N.K. Jemisin is a talented and impactful writer of genre works. Inspired by dreams, society, and science, Jemisin builds fantastical worlds that mirror our own. Kat walks us through Jemisin's life, her history, and why we're so thankful this fellow nerd decided to finally pursue writing as a career. Gabe dives into Jemisin's inspirations, her dreams, and the recurring powerful themes in her work.
Write What Feels Good: N.K. Jemisin's Life & History by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Fun Facts about N.K. Jemisin They live in Brooklyn, NY. She is a part of a writing group called Altered Fluid. She is the first author in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards, for her Broken Earth trilogy. In addition to writing, she has been a counseling psychologist and educator, a hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Although she no longer pens the New York Times Book Review science fiction and fantasy column called “Otherworldly” (which she covered for 3 years), her reviews can still be found online. She likes to garden and game in her spare time. She plays skyrim. She has a cat. She’s only 41, and didn’t start trying to get published until her late 20s, early 30s! Apparently she writes fan fiction, but using a handful of secret identities that she has not shared.
N. K. (Nora Keita) Jemisin was born on September 19th, 1972, in Iowa City, Iowa. She was only there briefly and her family moved to New York, NY when she turned one. In an article in the New Yorker, called N. K. Jeminsin’s Dream Worlds written by Raffi Khatchadourian, give a lot of background on her family. Her father, Noah Jemisin, and her mother, Janice (I could not find her maiden name) Jemisin met in college at Alabama State University and got married soon after. Her father was born in Birmingham, Alabama - as the article states “where the commissioner of public safety allowed the Ku Klux Klan to attack the Freedom Riders when their Greyhound buses arrived, in 1961. Her father spent part of his youth “dodging dogs and fire hoses, turned on him and other Civil Rights protestors.” The newly married couple left Alabama and moved to Iowa City, Iowa because Noah wanted to devote his life to painting and had applied to a graduate program at the University of Iowa. Jemisin’s mother applied as well, pursuing a degree in psychology with specialization in psychometrics. Following Jemisin’s birth, they moved to Brooklyn. Her father taught art, and her mother taught grade-school science. Apparently her father has a painting at the MET called “Black Valhalla”. Jemisin was very fond of the NYC house, describing it in the article: “We were in a beautiful little brownstone,” Jemisin recalled. “We had the ground floor and the floor above. There was a gorgeous old mahogany bannister. There were grapevines in the backyard, and a squirrel named Greedy who would come seeking pecans that my grandmother would send me from her tree in Alabama.”
At the age of five, her parents divorced and Jemisin went with her mother to Mobile, Alabama, returning to NYC in the summers. This move was very hard for Jemisin and as a means of escape she spent many hours at the local library. This led to her starting her writing around 8 years old. She “self-published” handwritten books, bound with cardboard and yarn.
CW for the next Paragraph: Hate Crimes, Racism
Jemisin hated her time in Alabama because of the regimentation of Southern society, the quasi-suburban alienation, and racism. In an incident that is described in the New Yorker article, when she was in forth grade, the KKK burned a cross on the Mobile courthouse lawn, and then murdered a Black teenager named Michael Donald as he was walking home from the store. The lynching took place not far from her Grandmother’s house, and the incident really impacted her and her family. They made a speech in 2013, recalling this: “I remember my grandmother sitting in her den with a shotgun across her knees while I cracked pecans at her feet. I was maybe nine years old, and had no idea what was going on. She told me the gun was just an old replica—she’d brought it out to clean it. I said, ‘O.K., Grandma,’ and asked whether she’d make me a pie when I was done.” In traveling back and forth between Alabama and New York, Jamisin was impacted by the jarring differences across the Mason-Dixon Line from both a social and personal standpoint. The shifting of racial divisions in Mobile led to her attending a predominantly white school that had been forced to desegregate. She would have to ride an hour bus ride to get to school each day, to exchange comic books with her white friends behind the school. As a way of dealing with the world she spent a lot of time in libraries reading and writing, and further developed her love of fantasy and science-fiction.
