Injustice, power and love in The Broken Earth Trilogy: What does it all mean?

Upon finishing the trilogy The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin, it seems I am left with more questions than answers when it comes to injustice and power. While some observations I made early in the trilogy remain true, I am also forced to reexamine some of my initial thoughts I had when first introduced to the characters and their emotions. The buildup of stress and friction when it comes to societal issues is an aspect that is prominent very early on in the trilogy, and continues to be present to the end. The personal consequences for characters such as Essun, and her daughter Nassun, as well as the environmental consequences are huge and long lasting. However, I did find myself reexamining the equivocality of terms such as power and injustice as the novel continued, as well as how love ties into these two concepts. With this being said, while my stance on the negative consequences of ignoring problems in society remains very similar, Jemisin has also pushed me to reexamine the ambiguity of terms such as injustice and power.

The bleak consequences of high pressure, tension and force in a society presented in my first essay remains, both on an environmental level and individual level. I still believe that the inability to face, and thus ignore a problem, will ultimately lead to disastrous results. As stated in my first essay, an apt similarity would be the stress of plate tectonics constantly rubbing against each other underneath earth’s surface, waiting to break. This point seems even more prominent at the end of the trilogy. In order to save the earth, and end what is termed the “seasons,” a time where all are fighting for survival, the moon must be brought back into orbit. However, despite Nassun bringing back the moon, the “Stillness” (the name for the landmass the characters reside on) will still face the consequences of ignoring issues and not creating sustainable long term solutions. In essence, “Plate tectonics will be plate tectonics” and “Season like disasters will still occur.” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 393). While this fact is certainly preferable to the alternative of millions of years, the consequences are still very much real. Like so many others, Nassun remains without a home, and no longer has a family. Despite her enormous power throughout the trilogy, “she’s still just a little girl. She has to eat and sleep like every other little girl, among people if she hopes to keep eating and sleeping. People need other people to live” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky). Not only has Nassun lost her home and her family, but also her ability to be a child, which is compounded by the multiple traumas she has faced. Even her orogene, a genetic variation which allows her to control earth’s vibrations, is now gone, a huge part of what was once her identity. Perhaps it is at this moment that Nassun, like her mother, has finally reached her breaking point.

The end of the trilogy does not leave the reader with a clear conclusion, allowing them to ponder what kind of justice was achieved. While the moon is now back in orbit, and thus the seasons will eventually stop, Jemisin does not illustrate the societal effect of the characters actions. Though the guardians, the cruel gatekeepers of orgenes are all killed, such individuals are only one part of a larger societal problem. However, what about the rest of society?  What about the ideals so deeply embedded within societal norms? Individuals must make a conscious choice to make a change. Nassun doubts a change is possible stating, “They’re not going to choose anything different” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 396). Jemisin seeks to remind the reader that changing injustice requires active rather than passive action. Perhaps the latter is just one part of the answer to the question posed in my earlier essay; What happens when the system breaks? The non definite ending of the trilogy leaves room for interpretation, and in a way, reminds the reader that the need for justice is ongoing. 

After finishing the trilogy, I also found myself more closely examining the ambiguity of injustice and power. While I by no means went into this trilogy with the notion that power and injustice is black and white, with no shades of gray, I now see a much larger spectrum of possibilities. Though Alabaster destroyed the “Stillness”, he did so in the hopes of creating a better life. How much can the reader fault Alabaster for wanting to break the society that ostracized him as “the other,” in hopes of building a better future? While Essun killed her infant son, Coru, who shared her orogene gene, she did so in the hopes that he would not be subject to the horror of other children like him. The notion itself of killing a child may seem unjust, but Essun did so in the name of love and protection. If Coru would have been taken by the guardians, they would have turned “…his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom” (Jemisin The Fifth Season 441). Can the reader truly fault Essun for wanting to save her son from such suffering? While the stone eaters, characters who resemble statues, eat Alabaster and Essun when they begin to turn to stone, it is a necessary action for all involved. When looked at without taking into account the fact that such is necessary for the stone eater’s survival, the reader may say this too is unjust. However, can they be faulted when stone eaters have no control over this biological component, especially when taking into account the verbal permission from Alabaster and Essun? Moreover, who deserves the reader’s forgiveness, and how is such a conclusion determined? There is no clear cut definition, and it is ultimately up to the reader to determine who may be justified in their actions.

