On March 24, two days into statewide lockdown, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York City had just topped 13,000 when acclaimed fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin released her latest book, The City We Became. Eldritch timing for the release of a novel set in a modern New York City under attack by an otherworldly parasite.
Jemisin, a trained counseling psychologist, came onto the literary scene in the early 2000s, when she began publishing science fiction and short stories. By the time she crowdfunded enough money to quit her day job and begin writing full-time, she already had a column in the New York Times and a growing fan following. In a decade, she's written nine novels, which have earned her over a dozen book awards. Introducing timely themes of social justice, cultural conflict, environmentalism, and sexuality to her books, coupled with a psychologist's capacity for character development, Jemisin has expanded the appeal of fantasy writing and demonstrated the power of an oft-dismissed genre to a new generation of readers.
In The City We Became, Jemisin trains her deft pen on a real-life subject of mythic proportions: New York City. Part ode, part treatise on gentrification and white-washing, her latest book is a sweeping, masterful, and honest portrait of a city in the midst of a battle for its soul.
On May 2, Jemisin spoke with Neil Gaiman in a live-streamed conversation sponsored by Bard College and Oblong Books. Ahead of the event, I spoke with Jemisin by phone about her new book, the history of New York City, and the literary power of fantasy.
Interview with N. K. Jemisin
The City We Became came out as New York City was rapidly emerging as a global epicenter of COVID-19. Hell of a time for a book release.
Yep. All things considered, it seems to be doing alright. It hit the New York Times bestseller list right out of the gate, which I was not expecting at all given the situation. But apparently a lot of people find it resonant, at least right now.
The book is a beautiful ode to New York. You visited regularly as a kid and now you live there. Tell me about your relationship with the city.
When I was a kid I lived here from early childhood until I was about five or six, then my parents divorced, and I kept coming back summers and holidays, because my father stayed here. Then I finally moved back here in 2007. In terms of the total amount of time I’ve spent here, it's probably about a third to half of my life. I think of myself as half New Yorker, half a bunch of other shit. Half New Yorker, half Southerner mostly. It means that I periodically do weird food experiments that usually turn out well.
You said people are finding the book resonant at this time. It’s interesting because historically, the density of cities has always been a potential health problem, dating all the back to the Bubonic plague in the 13th century. Have your thoughts on cities shifted at all since the pandemic began?
No. The idea that the density of cities makes them dangerous or unhealthy feels like a very European idea to me. In European cities back in the day, like during the Bubonic plague, that was a matter of filth. But there have been large cities all over the world that did not have these problems, concurrent with the Bubonic plague. In Mesoamerica and the Americas, there was documented evidence of these cities having sewers and other infrastructure that European cities just didn’t have.
We’ve seen even with corona situation, Singapore, which is a gigantic, ridiculously dense city, is not having these problems, because they used testing, they did sensible stuff. It’s not the density that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it.
The New York I grew up with was one that was going through the crack epidemic in ’80s and was nearly bankrupt in ’70s, and all that other stuff. It was a city which, during emergencies, pulled together and did what it needed to to do take care of itself and and to take care of the immediate surroundings and people nearby. Back in the ’80s, one of the ways the neighborhood I live in now, Bed Stuy, got rid of crackhouses and crack dealers was they relied on the Nation of Islam. Whatever your feelings on the Nation of Islam, the reason a lot of black neighborhoods really respect them is because they took care of black neighborhoods in an era when the rest of the city didn’t give a damn, when NYPD was basically just visiting to harass people.
That dynamic of the city doing for itself and taking care of itself is emerging again. For example, there are mutual aid societies that have erupted all over the place. A lot of them are now online. Back in the day it used to be something the Block Associations would do. But now, for example, there is Bed-Stuy Strong. It is an organization of younger people who will run errands for elderly people and disabled people, mothers with kids who can’t go anywhere. They are going to get groceries for these folks, and paying for the groceries in some cases if people can’t.
Whenever there is a crisis, whenever there is a blackout, you’re always going to see some random Joe jump out there and direct traffic. This was a dynamic of the city that I’d always believed was part of being any large city, but particularly New York. And I'd worried that that dynamic was dying with all the changes that happened to the city. But what corona has proven to me is that New York is still New York. Despite the gentrification, despite so many people being pushed out of the city, there is still hope.
Obviously in the book there is the character of the White Woman, the Enemy. What do you perceive as the real-life threats to New York?
