Unearthing the Core of N.K Jemisin’s Trilogy

Going into English 111 I knew nothing about N.K Jemisin, nor about her “Broken Earth Trilogy.”  I went into this class completely blind to the power behind her writing and stories. At the beginning of this semester I learned about N.K Jemisin’s life, which consisted of her witnessing the evils of racialization and the horrors of inequality and racism around her. N.K Jemisin is an African American author, her identity has shaped her experiences and in turn has shaped her writing. I feel that understanding her history and her story allows me to interpret her writing on a deeper level, and is important in understanding the novel to a greater extent. 

In my lithosphere essay,I unpacked how racialization is portrayed and used to maintain power in the first book of the trilogy and its parallels to the real world. I focused on a few aspects of racialization, on being the Fulcrum, which is a school seen in The Fifth Season, where Orogenes suffer from the impacts of racialization. I also focused on one of the slurs used against Orogenes in the novels, which is the term “rogga.” I discussed how Syenite’s (one of the Orogenes) relationship with the term develops from uncomfortable to a sense of reclamation, and how the slur enforces racialization of Orogenes. 

At the beginning of this journey, I believed the trilogy to be a powerful and unique way of exposing the parallels of racial inequality, discrimination in the world today and throughout history into a science fiction novel, while also incorporating Jemisin’s personal experiences with social injustices. 

At the end of this journey I believe the same, I still think that this trilogy spreads themes of injustice, inequality and discrimination and the consequences of it. The novels are a portrayal of parallels seen in the real world and throughout history. However, as we drove deeper into these books and into the semester we found that the entirety of the civilization and society where the protagonists exist is built on social injustice and the oppression of peoples, similar to many of our powerful nations today, including the United States of America . This is seen through the unearthing of Hoa’s story and his past throughout the novel. 

Hoa starts off as a mysterious character in the trilogy, as we move forward through the books we see how important his story is. Hoa is a stone eater, which means exactly what you might think, he eats stone. He also has extremely pale skin and eyes and white hair. However, he is also a very ancient being who has seen the civilizations before that of Essun, and the creation of the current one. In the last book of the trilogy, the Stone Sky, Jemisin really unpacks Hoas past. Before the Stillness (the realm that Essun exists in), there was Syl Anagist. Hoa and all the other Stone Eaters were forced to be tuners, which means he was a worker for Syl Anagist. The people of Syl Anagist were scared of the powers that the Stone Eaters had and how their features were so different from their own. The bright white eyes, hair and skin made the people of Syl Anagist uneasy. The fear of their powers and features fueled the people of Syl Anagist to control and strictly monitor those like Hoa, leaving the tuners to suffer the effects of racialization and discrimination. 

This can really be seen when Hoa is taken to see the inner workings of what powers the city, this is where Hoa sees the “briar patch.” The briar patch consists of “retired tuners” sent after they can no longer work or provide for Syl Anagist. The tuners after serving the Syl Anagist are sent to be stuck in a purgatory between life and death. The people of Syl Anagist do not trust the tuners to use their magic correctly on their own, therefore, when they can no longer work they place them in this purgatory. They are alive physically, but in a sense brain dead. “Keeping them alive keeps them generating more (power)” (Jemisin 2017). According to Hoa, “The briar patch’s victims have been here for years. Decades… Still alive, and yet not” (Jemisin 2017). There is so much to unpack with the idea of the briar patch and the inhumane treatment of the retired tuners. The briar patch sucks out all of the tuner’s magic and life force. Syl Anagist is being built on the suffering of millions of these tuners whose lives are taken to serve Syl Anagist by treating them like objects, beings only meant for keeping Syl Anagist running smoothly, due to their fear of their differences and powers. 

