Journey to the Core of N.K. Jemisin’s ‘The Broken Earth’ Trilogy

At the beginning of my journey through N.K. Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy, I discussed how the narrative manipulation of science fiction could be compared to the very real processes of racialization, gender-making, and class differentiation. After rereading my Lithosphere essay from the beginning of this semester I was reminded of how I felt at the end of reading the first novel. There was still so much left unsaid and still such a long way to go in the story, but I had finally started to see the direction in which the story was headed. In my initial analysis, I noted Jemisin’s depiction of societal hierarchies but specifically the stark division among different groups of people such as the orogenes, Guardians, and non-orogenes. I reflected on our course epigraph, quoted from Geraldine Heng, and emphasized how race is a construct imposed upon individuals rather than something that is inherent to someone’s being. I noted that the systematic discrimination faced by orogenes paralleled our real-world racial inequalities, and that this novel could serve as a reflection of our contemporary social issues. I was also intrigued by the multiple names and personalities of Essun and how they portrayed her transformation through various names and roles, but we don’t discover this until the end of the novel. This fluidity of names echoed Heng’s notion that race is only a “primary name” that is assigned to individuals based on societal constructs rather than intrinsic qualities. Through Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, I observed how societal expectations and stereotypes shaped each of their experiences and interactions depending on who they were with.

Now looking back after having finished the trilogy and reflecting on my Lithosphere essay, I can acknowledge that my thinking has shifted, although not that much. I think that Jemisin peeled back more layers that revealed a deeper explanation of the complexities in issues of race, gender, and class. For example, in the third novel when we discover the history of Syl Anagist it plays a crucial role in understanding the Stillness, and the power that Corepoint possesses. The history of Syl Anagist adds depth to making sense of why the Stillness society is the way it is. I think in my initial analysis I had a very surface level understanding of the oppression that occurred in the novel. I narrowed it down to just the oppressor vs the oppressed when there is a much more nuanced exploration of power dynamics and complicity that needs to be discussed. One significant shift in my thinking pertains to the portrayal of bad-faith manipulation. Previously, I focused solely on the clear exploitation of marginalized groups by those in power, but after finishing the trilogy I recognize now that there are subtler ways in which internalized oppression can contribute to systemic injustices.

Characters like Alabaster and Schaffa are examples of people who embody the complexities of moral ambiguity. They challenged my notion of a hero and a villain, and I never truly knew how to feel about them. For example, Schaffa was originally a mentor figure towards Essun when she still went by Damaya and helped her in troubling times, however it became apparent that Schaffa was untrustworthy when he found Essun and essentially forced her to kill her son Corundum. However, when Schaffa is nearly killed by the earth he comes out of his injuries to find Nassun and he helps her. By helping Nassun he shows that he is capable of loyalty. Alabaster, on the other hand, held many secrets, one of them being that he is the one that caused the Rifting. Alabaster is at least a little more trustworthy and leans more toward a “hero” status than Schaffa does due to his relationship and help with Essun.

Despite my original thoughts of the trilogy becoming more advanced my shift in perspective does not change the core principles of what the trilogy offered. The trilogy’s critique of systemic injustice and its call for empathy and solidarity still reigns true with me. This trilogy tugged at my heartstrings and at points made me question which decisions were right and which ones were wrong. It showcased how in-depth systemic issues are and why they are not so easily reversed. This trilogy also emphasized the importance of people in power having the ability to shape the world, or even people who aren’t necessarily in a powerful position but have power, like Nassun. While they may not be able to shape the world exactly the way they want it, they are most definitely able to make changes in it. For example, the world took so much from both Essun and Nassun, and while Nassun wants the world to end she knows that Essun’s last wish is for Nassun to “Open the Gate, pour the Rifting’s power through it, catch the moon. End the Seasons. Fix the world.” (pg. 387) Despite the struggle Nassun has gone through and the hatred she had for her mother at certain moments in the trilogy she chooses to follow her mother’s wishes.

