To Control What Breathes: A Greedy & Fruitless Endeavor

Earlier in the semester, I reflected on N. K. Jemisin’s use of unyieldingly strong power—that of Orogenes and the Earth’s in her first novel of The Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season—and how it stands against those who attempt to harness or manipulate it. I claimed that, “both the natural world and orogenes…[are] subjected to great degrees of restraint by individuals in power,” (Avila) all the while containing an immense amount of power within themselves. In navigating the rest of The Broken Earth trilogy, I have examined this notion further, revisiting the conclusion that humans and the geological environment that surrounds them have autonomy regardless of oppression. Therefore, trying to put restraints on those that have and can develop autonomy is not only a pointless effort, but one rooted in a desire for personal gain. I described how, “Orogenes—under the watchful eye of a discriminatory society, the Fulcrum and their Guardians (if given the ‘opportunity’)—and the geological world—at the hands of law makers, large corporations, humanity, and capitalism—are both underestimated in their capabilities,” (Avila) and that limitations, such as these, are to no avail if the ones implementing these limits don’t understand, or refuse to acknowledge, that they are severely unmatched in their strength compared to the ones they try to control. In their underestimation and, more importantly, exploitation of others, they are blind to signs of resistance and ignorant to the failure of prior attempts to dominate people and places. This observation, both in the novels and in actuality, can get others considering how they approach learning about and interacting with the natural world and others in it. 

Fracking & Faults: A History of Exploitation & Enslavement

There are several repercussions to all parties when it comes to dismissing, placing restraints on, and trying to defy powerful, living beings. All that is sentient comes with stressors and, with it, its breaking points. Earth has its fault lines and, similarly, humans have their physical and emotional boundaries. Both, when subjected to centuries of abuse and misuse, are subject to snap under pressure. 

Firstly, let us explore this concept under the lens of N. K. Jemisin’s world in The Broken Earth novels. The first in the trilogy, The Fifth Season, introduces readers to the supercontinent of ‘The Stillness’ and the power dynamics within it: Orogenes, both in/from the Fulcrum and out of it, under the firm hand of Guardians and stills, being forced to serve them and their seismic needs in order to keep the overly active Earth at bay. Orogenes that do not find themselves constrained by the internment of the Fulcrum are referred to as ‘ferals’ (as if the animalistic treatment of Orogenes wasn’t enough to convince stills and Guardians that they should not be considered human). Regardless of background, all oroegenes are expected to be enslaved and utilized to protect the continent and its inhabitants from cataclysmic events or minor geological inconveniences. One of the major characters in the trilogy, Alabaster, notes in the first book, “‘They are gods in chains…The tamers of the wild earth, themselves to be bridled and muzzled,’” (Jemisin 167). Similar to how orogenic people are viewed and assumed to be subservient, the geosphere below them—Father Earth, as Jemisin’s characters refer to him—has historically been used as a source of power by humans of all abilities (Orogenes, Guardians, stills, stone eaters, etc). In the second novel, The Obelisk Gate, we learn that humans originally began digging into Father Earth to contain and use his power for a variety of reasons. Jemisin delves into the specifics of this repeated cycle of exploitation in the final novel of the trilogy, specifically, but more on that later. 

There are obvious parallels between Father Earth and the Earth we know in the real world: both under constant suffering of human induced climate problems and self-indulgent practices that deplete them of their natural resources. However, a quality they seem to share with orogenes and marginalized people alike is that of overpowered beings refusing to acknowledge their humanity or existence as a living entity. For centuries, people on The Stillness have rejected the idea of orogenes being people and Father Earth being alive, both with their own intentions, drives, and [super]natural abilities. Likewise, people in marginalized communities and the Earth, as we know it, have been subjected to others ignoring their basic needs for respect and survival. Jemisin draws attention to this and urges readers to reflect on the power dynamics of their environment through the use of her ‘fictional’ world.