When I first read this I could only think about how many countries in our world were built on the suffering and expense of others. In the United States, our nation was fabricated through the horrors of slavery. The U.S was built on the suffering and inhuman treatments of human beings, just because white colonists believed themselves to be superior due to their skin color and culture. Just like the tuners in Syl Anagist, human beings were treated as machines, their only purpose was to work. In both cases, this discrimination and oppression was “justified” by physical difference in characteristics, this benefited those in power on both sides of the parallel. Syl Anagist was able to inhumanely create energy and oppress the tuners, and the economy in the U.S flourished through the horrors of slave labor. Just as Syl Anagist was built on injustice, so was the United States. The parallels of suffering seen in Syl Anagist and our own history highlights the racialization and disparities in both the book and our society. 

So why does any of this matter? Recently my Professor, Dr. McCoy, was told by Dr. Giorgis, one of the Professors of Geological Sciences here at Geneseo, that earthquakes and seismic events can have domino effects. One large earthquake, or one small one, can trigger a long line of consequences. The same goes for injustice. Jemisin shows through her books how the intense trauma from the pure discrimination, violence and oppression that Essun faced, developed her character that we see in the later books. The suffering that Essun was subjected to due to discrimination not only affected her but affected her children, her friends, her allies and enemies. Her daughter, Damaya, grew up with hatred and confusion. She murdered many, just as Essun did. Injustice and racialization affects everyone, not just those subjugated. Everyone in society feels the impact of it in one way or another. This goes for the trilogy just as it goes for real life. 

These books are so much more than the science fiction trilogy that I originally thought they were. N.K Jemisin puts a lot of thought in care into every detail of the story, the names, the characters, their actions. She portrays issues that readers can connect to the world that we live in today, and the consequences of them. Her incorporation of themes of oppression, racism and discrimination were clear in the novel, beginning to end. Jemisin made me think differently about characters, and question my anger or love towards them. She challenges a reader’s thinking and ensures they understand the emotion that is carefully embedded in the trilogy.

The Parallels of Racialization in Science Fiction and the Real World

Before this class, I had heard of racialization before, it was brought up and defined but not until Geraldine Heng’s definition did I truly understand its meaning. He states that race is not something within us, it is not set by our genetics or our biology, race is something created by culture and the humans within it. The process of racialization works for and against humans. Race gives some power, while taking away rights and freedoms of others. Heng explains this by saying “in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups.” Heng says how race is strategic and it truly is. This can be seen not only through human history but also in the world you see outside your window today. 

Millions of people experience the effects of racialization every single day, one of these people being N.K Jemisin. N.K Jemisin is an African American author (Britannica) who grew up witnessing the evils of racialization, and being a target of them. She now develops and creates powerful stories that include vivid aspects of racialization and the horrors that come with it. In our mini collaboration groups we discussed how N.K Jemisin manipulates her own experiences and the experiences of other minorities whose race has been used to work against them, and embeds them in her novels. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy is a powerful example of Jemisin using science and fantasy fiction to bring to light the injustices of racialization and the consequences of it. In the first book of the trilogy, The Fifth Season, there are many notable aspects of racialization and how it works to keep specific people in power while others suffer. In the Fifth Season there are humans (referred to as Stills), Orogenes and Stone Eaters. For this interpretation I will be focusing on the relationship between the humans and Orogenes. Orogenes are humans (however they are not truly viewed as humans by others) who have control and power to manipulate seismic events and the earth. For example, they can stop earthquakes or create them. Although the Orogenes are immensely powerful, humans use racialization tactics to maintain their political and social powers and keep the Orogenes powerless and vulnerable. The Stills fear the Orogenes and therefore hunt them, discriminate against them and view them inhumanely. 

