The Broken Earth Trilogy; A Reflection Through SEL.

Towards the beginning of this spring semester at SUNY Geneseo I created my first blog post discussing N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, from her series The Broken Earth Trilogy. In this blog post I discussed which of Jemisin’s uses of geological concepts I found most interesting and or challenging. At the time my understanding of the first novel of the trilogy was that it suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated  and even created by impartial geographical circumstances. This was an overarching understanding of the entire novel. I explained how, time and time again, the story presents the reader with scenarios that demonstrate that, in a sense, justice is a luxury that comes secondary to survival. I then cited examples of this being the case. I noted the fact that the Stillness uses Orogenic child slaves in the Nodes in order to quell shakes that might harm or kill the larger communities. I also noted that the pirates of Meov have to steal and kill to survive due to the fact that their island is not fit for growing crops, or breeding cattle. This was a fairly pessimistic outlook on the novel and the future of the series as a whole. Although I was confident in these doom and gloom ideas, even as recently as the beginning of writing this post, I have had to meaningfully reflect on whether I believe these ideas are entirely true after reading the rest of The Broken Earth Trilogy. I do still believe that I was hitting at a grain of truth when I wrote these ideas, but I do think that they need to be more nuanced. I will begin with how these ideas have in some ways remained true over the course of the semester and then examine how they have evolved.

The Broken Earth Trilogy does in some ways still ask the reader to examine how geography and geographical events can cause or exacerbate injustice as I originally theorized. This is something that my peers and I noted in our collaborative blog post titled “Haiti’s Cyclical Suffering”. In this post we discussed how Haiti’s geographical location causes it to be hit by a recursive cycle of suffering that makes justice a luxury that is hard to come by. A history of colonialism and geographical hardship fostered gang violence, political corruption, and a near constantly unstable infrastructure. In many ways Haiti is a perfect example of the ideas that I argued The Fifth Season was presenting. The geographical location and the lack of infrastructure in Haiti fosters more injustice that harms the citizens. My peers and I argue that The Broken Earth Trilogy asks readers to examine the parallels between the fictional examples in the text of geographical injustice and the tragedies in the real world. I think that the idea I was pulling at the start of the semester remains true to this understanding that my peers discussed in the blog post. Injustice can be induced by geographical events and the frequency of those events. 

That being said, there is more than just tragedy present in these horrible scenarios. Sure, there is constant suffering and injustice much like the real world, but The Broken Earth Trilogy challenges the reader to find beauty in it.  The reader is presented with many examples of beauty that result from the hardship of people. There are the beautifully destructive obelisks that hold immense power, the beautiful crystal geode community of Castrima, there is the love of newfound family, love of birth family, and love of those lost. There are beautiful moments between characters, and even the trilogy as a whole represents a piece of art derived from tragedy. All of these things serve as glimmers of hope and beauty within a tragic time, and in many ways this combatted my own values. I do consider myself a realist but often I’m actually just a pessimist. I often have a hard time not giving the negatives all of my attention, so this understanding that there is beauty even in the hardest of times was very beneficial for my own mental health and personal growth. At first, when presented with this notion by my peers while writing our blog post discussing the earthquakes in Haiti, I dismissed it in my head. I thought “So what if there is some beauty to be found as a result of this tragic quake? We need to focus on how residents were harmed in Haiti and examine how people tried to help.” I closed my mind to the idea before I gave it time for consideration. This reminds me of the advice Professor McCoy gave me to slow down halfway through the semester. I believe that because we were talking about lives of real people being lost I became very absolute in my resolve that we needed to focus on the tragedy rather than the beauty that can come about. My own frantic concerns made it so I could not see that these ideas are not mutually exclusive, I was moving too fast. One can recognize the tragedy and offer aid or understanding while also being able to recognize the beauty in the resilience and artistic expression of human beings. I was encased in this exclusive mindset until my peers showed me the art that came out of Haiti after the earthquakes. After viewing the music, painting, and dance it was impossible for me to deny that beauty came out of tragedy in that case.

Once given that example, I remembered all the other tragedies that have produced beauty in their wake. The blues and soul music were an expression of pain from the disenfranchisement and enslavement of Black communities, as were many of the greatest genres of music. Rap is another one of these genres wrought from the darkness of injustice, and systematic oppression. Pray for Haiti is an album by Mach-Hommy, a Haitian-American rapper, that was released almost exactly a year ago today after the 2021 quakes in Haiti. I encountered this album while researching what art resulted from the quakes in Haiti for a collaborative blog post. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually loved the album and Mach-Hommy’s work. He raps in both English and Haitian Creole over watery, psychedelic beats, discussing his identity as a Haitian American. Finding new art that I love while also being proven misguided was an immensely rewarding learning experience. 