Jemisin fell in love with comics and science fiction at a young age. She loved space, and the world's fantasy spaces could be built. In dealing with her parent’s divorce, Jemisin felt little about her real life was cohesive, so she enjoyed the completeness of imagined worlds that existed as self-contained logic bound places. She loved science-fiction novels so much that she would read them in class, covering them with paper to hide the titles from her teachers. In the New Yorker article she said: “I saw ‘Star Wars’ when it came out, because I was a creepy, obsessed space child.” Jemisin continued to write, and the love of science-fiction pushed her to write more, constantly. She would spend days in front of her grandmother’s house in the sun, writing, drawing and talking with her cousin , W. Kamau Bell who said “We bonded over the fact that we felt like aliens in Mobile.” The differences in her parents parenting styles also impacted her as well. Her mother was a standardized-test giver, and her father an artist. These differences made it so her mother had a hard time understanding Jeminsin’s love of otherworldly fantasies and writing. Her father however, did understand, and during their summers they would stay up late together watching Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Her father also encouraged her to explore the city and create, and they would spend a lot of time coexisting and working on their passions. Her dad was her first real editor and she described: “One of my favorite memories is us walking across the Williamsburg Bridge. This was before it got renovated. It had fucking holes in it. You had to be careful or you would lose a foot! I would talk over story ideas and plotlines. He would listen to all of that.” While her father was a supporter of her writing, her mother’s influence won out in this exchange at first. She did not pursue writing as more than a hobby for many years. Her main focus was to afford life, rent, bills, and survive - so she pursued that route for many years, writing exclusively as a hobby and coping mechanism.
As Jemisin got older, she attended Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. She went on to receive a master’s in education from the University of Maryland at College Park. She became a career counselor at a college in Springfield, Massachusetts. She did not like Massachusetts very much, one reason being the weather and climate. The cold, and lake-effect snow. She continued writing, mostly as a hobby, participating in writing groups and anonymously on online fan fiction sites. She eventually worked at Northeastern University, in Boston but did not enjoy Boston much either. It was when she turned thirty that she had a sort of crisis, stating: “I was, like, Oh, God, I am in debt up to my eyeballs, I hate this town, I don’t like my boyfriend. I have got to reorder this. What do I need to do to be happy? O.K., get out of debt, get out of Boston, get into writing—maybe make some money from it, maybe that can help.” She attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop and then started seeking publication seriously. From there she started to submit her works to publishers and agents. She found an agent in 2005, and her first novel “the Killing Moon” was published in 2012, but it did not initially sell since the industry was not welcoming to inclusive fantasy. She received many rejections, that she was certain were racially based, code from the same editorial bigotry that Delany faced in the sixties. She even came very close to quitting. “I came very close to quitting,” she told me. “I had a long dark tea-time of the soul, and basically somewhere in there I realized, People are just that racist. If the only problem is that the book is full of black people—O.K., I got you. I am going to write something full of white people, but it is going to be all about how evil those white people are. ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ was that book. It was me getting mad at science-fiction publishing.” She did find success in writing and many of her books have won awards. She is the first Black person to have won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the first author in the genre’s history to have won three times in a row. On her website she describes her writing’s most frequent themes as resistance to oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up. She often writes very on the nose, and unapologetically on the topics she covers, and it’s been important to her to be honest in her fantasy. Gabe will get into more of her writing and themes/styles in their section.
Jemisin’s website has a fun FAQ’s section that answers the questions she most often receives from interviews:
So you’re Black! And a woman! In science fiction! What’s that about?
I understand why these questions are important. It is disheartening that people keep asking them, however, or some version of them. At this point, for me, these questions are a reflection of the larger problem – that for those of us who are Other, we are constantly called upon to explain our existence. Therefore I ask that interviewers stop doing it, and think of something more interesting to ask.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Always. As a kid I devoured books at the library, and at home I would make my own handwritten books with cardboard covers and yarn binding. It took a while for me to decide to do it professionally, but I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember.
How did you become a writer?
Nobody bought the ones with cardboard covers, so I had to try something new.
Serious answer: I’ve been writing since the age of 8 or so, but only began seriously seeking publication in my late twenties and early thirties. I started with a writing workshop (Viable Paradise), and from there on I joined a writing group and wrote short stories to hone my craft and novels to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I sent the stories to magazines and the books to agents. Once I found the right agent for myself, we then worked together for several years before the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sold. I kept a folder of rejections as motivation to keep going. I don’t know where that folder is anymore, which feels like as good a measure of success as anything else.
How do I become a writer?
Unfortunately there is no one way to answer this question. You become a writer by writing, and if that in itself makes you happy, you’ve succeeded already. To have a writing career means a lot of small-business management, market research, patience, and perseverance. The good news is that social media and the internet have made it much easier to do this work than it was when I started out. The bad news is, no one can give you the patience or the perseverance except yourself. It can be helpful to form a solid group of fellow writers seeking publication, either as general support or as a dedicated writing group — but in the end, it all comes down to you. Good luck.
How do you keep writing?
By not writing sometimes! Diligence is very important for a writer, especially a writer on contract. However, if that’s all you do, you will absolutely burn out, and recovery time for burnout is not quick. So, in order to keep writing, I travel, read, write “just for fun”/myself, and occasionally play Skyrim.