Shakes & Eruptions: ‘Unexpected’ Resistance

Because those in power have been, and are, so accustomed to the ones they enslave being subservient, they are constantly under the impression that resistance is the last thing they have to worry about. I noted in my previous reflection on Jemisin’s novels, “Stills and Guardians, much like companies and everyday people in relation to the earth, are so convinced that the power they hold over orogenes is so absolute and concrete, they would never expect them to act on their own accord…” (Avila). However, regardless of circumstance, the oppressed always have the strength to establish a sense of autonomy, even if it’s rooted deep within them. There are several accounts of resistance in Jemisin’s trilogy and several countries’ histories in the real world, especially when examining first hand accounts of those who have been oppressed. To understand why an entire group of people (or, in Jemisin’s case, an entire sentient globe) chose paths of defiance against those who have enslaved them for so long, one must be conscious of two concepts. One, that oppressors will most likely attempt to record the history of the oppressed—often shaping the minds of readers and researchers into perceiving the oppressed as ‘deserving of their suffering’—and two, that the most accurate depiction of ones experience with discrimination and resistance will always be written by the abused. 

To begin with a prime example of opposition in an unjust society, Ella Forbes’ essay, African Resistance to Enslavement: The Nature of the Evidentiary Record, goes into detail on how false narratives led those who participated in the slave trade and people, centuries after, who learn the eurocentric history of slavery, to assume enslaved people were passive or too weak to resist. She explains how very little resistance was recorded or released publicly to enforce this narrative, though, she writes, “The narratives of Africans who had been enslaved offer the most Afrocentric look at resistance…although Eurocentric writers have dismissed them as abolitionist propaganda,” (Forbes, 39-40). Comparably, there are several instances in The Broken Earth trilogy where the practice of resistance was heavily erased through ‘Imperial history’ excerpts, typically found at the end of chapters in the novels, or was made to feel impossible through heavy surveillance. (Contrarily, in terms of the Fulcrum or fragment complexes, where Tuners were held, [again, more on these later], little or concentrated surveillance was presented to those being forced into labor because they were brainwashed to be cooperative: “No need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment.” (The Stone Sky, Jemisin 5).) 

In order to contrast these narratives, Jemisin’s use of changing perspectives between chapters assists the reader in understanding the actuality of a suppressed person’s suffering, and, ultimately, the motivation to fight against their oppressors. For instance, Jemisin guides readers through the first novel by switching the perspective of narration from Essun to Syenite to Damaya. Once it’s revealed that they are all the same character, just at different times in her life, readers have a better understanding of Essuns overall experiences, eventually leading her (Syenite) to destroy the city of Allia and the island of Meov when under the attack of Fulcrum Guardians. In the second book, The Obelisk Gate, readers are given a surprising point of view to read from: (Damaya/Syenite’s) Guardian Schaffa. It is through this narration that we learn he, and all Guardians, are technically under the control of Father Earth himself, and have been for hundreds to thousands of years. However, when Schaffa develops a close relationship to Nassun, Essun’s daughter, his will overpowers that of the Earth’s and his commands. This painful act of defiance—quite literally, as it is killing Schaffa to do so—is another experience that would have been overlooked if the narrative had only stuck with a single character’s perspective. While it is disclosed that Father Earth was the true entity and source of control behind the cruelty of the Guardians, it is fully unveiled in the final book that this forced mastery was also a personal, confrontational reaction to years of exploitation at the hands of people who did not acknowledge the personification of the Earth. These people, the Sylanagistine, sparked the war among humanity the characters in Jemisin’s novels are presented with and must navigate for survival.