When discussing the ambiguity of power and injustice, I also find myself reexamining the position of love in the novel. When completing my first essay, I very much positioned power with a negative connotation; The power of one group having power over another. The dynamic and implications is certainly still relevant throughout the rest of the trilogy, as for the  orogenes,“Every season is the Season…The apocalypse that never ends” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky). However, upon the closing of the trilogy, it is also apparent that power can be seeded in love. For example, it is Nassun’s love for Schaffa, her guardian, that pushes her to initially sacrifice the rest of humankind in a desperate hope to keep him alive. Schaffa has become Nassun’s family, and as a result “…she clings to him because she has nothing else” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 382). Perhaps not the most selfless example, but a point worth noting nonetheless. It is also Essuns’ love for Nassun that drives her to sacrifice herself for her daughter. Though Essun may not have shown the physical affection Nassun yearned for during her childhood, by the end, she “…wanted to make a better world for Nassun…to live” when all her other children had died. Essun realizes there is only one solution, as “To keep fighting will kill…both” herself and her daughter, and thus “The only way to win, then, is to not fight anymore” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 385). Despite the way Essun’s traumatic past has influenced her ability to make Nassun feel loved, she will do anything to keep her daughter safe. Ultimately, the use of power, detrimental when yielded in the wrong hands, can also provide the motivation to do what is in the best interest of all.  

Overall, N.K. Jemisin has taught us the need to pay attention to building tension, and the role injustice, power and love play in a society. Power, injustice, and love are not exclusive of another, and may work together to drive actions. Furthermore, ignoring a problem only serves to perpetuate the tension and stress that is already building. Jemisin shows us that in any society, such an action will only be to the detriment of its citizens. Within the Broken Earth trilogy, society’s choice to ignore the octraszication of the “other” leads to building resentment among orogenes. When the system finally snaps, the “Stillness” is plunged into a world nearly impossible to survive. The road to fight injustice and those with unfair power can be difficult, and not as clear cut as the reader may like. Throughout the trilogy, characters act in ways that seem unjust, yet are understandable given their past trauma. What does this mean? Who do we forgive? If the actions were done in the name of love, does this change anything? It seems the end of the Broken Earth Trilogy has left me with more questions than answers as I contemplate what may be coined as acceptable in the name of change, as well as who defines what those “terms” may be.

Final Reflection Essay

MOVE 1 – Percival Everett’s The Trees

I will be analyzing Percival Everett’s novel, The Trees, to explore what I have learned this semester and how it has impacted my thoughts and ideas on both life and literature. Throughout this piece, I will connect course concepts to the themes established in Everett’s novel. One of the main course concepts that I will circle back to is the idea of literal and figurative repetition. The literal repetition found in The Trees would be the repetition of the method behind each of the murders described in the novel. The murders consisted of barbed wire wrapped tightly around the neck, brutal beating of the body, mutilation of the testicles, a gun shot to the head, and a dead Black man accompanying each murder scene. Each murder was gone about in an almost identical way to bring attention to the greater atrocities that went unnoticed in America for decades. Everett’s mysterious character, Mamma Z, tracked every lynching in the United States since she was born in 1913, totaling up to an inconceivable 7,006 lynchings of 7,006 individual Black Americans. This horrific redundancy of 7,006 unjust lynchings exposes America for its rooted history of violence and racism, which brings about the figurative repetition that I mentioned before. 

An integral concept revisited throughout the semester is the idea of straddling the line between what is right and wrong. In Everett’s novel, detectives Ed, Jim, and Herberta straddle the line of morality as they investigate and uncover the truth about the killings in Money, Mississippi. The detectives have a duty to the government to arrest those who disobey the law. In The Trees’ case, the detectives have an obligation to put away those involved in the killings of White Americans. However, the detectives also have an internal responsibility as Black Americans to defend their fellow Black Americans. In the novel, Jim found out that Gertrude was involved in the killings of racist White men in Mississippi whose ancestors were involved in lynchings. Although Jim had an obligation to his job to arrest Gertrude, he instead brought her back to Mamma Z’s house to continue to uncover the mysteries of the unsolved murders. These moral, internal conflicts and outlooks on justice serve as the causes of many difficult decisions that Ed, Jim, and Herberta had to make throughout the novel. 

