rusting look at me, Essun. Listen to the rocks in my chest. Even if your headwoman will take half a rogga, I am not going to last much longer.’ ” (Jemisin 127). While reading the final novel of the trilogy I never really considered the fact that there could be people of disability in the world created by Jemisin. This lack of consideration was a reflection of my own privilege and ignorance. The text effectively forced me to confront this lack of consideration and consider how I can apply a more empathetic worldview in my own life. I never considered how people with disabilities have to deal with tragedy. I began to ask myself questions like how do people who use a wheelchair deal with floods or rubble? My previous understanding of what the text is trying to say about geography in relation to justice has evolved with this new element of intersectionality.
All in all my understanding of the text that I stated in the beginning of the semester has changed, but not really in the sense that my original thought was wrong, but that it was simply incomplete. It failed to recognize the duality of all things in our world. With the pain comes the bliss, with evil there is good, and with destruction comes beauty because people have no other choice but to make it so. We are made for enduring, we are made for surviving hardships, we are made to take care of our most vulnerable. It is through what my Education courses call SEL or Social Emotional Learning that my understanding of our course text has changed. I now recognize that there is a yin to every yang, and that through empathizing with others we may gain insights into that fact. If I had been more empathetic with my peer’s perspective, and with the perspective of those going through hardship I may have not been so quick to dismiss ideas that challenged my own. These skills in slowing down and starting from a place of empathy rather than asserting my own opinions would have also helped me be more conscious of how people with disabilities might have to deal with tragedy. I am certainly not proud that I needed to learn this lesson, but I am proud of the person I am as a result of it. I considered myself an empathetic person before this course, but this subject matter forced me to confront the fact that this was not entirely true. Now I am more aware of the fact that even my most logically correct opinions cannot be completely true if they do not come from a place of empathy.