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.

Love is Solid Stone: The Broken Earth Trilogy and Forgiveness as Love

By: Maria Pawlak for ENGL 468

Back in February of 2022, I reread the first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, after having last read it in March of 2020. The space between initial reading and second reading allowed for personal growth, shift in thought, and shift in culture. The first time I read The Fifth Season, I was a freshman in college who had never heard of COVID-19; the second time, I was a senior who had more than heard of the virus—I had had it myself. Reflection is not just an exercise in self-understanding. As these two rereads demonstrated to me, it is a chance to grow and understand the world around you externally as well as internally. In that vein, the chance to now reflect and reassess the essay I wrote after rereading The Fifth Season last February will demonstrate a great deal of change, especially considering that in the intervening months, I finished the Broken Earth Trilogy in full for the first time. As with anything, seeing the whole picture and not just the first third informs one’s reading, which will be obvious as this blog post continues. Because of that shift in focus, what I once wrote an entire essay about becomes less nuanced and more one-note than I had wanted originally, and I am forced to reexamine the way Jemisin threads power, love, and justice together in a cohesive way. Now, it is clearer to see how love factors into the twin threads of power and justice throughout the trilogy as a whole. 

My first essay focused on the challenging way Jemisin used the fantasy-geological concept of “icing” in order to explore themes of justice and power. In The Fifth Season’s world, people with significant power over the earth, called orogenes, have the ability to “ice” individuals, plants, et cetera, through an explosion of energy and power. This “icing” is fatal. In my first reading, I was fascinated—and simultaneously disconcerted—by the way lack of justice forces orogenes into killing without distinction or mercy through icing, especially when compared to the more subtle displays of power of politics as displayed by the Fulcrum, which controls the orogene population. After all, the reader has no more than barely met our main character, Essun, a recently bereaved mother and secret orogene, when she ices her town and threatens both those who had tried to help her and those who tried to hurt her. Jemisin does not let the reader rush past this difficult, complex emotional journey of violence, instead describing it with visceral language like, “The shout dies in his throat as he falls, flash-frozen, the last of his warm breath hissing out through clenched teeth and frosting the round as you steal the heat from it.” It is violent, nuanced, and hard-hitting all at once. Jemisin’s purposeful second-person also plays with blame here, especially in first readings before individuals know the full story. By narrating in second-person, Jemisin forces the reader to participate in the assault, to engage in the violence. With every turn of a page, she calls out “you” again and again, making the actions of her protagonist as close to the reader as possible. In that way, icing especially becomes a study in the way that the lack of justice can manifest in outbursts of non-discriminating, wide-spread violence; revenge and fury that touches everyone in a certain radius, rather than those at fault. And because it is in the second-person, it also calls out the fact that those who stand by and allow injustice, violence, and hurt to go unchecked are as guilty and participatory in injustice as the people at the forefront. 

However, as I previously mentioned, it is not until one finishes the trilogy in its entirety that the true nuance of the second-person narration of indiscriminate violence comes to full light. In my first reading, this particular instance of “icing” is a demonstration of when injustice and usurpations of power go unchecked for so long, that what power the oppressed do have explodes in angry, wide-reaching ways. However, the second-person narration of that explosion of power adds a new, love-laced wrinkle. At first, the reader is only vaguely aware of who is narrating—all we know is that a third party narrates, someone who thinks the end of the world is boring and wants to “move on to more interesting things.” We are given a prologue of introduction from this mysterious individual, and then promptly asked to move on and become engrossed in the quick-paced world building of N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. By the end of the trilogy, though, that narrator is revealed to be Hoa, a practically immortal companion of Essun. Hoa characterizes their relationship as not simply friends or family, but rather “‘…both and more. We are beyond such things.’” Suddenly, the previous thousand-plus pages take on striking new meaning. 

Now that we are well-aware that the narrator is not some far-off third-party or someone who wishes ill-will to Essun, but in fact someone dear to her, the moments of nuanced violence in the previous books come with new interpretations. Add to that the fact that the novels become Hoa retelling the entire story of Essun’s life to her after she has lost her memories, and that wrinkle becomes a full-blown tear in the fabric. Someone might have an instinct to say that Hoa’s unencumbered retelling is blunt and hurtful, but I posit the opposite. This is where N.K. Jemisin’s emphasis on love and care enters the power and justice equation. Instead of treating Essun like a child, brushing over the terrible facts of someone’s life, Hoa instead tells Essun of her past violence in poetic yet brutal language. He does not sugarcoat and he does not pretend. And even so, the whole reason he even tells Essun about her past “icing” is because he misses her, he cares about her, and wants to give her the honor of knowing the story of her past life. 

In taking the time to painstakingly recount her story to her, Hoa is engaging in an act of love. Through doing so, Jemisin makes two things happen. First, she demonstrates the power of love. Hoa is a being who has existed for centuries, who has made mistakes, and who cares about Essun deeply, going so far as to take the time to recount her life story. Secondly, the fact that he includes instances of injustice and violence in reaction to that injustice demonstrates humanity’s capacity to forgive and to love in a beautiful way. Yes, Essun has made terrible mistakes. She has committed acts of indiscriminate violence to those in her life who both loved her and hurt her. This is almost always because of injustice enacted upon her first, but that does not negate the violence she causes. And yet—Hoa loves her. He cares for her. His dedication to Essun even after violence and mistakes is Jemisin’s thesis on the power of love in the face of injustice and harm. 

Having read the entire trilogy, the reflection necessary to understand Hoa’s true loyalty throughout the entire trilogy is daunting. At first, one is simply taken by the plot-twist. But in careful rumination, the distinct significance N.K. Jemisin gives to forgiveness and love by having Hoa narrate the trilogy becomes unmistakable. He does not falter from Essun’s side, even as he recounts horrific instances of power or abuse. He knows that much of it was a reaction to a world that treated Essun and those like her with incredible cruelty—the lack of black-and-white throughout the trilogy only strengthens the power of love. When you are left without certainty or justice, what remains? Through Hoa, I believe that Jemisin is proposing an answer: love. Love remains, through loyalty, understanding, and forgiveness. 

Essun’s introductory “icing” challenges the reader to care for and relate to the injustice of her world despite her reaction to that injustice being indiscriminate killing. That is true. But it is also true that once you have finished the entire trilogy, the revealed depth of the narration adds love and loyalty to the mix. The fact that Hoa remains at Essun’s side after death, violence, disagreement, and the end of the entire world is proof enough of love. Forgiveness abounds; second-chances are offered. By the end of the novel, Essun is no longer who she once was. She becomes a stone-eater, like Hoa. This is a result of the power she used—clearly, there are still consequences for one’s actions amid the second chances. But that does not countermand the second chance itself. Icing might have introduced both Essun and her power in a violent, deadly manner. But it is the manner in which that violence was narrated, the steadfastness of Hoa’s recounting, that proves the faithful power of love throughout N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. Yes, there was rampant injustice and indiscriminate use of power. But Hoa’s love, the loyalty and forgiveness he extended, is indisputable. 

What’s in a Home?

Home.  For me, it lies in a yellow house tucked against the woods, smoke curling out of a chimney and yellow lab lolling lazily (she’s a little chunky) in the front yard.  I can draw up the image in a moment, the high wooden ceilings, the dark, scratched floors covered with sun-bleached rugs, the sun (or lack thereof) pouring through enormous windows; my mother dances through the kitchen, the feral cat that lives in the backyard curls up on a deck chair, my dad’s glasses are found (found as they are often lost to him)  somehow buried under a slightly disheveled copy of the Times on the counter.  Continue reading “What’s in a Home?”