Obelisks, Satellites, and The Stone Sky

Back at the end of February we wrote a reflection essay after our reading of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. At that time we had only read one out of the three books in the trilogy and we still had so much to gain from reading this literature. We were asked to write a paper on what we deemed the most interesting/challenging strand of how Jemisin had been using geological concepts and how that concept connected to power and justice. I chose to write that essay on Jemisin’s use of volcanic activity throughout the first novel. The shakes are the primary geological aspect used most frequently throughout the novel, but after my reading I had looked at the appendix and discovered something about the different seasons that make up the science-fiction world that is The Stillness. N.K. Jemisin took the time to go back to a time before her book was even set and created a timeline of Seasons for the readers to explore after their initial reading of her work in The Fifth Season. Most of these seasons were started by a combination of geological events, but many included volcanic eruptions as a primary factor. After reading the trilogy and looking at the series as a whole, I have shifted my mindset to thinkING a lot about the obelisks and their power in the story. 

Obelisks in real-life outside of Jemisin’s trilogy, have held an immense amount of meaning for a lot of different civilizations and cultures since the beginning of time. The word obelisk is the Greek word for spit, nail, or pointed pillar and they are tall, narrow, four-sided monuments that have a pyramidion on top. When obelisks were first built in Ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, only a single piece of stone was used. The first obelisks, known as tekhenu to the Egyptians, are said to have appeared around 2300 BCE, were usually built in pairs and located at the entrances of Ancient Egyptian temples. One of the interesting things that I researched about obelisks in real life is that they were embellished on all four sides of the shaft with hieroglyphs that included religious dedications, most commonly for the Sun God, Ra, and as tributes to rulers past and present. Some were even used as sun-dials because the shadows followed the movements of the sun journey each day. Obelisks symbolize a lot more than I had originally thought, and each group of people that looks at one can find a different meaning hidden away behind the stone. They can be used to represent creations and life, resurrection and rebirth, unity and harmony, strength and immortality, and success and effort among other things. These monuments are still around today, one being the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital! The idea that Jemisin uses throughout her trilogy and the way the readers learn more and more about the obelisks and their immense power as they continue the series made me start wondering what the obelisks could symbolize in our world away from the Stillness. Upon further research, I concluded that writing about the obelisks and keeping their true power and purpose from the readers for so long had to be one of the most challenging aspects of the trilogy to write. There is so much depth to this concept that seems so simple, especially when an author might already have an idea of where they want their story to end without spoiling too much too soon. 

Obelisks are very similar to satellites especially when put into a common category with the obelisks in “The Broken Earth.” What I mean by this is that obelisks are monuments made of stone that can symbolize power, life and success, while satellites are artificial bodies that are placed in orbit around the earth, moon, or another planet in order to collect information or for communication. When thought about through the perspective of someone living in the Stillness and witnessing all of the crazy events that can arise from pulling power from an obelisk, it makes a lot of sense why Jemisin chose this object to represent and hold power in the trilogy. Many NASA satellites carry cameras and scientific sensors. Sometimes these instruments point toward Earth to gather information about its land, air, and water. Other times they face out into space to collect data from the solar system and universe.

Satellites allow us to have TV and other mobile signals needed to communicate with others. They also collect information that is used to program GPS and GNSS programs that help us get from place to place safely and quickly. Satellites have a multitude of uses including measuring the temperature of the Earth, measuring the amount of greenhouse gasses and pollutants present in the atmosphere, collecting information that informs weather forecasts, and even collecting data on the amount of snow, sea ice, and plant cover there is on Earth. These measurements are all helpful in monitoring and predicting Earth’s changing climate. Scientists compare the data that satellites collect with the data that is found in other parts of the world to explore how the environment has and will continue to change as time goes on. There are so many things to discover when researching satellites, and one of the main connections I made between my findings and Jemisin’s trilogy was the stunning similarity between the function of satellites and the obelisks/node stations. 