Another way my understanding of the text evolved was through an intersectional understanding of vulnerability. Through examining the last two books of the trilogy, as a reader I was confronted with very unorthodox examples of vulnerability. I do not want to examine at length the power dynamics within the trilogy as that would be an impossibly arduous process that would go beyond the scope of this reflection. The most I will say is that power dynamics can flip in a flash. But within this world of unstable power dynamics, I also confronted my own privileges as a non-disabled person. One character named Maxixe is a double amputee who, due to his disability, cannot survive as well in the apocalyptic world presented in The Stone Sky. “ ‘Rusting look at me, Essun. Listen to the rocks in my chest. Even if your headwoman will take half a rogga, I am not going to last much longer.’ ” (Jemisin 127). While reading the final novel of the trilogy I never really considered the fact that there could be people of disability in the world created by Jemisin. This lack of consideration was a reflection of my own privilege and ignorance. The text effectively forced me to confront this lack of consideration and consider how I can apply a more empathetic worldview in my own life. I never considered how people with disabilities have to deal with tragedy. I began to ask myself questions like how do people who use a wheelchair deal with floods or rubble? My previous understanding of what the text is trying to say about geography in relation to justice has evolved with this new element of intersectionality. 

All in all my understanding of the text that I stated in the beginning of the semester has changed, but not really in the sense that my original thought was wrong, but that it was simply incomplete. It failed to recognize the duality of all things in our world. With the pain comes the bliss, with evil there is good, and with destruction comes beauty because people have no other choice but to make it so. We are made for enduring, we are made for surviving hardships, we are made to take care of our most vulnerable. It is through what my Education courses call SEL or Social Emotional Learning that my understanding of our course text has changed. I now recognize that there is a yin to every yang, and that through empathizing with others we may gain insights into that fact. If I had been more empathetic with my peer’s perspective, and with the perspective of those going through hardship I may have not been so quick to dismiss ideas that challenged my own. These skills in slowing down and starting from a place of empathy rather than asserting my own opinions would have also helped me be more conscious of how people with disabilities might have to deal with tragedy. I am certainly not proud that I needed to learn this lesson, but I am proud of the person I am as a result of it. I considered myself an empathetic person before this course, but this subject matter forced me to confront the fact that this was not entirely true. Now I am more aware of the fact that even my most logically correct opinions cannot be completely true if they do not come from a place of empathy.

Geographically Induced Injustice in “The Fifth Season”: Let’s get to thinkING

N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season presents a complex and engaging narrative that seriously  addresses issues of injustice and inequity through her studious worldbuilding. This was evident  from the first moment I picked up the book. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the  injustice experienced by the Orogens (enslaved people who can manipulate kinetic energy to  control seismic movement) and the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups from  throughout the world, particularly the U.S. The Novel incited me to begin to examine the relationship between  justice and geography in an interdisciplinary understanding, which for me led to some  surprising realizations supported by Jemisin’s writing and related research. To put it plainly, it seems to me that Jemisin suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated  and even created by impartial geographical circumstances. 

Before tackling the issues I believe Jemisin is proposing through her writing I will  provide brief context for the novel as a whole. The story itself is set in a region of the world  called “The Stillness” where the earth experiences destructive “seasons” that threaten to destroy  communities and extinct humanity. In order to combat this unforgiving planet, the communities  of the Stillness harness the power of Orogenes, who, as previously mentioned, are enslaved by  the Fulcrum to use their powers to control the earth’s restlessness so it is less volatile.  Communities construct “Nodes”, facilities where Node Maintainers (also orogenes) quell shakes  for communities throughout the Stillness, ensuring no loss of life or destruction of communities.  “In the Equatorials, the nodes’ zones of protection overlap, so there’s nary a twitch; this, and the  Fulcrum’s presence at its core, is why Yumenes can build as it does” (119). Jemisin establishes  that this is an unforgiving environment and the communities in this environment are only held  together by the effort of the Node Maintainers and other orogenes. Every second of existence is a  feat when one considers the how volatile the planet is. The power of the orogenes is all that  keeps the balance. By establishing this fact, Jemisin also introduces the idea of geographically  induced injustice.  

When two orogenes named Syenite and Alabaster investigate one of the nodes in a place  called Mehi, they find the corpse of the node maintainer. Much to Syenite’s shock and horror,  the maintainer is a child. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its  limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for  them—going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch” (139). Not  only is the maintainer– the person enlisted to control seismic activity in that region– a child,  they are malnourished and abused. In the Stillness, orogenic children can and will be abused,  tortured, and enslaved to ensure the safety of the greater society. The node maintainers stop any  earthquakes that could result in massive destruction. Through this horrifying example of  worldbuilding Jemisin seems to be establishing the case that injustice can often be caused or exacerbated by the demands of geography.  