My journey through N.K. Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy has been a continual process of reflection and growth. One that has even changed my perspective on certain plot lines as well as left me conflicted in certain parts of the story. One question that I had from the very beginning of the series that was answered very well was why Jemisin starts the series with the line, “You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember?” The entirety of this series I was wondering why this story was being retold in that way. That the person, Essun in this case, could not recall any of the events and needed the story to be retold. I think it is a very full circle moment that at the end of the series we discover that Essun has become a stone eater and does not remember anything from her now past life, and this whole series is Hoa retelling it to her. I wonder now what this new Essun will think of the story. Will she find herself coming to the same realizations she had when she experienced the story firsthand, or will she have a different view of how things went now that she is hearing it from an outside perspective. While my thinking may have shifted a bit than what I originally thought, what stands true is the transformative power of storytelling as a constant source of inspiration.

The Boxing Day Tsunami: Unveiling Tragedy and Art – JW, HB, CD, JL, AT, NR, QC

The Boxing Day tsunami, known for its mass destruction and death toll, began off the west coast of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Deep below the ocean exists oceanic plates that are constantly shifting and crashing into each other. The main plates involved in this disaster are the India plate and the Burma microplate, which is part of the Sunda plate. When the India plate subducted underneath the Burma plate, a 900 mile fault line was created due to the convergence and subduction of these plates. This line, 31 miles below the ocean floor, released as much energy as several thousand atomic bombs, or in this case a 9.1 M earthquake. For reference, typical earthquakes, like a 4M or 5M can take as little as 1 second to release stored energy. The earthquake that created this tsunami lasted 10 minutes. This is where the epicenter of the earthquake occurs and thus the larger story of the devastating tsunami. 

The beginning, middle and end for this tsunami is equally marked with tragedy and loss. The tsunami began by hitting the city of Banda Aceh, which is in northern Sumatra. This city was closest to the epicenter of the earthquake and in a matter of minutes, a 100 foot wave killed over 100,000 people. Virtually no one who was caught in the wave survived.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop at Banda Aceh. Thailand was the next stop for this destructive force of nature. The tsunami hit both Phang Nga and Phuket (coastal provinces) killing nearly 5,400. Of this number, 2,000 were foreign tourists. The next stop was the city of Chennai, located on the southeastern coast of India. Chennai lost more than 10,000 people, with a majority of casualties being women and children since the men were out fishing. The final destination was Sri lanka where more than 30,000 people were swept away and killed by this destructive and powerful wave. The tsunami consequentially “left a gendered landscape of disaster in its wake.” Boxing Day was a day of offering and many women and children went to leave food and flowers by the seaside, and the wave just came in unexpectedly. Women were less likely to know how to swim or climb a tree, resulting in a mass amount of death. Paintings recapturing the incidents recounted that “flowing dresses hindered rapid flight” of women. 

This natural disaster was so powerful that people swimming in South Africa experienced large rogue waves. To put this into perspective, South Africa was 5,000 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake and tsunami. This disaster lasted a total of seven hours and anywhere that the Boxing Day tsunami went, death and destruction followed. Communities from surrounding countries suffered huge losses to their infrastructure as a result of this devastating natural disaster. National roads, access roads, and coastal highways were torn out of the ground, leaving no place for people to travel on. Basic necessities such as hospitals were ripped up, as well as nearby educational centers including schools and colleges.  This especially affected the poor and lower income tiers. Out of the people’s homes or living spaces affected by this tragedy, 75% of them were in the lower income region. It is extremely important to note the disproportionate cost seismic events pose to underprivileged communities. The disparities in infrastructure often create a more dangerous environment in the onset of a natural disaster. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress describes the conditions present in these communities that can exacerbate the tragedy because, “…Building codes are often not adopted or enforced. Low-income communities often lack transportation and communication infrastructure to facilitate an adequate disaster response. Health systems in low income countries are often under-resourced even prior to a disaster, and are quickly stretched beyond capacity in the face of increased injuries and illness.”

