How N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became came to be
How do you follow up a beloved fantasy trilogy that broke records by winning the prestigious Hugo Award three years in a row? If you’re N.K. Jemisin, the answer is easy: Start writing a new fantasy trilogy! The Broken Earth author acknowledges that The City We Became, the first book in her latest trilogy, is "less heavy" than her prior work. It’s also set pretty near to our own world, rather than in a fantasy realm like the Stillness. The main difference is that in this world, cities are people — every major metropolis in the world is embodied in a human avatar who is simultaneously an individual person and a vessel for all the people, buildings, landmarks, and culture that a city contains.
There’s one exception, though: New York City, the focal point of the book. As anyone who’s lived in or even visited the Big Apple knows, New York is not so much a single city as it is a confederation of five distinct boroughs — Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx — each with their own personality, history, and culture. In The City We Became, each borough is represented by a different human. In order to ward off an otherworldly threat, the five borough avatars need to put aside their differences and work together to reach New York’s full potential as a global city.
Sounds like quite a brew, right? EW caught up with Jemisin to discuss the ingredients of her newest book. Obviously no one could have planned for The City We Became to land in the midst of a global pandemic, but anyone dismayed by the sight of empty city streets across the world might enjoy a reminder of how powerful our connections to the cities we live in really are. Check out the array of influences below.
1. H.P. Lovecraft
Jemisin cites the recent debates over the World Fantasy Award (which has traditionally been shaped as a bust of H.P. Lovecraft despite the “Call of Cthulhu” author’s public record of vile racism) as one of the main inspirations for The City We Became. That aforementioned “otherworldly threat” facing New York resembles both Lovecraft’s work and his life. The Enemy, as the characters refer to their many-headed foe, sometimes appears in the form of strange tentacled monsters (very reminiscent of Lovecraft’s signature Great Old Ones), but other times disguise themselves in human form as white gentrifiers and alt-right racists. Lovecraft himself lived in New York for a time, and documented in letters how repellent he found the city’s signature mix of people from all ethnicities and walks of life.
“It’s basically me mentally and spiritually engaging with the whole idea of how so much fantasy owes itself to Lovecraft, while overlooking his glaring flaws,” Jemisin says. “I also read some of his letters where you can see him just being horrifically racist, using the same language to refer to people in New York City the same way he refers to the Great Old Ones and Nyarlathotep and all the other creations of his. It’s kind of a deep dive into how pathological racists think. You cannot read Lovecraft without understanding that this is what’s in Stephen Miller’s head. There are all these people out there who sadly and horrifyingly now have positions of power, and they think of their fellow human beings this way.”
2. W.E.B. DuBois
In his seminal book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the experience of African-Americans living in a racist society. In The City We Became, Jemisin takes the concept at face value. Her protagonists can literally see two different realities: one where they’re normal-looking humans, and one where they’re living cities.
“That’s the part of me that always wants to just play with words and take them extremely literally,” Jemisin says. “He’s not speaking of double consciousness literally as the ability to see two places at once, but of course that’s how my mind works: What is quantum theory on a macro scale? What if they are constantly superpositioned with this other space in which they are literally cities? This is how I tried to give their magic and power form. I wasn’t interested in just having human beings running around; I wanted to make it clear that they are not human anymore, there’s something else going on.”
3. MC Lyte
The human avatar of the Brooklyn borough is a middle-aged former rapper modeled after the real-life MC Lyte, who Jemisin was a fan of in her youth. At one point in the book, Brooklyn fights back against the enemies threatening her city, requiring Jemisin to write a few rap-battle rhymes to go along with it.
“‘What if MC Lyte grew up and became a city councilwoman?’ is where I decided to go with that character,” Jemisin says. “I wrote what I thought was an MC Lyte-like rap, but I happen to have a bunch of friends who are professional hip-hop artists. One of them was Jean Grae, who’s obviously a nerd too with the X-Men reference, but I showed it to her like, ‘Hey, I’m a giant nerd, I listen to this stuff, but I don’t know how to make rhymes.’ So I sent my little rap to her and she sent it back fixed! That was much better after she fixed it.”
