The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages by Geraldine Heng talks about race and how it was a social construct during times of historic Europe. She states, “Race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content,” (Heng 2018). Both Heng and N.K. Jemisin, the author of the book The Fifth Season uses racialization, a process of categorizing, marginalizing, or regarding according to race (Merriam-Webster dictionary n.d.) in their works to bring to light how race affects the way certain groups of people are treated. In N.K. Jemisin’s book she makes many parallels to race in our world regarding character and world-building. This parallel specifically surrounds a group called orogenes a group of people who have the power to control the kinetic energy to redirect or make seismic events. Orogenes are looked down upon by non-orogenes who see them as dangerous and must be controlled for their safety and well-being. Though N.K. Jemisin does not specifically hint at what race the orogenes are, the way orogenes are treated in her book is very similar to how many minorities in the United States are treated. On her blog, she mentions, “ Yet race in our world is a social construct, not anything related to actual biology, so it makes sense that a world which has such complicated feelings about orogenes would conceptually fission them off from the rest of humanity” (Jemisin 2015). What she says in her blog tells us that the orogenes are feared because of their power and the things they can do with it, and due to this non-orogenes fear them. Her words also tell us that orogenes are only feared due to their uniqueness from the rest and the way they behave is also different to non orogenes. Due to their fears and lack of understanding, negative stereotypes of the orogenes are created, so if one of them were to act “feral” it would feed into the negative stereotypes the non-orogenes created of them. This also relates to my thesis since many stereotypes that were created against minorities were only made due to our differences with one another whether that was by culture, physical looks, etc. Furthermore, stereotypes are also a type of social construct that justifies the social power one group has over another (Augoustinos, Walker 1998). All in all, Jemisin’s creation of stereotypes for her characters mirrors real minorities that are created from a group of people with more power who have a lack of understanding and fear against minority groups.
However, it isn’t just stereotypes that Jemisin makes in her book to parallel our world, but also traits that oppressed groups have. By adding such traits to her book, specifically her characters it adds realism and meaning to them. The Fifth Season shows this with,
“If the problem is that ferals are not predictable…well, orogenes have to prove themselves reliable. The Fulcrum has a reputation to maintain; that’s part of this. So’s the training, and the uniform, and the endless rules they must follow, but the breeding is part of it too, or why is she here? It’s somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation,” (Jemisin 58).
This quote represents a parallel of racialization because Syenite, a female orogene knows that orogenes who don’t know how to control their power are considered feral and unpredictable which scares non-orogenes. In order to not be considered a feral, she goes to Fulcrum, a place where orogenes are taught to control their power to learn her limits, in order to protect herself. This quote also connects back to Heng’s words because the fulcrum is a structural institution that was made to manage the differences between orogenes and non oroegenes. However, creating such an institution, essentially makes her and many other orogenes degrade themselves for the sake of others in order not to be viewed in a negative light. A quote in The Fifth Season states, “But this is what it means to be civilized—doing what her betters say she should, for the ostensible good of all. […] That means her own apartment; no more roommates. Better missions, longer leave, more say in her own life. That’s worth it. Earthfire yes, it’s worth it,” (Jemisin 60). This quote shows Syenite degrading herself by doing things she does not want to do but does anyway to not get punished, to get stronger, and most importantly have more power and control over her life. This is similar to how minorities do code-switching, which is a way to change the way they talk, act, dress, etc for the comfort of others and to get job opportunities and fair treatment/service (McCluney et al. 2019). Syenite’s words show code-switching because she degrades herself during a mission with Alabaster, a male orogene, where they have sex together every day to create an orogene offspring. Though she does not want to do this and feels disgusted with herself for doing such a task, she does it anyway to prove herself at the Fulcrum to get a higher rank among the orogenes and have a better quality of life. Another character that also shows this trait is Essun, and Jemisin states on her blog that she has that trait that oppressed people have due to her experiences where she can hide and protect herself like any other orogene/feral, but also act arrogant and eccentric if needed (Jemisin 2015). Jemisin uses stereotypes and code-switching as a form of racialization to add depth to her characters and make them relatable to our world.