A Blind Eye to Rubble: Neglected Warning Signs

The ancient people and society of Syl Anagist is made known to readers in The Stone Sky, the final book in the trilogy. Here is where N. K. Jemisin reveals the parallels between that world and the current one of The Stillness (like a reverse foreshadowing). To name a few:

  • In the world of Syl Anagist, orogenic power is combined with magic, harnessed from the core of the Earth. The individuals who can channel this unification of abilities are called Tuners. I don’t think I have to explain who they compare to the most in The Stillness.
  • Tuners live and work out of a complex of buildings that surround a cities ‘local fragment’ (later known as the obelisks in The Stillness), where they are not permitted to leave unless for work or with a Conductor (those who oversee and give them orders). Their own ‘Fulcrum’ and set of ‘Guardians,’ how fitting.
  • Surrounding each fragment/obelisk, there are thick vines (‘sinklines’) with Tuners intertwined in a half-dead state to power the magic within the fragments, providing a constant source of power to the surrounding city (Jemisin 262). These can be connected to the node stations in The Stillness, where strong, young Orogenes are put in wire chairs to keep the strata stable for its surrounding Comms. 

When the Tuners came to realize their eventual fate was to either be killed or placed into a sinkline, that their existence was merely for the depletion of the Earth’s resources, and they were forever meant to serve others that saw them as less than human, they devised a plan to destroy the Conductors’ attempt at containing more magic. This resulted in the loss of the Moon: dooming it into an abnormal orbit away from the Earth, causing the deadly Seasons on the continent of The Stillness. The Earth combatted this act as best as he could, using the power of the fragments the way the Tuners did to cause this catastrophe in the first place. As a form of merciful vengeance, he turned Tuners into what the people on The Stillness know as stone eaters. (It is also speculated that he turned Conductors into Guardians by placing shards of iron from the Earth’s core into their sessapaines). The stone eaters, and this mostly unknown history of the world, act as a warning sign to future generations and societies of people who try to dehumanize and utilize people for their abilities and identities. 

In reference to the world we live in today, there is a widely ‘understood’ concept of history repeating itself, as people refuse to acknowledge historical warning signals and allow major unjust or destructive events to occur. Japan, most notably, has its own cautions set in stone. Martin Fackler, in an article titled Tsunami Warnings, Written in Stone, investigates centuries old stone tablets across the coast of Japan with messages carved into them: warnings to not build structures, live, or frequent certain places because of previous destruction in them caused by tsunamis. He explains how some people abide by these instructions, while others (mainly modern architects, engineers, and companies) were convinced that “advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas…” (Fackler). When driven by greed, personal gain, superiority complexes, and insensible perspectives, whole areas of the world, and groups of people within them, can meet detrimental fates. This is true for business and home owners on the coast of Japanese islands, as well as the Earth and characters in Jemisin’s trilogy, who endured traumatizing experiences founded on the ignorance of others. When starting to explain the world of Syl Anagist to the reader, Hoa, the primary narrator, states, “Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place,” (Jemisin 7) as to further establish this positionality.

Emancipated Respiration: Conclusion

A combination of unwillingness to accept cautionary tales, underestimation, and forced utilization of living beings under the control of others has helped form the basis of atrocities in The Broken Earth trilogy and several issues of discrimination and exploitation our own world. See, the oppressed have always been dismissed as weak in physical and emotional capability. Conquerors never want to admit that their ‘submissive’ counterparts live and potentially function under their own free will. That they, too, have the potential to start wars and end them. The Earth and the humanity it inhabits are subject to the depletion of their strength by people in all positions of power. However, historian Will Durant has written, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”* While this can exhibit the idea that civilization lives because the earth has allowed them to, and that this can change at any point, his sentiment leaves me wondering: Is anyone really in control of anything? The ability to live [breathe] and produce life is not a privilege granted to establish dominance: it is to be used as a means of connection and collaboration. While we can’t preach this to the ground below us, we can start with the people who dig their toes into the sand and dirt of Father Earth for the fun of it.

*I made the mistake of crediting this quote to Robert Byrne in my precursor essay to this post. It was, indeed, coined by American historian and writer Will Durant. Sincerest apologies!