In our mini collaboration groups we discussed many examples of racialization and systemic inequality that can be seen throughout The Fifth Season. We focused a lot on the school featured in the book, which is called the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum is similar to a military facility, where Orogene children (who are referred to as Grits) are ripped from their homes and sent to learn how to control their powers. They are constantly taught how dangerous they are and that the pain and suffering they receive is important to protect others. The school’s entire purpose is for the Stills to be able to control the Orogenes from a very young age and make them “useful” for the Stills and their political interests. The school supports and encourages racialization as it makes sure that the Orogenes are instilled with the idea that they are less than the Stills and that the only thing Orogenes are useful for is being weapons. I believe the entire existence of the school is an example of racialization as it makes sure that Orogenes are controlled through a structural institution, it takes away their freedom and ability to choose, and most importantly ensures that the Stills maintain their power. This is especially shown through the character Damaya, who is a young Orogene and is a “student” at the Fulcrum. When we were discussing Damaya in our mini collaboration groups, Connor brought up a quote that I believe perfectly describes how racialization impacted Damaya. She says “Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.” (The Fifth Season, 297) The way Damaya is maybe 14 years old and considers herself a weapon, non-human and non deserving of a regular childhood and friends shows how influential the racialization is. Going back to Heng’s definition of racialization we see how the Fulcrum is an institution that “constructs a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment.” The Fulcrum is able to move people into specific categories due to their differences, Grits being treated as weapons who need to become useful for the Stills rather than the children that they are. On the other hand, through the Fulcrum Stills are put in positions of power.

 Emily, from my mini collaboration group, highly connected the Fulcrum to her school in NYC which was predominantly people of color. She explained how her school did not have much time for leisure or offered any help for higher education such as AP or IB classes, similar to the Fulcrum where the Grits’ only option is to learn. Grits are not given leisure and their choices and future are taken away from them. In her school in NYC you had one expectation which was to learn, there were no other choices or further opportunities except the set curriculum. Racialization exists in our real world just as it exists in N.K Jemisin’s creations. Why did Emily’s majority POC school not have further opportunities like AP classes or clubs, but predominantly white private schools have theater programs, AP classes and dual credit options? 

Another important parallel and aspect of racialization that really stood out to me was the slur used for Orogenes which is “rogga.” (The Fifth Season) This is a word that can be connected to a specific slur that is used against African Americans in today’s culture. Syenite is also one of our characters in the book, she is a powerful Orogene who is traveling with another Orogene called Alabaster. I really enjoyed the development of the relationship between Syenite and the term “rogga”  throughout the book as it relates to the reclamation of the slur in real life. Alabaster uses this word comfortably to describe himself and other Orogenes, however Syenite does not understand why he uses it so comfortably as she views it as a dirty word/ She views “rogga” as a word that is used by Stills to make the Orogenes less than human and to remind Orogenes what Stills think about them. At the beginning Syenite explains her view on the word. She states “It’s such an ugly word, harsh and guttural” and that “Alabaster uses it the way other people use Orogene.” (The Fifth Season, 120) However, after she witnesses the node maintainers, orogenic children who are kept in a catatonic, painful state in order to serve the Stills and calm minor seismic activity, she begins to understand why Alabaster uses the word as he does. “‘Sometimes a rogga can’t learn control.’ Now she understands that his use of the slur is deliberate. A dehumanizing word for someone who has been made into a thing.” (The Fifth Season, 140) This shows how Syenite begins to understand Alabaster’s reclamation of this horrible slur as it reminds him and Syenite of the evils of the Fulcrum. The existence of the slur shows how racialization exists within the book. The use of the term “rogga” is to dehumanize and place Orogenes in a subordinate position, keep them powerless and put the Stills in a place of upper class. Heng’s definition of racialization describes exactly this, as the word is meant to encourage differences and sort people into those with and without power. N.K Jemisin shows the power that the slur used in today’s world has through the parallel of the slur in her science fiction novel. Alabaster’s reclamation of the word relates to real life as African Americans reclaim the slur and use it in powerful music, language and other cultural aspects. 

I believe N.K Jemisin’s writing is extremely influential and addresses many real life problems that involve racialization, racism and systemic inequality in her fiction writing. Geraldine Heng’s definition of racialization is clearly shown through the way Jemisin describes racial injustices throughout the novel. She allows readers to create connections on racial inequality between her novels and real life, which gives readers a new understanding of issues we see today. Not only does she educate readers on social injustices but also geographical sciences. Her reading is interesting yet educational. I believe that she is extremely passionate and her storytelling is incredible. I am interested to see what happens in the next novels and how these racialization parallels strengthen.