Throughout the novels, we learn that node maintainers are most always orogene children that were taken at a young age (we find out later that a majority of them might be Alabaster’s offspring). These children are lobotomized and kept alive for the sole purpose of maintaining the geological stability of the surrounding area. We knew after reading The Fifth Season that orogenes have the ability to prevent earthquakes, tremors, and other tectonic events with the powers they were genetically given upon birth. This idea of orogenes having the power, even as children, to protect their surroundings unwillingly can be connected indirectly to satellites orbiting Earth to protect and predict future events so that Earth’s inhabitants can prepare for the upcoming geological events. The obelisks in the context of Jemisin’s writing are known for the amount of power they hold, even though they are seldom mentioned in the beginning of the trilogy. These obelisks and node stations can be seen as representing the human tendency to ignore what we do not understand and the way that people in power suppress information that might question the status quo. The Fulcrum is the place in the novels where orogene children are brought to learn how to control their abilities and find guidance from their Guardians throughout this transition process. The people of the Fulcrum did not tell the common people about the node stations and what was really maintaining the shakes. This suppression of information lead the children to grow up believing that the Fulcrum was a good place filled with good, honest people which we find out not to be true as often as we might like. The Fulcrum does not spend time teaching the children what the obelisks are or what they do because they don’t seem to fully understand them either. This ignorance later leads to a lot of destruction and loss for everyone and ends up being the reason that Nassun can turn her father to stone and the reason Essun becomes a stone eater. 

Volcanic activity as a geological concept has always been fascinating to me along with many other geological events that we as humans still have a lot to learn about. Looking back, it makes sense why I wrote about that what I thought was the most interesting/challenging strand of Jemisin’s writing, but now I have the opportunity and resources after finishing the trilogy to make the decision to shift my thinking to the obelisks and node stations compared to satellites and real-life monuments. These connections are ones that I would not have thought so deeply about before reading The Broken Earth and seeing things through the eyes of another world created through the art of science-fiction. Thank you N.K. Jemisin for getting me to practice thinkING outside of my corner of the world and giving me the resources to compile my findings into writing this essay.

Looking Back and Thinking Ahead: My Semester’s Story

		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

When I first read this prompt, I began by looking back on the course epigraphs and discovered something I hadn’t thought of before. After reading Percival Everett’s The Trees, I automatically connected to the Audre Lorde’s poem about promising her pen that she wouldn’t leave it sitting in someone else’s blood. This connection was an obvious one because of the aspect of blood and hurting other people, but then I started thinking more about the novel’s structure and how the plot and characterization layers slowly pull away to reveal more of the story. All of this being said, I have decided to take an alternate route to this paper than I was originally planning after thinkING deeper about the novel and the true meaning of the course epigraphs. I was able to make strong connections between the novel and Lucille Clifton’s poem and see it through a new lens through The Trees.

            Clifton’s poem really stood out to me after reading The Trees for a multitude of different reasons. The poem starts out with a definitive, slightly defensive tone as if someone was questioning her ability to write poetry, but the tone switches throughout until the narrator realizes that there are more components to poetry than meets the eye. This is very powerful when seen through Percival Everett’s novel, especially while what seems to be the same event is happening all over the country. White people are being delivered a death sentence for crimes the rest of the world was blind to (whether unintentional or intentional), and it causes the truth to finally emerge after many years of hiding in the shadows. Throughout the novel, higher level detectives from varying places are brought to Mississippi to try their hand at solving this string of brutal murders that continue happening all across the state. Sheriff Jetty of Money, Mississippi and his team are joined early on by Supervisory Special Agents Ed and Jim of the MBI in Hattiesburg. The team later expands to include FBI Agent Herberta Hind along with other officers representing surrounding counties that are mentioned a the end of the novel. All of these individuals come into the case with preconceived biases based on their background and this allows them to see the details of the case differently from each other. Lucille Clifton’s poem connects to this idea of each person can be given a poem or a case file of sorts and form their own opinions and notions based on what they see. Lucille also mentions “familiar poems about nature and landscape” which can be tied to the different perspectives that can be present in any given situation (Clifton lines 5-6).