Generational Trauma and Healing: Not Just For Humans

By: Maria Pawlak, Abby Anderson, Makayla Williams, Elizabeth Roos, Hallie Edic, Francheska Colon, Emilee Coughlin, Lidabel Avila

More than a decade after the infamous Boxing Day Tsunami left hundreds of thousands dead, the Krakatoa caldera threatened to once again bring death and destruction to Indonesian shores. The area is extremely seismically active, particularly in the Sumatra region. As the region’s residents and those throughout the country received warnings that their worst day might be one-upped by a similar volcanic force, many found themselves forced to face the possibility that everything they had worked to rebuild could be washed away by something over which they have no power. Considering how long the Krakatoa caldera has been active, and how many deadly natural disasters occur in the area, one could wonder why generations of people choose to stay, suffer, rebuild, and stay again and again. However, it’s a very human instinct: to react and rebuild. This instinct is on display throughout N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. 

This sci-fi/fantasy trilogy features a world called the Stillness, which experiences cataclysmic events with an alarming frequency. Entire cities, continents, and peoples are wiped out and rebuilt and yet, Jemisin’s characters continue living doggedly on, through grit teeth and white knuckles, but also through love, family, and culture. A mirror of that same human instinct is found when considering the caldera itself. Recently after the initial, extremely lethal tsunami of 2004, the caldera exploded again, bringing new death and destruction with it. Strangely, this new destruction arrived with a new name: the Child of Krakatoa. Humanity’s instinct to map patterns of familiarity onto trauma is stark, made evident by the generations of people living where their ancestors perished, people who had the instinct to call a consecutive event of destruction a child. As a way to refer to the repetition of destruction and the generational experience communities have within it, we will use the term “generational trauma.” This term has become a buzzword, which strips away meaning, but it’s our aim to use it specifically as a way to refer to generations of people and land who survive through repeated ruinous events. Through examining how art intersects with trauma in seismic events of death and destruction, we can investigate humanity’s determination to make sense of suffering and rebuild generation after generation.

To fully understand the seismic generational trauma of the area, we must first detail the repeating history of the cataclysmic events in the Krakatoa region. Starting the morning of December 26th, 2004, a 9.1 quake ruptured a 900-mile stretch of fault line where the Indian and Australian tectonic plates meet. The quake caused the ocean floor to suddenly rise by 40 meters, triggering the massive Boxing Day Tsunami. More than 100,000 people died in the city of Banda Aceh after the first of several hundred-foot waves hit the shoreline, pounding the city into rubble. By the time the water receded, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making this one of the deadliest disasters in modern history—claiming casualties in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and even South Africa. Since this disaster, many governments and aid groups have prioritized disaster risk reduction and preparedness. However, years later, in December 2018, the volcano of Anak Krakatau, the ‘Child’ of Krakatoa, underwent ongoing eruptions in the Sunda Strait that caused undersea landslides, triggering a tsunami that struck beaches in Sumatra and Java. However, there was no warning prior to the disaster, resulting in the deaths of over 400 people. Since this occurrence, the Indonesian government is now working to add volcano sensors to its warning system. Data now shows that the Anak Krakatau has continued to erupt as frequently as every year since 2018, and research shows it will continue to do so for many years. This record of the area’s seismic activity depicts not only the repeated damage done to Indonesia and its surrounding areas, but also the human efforts to rebuild after each of these devastating events.

Before continuing to speak about the human story of the Boxing Day Tsunami, it’s important to pause and examine the environmental story. Beginning with a  prologue, the effect the seismic event had on the environment right before the tsunami hit is compelling. According to the presentation Social and Economic Impact of December 2004 Tsunami, just before the tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there were “changes in bird calls,” as well as an overall shift in bird and marine animal behavior. After the tsunami hit, however, there was a decrease in local fish populations, as well as salt intrusions into freshwater water sources. Additionally, there was “severe damage to ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, forests, coastal wetlands, vegetation, sand dunes and rock formations, animal and plant biodiversity and groundwater,” as well as a “spread of solid and liquid waste and industrial chemicals,” greatly polluting the water of islands hit by the tsunami that would not clear until years afterward. Thankfully, eight years later, the ecosystems of the islands hit by the tsunami have greatly recovered. The changes in the photos of locations such as Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, waterways have been cleared of debris and greenery such as grass and trees have returned, even as these locations have been developed by humans.