Furthermore, Jemisin uses racialization in other ways for her characters, such as creating their powers. Jemisin mentions on her blog that orogenes share traits of oppressed groups like “Blackdar” (Jemisin 2015). Blackdar is a way for African Americans to detect if someone has African ancestry just by looking at them (Blackdar definition n.d.). She shows that trait with orogenes by having them be able to tell who is an orogene by their “sess” which is when an orogene uses their powers to control or create seismic activity. Another example of this “Blackdar” racialization in her book would be with the character Ykka, a female orogene who has this magical ability to call orogenes to her. It also allows the character to know who is an orogene as well when she meets them because they respond to her call. Jemisin repeatedly uses racialization to create her characters, world, and powers for The Fifth Season which mirrors our world in terms of social power and people.
N.K. Jemisin also uses racialization for the setting of The Fifth Season, which mostly takes place in the Stillness, a supercontinent. Stillness can be compared to Pangea, which was a real supercontinent back during the late Paleozoic Era until the very late Triassic (USGS What was Pangea? n.d.). Just like Pangea is made up of the many continents we know today, so is the Stillness in Jemisin’s fictional world. N.K. Jemisin talks about the Stillness and the people who inhabit it who have racial phenotypes we have in our world, including eye shape, hair, skin color, etc (Jemisin 2015). The places on the supercontinent also resemble certain countries in our world like the island Meov, a place that has a lot of earthquakes and tsunamis. Meov’s natural disasters and geology are quite similar to Japan’s since it’s a string of islands (also known as an archipelago) with three tectonic plates rubbing against each other, causing a lot of earthquakes (Japan National Geographic Kids 2021). Jemisin mentions how certain parts of the Stillness would resemble certain races like the Artics would be White, the East Coast would be Black, the West Coast would be Asians, and so forth (Jemisin 2015). Overall, Jemisin’s idea of racializing the Stillness is a great way for readers to visualize the characters and make them more relatable to certain people in terms of real-world experiences. Not only that, but it makes it easier for readers to connect the dots of what kind of stereotypes she’s trying to make with her characters based on real people.
In conclusion, Jemisin uses racialization to create her characters and setting in The Fifth Season allowing readers to make real-world connections to issues involving race and geography. As well as using Geraldine Heng’s research paper about race in historic Europe, Jemisin can show her readers that race is a social construct, which Jemisin mentions on her blog when writing her book series. For example, creating negative stereotypes that are associated with orogenes, causes them to have to code-switch to protect themselves and others for fair treatment. Another example would be how Jemisin uses geography and geology to create the events and setting for the book. Jemisin’s idea of using science and social construct to create The Fifth Season is something that allows readers to think and educate themselves while also enjoying what her book has to offer.
Augoustinos, M., & Walker, I. (1998). The Construction of Stereotypes within Social Psychology. Theory & Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354398085003
Berlatsky, N. (2015, July 27). NK Jemisin: The fantasy writer upending the “racist and sexist status quo.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/27/nk-jemisin-interview-fantasy-science-fiction-writing-racism-sexism
blackdar. (n.d.). Blackdar – Wiktionary, The free dictionary. Wiktionary. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/blackdar#:~:text=Noun,ancestry%20by%20observing%20that%20person.
Heng, G. (2018). The invention of race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge Core. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/invention-of-race-in-the-european-middle-ages/878223724345B49D515AA39DF3A0B617#fndtn-information
Japan. (2021, September 2). Japan. Geography. https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/geography/countries/article/japan#:~:text=use%20is%20prohibited.-,Japan%20is%20an%20archipelago%2C%20or%20string%20of%20islands%2C%20on%20the,Korea%20and%20China%20farther%20south.
Jemisin, N. K. (2015, August 13). Creating races. Epiphany 2.0. https://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/
McCunley, C. L., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R., & Durkee, M. (2021, January 28). The costs of code-switching. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-costs-of-codeswitching
racialization. (n.d.). Racialization definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racialization#:~:text=%3A%20the%20act%20of%20giving%20a,act%20or%20instance%20of%20racializing
What was Pangea? (n.d.). What was Pangea?. What was Pangea? | U.S. Geological Survey. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-was-pangea#:~:text=From%20about%20300%2D200%20million,a%20single%20continent%20called%20Pangea.