A Wonderful Concoction of Dreams & Science: N.K. Jemisin & Fantasy by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
“I write what feels good.” - NK Jemisin
Inspiration: In Dreams & Science
It begins with a dream. N.K. Jemisin’s writing process starts with a rough remembrance of a dream. A concept that lingers in her mind, fuzzy at the edges when she awakes. She then focuses on the elements she remembers, asking herself questions like why or how to unpack the larger picture. She brings with this exploration, the emotions that linger after the dream has dissipated. For The Broken Earth trilogy she saw, she found herself standing in a surreal tableau with a massif floating in the distance. “It was a chunk of rock shaped like a volcanic cone—a cone-shaped smoking mountain,” she recalled. Standing before the formation was a black woman in her mid-forties, with dreadlocks, who appeared to be holding the volcano aloft with her mind. She was glaring down at Jemisin and radiating anger. Jemisin did not know how she had triggered the woman’s fury, but she believed that, if she did not ameliorate it quickly, the woman would hurl the smoldering massif at her. Writer Raffi Khatchadourian explains in their article on the New Yorker titled, N. K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds. For her next trilogy, The Inheritance trilogy, the dream that kicked off this exploration of enslaved deities featured two Gods. One had dark-as-night hair that contained a starry cosmos of infinite depth; the other, in a child’s body, manipulated planets like toys.
Further than dreams though, Jemisin immerses herself into the world she creates. Though science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy are all world-building and magical genres, her stories feature real-world influences and science. On her desktop she has a folder with information gathered from a NASA-funded workshop called Launchpad which discussed what could happen to the Earth if we lost our moon. The New Yorker article explains, Some speculated that our planet’s axis would tilt wildly, triggering haphazard ice ages, and that its core might lose its stability, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The fragments in Jemisin’s folder began to pair up. She imagined a planet that had lost its moon and become seismically hyperactive. Such a place, she reasoned, could sustain life, but just barely; mass extinctions would be common. If the woman in her dream inhabited that planet, she wondered, then what would her civilization look like?
To fully understand the circumstances and environment of her worlds, Jemisin inhabits those spaces. She spends time in boring court rooms for notes on how to write courtroom scenes. She explores New York and learns of its history to apply to her upcoming trilogy. To get a firsthand feel for volcanoes, she flew to Hawaii to smell sulfur and ash. To learn how people prepared for environmental stress, she researched end-of-days survivalists, though she stopped short of going into the wilderness to meet them.
The Fifth Season
Fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkein started his world with a map. Drawing this environment, developing the language, the caste systems, and the culture of this fantastical realm. Jemisin too begins her journey of The Broken Earth with a map of the Stillness. She places her wealthy populace, those in power and therefore corrupt, in the center near the equator. This she deems is a geologically-stable spot on fault lines she designed.
The next element in the stew that is Jemisin’s imagination, the brew of storytelling, and concoction of new worlds is psychology and history. Jemisin aspires to explore systems of subjugation. There is a critical and keen eye that focuses on the oppression of certain peoples, acts of rebellion, and the new world order. For Broken Earth, She decided arbitrarily that the woman in her dream lived in the volatile hinterlands—and then began to treat that decision like a discovered fact. “I’m, like, O.K., why isn’t she working to stabilize this powerful, wealthy part of society?” Jemisin told me. “Well, she must have at one point been part of that life, but somehow got away.” Gradually, the contours of a story emerged. “You let intuition do whatever it is going to do,” she said. “I had a sentence in mind: ‘Let’s start with the end of the world.’ That can mean the literal end of the world, it can mean the end of a civilization, or it can mean grief.
For each of Jemisin’s stories, there is intention and education. As fantastical or imagined her worlds are, there’s some semblance of familiarity and possibility.
Bring Some Color to the Future
As Octavia Butler had said about the lack of diversity in genre work, “I wrote myself in,” so too does N.K. Jemisin. Butler fought against critics and a world that limited her worlds. She, NK Jemisin, and other writers of color were asked to remove any POC or racial issues from their narratives afraid the readers wouldn’t be able to relate. As if BIPOC don’t find connections in the world and in fiction despite the incredible lack of melanin on screen? Further, these publishers and others in power, despite demanding the removal of race in these books still labels the works as African American Science Fiction. Thinking even now of Octavia Butler being the “Mother of Afrofuturism” but is just as much a writer of speculative fiction as Atwood. Butler has said on the matter, “Science fiction reaches into the future, the past, the human mind. It reaches out to other worlds and into other dimensions. Is it really so limited, then, that it cannot reach into the lives of ordinary everyday humans who happen not to be white?”