Moving from the environmental impact to the human impact allows us to witness the instinct to react and rebuild. The first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy opens with the quote, “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.” The blasé tone the narrator takes demonstrates his repeated exposure to massive destruction, similar to the people of the Krakatoa region. It’s commonplace. While that apathy is not identical to our world’s reaction to destruction, there is something to be said for how areas of repeated seismic events carry “generational trauma” with them. In terms of the 2004 Tsunami, the human impact was overwhelming, with 220,000 human lives lost. Countless more were deemed missing. To make things worse, in the 2018 tsunami, Jakarta’s tsunami detection buoys were mysteriously non-functioning, leaving people scrambling at the last minute to find safety when the disaster was imminent—resulting in more deaths. 

However devastating the human impact, it was not ubiquitous throughout the region. Countries with more funds, greater access to western support, and charity found themselves in better positions. Thailand suffered more losses than that of Sri Lanka or Indonesia, though they were able to rebuild their country, but places like the Banda Aceh in Northern Indonesian are in real need of assistance to rebuild. By 2014 Indonesia had been fully rebuilt, but it took an entire decade. Regardless, the trials for the Indonesian people haven’t ended with the rebuilding of infrastructure. In Jemisin’s world, many mental illnesses plagued the people of the Stillness; for Indonesia, after the tsunamis the rate of post traumatic stress reactivity increased significantly, and remains in the minds of those who underwent this disaster.

The death and destruction of the tsunami have been transformed by artists as a means of finding peace in chaos, showing humanity’s need to create something beautiful from pain and rebuild the community. In The Stone Sky, Houwha the tuner learns the difference between art and utility upon encountering an engine created differently than others: “It had the same fundamental structure as other plutonic engines. Only its purpose is different—no, no. That’s too simple an assessment. What’s different here is…philosophical. Attitudinal. The Plutonic Engine is a tool. This thing? Is…art.” Examples of art are seen through the events that occurred after the Boxing Day Tsunami. For example, in the Aceh provincial community, World Food Programme personnel developed a school meals program for survivors in which children were allowed to sketch images of their experiences. Ten of the children were reunited with their drawings a decade after the life-altering event. Fir, a survivor, made a sketch of loved ones he had lost. He reveals, “It was bittersweet. I am really glad that my house and [immediate] family were not affected, but on that day I lost something greater, my relatives.” Fir uses this experience as a way of finding peace in what he lost in the tsunami. As most humans do, Fir employs art as a means of recovery from trauma and loss. These creations show the necessity of the human race to find beauty in destruction and use art as a method to comprehend and heal. 

In examining the colossal seismic events at and as a result of the Krakatoa Volcano, and the art that has emerged from the events’ equally destructive aftermaths, our attention is brought to a variety of issues which trace a pattern of human response and resilience to natural disasters throughout history. Additionally, we see that some people are vastly limited in their access to resources to combat these ramifications. Those who are responsible for this lack of accessibility, or for the practices that lead to the catastrophic event themselves, are never the ones highly affected by either. While attempts were made in relief efforts after the tsunami in 2004, they were not adequate for the community of people in the area that were already subject to external discriminatory factors before the event. Exploring these impacts can highlight the necessity for better safety education and accessibility to resources. 

Lastly, it’s difficult to reconcile our explosive, violent planet with the gentle image of Mother Earth, which is why N.K. Jemisin’s depiction of the planet is not only male, but aggressive. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy takes this long-upheld personification and twists it; in the Stillness, Father Earth is fully alive, completely aware— endlessly bent on revenge after being exploited. In doing this, Jemisin emphasizes humanity’s need to keep personifying the earth, but their contradictory practice of dehumanizing it in its treatment. At the same time, her protagonists also feel the effects of dehumanization; Essun spends her formative years being polished into a weapon, and her fear of how orogenes are treated causes her to train her daughter, Nassun, in the same emotionless way. This reiteration of abusive methods of control is just one way Jemisin acknowledges the cyclical way trauma takes effect. In the same way the earth and orogenes alike are and have been taken advantage of with no consideration for their safety, people in impoverished and underserved communities devastated by the tsunamis in the Krakatoa region are not fully supported before or after decades of destruction. Talk about generational trauma.