MOVE 2 – Lucille Clifton’s surely I am able to write poems

I have chosen to analyze and explore the following epigraph in relation to my reading of The Trees, by Percival Everett:

“surely i am able to write poems 

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely        but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches 

and…”      why

is there under that poem always

an other poem?” 

-Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton’s poem, surely I am able to write poems, interested me because Clifton’s attention is brutally interrupted as if she is too distracted by something to finish a line, a thought, or an idea. For example, “and the waters lean against the / chesapeake shore like a familiar / poems about nature and landscape” (lines 4-6). In the first two lines, Clifton is about to compare the waters of the Chesapeake shore to something similar until she is suddenly transfixed on other poems about nature. Clifton’s train of thought is interrupted in another instance where she writes, “surely        but whenever I begin” (line 7). This white space signifies to me that Clifton is unable to maintain focus on her thoughts because she appears to be too busy thinking about “an other poem” (line 11). I wonder if Clifton is working to emphasize how many poems sound the same or have the same idea hidden within them. This reminds me of the brutal, discouraging fact that although every lynching is different because it involves distinct individuals with unique lives, passions, and backgrounds, each murder is blended together with another within the word “lynching”. Although the word “lynch” has a distinct meaning (an extrajudicial killing by a group), there are a multitude of different aspects to consider when distinguishing one lynching from another. One has to take into consideration who is performing the lynching, who is being lynched, who is affected by the lynching, how the lynching is performed, and a myriad of additional aspects. I believe Clifton is emphasizing the sad reality that although poems can be written by authors in their own way, they will forever be grouped together with other poems coinciding with the same theme, idea, or memory, no matter how unique the author attempts to create it. 

A strong message ingrained in The Trees is the power of names. Damon Thruff, an intellectual writer, is tasked with going through all 7,006 lynchings that Mamma Z has recorded, and writes a book with a new perspective: outrage. When Mamma Z and Damon Thruff first met, Mamma Z was surprised that Damon was able to “construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic [racial violence] without an ounce of outrage” (Everett, page 152). From the start, Mamma Z challenged Damon to write about racial violence in a meaningful and passionate way. Mamma Z taught Damon how the unknown names are more of a name than those who were able to be named because, “a little more than life was taken from them” (Everett, page 215). This powerful message of the novel emphasizes the fact that life was not the only thing taken from the lynched men and women. To be unnamed means to be forgotten, and Mamma Z and Damon are trying their very best to remember the men and women so wrongfully and brutally expelled from life. By the end of the novel, Damon became captivated in his new devotion as he worked on his book with complete focus on avenging all of the Black Americans who were unjustly lynched in America. 

MOVE 3 – Classroom Ideas and Concepts

Dr. McCoy emphasized the importance of “attending to how things are framed and packaged” (class notes, 2/28) in writing pieces. Therefore I will unpack how The Trees was framed by Percival Everett. Firstly, the novel’s main setting was in Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched by White men who accused Emmett of offending a White woman. This White woman, Carolyn Bryant, is depicted in The Trees as Granny C, an old lady who “always looked a little sad” (Everett, page 6). We find out later that she feels this way because she is constantly reflecting on the horror she set in motion in 1955: accusing Emmett Till of offending her. In the novel, Granny C died from the shock of looking at the disfigured, lifeless body of a Black man that was fixed in her room. From her perspective, a quick glimpse of this dead Black man instantly reminded her of Emmett Till, and she too became lifeless. In fact, the entire town, including the detectives, was afraid that the ghost of Emmett Till was taking his revenge on the racists that ended his life. 

Throughout the semester, the class has been returning to the theme of sustainability. Firstly, we examined this concept literally by exploring a heating plant and studying the triad of ways to maintain sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. Secondly, in a small group discussion, my classmate pondered the idea of the sustainability and unsustainability of race depicted in Everett’s novel. It is apparent that Everett is portraying the visceral need for White Americans to sustain their race by eliminating that of the Black race by any means possible. It can also be argued that Black Americans are working to sustain their race by defending themselves against the racists that poison America. This battle of the sustainability of race is deeply fixed in America’s history and Everett illustrates this battle by creating a fictional, yet realistic world of “what if’s”. 