She is a character, but she is representative of a couple of phenomena. So there are a couple of things I’m getting at. The force that I perceive as the greatest threat to New York City is broadly called gentrification. Gentrification takes several different forms. One is economic in that neighborhoods that were formerly affordable become unaffordable, when they get trendy or when the existing population gets forced out rapidly. A certain amount of that has happened in New York. Neighborhoods have always switched ethnicities. It’s the affordability change and the rapidity of it that’s different. It used to happen over a generation, now it’s three years or five years, and that’s the huge problem.
And with that economic change also tends to come a cultural change, and some of that cultural change is structured and imposed. For example, cops suddenly start patrolling the neighborhood more than when it was a poor, people of color neighborhood. They start harassing people for what they call for “quality of life issues.” They harass black kids because their pants sag. They harass old men for sitting on the stoop just enjoying a nice afternoon and having a drink because it’s public drinking. Shit that used to just be what people do becomes criminalized.
Then there is also the cultural shift that comes from new inhabitants in a neighborhood trying to impose their way of thinking on that neighborhood.
There is a parade that happens every year in New York around Labor Day: the Carribean Day parade. It has happened as long as I’m alive. It has gotten dangerous in recent years for reasons I don’t fully understand, but it’s historic. It always happens. And bands will practice for the month or so up to the parade. There is a steel drum band that used to practice in this one corner of my old neighborhood in Crown Heights. And they did it every year for as long as I’ve been alive. And there is this one woman who started calling the cops every time they practiced. Even if they were practicing at 6 or 7 in the afternoon. They originally would go pretty late, because nobody in the neighborhood minded because they liked the music. But this woman started complaining and they actually adjusted their hours. But she kept complaining, kept calling the cops on them, kept coming down to film them, to harass them, to scream at them. And it’s just this one woman, but she was determined. And she was doing what she could to destroy this neighborhood tradition. I no longer live in Crown Heights. I don’t know if she was able to push the band out of its traditional space. They own that property, but I don’t know if she was able to work strings, or whatever. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about.
There is a homogenization at the core of that. These are people that come from places where city life ends at 5pm or sunset. They’re coming from small towns, they’re coming from rural America, and they’re moving to the city that never sleeps and they want to make it go to bed. It’s an ethic. There is a homogenization attempt here to make New York like Peoria or like Springfield. And what I am getting at with the Woman in White is the homogenization of whiteness as a social justice dynamic.
Basically before Europeans came to America, before colonization, Europeans regarded each other not as the same people. The French did not like the Germans. The Germans did not like the English. There was none of this “we’re all white” shit. Whiteness is an outgrowth of colonialism. It’s an attempt to homogenize people from very different ethnic backgrounds and very different traditions and give them a single agenda, and that agenda is “Hey, at least you’re not black,” or “Hey, at least you’re not one of these other people.”
The result of that, at least in the United States, is that you don’t have that ethnic identification anymore, and you lose the culture that comes with that. I was just reading an article about how German Americans have lost all their food traditions. Aside from Oktoberfest, they don't have their old cooking traditions. They’ve all lost their languages. Many have lost unique religious variations. They’ve all been subsumed and swallowed into this generic whiteness. And it’s even sort of unusual for white Americans to retain strong identification with their ethnic group.
It’s not just Germans. It’s a thing that actually afflicts every ethnic group that comes to the United States. If they are light enough to join whiteness, they are inevitably and invariably faced with a choice at some point, where they are going to have to throw other people’s color under the bus to join the tide of whiteness in order to benefit in this country.
Most famously, there’s a great book, How the Irish Became White, by Noel Ignatiev. Noel points out the history of Irish Americans and how originally, especially in New York, Irish Americans and black Americans had a lot of fellow feeling and were fighting in trenches to be recognized as workers and to unionize. When you look at the bodies of people that were buried under Wall Street with the African Burial Ground. A few years ago, they began excavating a part of wall street thousands of unmarked graves from African and Irish and other workers, some of whom were enslaved some were not, they died and they literally paved over them and put a financial services building on top of them. They’ve begun to exhume these bodies. And there is a memorial down now.
But New York's Irish and African American communities had a lot of solidarity until very specific incidents occurred, where the Irish American community’s leadership had to make some difficult choices. And they had to do things like abandon their solidarity for abolition. They had to basically throw black people under the bus in order to get ahead. And this is a thing that happens to almost every ethnic group that comes to America, particularly in New York.
So I wanted to speak to that homogenization, and what that homogenization costs. These are things that folks may not get if I don’t put a pin in them.
In a lot of ways it wasn’t that different. The process of creating the mythology that you see, how the other cities have come to be, how they’ve got their own traditions, how they have this history with the Enemy—all of that is pure secondary world-building. It’s no different from any world-building that I did for any other series. Because New York already exists, I didn’t have to create it. I just had to get it right. That’s not world building to me, that’s honesty.