Though it was a nice change-up from her typical writing style, Jemisin notes with a laugh, “I don’t know that I’m going to be putting too many more lyrics in my work.”
4. Power Rangers
The task of The City We Became’s protagonists is to connect: They have to find each other and eventually figure out how to pool their forces to fight back against their alien enemies as one complete New York. Jemisin compares the process to the Power Rangers combining to form their Megazord, though she changed up the character dynamics.
“I was originally thinking I would make them all young people, but that’s not representative of New York,” she says. “So two of them are young, one is elder, one is middle-aged. I wanted their backgrounds more varied than what you typically see in something like that. When New York proper really gets going, there will come a point (though I haven’t written it yet) where I intend for New York’s giant robot to be kicking ass and taking names. We’ll see how that goes. ”
5. The Empire Strikes Back
“When you write fantasy, you think in trilogies,” says Jemisin, who has already written two (Broken Earth and Inheritance) and tried another before that, though Dreamblood ultimately ended up being a duology. And why not think in trilogies, when there are so many incredible examples from fantasy and sci-fi? Jemisin says the three-part structure helps increase the epic stakes of fantasy storytelling, something she first learned as a kid crying her eyes out watching Han Solo get frozen in carbonite.
“There’s a reason many of us think that The Empire Strikes Back was the most powerful part of the original Star Wars trilogy, and it’s because that’s the part where people struggled and suffered,” Jemisin says. “The first Star Wars is sort of a popcorn-y thing, but the second Star Wars is what made it a powerful story.”
6. A Wizard of Earthsea
Trilogies may be endemic to fantasy, but Jemisin says she avoided the most famous one (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) in favor of Ursula K. Le Guin’s world. The six Earthsea books (comprising two distinct trilogies written decades apart) are much more about learning to know yourself than they are about defeating an army of orcs.
“Le Guin’s work jarred me out of Tolkienism,” Jemisin says. “As a kid in the ’80s, it was all Tolkien all the time, and Tolkien clones trying their best to write like him. I needed to be reminded that fantasy could take other forms. So I loved A Wizard of Earthsea and that whole series, because this is a character who is not a farm boy who gets the girl and a big sword and lays waste to the Dark Lord. His enemy is himself. The idea of fantasy as psychological self-study was something I got from that.”
7. The Death and Life of Great American Cities
In the acknowledgements section for The City We Became, Jemisin notes that “writing a story set in a real place, even a real place that I know well, has required more research than all the other fantasy novels I’ve written, combined.” One centerpiece of that research was Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which extolled the virtues of dense, diverse urban neighborhoods and argued against the school of city planning that saw them as “slums” in need of “renewal.” The latter type of thinking was embodied by figures like Robert Moses, whose career in urban development was famously catalogued by Robert A. Caro in 1974's The Power Broker.
“A lot of New York was designed by Robert Moses, who was kind of a horrible human being when you dig into his life,” Jemisin says. “He deliberately designed a number of New York’s most iconic features with an eye towards destroying certain kinds of communities he didn’t like, or getting rid of what he thought of as undesirable elements. There’s a reference in the book to the fact that Central Park used to be the site of a place called Seneca Village, which was a community of free black people and Irish people back in the days when they weren’t considered white. Basically, the undesirables of the city had formed a very nice community there. They had formed their own infrastructure and built their own houses, and were going on about their lives. Moses couldn’t stand the rampant miscegenation of all these white people f—ing all these black people. He could not stand this, he found it so offensive that he basically worked with people in the city government to eminent-domain away these people’s property. They were given a tiny amount of money, Seneca Village was destroyed, and Central Park was in its place. Everyone loves Central Park, it’s a wonderful place. But when you think about the hopes and the futures that were destroyed to make it, it reminds you that New York is always this shiny happy present overlaying a disturbing past.”
In The City We Became, this duality is embodied in the character of Manny, the avatar of Manhattan who is a charismatic everyman one second and a merciless monster the next.
“Jane Jacobs was the anti-Robert Moses,” Jemisin continues. “It’s interesting to see her conception of the field. The thing that fascinates me is that there were competing mythologies trying to create the New York we live in now. One of those mythologies won, but is it the one that should have?”