Not very gneiss.

To Control What Breathes

Robert Byrne stated, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” The notion of nature not being able to be controlled is a harsh reality (only supported by the rapid evolution of the current anthropocene). N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season brings light to this concept with her ‘orogene’ characters – beings capable of sensing the inner workings of the geosphere, while being able to use it to their advantage if needed. However, as both the natural world and orogenes are powerful forces within themselves, greater than the ability and strength of most other living things, they are both subjected to great degrees of restraint by individuals in power. Orogenes – under the watchful eye of a discriminatory society, the Fulcrum and their Guardians (if given the ‘opportunity’) – and the geological world – at the hands of law makers, large corporations, humanity, and capitalism – are both underestimated in their capabilities. One cannot simply put limitations on what can inevitably cause catastrophe (or stop it).

Restrictions aren’t the only issues pertaining to these forces of nature. The dismissiveness of their power is undoubtedly both a sign of disrespect and a threat to their environments. In disregarding the magnitude of their abilities, as well as their willingness to use them, people end up undermining their potential impact. In an article about the possible endangerment of New York as a result of nearby fault lines in proximity to New York City, it was reported that many old fault lines, discovered due to small clusters of earthquakes happening near or on them, were thought to be inactive and therefore not a danger to surrounding areas. However, earthquake researcher Lynn R. Sykes found that they were still very capable of generating damaging earthquakes. In fact, one of these fault lines can be found near a nuclear power plant just outside the New York City area. If an earthquake of high enough magnitude were to occur, it could potentially cause high structural and economical damage, not to mention affect the lives of several people. But the evidence of possible seismic activity was buried in the minds of people and corporations, too stubborn to realize the likelihood of the earth beneath them not caring about their lives on the surface. 

Similarly, the orogenes in Jemisin’s story experience their own kind of ignorant dismissiveness. In allowing her orogene characters to harness the grandiose power of the earth they stand on, she gives them an almost endless amount of abilities. Specifically when more experienced characters like Alabaster can sense sound waves and vibrations through rocks, as well as ‘quell,’ or calm smaller earthquakes with casual ease. In this particular instance, Jemisin draws attention to the immense amount of power orogenes can posses, all while being restricted by Guardians and people at the Fulcrum, where concentrations of orogenes learn how to control their powers as well as how to use them for the benefit of ‘stills’ (people who don’t possess their abilities). To stop even the minutest of earthquakes from happening is a task no one can do realistically, only showcasing the strength of orogenic power. Orogenes like Alabaster aren’t ignored in their strength; in fact, people all over their continent are well aware of their capabilities, channeling that knowledge into fear or intolerance. What stills and Guardians fail to recognize, however, is the will power each orogene can still obtain. Without forced teachings on how to control their abilities, orogenic power is based on instinct – when their mind and body are convinced they’re in danger, their ‘torus’ (the base of their powers) reacts accordingly. Naturally, it’s just a way for the body to protect itself. That instinct is still within them, it has only been suppressed by the abusive lessons at the Fulcrum. Stills and Guardians, much like companies and everyday people in relation to the earth, are so convinced that the power they hold over orogenes is so absolute and concrete, they would never expect them to act on their own accord, without direction or approval from the ones at the Fulcrum. Yet, much like how the earth doesn’t ask permission to commit catastrophic events, they are entirely capable of doing so – “‘They are gods in chains,’ Alabaster breathes… ‘The tamers of the wild earth, themselves to be bridled and muzzled,’” (167). 

It is through her convincing narrative in which readers can understand that, yes, a human being is capable of harnessing and controlling the force of the almighty earth, and yes, they can still experience ignorance, hatred, and torture for being born with something they did not ask for. In pressuring people (and geological phenomena to an extent) to suppress, change, or disregard their natural abilities and gifts for the sake of personal gain, or personal comfort, their value is minimized to the rest of the world, furthering them from a place of justice.