MOVE 4 – Perspectives Gained

One key takeaway from this class and especially from Everett’s novel is that a reader must always respect an author’s artistic vision. My peers and I questioned the frequent use of the n-word in Everett’s novel, as we felt that it was thrown around with an empty meaning throughout the novel. We learned that Everett is working to characterize the many racist White characters in his novel. It is hard for us students in Geneseo, New York to believe that there are so many people who continually use the n-word in their dialect, especially in 2022. However, the fact is that Everett is emphasizing that not only is the problem of racism and violence still present in 2022 America, but in some places it is expanding inexplicably. 

My peers and I also questioned Everett’s endgame with his novel. Was it Everett’s artistic choice to create the novel in such a confusing and overwhelming way? What is the purpose of Everett ending the novel in the way that he did? In the end, America has mobs of vengeful Black and Asian Americans storming the streets and attacking racist White Americans. I believe this ending makes readers think about the “what if?”. What if all of those unjustly treated rise up? What if all of those misrepresented rise up? What if all of those discriminated against rise up? What if all of those who lost family members to racism rise up? The amount of people who would rise up would be immense, and America may not be able to redeem itself for the horrors of its history. Another possible purpose of Everett’s novel’s ending would be Damon Thruff. Damon is still typing profusely by the end of the novel and does not even notice the detectives who have walked into Mamma Z’s house. Perhaps the reason Damon is continually typing is to signify that the killings may never stop and for that reason, Damon will never stop typing the names of those lost.

MOVE 5 – So What?

From both Lucille Clifton’s poem, surely I am able to write poems, and Percival Everett’s novel, The Trees, I am learning to apply these lessons in real life. A concept that I am battling with after taking Dr. McCoy’s class and after reading The Trees is the distinction between good faith and bad faith. Good faith relies on persuasion to convince someone to agree with you whereas bad faith relies on intimidation or coercion to convince someone to agree with you. Throughout the book, the reader is faced with the question “is murder justice?”. It is difficult to answer this question as a White American because I have never experienced discrimination because of my race. Therefore, when I try to step into Gertrude’s shoes and determine if the killing of racist White men is justice or not, I find myself going back and forth between thinking this murder is right and wrong. On one hand, the brutal mutilation and murder of these men is a gruesome way to ultimately rid the world of inherently bad people. However, on the other hand, it is always wrong to kill another human being, no matter how horrible of a person they are. In terms of good faith and bad faith, it is difficult to understand if Gertrude recruited Damon Thruff to write about and publish the 7,006 lynchings because of respect or revenge. It is also important to recognize ​​that many of the overarching problems discussed in The Trees remain unsolved today, just as many of the mysteries in the novel remain unsolved for the reader. The reader gets a taste of how frustrating it is to read through a whole book and only have some questions answered. For many Black and Asian Americans, they have to go through an entire lifetime of frustration because their country refuses to accept the problem at hand and work to solve it or take responsibility for it. Overall, I learned a lot about perspective, injustice, and the distinction between right and wrong from my time with Dr. McCoy and Everett’s novel The Trees.