            On the basis of characterization throughout the novel, Special Agents Ed and Jim meet Gertrude, a more complex character than readers might initially think. She works as a waitress at The Dinah, and on her uniform she wears a name tag that reads: Dixie. Upon meeting, Ed and Jim call Gertrude the name on her name tag and she corrects them by saying that her real name is Gertrude because “Dixies get better tips than Gertrudes” (Everett 39). At the end of the novel when Jim is informally interrogating Gertrude, he concludes that her real name isn’t Dixie or even Gertrude Penstock, but Gertrude Harvey and that she isn’t really Mama Z’s great-granddaughter as they aren’t even blood relatives (Everett 291). This concept of Gertrude’s real name circles back to the concept of perspective and how many layers they can be to one seemingly simple aspect. Gertrude is a character with many layers, constantly evolving under the readers’ nose, but still it shocks us in the end that she isn’t the person that we were told she was in the beginning. Lucille Clifton’s poem concludes with the line, “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (Clifton lines 9-11). There is always more to something or someone than what we observe at face value. We can observe and question many different aspects of this thing, but in reality it is very likely that we will never truly know it. This mindset pertains to more than just Gertrude’s character in The Trees, looking more broadly at the conflict this novel seeks to explain.

            The whole of Everett’s novel has readers immersed in a very real conflict that we see in our societies today. The novel is set in the midst of a developing race war between Whites and what they see as minority groups of Asian and Black people among many others. Mama Z has a collection of files of lynchings that happened all over the world, one of the first being the death of her father. In an effort to avenge the deaths of this multitude of people that died at the hands of White people that assumed they were the ones to blame when terrible things happened to their people, Mama Z, Gertrude and others murdered three men in the town of Money, Mississippi not realizing that they would start a trend across the state. Junior Junior, Wheat Bryant and Carolyn Bryant (Granny C) were all killed because they were either directly or indirectly (through lineage) responsible for the false accusations against Emmett Till who was kidnapped from his home and lynched in August 1955. The reason that was used to excuse this lynching was that Emmett allegedly flirted or whistled at Carolyn Bryant at the store, which violated the unwritten code of behavior for a black male interacting with a white female in the Jim Crow era in the South. This accusation led to Emmett Till’s death and consequently the death of these characters toward the beginning of Everett’s novel which was written based on true events. On page 161 of the novel, Everett writes notes on the discovery of Julius Lynch’s body (Mama Z’s biological father) that say “The body of Julius Lynch was claimed by his brother, John Lynch. The body was picked up by the Pierce Funeral Parlor. No one was interviewed. No suspects were identified. No one was arrested. No one was charged. No one cared” (Everett 161). There are so many perspectives to these cases and the background that follows them, reminding us that what we observe or hear and believe to be the truth is not necessarily everyone’s truth, but is something we will never understand in its entirety.

            The phrases that Everett uses in the final pages of his novel are very intense and hold more mean as readers acknowledge their reading journey is coming to a close. I wanted to take the time to highlight some of these quotes that really resonate with me even after finishing the novel in its entirety, connecting them back to the poem by Lucille Clifton found among out course epigraphs. When describing the group of Black people that killed her father, Laurel Winslow tells reporters, “They wasn’t human” (Everett 260). When the governor of South Carolina is discussing the deaths of six White males that morning he says, “…all of these killers are Black men who have no regard for human life…we are encouraging the good White people of South Carolina to be wary of any Black individuals, especially those unknown to them” immediately following the statement, “We understand, all of us, that the actions of a few members are not and should not be an indictment of an entire group” (Everett 261). All of these phrases quoted above are terrifyingly relevant to event that have occurred both in history and present day.

These statements made by government officials, local and federal, are at the heart of this issue and in turn infects the mindset of the common people, making it more difficult to stop the spread of hate and negativity. Disregarding people as human beings just because of a difference in skin color or appearance after having just said that one person’s wrongdoings should not affect someone’s outlook on the remainder of that group is appalling. Reading this novel and connecting it to my reading of Lucille Clifton’s poem has left me sad for the state of the world we are inhabitants of, but hopeful that someday we can all come together and realize just how wrong we were about others who think differently, believe differently, look differently, and act differently than we do. I hope that I can be part of the change that gets us to a better, more accepting and understanding place.

