Author N. K. Jemisin
N. K. Jemisin is the author of nine books—a duology, two trilogies, and a short story collection. The last of those, How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, is her most recent. Not only is she the only writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, one of the highest awards in science fiction and fantasy, three years in a row (for all three groundbreaking books of the Broken Earth series), but she is also the first black person to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel ever. Speculative fiction is about imagining futures, but those futures are only as revolutionary as the minds of those who create them. We are lucky to have Jemisin’s revolutionary imagination to expand our own.
How Long ‘til Black Future Month? is a collection of twenty-two stories written over the course of fifteen years. Each story contains a world that you never want to leave, whether it’s to stay close to Franca while she cooks meals in the kitchen of an inn or to walk alongside Jessaline while she undertakes a covert mission to save her people. Jemisin’s characters usually don’t live in a utopia, but they are fighters—for better futures, for better lives, for their fellow kind.
In 2016, the New York Times referred to Ursula K. Le Guin as America’s greatest living science-fiction writer. Though Jemisin’s books have only been in circulation for eight years, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that she could one day be the greatest living science-fiction writer for a new generation. She may already be.
A few days before Thanksgiving, Jemisin and I spoke by phone about utopia, justice, sitting with damage, and more.
In the introduction to How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, you write that short stories presented a way for you to work out techniques and consider perspectives without the commitment of a novel. What else do short stories offer you that the novel doesn’t?
Really, that’s the main thing. You’re still putting a pretty hefty mental commitment into making a short story. Even though it’s relatively brief, you still have to come up with a world that’s coherent. I find short stories almost as difficult to write as novels, it’s just less time-consuming. Short stories are hard for me. That’s why the collection is something like fifteen years worth of short stories. They asked me to write several new ones for the collection and I was just like, Not likely to happen. In fact, I can really only write them when I’m between novels because they take away from whatever energy I’m trying to pour into a novel.
How long would you say that it takes you to write a short story versus a novel?
Not that long, maybe a couple of months. Generally, in fact, if it’s a relatively short story, I can write the first draft of it during one day. But it takes another couple of months or so for me to show it to my writing group and revise it again. I have to let it cool off enough so that I can revise it with a clear head. But it’s not like with novels. With novels, I write every day, just because that’s the only way you can get it done. With a short story, I write when I feel inspired. It’s a tendency that I used to have with all of my writing, as a younger writer, but I can’t indulge that with novels or I’ll never get them done. I think Octavia Butler said something to the effect of, Don’t rely on inspiration. You have to rely on habit. Habit is more useful when you’re actually trying to get work done on deadline.
What are the pasts you draw upon and the futures you want to see?
The pasts that I draw upon tend to be mythic pasts. I’m not super interested in writing historical fantasy. I have done that a few times in the case of subject areas that I felt like should have been explored more, like the Haitian Revolution, for example. But for the most part, I’m more interested in exploring the gods that we could have had. Or these are the creation myths that we could have explored. I’m not super interested in existing mythology, though existing mythology does inform just about everything that I’m coming up with. But that’s more along the lines of, This is how mythology should be structured, so you need to look at existing mythology to understand that. If I’m trying to come up with a secondary world, the goal is to use not too much of the existing world. I tend to prefer secondary worlds to the existing one. I’m writing a novel set in New York City, in the modern day. I’ve got to research every little detail, mostly because my friends all live here and will give me all kinds of grief if I get it wrong. It’s a lot easier writing the secondary world. You don’t have to do as much research. You can wing it a little more.
Science fiction has always said that it strives for a future for all humankind. Most science fiction does not depict futures for all humankind, though. And in a lot of cases, when it tries to do so, it does this by kind of hand-waving how we get to these shiny, happy, utopian futures. Star Trek, for example. In Star Trek, in the future, everyone can be part of the Starfleet. Supposedly all of humanity has access to good education, good food, all of that other stuff, and yet, Starfleet is still dominated by middle-class, middle-American white dudes. So, something happened along the way, clearly. There’s only one Asian man and Asian people represent the bulk of humanity now. That’s crazy.
In an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, she eschewed the label of science fiction, and called herself a novelist and a poet instead. Maybe it was just how she was feeling that day, but have you ever felt that the label of science fiction is a pigeonhole?
