The Unconventional Conceptions of Race in the Works of N.K. Jemisin

Some months ago, I wrote about the various ways in which the inherent social construction of race and the lived realities of race interplay in The Fifth Season. I dubbed this phenomenon the existential paradox of race, and defined it as the “conflict between the fundamental nonexistence of race [and] the salient effects of race in function”, arguing that race in Jemisin’s story deliberately differed from race in the real world in order to encourage readers to reflect on their own conceptions about race. Somewhat inspired by the critical race theory texts I was reading for another class at this time, I found myself understanding more about how race was manufactured in our world, and saw similar patterns within The Fifth Season. In brief, I argued that Jemisin presented the racialization of orogenes (humans with the ability to manipulate seismic events) by non-orogenic humans with three key distinctions to traditional conceptions of race in the real world: the lack of genetic basis for inheriting orogeny, the absence of any homogenous culture within orogene populations, and the outward discrimination towards orogenes, a much more clear-cut discriminatory culture than the subtle subjugation in our reality. In differentiating her created race from our modern conceptions of race as geographically & genetically relevant and more or less determinable by appearance, Jemisin’s world communicates that there is no reality or truth in how races are created and determined, but that they are a product of arbitrary classification criteria. Our world chose to care about skin color and – to a lesser extent – geography when creating the races in our zeitgeist, the world of The Fifth Season chose orogeneity. Neither of these classifications are accurate or necessary ways to group people, as both are just as absurd and arbitrary as the other.

As I have read the other works in this trilogy, my opinions on the central method Jemisin demands the reader introspect on the existential paradox of race has remained, but it has been applied in different ways to different groups within the world she has created. This expansion of the strategy she uses follows the central strategy of separating racialized traits in the book from racialized traits in real life, but the specific traits may change based on the group being racialized. Whereas orogenes do not share any specific features or genealogy, and this is the vector through which the arbitrary classification of race is elucidated for this group, the stone eaters are, in part, grouped by their behavior and elusive origins. The stone eaters are a group of sapient statues entirely made of various kinds of stone, and are few in number. While the appearances of stone eaters are, of course, very distinct from those of any other peoples in the world, the ways other characters within the text speak of stone eaters indicates that this difference in appearance is not the primary trait that leads stone eaters to be othered. When characters describe stone eaters, their behavior, speech, and mystique come up quite often. The way stone eaters speak without moving their mouths, their inscrutability of expression, and their movement are all reasons they are described as “uncanny” and “so like humanity and yet so wildly different” (The Stone Sky, p. 27). In distinguishing stone eaters from other peoples through their atypical behaviors and the lack of general knowledge about them from the public, it seems to me as though Jemisin is exploring how culture and behavior can be used to judge personhood, and thus racialize. When Hoa – a stone eater – and Essun – and orogene human – encounter a stranger who seems as though he “maybe didn’t quite believe” in the existence of stone eaters, the man addresses Essun with a “hi” and Hoa with a nervous “uh, hi I guess?” (The Stone Sky, p. 162). This interaction stuck out to me, as the man seemed to not know if he should address a stone eater as he would another person, even one he knew nothing about. Stone eaters seemingly fall so far outside traditional conceptions of humanity that interacting with them is a challenge to non-stone-eaters, which can only serve to widen the divide between them.

Another group to which Jemisin implores the reader to introspect is the Niess, a group designation for peoples of the Niess kingdom millennia before the events of the novel. In The Stone Sky, the narration often offers a glimpse of a world back before there were orogenes or stone eaters, but far from an unracialized world. These sections are told from the perspective of a tuner, an artificially created group of sapient humanoids with the ability to “tune” to esoteric obelisks to provide power to their kingdom of Syl Anagist. Tuners hold many human traits, superficially and internally, but are also intended to lack emotion and human experience (The Stone Sky, p. 211). While these facts are themselves reflective of a gross denial of personhood from Syl Anagist, to understand Jemisin’s correlation to racialization requires a look at the history of this society. Syl Anagist was a growing superpower before this time, and eventually came to control all but one land that housed the Thniess people (whose name was bastardized to Niess due to mispronunciation). The Niess could be described as hedonistic, and in their love for life and art, they were able to create technology far more efficient to those of Syl Anagist. Syl Anagist, in their belief that their society was inherently superior, saw this technology far exceeding their capabilities being used simply for art, and in an effort to reaffirm their superiority, killed nearly all of the Niess (The Stone Sky, p. 209-211). Now, the Niess were a short-statured, kinky-haired people with nearly colorless white skin, and when Syl Anagist turned against them, even as the few remaining Niess were scattered and assimilated into various cultures, these traits were reviled by those who saw the Niess as an undesirable race of people. When describing the appearance of the tuners, however, these features of the Niess are described, and seeing as the appearance of these artificially created humans cannot be anything but intentional, the tuners were clearly intended to be perceived as part of the subjugated and discriminated race of the Niess. Despite being artificially created, with no relation to the Niess in origin, the tuners come to understand how the world perceives them despite this: “to them, we are [Niess]” (The Stone Sky, p. 257). Again, Jemisin separates the racialized peoples in her text from traditional conceptions of how race operates. The question then is raised: what is the purpose of appearance-based race categorization in a world where such features may have no connection to any peoples or groups to which a race typically refers? In Syl Anagist, there is an answer – to justify the subjugation of the tuners and the genocide of the Niess – but how the subjugation of the tuners works when they do not and cannot have a race ties back to the existential paradox of race. Syl Anagist’s manufactured race of tuners almost embodies this thought, a group that cannot be related to any existing race, but still – very intentionally – feel the effects of their racialization by society.

Upon reflection, my take on the way this trilogy has handled racialization has not changed significantly. From the beginning, I felt that Jemisin was encouraging readers to understand that the racialization of a people is only ever a reductive classification based on arbitrary traits. Race is not something that exists and thus can’t be reduced to any number of traits a person has, but race is absolutely something one can experience in a racialized society, regardless of the traits a society chooses to associate with a group of people. The existential paradox of race will always exist as long as society chooses to racialize people. In fact, in my sameness of thought as the trilogy progressed, I don’t believe that it was too terribly important for my opinions to change on this matter, especially when the way Jemisin’s handling of racialization in the first text was so inspired. The way Jemisin portrayed the racialization of orogenes in The Fifth Season was incredibly poignant, especially in her separation of skin color and genetic factors from the orogenes. Showing how people who, in every sense other than an innately bestowed ability, are just like everyone else in the story in their diversity of culture, ancestry, and appearance but were subjugated so intensely for a trait which society deemed undesirable was immensely affecting for me as a reader. I wrote about how when orogenes are forced into a group, there is no cohesive identity, as orogenes can be just as culturally and socially distinct from one another as orogenes and non-orogenes. Reminiscent of the ways in which the slave trade served to group people across the African continent who all had unique cultures and identities under a single banner because of their skin color, the orogenes likewise were never one people, but various peoples who happened to share a trait their society chose to essentialize. While the analysis of the stone eaters as a manufactured race does merit discussion, as with the purposeful likening of the tuners to an undesirable race, the cultural dissonance present between orogenes communicated to me that a single trait does not and cannot embody or define a people. Despite orogenes having no collectivity, no meaningful commonalities except being victims of prejudice and intense reprehension, they are grouped into one people, one race by larger society, and this assumption of a collective “other” allows people to hate collectively. This is the foundation of racialization, and is embodied so clearly and poetically in just the first text of this trilogy that Jemisin was able to capture my curiosity and command introspection with how well the racialization of orogenes provoked reflection on the existential paradox of race.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.