Now we do see lots of things that are set in New York that do their own creepy world building. I don’t know that they are conscious that they are creating this dishonest version of New York. We see “Friends,” we see “Girls,” that are set in this sort of all middle-class, all-white New York, where everyone has giant apartments. This has never been the New York I’ve ever lived. They were world building too, they just weren’t doing it honestly.
If I am depicting the New York that is around me, then I have to make sure I understand the dynamics of what created that New York. I am not doing so much research into the generic facts, like when was the city founded. What I am researching more is how the power dynamics developed.
I’ve been listening to this fantastic podcast called “School Colors,” which is by an organization here in Brooklyn that decided to look at the 1968 New York teachers’ strike. It was the biggest teacher strike in history. The entire city got shut down, basically because the parents in a black neighborhood got fed up with segregation and poor education being given to their kids, and took matters into their own hands and basically started running the school district in their neighborhood for themselves. Among other things it was a great chapter in civil rights history in the city, but it also caused a homogenization of what in New York had still been relatively discrete ethnic groups. That was one of things that led to white flight from New York City, bankruptcy in the `70s, the crack epidemic in the `80s. So if I'm going to understand the city, not just how it is but how it got to be this way, that is the type of research I’m doing. That is what I'm trying to depict honestly in the book.
A sort of cultural biography of New York in fantasy clothing.
Fantasy has always done this. Scratch that. Fantasy should always do this. Supposedly the nature of fantasy is to explore history, but really what it explores is myth and the power of myth on society. You’re looking at historic epics, prophecies, lore, and things like that and how these things dictated the way that a society developed.
Now, 90 percent of what you see [in fantasy] is vaguely generic, medieval European lore and how that impacted medieval European life, which is frequently dishonest in and of itself, because when you look at actual history of medieval Europe and who was there and what were the politics, you don’t see a lot of that in fantasy.
Honest fantasy has always looked at how did the world get to be the way it is and what should we do about it? Is that bad? Is that good? Can we fix it? If we are going to fix it, what does fixing it mean? Does that mean putting it back to the way it was or does that mean some kind of fundamental change? That is what the power of fantasy in my opinion always has been, and to apply that to a modern setting is just useful.
H. P. Lovecraft weaves in and out of the book, in what seems like a meta conversation with the genre of sci-fi and fantasy. What does he represent for you—do you see him as an antithesis to what you are trying to do with your fantasy?
In the sense that he inspired what I decided to do with this book. And I mentioned it in the book proper, Lovecraft’s fantasy was rooted in his fear of other people in real life. We see him using the same language to refer to fellow New Yorkers in letters that he’s written to family and friends as he uses to refer to subhuman minions of hell in his fiction. And then sometimes he crosses the streams and writes about The Horror at Red Hook, where he is writing about a fictionalized New York where his fellow New Yorkers are subhuman minions from hell it’s because they are non-white, non-British monsters as far as he is concerned. These groups of people that came here and formed the industrial base and work base and made the city the powerhouse that it was terrified him, because he perceived their diverse energy as a threat.
I basically started thinking, well, what if their diverse energy was actually a positive thing? What if their diverse energy caused some supernatural effect, as Lovecraft thought, but that that effect was a net good thing. Maybe Lovecraft’s reaction to it and hatred of it was because he is in alignment with forces that see cities’ growth and diversity as threats.
You definitely don’t seem to see cities’ growth as a threat. Although, in the book, in order to be born, a city must “punch through universes,” extinguishing thousands of other worlds as it does, which sounds inherently violent.
Well cities are inherently harmful to some degree. Any large agglomeration of human beings in a single space is dangerous to the environment, and I want to acknowledge that. But keep in mind, with the book, the perception that you’re getting of cities being inherently harmful is coming from their Enemy. Their perception of harm that a group of people does, when it is framed by people coming outside of a group, is not always accurate.
I felt the book wasn’t a pure defense of cities but more of an acknowledgement of all the complexity—the good, bad, ugly, and beautiful—that happens when you have so many people in a small space.
That is something I wanted to acknowledge, yes. There are going to be a lot of people who read this book and aren’t interested because it’s about New York. There seems to be a core contingent of people who just have this unreasonable hatred of the city, in a lot of cases without any contact, and I don’t fully understand it, but I recognize they are out there. But then there are people who hate the idea of cities in general. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me because human society has had small versus large agglomerations of people and the two of them tend to be symbiotic, but fine.