Image copied from https://stetsonfaculty.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/learning-to-embrace-diversity/

Father Earth’s Revenge: The Deadly Seasons

The Fifth Season includes many geological concepts to keep the readers engaged and wanting to read more. Throughout my reading of the novel, the most intriguing geological event N.K. Jemisin chose to include, in my opinion, was volcanic activity. The shakes are the primary geological aspect used most frequently throughout the novel, but after my reading I looked at the appendix and discovered something about the different seasons that make up the science-fiction world that is The Stillness. N.K. Jemisin took the time to go back to a time before her book was even set and created a timeline of Seasons for the readers to explore after their initial reading of her work in The Fifth Season.

There are a total of twelve seasons that N.K. Jemisin writes about in “Appendix I, A Catalog of Fifth Seasons…”, and out of those twelve seasons, eight of them were somehow linked with volcanic activity (eruptions, hot spots, etc.). A Fifth Season, as defined by Jemisin in Appendix II of The Fifth Season, is “an extended winter – lasting at least six months, per Imperial designation – triggered by seismic activity or other large-scale environmental alteration” (Jemisin 460). The Choking Season, Boiling Season, Breathless Season, Season of Teeth, Fungus Season, Madness Season, Heavy Metal Season, and Twin Season were all a result of some sort of volcano related geological event!

I found it extremely interesting that three-fourths of the cataloged Fifth Seasons were connected to volcanoes because of how prominent shakes/earthquakes are throughout the novel. This leads me as a reader to begin thinking about these geological events in relation to the topic of power and justice. Father Earth is described as a vengeful being that is out to destroy humankind and there are many things written about him in the stonelore and other forms of historical communication that frequently appear that the end of each chapter. For example, the quote at the end of chapter twenty in The Fifth Season is from an Ancient Folk Song and reads “Some say the Earth is angry / Because he wants no company; / I say the Earth is angry / Because he lives alone” (Jemisin 387). In the eyes of someone who thinks the Earth is vengeful because of the orogenes, stone eaters, and Guardians (among others) inhabiting the planet and using their powers to alter the way the Earth works, it could be said that Father Earth is using the power he has to fight for what he thinks is just. When the orogenes alter the Earth in anyway using their powers to stop quakes and other seismic/geological events from impacting the people that inhabit the Earth, they could be seen as using their power (in the literal and figurative sense) to avenge the population and provide justice to those who live in the Earth’s surface.

I read a National Geographic article in preparation for this essay and discovered that volcanic activity can occur in many forms. Volcanic ash is very harmful if inhaled, can collapse weak structures and even cause power outages. Volcanic mudflows can prove to be very destructive, burying entire towns in their wake. Pyroclastic flows, avalanches of hot rocks, ash and toxic gas can race down slopes at speeds as high as 450 miles an hour. These are just a few major examples of what volcanoes have the power to do. In the novel, Essun, Hoa, and Tonkee walk together amongst others through ash clouds that require them to wear face masks to avoid suffocation. The article, “Volcanoes, explained” written by Maya Wei-Haas (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/volcanoes), emphasizes how each volcano is unique and how it can’t always be easy to predict volcanic eruptions. Maya writes that warning signs include small earthquakes and difference in the appearance of the volcano in question, but “none of those signs necessarily mean an eruption in imminent” (Wei-Haas). The idea the humankind is sometimes unable to predict volcanic activity and use this information to take necessary precautions and preparations for a life altering geological event, the Earth has the power. Just like in the novel, Father Earth is the character that holds the power in the relationship between him and the people living on his surface.  

