N.K. Jemisin is the new queen of fantasy
The author of the Broken Earth trilogy is breaking new boundaries in the genre, and setting awards records. The secret? Keeping the make-believe realistic.
“This should have happened a long time ago.” It’s this line from N.K. Jemisin, author of the acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy, that best sums up the feeling behind the successes she’s had over the past few years. In 2016 she became the first African-American writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But the sentiment encompasses so much more.
Jemisin won that same award for science-fiction and fantasy writing — the most prestigious of its kind — in 2017 and again this year, a perfect sweep for her series. She’s the first person ever to win the Best Novel prize three years in a row. It’s a remarkable turn of events that indicates, per Jemisin, a “sea change.” But she’s still absorbing the news.
“I’m a black person who grew up loving sci-fi and fantasy — people of color, as consumers, have been here all along,” she says. But their exclusion as creators has gone on far too long; certain extremist “gatekeeping” Hugo voters even tried to keep Jemisin from winning. “For some of us, things have always been hard,” she said in her victory speech in August. “I wrote the Broken Earth trilogy to speak to that struggle, and what it takes just to live, let alone thrive, in a world that seems determined to break you.”
When asked how she’s feeling, only a few days after completing her Hugo hat trick in early August, Jemisin responds wearily: “At this point, I’m just tired more than anything else.” She’s traveling, in the process of completing another book (more on that in a minute), and suddenly fielding a swath of media inquiries in the wake of her achievement. “I’m aware of the historic nature of it,” she continues. “I still feel the general ‘Oh, wow, this is a thing that’s happening’ thing.”
The Broken Earth trilogy (currently in development as a TNT series) is a prescient allegory of racial and political tensions. It’s set on an enormous single continent reeling from a climate catastrophe. As survivors cluster in the aftermath, it traces the processes of systemic oppression. Jemisin employs plenty of sci-fi magic, but maintains an intense realism. That, she argues, is where her books’ explosive timeliness stems from.
“It’s political because the existence of certain people is politicized,” she says. “Even when I’m not attempting to send a message or do something overt, simply the fact that I am trying to depict a world in which you’ve got different kinds of people, and those people are dealing with the structure of oppression and how people who are powerful defend their power and privilege.… Unfortunately, what that means is that anything I write is going to be political — regardless of whether I intend it to be or not.”
Aside from history — there was no shortage of research in this endeavor — Jemisin leaned on deeply personal experiences to bring familiar elements into her fictional universe. Her work as a career counselor, for instance, informed her profound exploration of inherited trauma. “You’ve got the guy who can’t hold a job because his boss reminds him of [his abuser] from [childhood],” Jemisin says. “I encountered people dealing with stuff like that, so I understand how trauma works.”
She also dug into an academic interest of hers, racial-identity development theory, to effectively draw her protagonist Essun — a middle-aged woman who’s searching for her missing daughter, and who reels from grief and betrayal on the road to a kind of racial awakening. Jemisin describes the process: “You can see the moments in her childhood and younger adulthood where she’s confronted by the fact that, ‘You are different, you are treated differently because of your difference, you are treated wrongly because of your difference.’ She did at one point choose to try to deny it and conform. But no amount of conformity is going to be enough to fix this problem. As I’m depicting her life, I’m depicting her racial identity development. This is just what makes a character real and realistic to me.”
In speaking to Jemisin, whose thoughtfulness and artistry radiate in conversation, it’s strikingly clear that “realistic” is the style, the goal, the mission of her work. This may sound strange coming from an author known for imagining fantastical worlds, but she assures that it shouldn’t — and that the genre is rooted in an exploration of the human condition. Jemisin cites a few iconic examples. “[Ursula] Le Guin did a great job of that, [J.R.R.] Tolkien used it for that purpose,” she begins. “Obviously, [The Hobbit] had dwarves and such and it wasn’t real, but his idea was to use this as a means of mythologically building stories, building a people.… That’s what fantasy has always been.” She stops and corrects herself, characteristically favoring nuance: “Well, scratch that. That’s what fantasy should be.”
Jemisin is now a pillar of speculative fiction, breathtakingly imaginative and narratively bold. And she’s still expanding: Her next book is a short-story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month (due Nov. 27), which will move between the Jim Crow South, post-Katrina New Orleans, and more, infusing magical elements into painfully familiar stories of then and now. This is reflective of Jemisin’s authorial stamp. Her gifts, especially the strength of her provocations, are rooted in her humanity. A little make-believe helps her locate those universal truths. “I depict societies as they feel realistic to me,” she says, returning to that all-important quality. “I think the whole point of world-building is to make a world that feels realistic — even if it’s a world where dragons and sentient rock people abound.”
The Broken Earth trilogy will be released as a special boxed set on Oct. 2, and is available for pre-order.