These lower income areas were not the only places that were affected. Over 10 countries were affected and this is because of the earthquake paired with the tsunami. Roughly 227,889 people were killed and/or presumed dead in total, including tourists and locals. Furthermore, 1.7 million people were displaced, leaving 500,000 of those homeless. The damage done to various coastal communities added up to roughly $13 billion. Roughly, $6 billion of the damages were in Indonesia, leaving it ruined and desolate, which is a common theme amongst places that experienced this tsunami. 

Not only were several countries affected by the tsunami, but survivors experienced effects as well. People who survived the tsunami actually had thickened waists due to scar tissue 13 years after the tsunami as a result of wading in fast-moving water. These survivors were also more at risk of catching diseases because of increased inflammation levels and had difficulty regulating glucose levels. Not only have these survivors lost homes, cultures, and families, but they have lost their health too. The tsunami has virtually taken everything from them. Adults were not the only ones to experience health effects following the aftermath of the tsunami. Children who were in utero at the time of the tsunami experienced major health and growth effects as a consequence. They ended up being shorter than their predicted average height at the age of three years old . While these children were able to eventually catch up to the height of those children who weren’t affected, scientists can’t rule out potential health effects from rapid growth.  The tsunami was so powerful it was able to disrupt human biology as well as the land in its path of destruction. 

Despite all the wreckage that occurred because of the tsunami, art was discovered in the wake of all the destruction. The power of the waves were able to uncover pieces of art from lost history, and the devastation of the tsunami also inspired others to create memorable art from the events. The waves shifted tons of sand and uncovered lost relics of a seventh-century civilization. South of Chennai, the ancient city held sculptures that could help aid scholars into understanding this civilization. “The sculptures include an elaborately carved lion, a half-completed elephant and a stallion in flight.” Members of the team that uncovered the statues explain that lions, elephants, and peacocks were once used to decorate walls during the Pallava period. Furthermore, art that was inspired by the tsunami sparked conversation amongst professors 8 years later. Momi Chitrakar is the creator of a 7-foot-tall scroll that depicts a painting of the tsunami and just how many lives it took. Along with the painting, Momi Chitrakar performed a sorrowful song explaining how much pain and loss the tsunami caused. “Mothers lost their children//Husbands lost their wives//What pain, merciful (God), what pain!//Why did you destroy, tell me (God), Sri Lanka and Andaman?//The cursed tsunami snatched away lives.” The professors who encountered this piece of art and performance inevitably bought the painting and brought it back to their campus for further discussion in academic settings. This ensured that this tragedy wouldn’t go unnoticed or unsupported. 

 In comparison to N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy, the sculptures uncovered by the tsunami show resemblance to “dead-civs”, which are remains of a dead civilization. This showcases how much worldbuilding Jemisin put into the trilogy, but the sculptures unveiled could also be a reference image for people trying to imagine the dead-civs discussed in the novels. In Jemisin’s novels obelisks operate as sculptures to show the remains of past civilizations. In both The Broken Earth trilogy and our real world, remnants of civilizations can be used to learn more about the past. Ruins where obelisks had previously been built resurface multiple times throughout the series, posing questions about the obelisks and their origin, and ultimately answering these questions (in time) as well. These civilizations had gone through many natural disasters, resulting in death and mass destruction that turned them into “dead-civs”.  The cities affected by the Boxing Day tsunami may not have become a “dead-civ” but the continuation of destruction in these areas will leave a lasting mark. Perhaps people will relocate, leaving remains of their cultures and lives destroyed by the earth for others to find. 

Societal Hierarchy of Race in Science Fiction and Our World

After concluding the first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy it’s truly not until the end of the book where I start to grasp the nature of this story and start to see it unfold. We can see just how divided each category of people are, especially as we are led throughout Essun’s whole life while not knowing that Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are all the same person. As I navigate this novel and the dynamics in it, I am drawn back to our course epigraph by Geraldine Heng and her hypothesis of race as something that is done to people to categorize them, rather than something that is internally human. It has nothing to do with our actual being and self. The process of racialization is a way of life in The Fifth Season, in one sense it provides structure to a world and society that is crumbling, but in a world with so many issues, structure and discrimination against race seem trivial. Which makes me reflect on the similarities of the science fiction world of The Fifth Season and the real-life everyday world that we experience.