Call and Response: An Anthology of Perspective

While voraciously glancing through the many pages that make up the Call and Response anthology, I was pleasantly surprised to see a wide range of literacy organized throughout. I began thinking about the collaborative writing style and differing aesthetics showcased throughout the book. Aesthetics, by definition, are methods used to promote or educate readers about important artistic expression in society, and that is exactly what I think the authors and editors for this anthology were aiming for. Everyone knows that literature is one of many art forms and can be represented through poetry, short stories, song lyrics, etc. and all of these and more are included in this collection. The main aesthetic of Call and Response as a whole anthology seems to be focused on the differences between the individual authors in terms of aesthetic. This begs the question, is the main aesthetic of the anthology truly one aesthetic?

            The title of this book, Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literacy Tradition, suggests that these authors are members of a common cultural community that are working together to educate their peers, similar and dissimilar to themselves, on the past, present, and foreseeable future of the culture in question: African American culture. One of our first reading assignments for this course was the short story, “Everyday Use.” The problems that are presented in this story really work through a common struggle people have with shifting cultural values. Dee, Mama, and Maggie are all struggling with opposing thoughts on how blankets made by an ancestor should be used to keep their heritage alive. Dee has gone off to college and has learned so much about Black culture that she feels that she is right when she says the blankets should be hung on the wall of a common space for all guests to admire. Mama and Maggie do not have any level of higher education and are working physically to support themselves instead, and they strongly believe that the blankets will be honored through use in their home for typical blanket purposes (keeping warm, etc.). Neither is necessarily wrong or right; it’s all about perspective. Thinking about present day, a lot of people are struggling to figure out how to best represent their ancestors in today world. Some have decided on pushing back on what history thinks of their culture and have started fresh with their own newfound knowledge and understanding of their culture, others are still living like their ancestors lived before them trying not to change a thing. Then, there are others still that have decided on combining old and new aspects of their culture’s values and making them feasible to their daily lives. Again, none of these options is the “right” one. Everyone comes into life with their own ability to see, think, and feel different aspects of the world around them. This short story really shows different perspectives in the anthology and begins proving that the overall aesthetic of it is a unique mixture of many perspectives.

            Besides short stories, Call and Response also includes poems, songs, sermons, and author/editor biographies before their designated section of the anthology. “A Sermon,” found on page 194, is a sermon that was preached on June 24, 1789, in Boston and it reads: “Roman xii. 10. Be kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love, in honour preferring one another.” This sermon is of few words but has a big impact on the general population at this time, especially in the Black community. At this point in history, slavery was still a huge part of everyday lives, and this sermon speaks clearly to the members of all communities alike to open up their hearts and love one another under the words of God. Regarding perspective, this sermon can be looked at from different perspectives when using a historical lens. There is truly perspective in everything. Having this sermon included in Call and Response allowed authors and editors to provide multiple literacy outlets for African American voices to be heard.

            Music is an aspect of African American culture that serves as an outlet for feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and one of the many songs included in Call and Response is “Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Negro National Anthem” (796). One section of this song resonated with me throughout my journey of flipping through the anthology reads “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, / Out from the gloomy past, / Till now we stand at last / Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast” (796). This song as a whole speaks volumes to what life was like back in 1900 when James Weldon Johnson first wrote and performed the song. This song was so popular during this time in history that the NAACP adopted it on February 12, 1900. It was bittersweet for me to see this song in the anthology because I have knowledge of the time period and the struggles that the Black community had to face due to the ignorance of the white majority, and I am glad that society is actively working on making a change in how people of different cultures and backgrounds are treated in modern society, but it hurts me to think that we were ever in a place where treating people less than human was acceptable. This piece of literature, even though it is presented in song format, helps readers of the anthology gain knowledge and understanding of important historical events that help develop different perspectives on African American cultural values.

            The book doesn’t just enlighten its readers about only the good or bad, hardships or triumphs, past or present. It is an envelope that allows for all views, old and new, to be explored. This compilation of literature was created for readers to think, feel, and beginning to better understand what it is like to be a member of a culture that is made from so many different pieces, and our goal is to try to fit the pieces together to create an image of the past, present, and future of African American culture in literacy and beyond.