I don’t valorize cities in and of themselves as inherently perfect or awesome places. I also don’t valorize rural areas as inherently perfect or awesome places. I think there is a little myth-making happening in our society that treats city and country as diametrically opposed.
We touched a little on what you view as the purpose of fantasy. In your own stories, you touch on everything from racism to sexuality to environmentalism to extractive economics. I wonder how you conceive of your own books. Do you see them as a vehicle for literary activism? Or is it commentary? Or is there a goal that you have with your writing?
No. People keep asking me that, I don’t get it. My goal is to entertain readers and tell a good story, that’s about it.
But there is also power in the genre that you are using in your capacity to ask the sorts of questions you were mentioning earlier—how did we get here? Have we gone wrong? Can we get back on track or should we?
I think all fantasy is capable of asking these questions. It doesn't always choose to, but it can. And it doesn’t always choose to answer those questions honestly, but it can. To me, that is simply part of good storytelling.
You can tell a false story. And there are some people who perceive that as a good thing. They want those mythic versions of New York and not the reality. There are people out there that prefer the “Friends” depiction of New York, or the “Seinfeld” depiction to the New York that I’m going to give them. That is their choice. I really have no choice but to depict reality as I see. All writers do this. This is not something I’m doing that is unique.
All cis het white male writers are going to tell a story through their particular lens. And in their stories, cis het white men are going to be the center of existence. They’re going to be the people getting magic powers or they’re going to be the bad guys or they’re going to be the people whose story we’re expected to identify with to most.
I am not a cis het white dude. I do believe there is some inherent difference that will come out of my fiction because I’m coming from a different perspective. That is why I am an advocate not just for diversification but decolonization of literature. The idea that certain stories are better than others, the very European focus of so much of our literature is a dishonest engagement with our world and the way it is and the way it got to be.
I’m not trying to do any particular thing. This is the world as it is and this is how it got to be this way, and I’m not going to pretend anything else.
How do you view being perceived as a genre writer?
I’ve been a genre writer since I started my career. I’m not trying to write outside the genre. It’s nice that people outside the genre are willing to read outside of their comfort zones. But there is still the fantasy tag on the spines of my books. I’m still with the same publisher I’ve been with for the last 11 years. I’m not doing anything new.
I think the American readership is starting to realize that genre fiction isn’t inherently worse fiction. And maybe you shouldn’t be listening to people who can’t write tell you what is good writing. I’m not trying to throw shade on anyone in particular, I’m just saying that in a lot of cases our literary tastes as a society are shaped by wannabe writers who get jobs as English teachers and have never published a thing, but know very very firmly what “is” or “isn’t” good writing.
Listen to people who read a lot. Listen to people who have read widely. Listen to people who just care about what a good story is. That is the thing that we should all always have been doing.
Would you agree that there is still a stigma attached to the genre?
Back in the day, the pulp era of the ’30s and ’40s, genre writing earned the stigma. They called it pulp for a reason, because when you crank out a book in a week, it’s not going to be good. But it’s 2020, and that hasn’t been the case for a long time—at least my whole life and a decade before that.
Part of the problem is that when you talk to genre readers these days and you ask them what’s the good stuff to read, they’re still citing shit from the ’30s and ’40s. I don't fully understand why we still do that. That’s dumb. But when you are quoting stuff from “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” and it’s poorly written, it’s got regressive views of women and people of color and everything else—no that doesn’t represent our genre well. And we’ve had lots of conversation within the genre about how to introduce people to what we do without resorting to ancient lore.
Were you a big sci fi/fantasy fan as a kid?
It’s basically all I read until I hit my teens or so. I just never really stopped reading it. I went right from childhood fairy tales to adult science fiction and fantasy, probably because the shelves were right next to each other at the library.
Do you think as a black female writer you have increased the appeal of your genre to more readers of color?
I don’t know. When social media became a thing, really back in the day of blogs and live journals, there was a series of massive blog-based conversations that took place between readers of science fiction and the editors, agents, and writers. In that conversation, it became clear that there had always been a large audience of readers of color in science fictiondom.
What had happened was that this audience of color, of people who were deeply into the fantastic, simply wasn’t acknowledged, wasn’t noticed because they didn't show up at unfriendly, distant, difficult-to-get-to science fiction conventions. Not surprisingly. So they went unnoticed and their wishes got disregarded. And there was a lot of racist science fiction that got published with the assumption that, well, black people aren’t reading this stuff, so it doesn’t matter.
So I don’t think there’s anything that different happening. The audience that’s always been there is now more visible. And that audience now has more power to say, “Stop doing racist things.” Or “It’s great that you’ve done this book. We want more like it.” The audience that has always been there is finally having a voice.