Roundtable: N. K. Jemisin
I think the discussion so far shows how well-earned Jemisin’s position as an up-and-coming new writer is. Last question for our panelists: Why do you think her work is breaking and resonating with audiences at this moment in the history of our field? Also, what do you see coming next for her?
Well, Jemisin’s work is building on other work; it’s work that adds something new to the conversation, that takes some academic and political ideas and applies them to the fantasy we’ve become familiar with. On the one hand, the audience has to be familiar with the basics of the genre before they can appreciate how someone is riffing off of it –but of course Tolkein derivatives have been around long enough now that there’s a real self-consciousness about that kind of writing, which isn’t new.
But it’s possible that this is a moment when people are prepared to hear stories coming from a postmodern political perspective. I can think of work that may have paved the way–the first that comes to mind is Mieville which includes strong politically centered critiques of epic fantasy.
I don’t want to underestimate the fact that these are just fun reads, though. Nora has said that her first goal is to tell an interesting story, and I think she’s accomplished that in the two novels. The imagery is striking; there’s a great sense of needing to turn the pages.
She’s even tapping into some of the romance stuff about sex with the dangerous–the god who can burn you, the god who represents death.
I want to say that the reason Nora’s on the rise is that she’s a seriously talented writer. And that’s true–she is. But she was writing for a significant period of time before her star took off, and I am not convinced that she was a significantly lesser writer at the time. So something does seem to have changed, whether it’s receptivity for post-colonial fiction from a black woman coming out of a science fiction community that’s finally starting to articulate some of its issues with racism and sexism, or whether it’s a series of coincidences in finding the right storm of editor, publisher, and marketer, when they needed to be found. Or some combination of both.
As far as what’s coming next–I would really love to see her take home the Hugo in August.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
RS >> Well, Jemisin’s work is building on other work; it’s work that adds something new to the conversation, that takes some academic and political ideas and applies them to the fantasy we’ve become familiar with.
One of the things I particularly like about her writing, and TBK is more explicit about this than, perhaps, HTK, is her willingness to address genre expectations, to play with them while also being respectful of the underpinnings. You have to fully understand how something is supposed to work if you’re going to turn it inside out, and she obviously does, but I like that she is not deferential when she does that. I’m not quite sure how to articulate this but I am struck by the way she subverts while understanding that the need remains for a satisfying story well told, and subverts without insisting that the reader stand there and admire the art of the subversion.
RS >> I don’t want to underestimate the fact that these are just fun reads, though. Nora has said that her first goal is to tell an interesting story, and I think she’s accomplished that in the two novels.
I think this is important too. I was struck when reading HTK that even when I wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing, and mulling over in my mind whether I was looking at innovation or retread, there was still a terrific need to keep on reading; more so with TBK. And heaven knows, at the crudest and most basic level, if a writer can keep me turning the pages in in enjoyment rather than horror, they’ve already won a hard battle.
I’m already looking forward to the third volume of the trilogy, but I am also keen to see how Jemisin develops her short-story writing, and also to see whether she moves on to novel-length work that isn’t in a secondary world. I’m struck by her engagement with New York in her short fiction. And yes, I know the ‘New York novel’ is a trope in itself, but I can’t help feeling that Jemisin could do a lot to refresh its tiredness.
And while I’m about it, I’d just like to say thank you to everyone for the exchange of ideas. Most invigorating.
Like everyone else, I hope for awards in her future. I’m also curious to see what she’s going to tackle next in her Inheritance trilogy. HTK featured a female protagonist grappling with the legacy of her mother’s political actions while TBK featured a female protagonist grappling with her father’s biological legacy (a nice gender-stereotype inversion on both counts). I’m curious as to what “inheritance” the protagonist of her third novel will have to grapple with, and how gender will factor into that legacy.
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