Butler felt the strongest thing to do to fight this was to “be here.” and Jemisin is out here. One of her more recent works, How Long ‘til Black Future Month (a collection of short stories), was inspired by two memories of watching The Jetsons growing up. She said, “I notice something: there’s nobody even slightly brown in the Jetsons’ world. This is supposed to be the real world’s future, right? Albeit in silly, humorous form. Thing is, not-white people make up most of the world’s population, now as well as back in the Sixties when the show was created. So what happened to all those people, in the minds of this show’s creators? Are they down beneath the clouds, where the Jetsons never go? Was there an apocalypse, or maybe a pogrom? Was there a memo?”
One of the short stories in this collection is titled, Cloud Dragon Skies. In it, humanity has taken to the skies, living in a ring-shaped space colony, built from crushed asteroids. Due to ecological disaster, the Earth is near-uninhabitable. The atmosphere is tainted, toxic chemicals influencing new forms of life. There are a few humans who have stayed behind, one of which is our narrator Nahautu. She explains, One morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us. Like Butler, she imagined a future in which we don’t abandon Earth to continue our malicious and disastrous human ways but instead, inspires a future of progress, evolution, and adaptation. In it, the people on Earth accept the new cloud forms as natural, as a piece of their environment, just as at home as they are. Believing that, in a redemptive future, humanity must adapt to its ecosystem, not shape it.
In keeping with her psychological explorations, the humans in power are still faulty and harmful. Not understanding the new creatures, they react violently and try to eliminate the Earth’s new shapes. Leaving Nahautu to flee Earth and live amongst the other humans, acting as orator, keeping the truth alive through story.
For too long, the genre world elevated the voices of problematic (and frankly uninteresting) writers. Shadowing the work of others. As if to say there was no room for diversity in the future or in the fantastical. What does it say that entire groups of people, cultures, and lifestyles are erased from our predictive and speculative texts? Are we not going to be here in the future? Do we no longer matter? Are we to be erased in the future, as the experiences of our ancestors have in the past and present?
Even Tolkien was affected by the racist rhetoric of his time. His orcs, the monstrous and disgusting agents of evil are questionably designed. In a letter explaining his idea he said, “They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”
Fuck HP Lovecraft
Up until recently the World Fantasy Award was a bust of H.P. Lovecraft. We have discussed the problems of Lovecraft a few times on this show. But for those missing out, he was a racist, anti-semite, loser of a man who has greatly impacted the world of horror. Subverting his harmful rhetoric by featuring powerful and heroic POC characters against his monstrosities is always a win.
In her upcoming trilogy, she is expanding upon her short story, The City Born Great. Jemisin has explained that the story is part Ghostbusters and part The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It takes place in New York as it is invaded by interdimensional aliens. These aliens are Lovecraftian in nature with long tendrils, otherworldly sinister. (“The tendril mass looms, ethereal and pale”). These monsters are confronted and fought off by heroes that have Lovecraft turning in his grave, BIPOC, and varying in gender. In an article on Tor.com titled, N. K. Jemisin’s New Contemporary Fantasy Trilogy Will “Mess with the Lovecraft Legacy” Jemisin explains, “To boil it down, it’s about a group of people who embody the spirit of the city of New York. And they raise the city up into a kind of metaphysical entity that will help to fight against basically Cthulhu…This is deliberately a chance for me to kind of mess with the Lovecraft legacy. He was a notorious racist and horrible human being. So this is a chance for me to have the “chattering” hordes—that’s what he called the horrifying brown people of New York that terrified him. This is a chance for me to basically have them kick the ass of his creation. So I’m looking forward to having some fun with that.”
We love to see it. (Check out our episode on the book Lovecraft Country for more on “things that would make Lovecraft vomit his racist little heart out.”)
In Brightest Day and Darkest Night
When she is not writing fantastical futures and otherworlds, she is piloting narratives of some of our favorite superheroes. N.K. Jemisin has written one of the recent runs of Green Lantern Corp featuring the amazing, Sojourner “Jo” Mullein. I love the Green Lantern series and was incredibly excited to hear about her work in it. Jemisin is a lovable blerd who appreciates and thrives in this medium.
In her series, it takes place in a city-state on a megastructure at the edge of the known universe. It is a civilization of multi-species. Green Lantern, Jo Mullein (who looks incredibly like my love, Janelle Monae!) is a detective. In that same New Yorker article (bless them!) they explain, Although it is a comic book, the writing carries Jemisin’s wry tone, interest in power, and unapologetic use of allegory. The series opens with Mullein surveying a murder scene, while considering an aphorism from “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe’s novel of colonialism: “A man who makes trouble for others is also making it for himself.” It lingers in her mind, but Mullein dismisses it, noting, “I’m the one causing the trouble. Just by existing.”
In the end, N.K. Jemisin is a foundational part of the fantasy genre. A necessary voice to keep us in the future and in the fantastical. May she continue to share with us her dreams.