Nora Jemisin is still getting used to Bed-Stuy. It’s a dreary winter Tuesday, and she’s settled into a seat at one of her favored local haunts, the Brown Butter Café, where she’s welcomed more as a local than as the resident celebrity author. The Brooklyn neighborhood, where she’s lived for two years, still feels new to her; she spent more than a decade in her beloved Crown Heights but was forced out due to rising rents. She’s quick to point out that even in her new neighborhood, gentrification is starting to creep in.
“You can feel that something has been injured,” says the author, who is known to her readers as N.K. Jemisin. “The energy has shifted.”
The changing face of the city is front and center in Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became (Orbit, Mar.). The book is set in a near-modern-day New York as it pulsates and shifts, growing and changing in dramatic, often supernatural ways—a city fighting for its very soul.
Jemisin is dressed for comfort in a dark plum sweatshirt, her long dreads pulled back. She has just completed her writing sprint for the day. At 46, she’s been living in New York nearly her entire life but feels “it’s different now.” Yes, there’s the gentrification, but it’s different in other ways: she’s watched as casual racism has grown into something more sinister and widespread. She says she’s had comments hurled at her on the street.
“Some people have the privilege to ignore that,” Jemisin says. “I don’t. I want to see people fight and make it the city that it once was, the city I grew up in, the city that I remember. But I don’t know that that’s going to happen.”
The City We Became—the first in a new trilogy—could be pitched as X-Men with an antiracist bent. In it, a ragtag crew of New Yorkers try to save their beloved metropolis from the (literally) invading tentacles of something deeply sinister. Each borough has an avatar, and those avatars must find each other and band together to take on the woman in white—an apt metaphor for the white supremacy that’s gripping the country.
“My writing has always been where I’ve gone to work through my problems,” explains Jemisin, a former psychologist. “This is me processing the city I love turning into something else, and my little bit of a fight against that. All science fiction and fantasy is actually engaged with the present—with what’s happening right here and right now. I’m a black woman; what I experience in the here and now is going to be inflected with politics because my life is political.”
The book’s ensemble cast is a carefully crafted microcosm of New York’s diversity. Jemisin created the characters through diligent research, relying heavily on the guidance of community members. “I’m not interested in the Lovecraft version of New York,” she says. “Lovecraft would have actually focused on some of the people of color in the city, but the narrative would be that he was terrified of them. They’d all be evil and criminal and monsters. And I’m not interested in the Friends or Girls version of New York either, which would be creepily white. So I’m delving into some territories that I’ve never lived in my own experience, and I worry about that.”
One of Jemisin’s characters, Bronca, is Lenape, while another, Padmini, is of Indian origin. Jemisin worked with several sensitivity readers—specialized editors who critiqued the book to vet cultural content and make sure she was doing these characters and communities justice.
“I needed to do a lot of research about the caste system and how that would impact [Padmini’s] experiences, and how it very much exists in America, in its own way,” Jemisin explains. “I’ve done the best I can to avoid doing harm, but at the same time I think it would be more harmful to not put characters that don’t look or act or feel like me in the story—to pretend they don’t exist in a world like New York City. To erase it would be horrific. I think the risk is necessary. You’ve got to try, or you don’t end up doing anything new.”
That’s Jemisin’s aim with every book: to break ground. “In the fantasy [books] I grew up reading, women sat in the back of the room and sewed a banner for the men who were out in the action,” she says, citing canon mainstays like Clarke, Lovecraft, and Tolkien. If there were people of color in the book, she adds, “they were working for the enemy and they were the ones willing to betray humanity for the dark lord. Those were the science fiction masterpieces.”
Jemisin pauses, returning to her own work. “It’s not like I [write my books] thinking, ‘Suck it, Lovecraft.’ Although, let’s be honest: that’s probably there too.”
Jemisin takes issue with the way that some of Lovecraft’s impassioned readers have, over the years, defended him. “I couldn’t stand by while Lovecraft fans circled the wagons and said, ‘Yeah, he was racist, but...,’ ” she says. “It’s not that he was just a racist person. It’s that his racism was the core of everything he wrote. All of these creepy cultists and degenerates who create evil in his work are people of color. That is what I was pushing back against.”
With her own writing, Jemisin is, arguably, reshaping the canon. In 2010 she won the Locus Award for best debut novel for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Since then, she’s published more than a dozen titles, including the Nebula-, Hugo- and World Fantasy–nominated Inheritance trilogy, the Dreamblood duology, and the ALA Alex Award–winning 2018 short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Futurism Month. She also coauthored a treatise on nerd culture.
But most readers know Jemisin for her critically praised Broken Earth trilogy, which launched in 2015 with The Fifth Season and has, to date, sold more than two million copies globally across all formats, according to her publisher, Orbit. Jemisin won her first Hugo for The Fifth Season, becoming, in the process, the first black author to receive the best novel honor in the award’s decades-long history. The trilogy is set to be adapted as a series for TNT.
For Jemisin, though, this is just the beginning. In the past year, she’s branched out into comic books (and is working on DC Comics’ Far Sector series with illustrator Jamal Campbell) and has other projects in the pipeline that she says she’s not yet able to discuss.
Despite (or maybe because of) all the plaudits she’s received, Jemisin’s commitment to calling out racism has earned her the ire of many in the white male establishment of the genre. “I got my first death threat not too long after my first novel was published,” she recalls. “For publishing my first novel. For existing. Period. Nobody even knew who I was. The novel wasn’t a bestseller. It was before the awards.”
More recently, Jemisin says, the tone of the attacks has shifted. “There’s a core of people who show up like clockwork to chime in with how much they hate my work, how it never should have won awards—‘She’s just a diversity hire, an affirmative action winner,’ blah, blah, blah.”
Then she looks up and smiles. “But at the same time, I’m cashing those checks.”
Sona Charaipotra is a journalist and the cofounder of book packager Cake Literary, the coauthor of the Tiny Pretty Things series, and author of Symptoms of a Heartbreak.