Balance Starts with Forgiveness

At the start of the Broken Earth trilogy, it was easy to see the relevance between the story, and its progression, and the concept of racialization that we were informed by. As I began to move through the content and text further and further, I found myself often returning to Geraldine Heng’s statement in The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages on the theory of and processes in a racialized world. Heng’s words influenced my opening analysis of The Fifth Season while it reassured a viewpoint I developed in past critical writing courses on race, as suggested it has stayed important in every aspect of our living. Race has been and is one of the constructs that demonstrates the “tendency” we have shown to sort through people other than ourselves, then including ourselves, so that those who present “differently” become the “other” (Heng 27). Namely, I discussed in my essay, “Bad Faith in a Racialized World,” the system or systems of essentialism we as a people take part in, “whether innocently or not,” to say that no one is exempt from involvement in it. Since every one of us has some place in the process, we should be urged to look at how it affects our consideration of anyone and everyone. When we declare that a selected quality of a person accounts for a person’s humanity, we make an unsound and incomplete judgment of who they truly are. Here, we note the danger found in the essentialist’s definition of race insisting it is a content or quality, either present or lacking, which then was intended to articulate difference as a reason for differing power positions (Heng 27). I engaged a great deal with this idea in my essay to unravel the social script and structure of Jemisin’s world as I was introduced to it. Before her, I thought of racialization as a strategic process that resulted in mostly socioeconomic and political consequences for select groups of people despite its lack of grounding in any reality. Completely immersed in her world, I’ve seen how bad faith may extend its influence on relationships intensely. 

In conversation with Dr. McCoy’s other ENGL 337: African American Literature course as we’ve come back to the April 12th class notes for its question of, “what is the proper response to atrocity?,” I see that a right way to respond or deal with atrocity and its effects does not exist. Such a convoluted question pushed me to wonder whether a correct response could exist in a world that produces varying degrees of social and interpersonal atrocity according to “qualities” such as race. Then I traced my thoughts back to our second week in this trilogy informed course as we discussed earthquakes and volcanic events including the “Ashfall Preparedness Guidelines” that suggest there are some proper precautions at least if not reactions to destruction. In the provided chapter by Nur and Burgess, “How Earthquakes Happen,” Professor Ralph Solecki of Columbia University who excavated the Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq wrote in an excerpt of his book on his findings, “And then I suddenly realized the unusual nature of the disturbance” (Nur and Burgess, 36). I include this statement as the chapter began to acknowledge how natural events had coexisted with humans since the beginning, however there came a point when humans realized and turned toward the importance of understanding earthquakes specifically compared to the information they had on them from antiquity. The authors claim, “had we not known that an earthquake killed these people, our entire view of their society might be skewed” (Nur and Burgess 39). All of this sounds familiar in retrospect after having read Jemisin and her consistent inclusion of community and love in the face of destruction on the Stillness, the character’s home that despite its name is always unpredictably changing. Through the novels to their endings and these concerns I’ve slowly arrived at, I see the need in a racialized world for understanding. 

Reading Jemisin’s work, we were introduced to the concept of orogeny as a handful of changes that affect the seismic changes deep below the land. Orogenes, those who can instinctively control these movements, are turned to for survival of the harshly changing seasons as they can access and work with the energy of the Earth. Though orogenes hold a valuable and precious ability to manage the events, they experience a loss of “attributed power,” as I stated before. The characters present a quality that the cultures of the Stillness deem as selectively important or as Heng would say, essential to understanding them as human beings. Rather, in a world that often seems to be falling apart based on sudden conflicts, the orogenes are used as a means to an end. 

In time, it becomes more and more pressing how the characters interact with their orogeny and that of others, which corresponds to states of instability and balance alternating. Informed by their pasts, but notably the development and attitude toward those skills, Essun’s loss of Conundrum represents larger ethical questions and later on her relationship with Nassun gives us broader context. A lasting thread found in these examples appears to be how families are affected by racialization as it provokes vulnerability and emotional investment. Every character in the trilogy has their own reality that brings light to their motives and the actions they take. For us to understand why the characters act and feel as they do—just as we do people—we cannot isolate anyone from their socialized experiences for the two are intimately connected.