No, because it hasn’t been for me. Maybe because I am a black woman, there is an automatic assumption that I am somewhere in the margins of science fiction, in the margins of fantasy, and therefore people from outside of the genre’s margins are a little bit more willing to take a look at me, even though I’m writing solidly science-fiction stuff. But the Broken Earth series has gotten the attention that it has in part because I tend to use literary techniques as well. And that’s just because I don’t care. I’ll use whatever techniques are necessary to get the story across and I read pretty widely. So when people kept saying second person is just not done in science fiction, I was like, well, they said first person wasn’t done in fantasy and I did that with my first novel. I don’t understand the weird marriage to particular techniques and the weird insistence that only certain things can be done in science fiction.
In a lot of cases, people read science fiction and fantasy when they’re younger and then they age out of it. Fantasy in particular. They get tired of the endless Tolkien clones. They get tired stories where an elf, a dwarf, and a halfling walk into a bar. They’re not that bad, but you see the formula and once you’ve seen the formula a couple of times, you get tired of it. There are always people within the genre who are perfectly happy with that formula and they seek out that comfort food every time they read, but a lot of readers move on. I believe at least a few of my literary readers are ex–genre readers who had left, basically in a huff, tired of the formula, and came back because something I’m doing speaks to something they want. There’s a change that’s been happening on a number of different levels. There are more literary-style writers in the genre. There are more writers who are willing to be inclusive, whether they themselves are representative of different races, cultures, ethnicities or not. I may be one of the more visible representatives of it, but I’m not the only one.
In “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” it feels like you’re speaking directly to Le Guin and the idea of walking away as the moral choice in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” What made you decide you wanted to speak back to her in this way?
Well, there’s a slew of stories speaking back to that one. I guess you could call them Omelas stories. But the thing that I have always loved about Le Guin’s story is that she kind of gut punches you with the fact that this is the reality of living in a modern capitalist society. You are living at the expense of, amid the pain of, a lot of people who have suffered to bring you the wonderful lifestyle that you’ve got—if you’ve got that wonderful lifestyle at all, which a lot of folks in this country right now do not. My parents were the first in their families to go to college. I grew up working class. And, of course, as a black person, I’m part of a group of folks that doesn’t really have a whole lot of generational wealth. With Le Guin’s story, at the end of it, she’s suggesting that the only way to create a society that is a better place is to walk away from this one or to go off the grid. That’s not really what she’s saying, specifically, but that’s what a lot of people have concluded. But no, you’ve got to fix it, especially when there’s nowhere to walk away to. You go anywhere else in our current world and you’re either being completely exploited by capitalism or somewhat exploited by capitalism. So, I mean, it’s just a question of what kind of suffering you want to put yourself through.
And the other thing is that I was trying to figure out what a society might be like if it was genuinely a good place, and I realized as I was trying to think of it—science-fiction writers are supposed to be able to come up with futures. All futures. But the one thing I could not imagine was a society stemming from our own that was truly inclusive, truly egalitarian, and truly good for all people. What a true utopian society was like.
That is the exercise that Le Guin is engaging in. Can you have a utopian society without somebody somewhere suffering? What would that life be like if no one suffered? And the only way that I could do it was to basically point out that the flaw is ideological. The idea that you have to have someone suffering is the flaw. So, this is a society that is utopian as long as they keep at bay the idea that somebody’s got to suffer. As long as they manage to fight off people who immediately assume that some people are less important than others and those people can be exploited. That is the danger. That is the toxicity. It’s not meant to be a society that’s perfect in every way. Obviously, people suffer in it. But the people who suffer are those who bring the contagion of suffering to others.
I see a lot of discussion on social media about how if something or someone isn’t serving you, adding to your well-being or your benefit, you should cut them off. The worlds you create, though, are trickier than that. One could even say that our world is trickier than that. The necessity of sitting with damage that has been inflicted is a constant in these stories, as is sacrifice. What about the idea of sitting with harm is more compelling to you than the alternative? Is that a form of sacrifice?