Luckily, there are other examples of this idea of geographically induced injustice in the  novel to consider that are far less graphic than the abuse of a child. Later in the story Alabaster  and Syenite are taken to safety on a relatively unknown island called Meov after having been attacked by a Guardian (a sort of soldier created to neutralize any rogue or dangerous orogenes).  Syenite describes the island. “The island is nothing but rolling hills and grass and solid rock—no  trees, no topsoil. An utterly useless place to live” (282). Agriculture is impossible on the rocky  island, and keeping cattle is just as unlikely due to the size of the island and its lack of fertile  soil. The topography and geography of this region makes it almost unlivable. So, how do the  citizens of Meov get by? Well, due to the desperation of the topography, the islanders must use their seafaring ways and a little crime survive. “So Meov raids. They attack vessels along the  main trading routes, or extort comms for protection from attacks—yes their attacks” (294). Here  again I found that the geography of the regions in the Stillness create and exacerbate injustice, in this case injustice to the communities of the Stillness. What is interesting  about Jemisin’s depiction of the issue of geographical injustice in this case is that both “sides” of  the story engage in it. In the case of the communities of the Stillness their geographical survival  is ensured by the enslavement and abuse of powerful children. In the case of the community of  Meov, they ensure their geographical survival by killing Merchants, raiding communities, and  taking what is not theirs. Meov must act unjustly to keep their people alive. Now, my interest is not to compare the degrees in which these actions  are unjust or immoral, my only interest is to point out what I noticed, that Jemisin is clearly tying geography to injustice, and after looking at some relevant research presented in class, it is understandable why. 

It turns out Jemisin seems so keen on pointing out the connection between geography and  injustice because it is extremely relevant in the discussion of justice and equity as well as discussions in science. In an article published by the Columbia Climate School titled “Earthquakes May Endanger New York More Than Thought, Says Study”, authors Leonardo Seeber and John Armbruster discuss the risk that seismic activity has on New York City and other places located on minor fault lines, as opposed to major faults like near California and Japan. Their research found that New York City, although not a frequent hotspot for large earthquakes, could be susceptible to high amounts of damage due to the confluence of multiple smaller tremors. Seeber notes that the effects of these tremors would affect some communities in New York City more than others. “Earthquake-resistant building codes were not introduced to New York City until 1995, and are not in effect at all in many other communities. Sinuous skyscrapers and bridges might get by with minimal damage, said Sykes, but many older, unreinforced three- to six-story brick buildings could crumble”. Here, represented in data and research we have an example of real world geographically exacerbated and induced inequity. People from low income neighborhoods which often do not have the money to remodel buildings so they are earthquake resistant, will be disproportionately affected if a natural disaster like a strong earthquake should happen. The marginalized, minority communities which have been oppressed through systematic structural racism in housing communities will feel the ramifications of a natural disaster far more than a wealthier  person in a newer, more expensive building. When geographical disasters take place the oppression minority communities face is only exacerbated. As I am limited in space, I won’t delve into the ways that geography was used to oppress communities in the U.S through redlining, gerrymandering, and other strategies, just note that they are there, waiting for discussion. What is evident is that due to structural inequality, when disaster comes, it is the oppressed communities that unduly feel the ramifications. 

The final example of Geographically induced/exacerbated inequality and or injustice I would like to briefly discuss is a thought I derived while reading the “Guidelines on Preparedness Before, During and After an Ashfall” prepared by International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), Cities and Volcanoes Commission, GNS Science and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). While reading the preparedness guidelines, I noticed a recurring theme amongst the rules: a need for abundance. This can be seen looking at the first page of guidelines. “Enough drinking water for at least 72 hours – one gallon (3-4 litres) per person per day. Enough non-perishable food for at least 72 hours for family and pets…If cold, extra blankets and warm clothing. Extra stocks of medication for both family and pets…A small amount of money” (3). The guidelines state that in order to make it through an ashfall you should have extra clothes, food, medication, water, and even money. Can you think of how inequity might be exacerbated by an ashfall? Start by asking the question: how are people who are poor or oppressed expected to get this abundance of material? If one is to survive an ashfall one must have an abundance of these materials and the ability to stock resources, and until relatively recently the ability to stockpile resources has been a luxury, one not allowed to minority communities.

 I am uncertain where the rest of Jemisin’s Broken Earth series will take me, or how my understanding of her commentary on geography and justice will change, but as it stands right now Jemisin has gotten me thinkING about how injustice is created and perpetuated by things as simple and as impartial as geography. This leads me to believe that an interdisciplinary approach to solving issues of inequality and injustice is essential in getting lasting, meaningful change. Jemisin is toying with the ideas that justice is a relative luxury, and that the need to live can override ideas of justice and equity. She makes this idea clear in her worldbuilding, survival outweighs the luxury found in the concept of justice. I am uncertain if Jemisin is simply challenging the reader to sympathize with unjust people (like the pirates who help our progatogists), or simply stating that the need to live comes before the need to live justly. It is not clear to me what the answers to these questions are, but I look forward to continuing thinkING about these concepts as I read further.