The University of Winnipeg defines the process of racializing as “the processes by which a group of people is defined by their ‘race.’ Processes of racialization begin by attributing racial meaning to people’s identity and, in particular, as they relate to social structures and institutional systems, such as housing, employment, and education”. In The Fifth Season the main group of people who are discriminated against are orogenes, the appendix in the book defines orogenes as “one who possesses orogeny, whether trained or not” and orogeny being defined as “the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” There are many instances in the novel where we can see the hierarchy of races presented to us, one in particular being when Binof leads Damaya into an off-limits corridor in the Fulcrum. Binof explains that she is not worried about getting in trouble because she gets in trouble all the time, but as a Leadership Yumenes the consequences are very minimal. Damaya’s response to this is the worry that she will get in trouble, “She isn’t a Leader, or a person; no one will save her.” (pg. 308) This moment stuck out to me as a perfect example of racialization, it shows how Binof is more privileged than Damaya as she is allowed to get in trouble without serious consequences while Damaya fears for her life every time she goes against any kind of law. In connection to a real-world scenario, the Black Lives Matter movement addresses these same kinds of racial inequality issues, specifically with discrimination against black people and police brutality instances. Black Lives Matter highlights how black people fear for their life when encountering law enforcement, while specifically white people are capable of getting in trouble with the law and getting out with a slap on their wrist. In both fictional and non-fictional scenarios, it’s clear to see the different behavior toward both races and the absurdity of it.

One line in Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, taken from our course epigraph is, “’Race’ is one of the primary names we have – a name we retain for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes.” This quote reminded me of Essun’s versatility in her literal names and how those names were each a different version of herself. Damaya, the name she was given at birth by her mother, is her younger self, someone who went through hardships as only a child. When Damaya becomes Syenite she chooses this name for herself, and this is something that seems all orogenes in the fulcrum decide to do once they reach a certain level of orogeny or gain their first ring. Damaya tells Schaffa that she has chosen her name and that it will be Syenite. “It forms at the edge of a tectonic plate. With heat and pressure it does not degrade, but instead grows stronger” (pg. 331), Syenite chose this new name for herself and experienced parts of life as Syen, and no longer Damaya. As Syen, more was expected of her, she was essentially a new person, wiser and stronger. We have yet to learn the exact timing of when Syen changed her name to Essun, and why she chose Essun (perhaps this is something we will learn more about in the next book). Even in the different time periods of Essun’s life with her various names and each with a seemingly different personality we can relate this to Heng’s words of how race is just a primary name. It is something that is assigned to someone and created for a structural hierarchy and with that name comes expected attributes, or stereotypes. With each of Essun’s names we see how people treat her differently based on which version of herself she is in her life. While throughout the novel Essun is always an orogene, we see various people treat her differently based on that fact. This proves Heng’s hypothesis that race is only something assigned to people, and as Dr. McCoy put it in our class notes from February 22, “race” is not “anything that people have in them internally or on them externally”.

I think that based on the book so far and its use of racialization and very human like attributes to characters such as good and bad faith decisions, that there will be a major shift in the dynamics of racialization, but specifically regarding the Orogenes and Guardians. I predict that Orogenes will somehow come into more power than they have now, as they are currently used for training and treated unfairly, I expect there to be a revolt against the current conditions. However, when considering other parties such as Hoa and the stone eaters, I suspect that it won’t be as straightforward as two groups in a conflict. When we reach Hoa’s perspective at the end of The Fifth Season he says, “I am the one who found her first. I fought off the others and trailed her, watched her, guarded her.” (pg.443) This whole time Hoa has had a part to play in Essun’s journey, protecting her in a way we do not fully understand yet. Going forward, I suspect there will be alliances made and trust broken between those alliances. I look forward to learning more about the world that N.K. Jemisin has created and the surprises that she will shock us with. I also feel fortunate to have no prior knowledge of this trilogy, making the journey more exciting for me. I’ve always thought that stories with a map at the beginning are the most intriguing because it is evident the author took time in crafting the story and the characters in it, so much so that a definable map had to be curated to follow along.