“Maybe the Dutch smiled like that when they gave trinkets to people of the Carnarsee—a band of the Lenape—and laid sole claim to what all others had shared for millenia. Probably every ethnic group he meets thinks he’s one of theirs, at least partially. It’s a subtle, manipulative bit of magic, and Bronca resents the fuck out of it as soon as she figures it out.”-N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became
I’ll be focusing this blog on books by Black authors for the next while, and I’m so excited to write about N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. I’ve been excited for this book since I read the story it was based on, “The City Born Great”, in 2017’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Before I wrote this post, I was convinced that Jemisin’s story was the first in the collection. I went back and checked the table of contents to find it was fifteenth—Jemisin’s story is just the only one that I remembered from that collection. It was that good, and I recommend it as well as this novel. “The City Born Great” is about a nonbinary person who embodies the spirit of New York, looking out at the city from the streets and the rooftops. In The City We Became, Jemisin takes this further. In the novel’s universe, every great city is born once it has incubated for long enough, and it is protected by an avatar who embodies its spirit. When New York reaches its time to be born, something goes wrong, and it’s up to the avatars to figure out how to save their city.
I read this book last month, and it was the perfect escape for me without ignoring social justice issues in America. Jemisin has created a fantastically diverse world whose characters address queerness and queerphobia, racism, gentrification, the erasure of indigenous culture, and the toxicity of white immigrant culture. I loved every page. It’s the first book I’ve read in a while that I read slowly because I didn’t want it to end—I’m so glad that it’s already been slated as a trilogy. I don’t want to describe the plot because the joy of reading this book for the first time was going on an adventure with the characters. I will say that Jemisin knows how to write a villain. What’s always great about a fantasy series where the protagonists are also new to the fantasy is that every complexity of the universe is explained. It didn’t feel forced to me, because it was explained so gradually. There are several protagonists, and they each learn at different paces throughout the novel, so the reader experiences multiple perspectives on the magic and on the villain.
Most of what I’ve read recently was written (and set) several years to several decades ago. It’s easy to imagine those worlds without the pandemic because I never lived in them. Jemisin’s New York in The City We Became is a New York I’ve spent time in, the New York my mother grew up in, and the escapism this book provided was for a world where everyone roamed without the fear of disease. Strangers interact and jump into the same cab. Friends crash at each other’s houses. People move to New York City. This book did not allow escapism from the current Black Lives Matter movement because so many of the protagonists are Black and aware of systemic oppression and police brutality. I didn’t want an escape from Black Lives Matter–no one should try to escape from it. What I loved about this book was that it allowed for BIPOC people to fight against their oppressors without the added strain of a pandemic. That’s a luxury we do not have right now, but for four hundred pages, I could imagine it was.
Jemisin is aware that she writes in a genre that has been occupied by racist white men, and she specifically calls out H.P. Lovecraft for portraying immigrants and people of color in cities as evil and frightening. She doesn’t only keep close tabs on the white writers who preceded her, though. She holds herself to the same standards. In her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Jemisin thanks her sensitivity readers for analyzing how she portrayed the non-Black people of color in the novel—indigenous, East Asian, and South Asian characters. I’ve never seen that in a book before, but I loved it. It should definitely be the standard. Just because we have gone through one experience doesn’t mean we know how to write about every form of oppression, even if we do intend to be empathetic. Jemisin’s awareness of how non-Black people of color would read her book touched me because it was a gesture I didn’t even know I could expect. I hope anyone else who reads the acknowledgements is more aware of how they portray cultures other than their own—it’s definitely made me think.
Everyone should read this book. I really can’t stress that enough. It’s fun, fast-paced, and easy to read, and it discusses issues in New York (and American) society that we should think about every day if we’re lucky enough to be able to ignore them. Jemisin is not a shy writer. Her antagonists are human embodiments of ignorant white privilege. If that sounds uncomfortable to you, then you should definitely read this book. It explains why the perpetuation of ignorance hurts all society and it does so in such a fascinating, wonderful story.
For updates on the blog and other writing news, follow my on Instagram @deshpande_writes!