The Chile Earthquake of 1960

According to Britannica, the timeline of the Chile earthquake of 1960 is as follows; On May 21st, 1960 A series of foreshocks, including one of an 8.1 magnitude, warned of the coming disaster and caused major destruction in Concepción. The fault-displacement source of the earthquake extended over an estimated 560–620 mile (900–1,000 km) stretch of the Nazca Plate, which subducted under the South American Plate. The next day, May 22nd, 1960 at 3:11PM an earthquake with a magnitude of between 9.4-9.6 hit approximately 100 miles off the coast of Chile, parallel to the city of Valdivia. National Geographic says the entirety of Chile shook violently for more than 10 minutes. About 15 minutes later at 3:26PM an 80 foot tsunami rose high on the expanse of Chilean coastline that paralleled the subducting plate. The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami left two million people homeless. Though the death toll was never fully resolved, early estimates ranging into the thousands were scaled back to 1,655. About 3,000 people were injured. Two days after the foreshocks warning of the coming disaster, on May 23rd, 1960 at 6:00AM waves that arrived nearly 15 hours after the earthquake in the Hawaiian Islands—6,200 miles (10,000 km) away—still crested at nearly 35 feet (11 metres) at landfall in some places. The waves caused millions of dollars of damage at Hilo Bay on the main island of Hawaii, where they also killed 61 people. Seven hours later at approximately 1:00PM waves reach the main Japanese island of Honshu. The waves had subsided to about 18 feet (5.5 metres) and laid waste to over 1,600 homes and killed 138 people. In the Philippines, tsunami waves left 32 dead or missing. Though the oblique angle by which the waves approached the Pacific coast of the United States mitigated their force, Crescent City, California, saw waves of up to 5.6 feet (1.7 metres), and boats and docks in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach were damaged. Three days after the earthquake that caused two million people to lose their homes, on May 25th, 1960 the Cordón Caulle volcano in Chile’s Lake District erupted after nearly 40 years of inactivity. While this isn’t fully supported as directly related to the earthquakes aftereffects, some seismologists think it is to be linked to the quake.

This earthquake affected many different places in the hours and days following the subduction of the plates that the earthquake originated from. These places include all of Chile (There was especially bad effects in Valdivia, Lebu, and Puerto Aisen), Japan (Honshu), The United States, (several cities in California including Crescent City, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach as well as several islands in Hawaii including Hilo Bay) and the Philippines. This disaster caused roughly 3,000 injuries and around 1,655 deaths. Two million people across the world also lost their homes. Many Chilean cities sustained significant damage, including Puerto Montt, where noticeable subsidence occurred, and Valdivia, where nearly half of the buildings were rendered uninhabitable. Most casualties resulted from the descent 15 minutes later of a tsunami that rose up to 80 feet (25 metres) high on the expanse of Chilean coastline—bounded by the cities of Lebu and Puerto Aisen—that paralleled the subducting plate.

The life effects of surviving a severe earthquake such as the Chile earthquake of 1960 reminds me of Jemisin’s description of the Seasons. While the timeline for this earthquake followed by tsunami (and then possibly causing a volcanic eruption) brings the thought of Jemisin’s choices in the timeline of the end of the world within The Broken Earth trilogy. This real life disaster was preceded by foreshocks the day before the major earthquake hit. Much like how Essun’s connection to the obelisks in times of need before disaster could be seen as a warning of her strength in wielding the Obelisk Gate within Jemisin’s work. The reader experiences the beginning of this new Season along with Essun; starting with the rifting causing majorly destructive shakes across the Stillness, followed by volcanic eruptions, animals behavior changing to become survival of the fittest, and the development of the environmental changes. These environmental changes include ash clouds, acid rain in the desert, and boilbugs; one major issue for survival followed by another and another and another. The rifting combined with the murder of her son Uche cause Essun to be forced from her comm, becoming homeless; much like the disastrous earthquake in Chile caused 2 million people to lose their homes.

Those lucky enough to survive the Chilean earthquake in 1960 and only be left with injuries and disfigurements remind me of several characters in Jemisin’s work. Alabaster succumbs to the magic eating away at him and loses his life after both causing the Rifting and saving the people of Castrima-under from Essun’s power. Essun toward the end of the trilogy ends up losing an arm (and ultimately her life to the power of the Obelisk Gate). She finds herself at first struggling with how to function as an individual with these new limitations including the loss of her orogeny without cost to her body. In the Stone Sky we also re-meet one of the other grits from Syentite’s time at the Fulcrum in The Fifth Season, named Maxixe who during the Season has also been through many adversities and lost both of his legs. While there was not much art created because of the disaster in 1960, there are photographs of the carnage left afterward. I think that it is important to focus on what was left behind after the disaster rather than focusing on what or who is missing because it is only as a group or community that people survive not only the physical effects of natural disasters but also the mental toll. As someone who has never lived through a natural disaster, I feel incredibly lucky to have lived in such a safe area for my entire life thus far. This essay helped focus on the after effects of a real life disaster in order to amplify for us as readers the cost paid for ending the Season in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy.

When The Biggest Earthquake Ever Recorded Hit Chile, It Rocked The World :  NPR