Understanding the protagonist herself, who undergoes three phases of identity, we see in all of those how one may act when in a most vulnerable state. For the orogenes, even with their energetic powers, they were left in positions where they were unsafe or dealt with in bad faith. Early on, we see the spontaneous destruction that came from Syenite’s erratic feelings. Such destruction, however, cannot be understood if not for the structure that evokes emotion. Prior to our knowledge that Syenite is Essun, we see how Syenite sacrifices her own child Conundrum by smothering him so that he could not be taken to the Fulcrum and Essun mourns over this immense loss. In this way, Jemisin seems to rewrite Toni Morrison’s Beloved, whose protagonist Sethe escaped slavery on a plantation called Sweet Home until slave catchers are about to capture Sethe and her three children, one of which is her daughter Beloved who dies at her mother’s hand as her mother. Sethe has been analyzed in a contemporary reading of the novel in all of her complexity that must be understood in the context of the atrocities of slavery that only Sethe had endured. Sethe truly believed if she hadn’t killed her daughter she would have died and Sethe wouldn’t be able to bear that death in terms of her body through the inhuman abuse, but also the spiritual hopelessness to happen to her (Morrison 236). As for how justice falls into the hands of a mother when in front of violence and harm expected in a child’s future, Syenite resonates with Sethe’s decision and Beloved’s fate for her son. In The Fifth Season, she’s desperate to save him from being taken from the guardians knowing what he’d endure in the future, Syenite uses the obelisk to destroy Meov after she realizes her rare ability to connect with obelisks. There’s a moment just before Corundum dies between his parents Syenite and Alabaster, who were purposefully paired by the Fulcrum to have the child for greater influence, where Alabaster asks for a deeper trust for the future of their child, “‘Promise me you won’t let them take Coru. No matter what’” and repeated soon after, “‘Promise, you know what they’ll do to him, Syen. A child that strong, my child, raised outside the Fulcrum? You know’” (Jemisin 320-321). Love begs for understanding among people as well as intuitive decisions for what “could be the proper way to respond” to frequent and unstoppable disasters that give someone or yourself the best chance. At the start of the novel, we see Essun as a mother of Nassun and Uche with their father Jija who killed Uche, however it is only after the first book that we acknowledge her grief over the murder of both her sons as well as the distance from Nassun as Jija takes her with him as he fled. Essun is told by the beginning in a vulnerable state alone, “The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time…What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free. And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it: He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be” (Jemisin 7). Then Essun narrates to preface us by saying in order for us to understand, we must listen to the context, which I’ve become more aware of through Jemisin as there is such a thing as good faith actions within a system that practices bad faith repeatedly. In connection with good faith and honest vulnerability here comes later in an interaction between Essun and Lerna, a doctor of Tirimo, Essun’s hometown, who takes care of Essun after her son’s death. Lerna is there for Essun, showing her a compassion that she hadn’t felt before, which gave her reason to accept she needed someone else’s presence if not for family or death just once. We’re revealed to a universal human condition, which is what we all ask of one another and what we all live for, “maybe with human arms around you and a human voice murmuring, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Essun,” in your ear, maybe you can feel like that. Maybe you are human, just for a little while” (Jemisin 250). A recognition of another that doesn’t dismiss the depth of their feeling, but rather embraces it forgivingly and with more love. 

The significance of understanding, particularly that of a family and mother’s love, persists with Essun’s bond with Nassun as for considering the agency, or lack thereof, Essun has to protect her daughter. In The Stone Sky Essun drops everything to find her final hope of a child of hers living, though as readers we know that each of her names adds a broader meaning to the phases of her disrupted families she’s once had that left her at a loss. In light of her damaging history that told Essun what motherhood is—a constant sacrifice of the present in hopes of a better future for one’s child, “but that’s no different from what mothers have had to do since the dawn of time…You’ll see to it” (Jemisin 390). When Essun sees her daughter is one in the same as her and Nassun holds resentment towards her because of the hardships and coldness found in the private, Nassun realizes and reflects the same relationship to orogeny as her mother. This  thread between the two of them makes us wonder if perhaps one must experience, feel, and fault themselves just as their parents’ to understand why they did. The redemption of Schaffa, who was essentially a parent of Damaya and therefore Syenite and Essun as her actual parents rejected her, landed on Nassun too. For the guardian who was involved in the oppression and power imbalance Essun endured, confesses to his past recruit’s daughter, “‘You are all the children I should have loved and protected, even from myself. And if it will bring you peace…Then I shall be your Guardian till the world burns, my little one’” (Jemisin 504). Family is a pressure unlike any other in a racialized world that both acts as tension and support, but in the end, there’s an affection between children and their caretakers that share with us a hope for the future. 

Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy has taken me to the very core of what racialized consequences mean, not merely from afar or intellectually as a statement of acknowledging difference indifferently, but holding onto the need for kindness and forgiveness for anyone and everyone. A forgiveness that need not rationalize or involve us in its complicity and harm, but provides a course of action for a better world. I’ll remember the last conversation that encourages us as readers to move past patience and move into that course, “’Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.
‘Neither am I,’ I say. ‘So let’s get to it.'” (Jemisin 462). The same movement I’ve undertaken in seeing how a world so relentlessly imbalanced matters as that thought of a possible future existing in-between acceptance and resistance could never leave me. I know no one is exempt from change and fulfilling endings when we decide to understand difference for the sake of unity, rather than isolation and power. I know that embracing the humanity of another is a conscious decision, that we must everyday meet ourselves with.

Works Cited

Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2016.Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Print.

Jemisin, N. K.. The Obelisk Gate. First Edition. New York, NY, Orbit, 2016.

Jemisin, N. K. The Stone Sky. Orbit, 2017.

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