I mean, the alternative is to pretend that harm wasn’t done. That’s where we’re living right now. I’m not interested in that. Our world is messed up because of that. A good portion of the reason that we are dealing with this political bullshit, pardon my language, in the United States right now is because we’ve got a bunch of white people who are freaked out because demographics seem to be overwhelming them and because there was a black president and they’re suffering from the existential terror of extinction—even though there absolutely is no real logic to that terror. They’re not in any danger. And yet, they’ve allowed people to frame it as danger, as an assault, as some kind of insult to their ego or their psyche. And that is the danger. That is what we’ve been struggling with, people who are so fragile that they’re literally willing to destroy the planet rather than give up controlling it. They’re literally not willing to do things that are good for everyone because they’re terrified of one person who they don’t like maybe getting some benefit from that. That’s selfishness. If it’s not serving you and you alone, then better to get rid of it? No, that’s why we are where we are right now. And so, a little bit more willingness to acknowledge that we are a species of several billion individuals and you’re not going to like all of them and not all of them are going to do things that you agree with, but there’s no reason why they can’t all benefit and why we can’t all survive here on this planet and have a decent life. That’s where we need to go.
I suppose it’s a fundamentally utopian way of thinking of things, but why would it be sacrifice? If you believe in the capitalistic idea of scarcity, if you believe in the capitalistic idea of zero sum, the idea that in order for a few to benefit, everybody else has to suffer, or for some to benefit, others have to suffer, maybe. But I don’t believe that has ever been the case. I think that we have enough resources on this planet for everyone. We have always had more than enough resources for everyone and we’re capable of thinking up ways to come up with more. People who write science fiction do tend to be utopian thinkers. We do tend to think that we can achieve great things as a species. We just have to be willing to acknowledge what needs to be done to get there and sometimes the things that need to be done to get there are terrifying or can be terrifying to those in a position of privilege. We are capable of creating spaceships that go to other worlds. We are capable of mining those worlds for resources. We are capable of coming up with technology that benefits everybody on this planet. We just haven’t been doing that. We’ve been coming up with technology that benefits a few. What could we achieve if all six billion of us had a decent education and good food in our bellies? How much could we come up with? I think it would be amazing. But we’ve got to get there.
Speculative fiction seems to be a path toward considering justice in a way that the mainstream literary fiction novel usually isn’t. In speculative fiction, it seems like there is more leeway in figuring out what justice actually is, as opposed to depicting it how it is considered to be, say, in the legal system. In a sense, it feels like creating your own written folklore. What do you want people to know about justice?
Most of us grew up on fairy tales in which there was quick and fair and obvious justice. Or at least, we were told that it was quick and fair and obvious. A lot of the fairytales that we grew up on had really disproportionate justice. Like, did they really have to burn the wolf? I suppose they did. Or did they really have to murder the witch that tried to eat the children? Well, she did try to eat them. So, tit for tat. A lot of the fairytales that have been retired over time posited a kind of justice that we no longer think of as just. We don’t have good fairytales for the justice system that we’re currently living in. We’ve been told that the police are your friend, that if you did something wrong, you will be punished. If you didn’t do anything wrong, the system will set you free. None of this is true. This is not the justice system that we are living in, at least here in the United States. And if you’re black, then all bets are off. I think that on some level, that is where fantasy writers, and to some degree, science-fiction writers, tend to be trying to create the fairy tales that we need to survive.
The world is pretty unjust right now. Those of us that have grown up on the short end of the justice stick understand this innately and want acknowledgement of that reality, because so much of American society is dedicated to weaving the illusion that what you see is not actually what is happening. The endless excuse-making is part of our mythologizing these days. But fixing that is part of the job that science fiction and fantasy can do. That’s one of the things that I believe that this genre is ideal for accomplishing, if it chooses to.
What would you say to the people who say they don’t read speculative fiction?
There are always going to be people out there who are weirdly wedded to their perceptions of a thing and are unwilling to challenge those perceptions. You can’t make them try something new. But Le Guin and all these other excellent writers have had their works out there for fifty-something years. It’s never just been the shallow, limited spaceships-and-ray guns thing. So for anyone who has latched on to the notion that that’s all there is, despite evidence to the contrary, there’s no winning them over. Everybody else, though, is already looking at it. So I’m happy about that.
Who do you write for?
Me. I write for me. I write the stories that I wish that I had seen, either when I was growing up or just when I was bored. I sometimes go back and read my own fiction if I’m divorced enough from it. I’ve basically got a terrible memory, so I’ve forgotten good chunks of the Inheritance trilogy. I’m periodically surprised by things that happen in the story and I’m like, This is amazing! And then I realize, Oh, wait, I wrote this.
Abigail Bereola is a writer and the books editor at The Rumpus.
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