The celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin has become her generation’s greatest storyteller through ambitious and inventive world-building in novels like her Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. Which is why her latest novel, the New York Times bestselling The City We Became, can feel like an anomaly in her body of work: Set in current-day New York City, her challenge was not to build a world, but to imbue our reality with a sort of otherworldly magic, illuminating certain truths along the way about the destructive forces that are present and at work in our lives.
The City We Became revolves around a conceit that likely feels true to anyone who has spent time in New York, or Hong Kong, or Lagos, or London. Cities can become alive, their streets arteries, their lifeblood and energy stemming from, as the antagonist in Jemisin’s novel derisively puts it with more than a tinge of racist hostility, their “hybrid vigor”—the collision of peoples, languages, histories that together, under the right conditions, can make something beautifully new and alien. The full sum of a city is somehow greater than its parts, and isn’t that their beauty?
That is, if the city is allowed to be born at all, for in the world of Jemisin’s novel, there’s a life form from a different dimension bent on killing earthly cities at the moment of their birth. In The City We Became, New York City has just come alive and is under attack. Tasked with keeping the newborn city living and breathing are six human avatars who embody the city as a whole and each of its five boroughs. Their alien enemy is personified in a bleached-out blonde called the Woman in White, who represents the destructive power of white supremacy and the blandness of an unchecked pro-development agenda, who spreads her ideology—call it a virus, if you want—throughout the city, person to person and building to building.
As Jemisin put it to Jezebel, the book is both a love letter to New York City as well as a “warning that we’re going to lose these things that we love” if the forces of unfettered real estate speculation continue to sanitize and smooth off the sharp edges of the city, turning the streets into into block after block of generic chain stores. It felt all the more eerie to read The City We Became in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, with the city on life support.
“Obviously, I wasn’t anticipating the pandemic back when I wrote it,” Jemisin told Jezebel. But, she added, “I wanted to talk about the dangers in the city that I’ve seen, which is, I guess, viral in nature. It is insidious. It seems to slowly take over neighborhoods and kill them. I suppose it works very well as a metaphor, but it’s an economic thing that created destruction.”
Jemisin was supposed to be on a book tour for The City We Became; instead, she is, like many of us, holed up in her apartment, helping her more vulnerable neighbors buy groceries and worrying about an elderly aunt thousands of miles away. We talked about why she hates Hollywood depictions of New York City, how writing The City We Became felt like the “ultimate fantasy wish fulfillment,” and the follow-up to her novel, which will feature, in Jemisin’s words, a “New York politician who closely resembles some real-life people.” She remained mum on who exactly is the inspiration for her next antagonist, but as she wryly put it, “We’ve got some real choice ones here in New York.” The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: A lot of people have said that your new novel feels even more particularly resonant now. I think that people are feeling a lot of love for our city and feeling a lot of heartbreak over what’s happening. What inspired you to write a book about New York City?
N.K. JEMISIN: Obviously, I wasn’t anticipating the pandemic back when I wrote it. Mostly it was what I saw as a danger to the city that I have seen over the course of my life, because I’ve been living in New York on and off since I was five.
I wanted to talk about the dangers in the city that I’ve seen, which is, I guess, viral in nature. It is insidious. It seems to slowly take over neighborhoods and kill them. I suppose it works very well as a metaphor, but it’s an economic thing that created destruction. It’s meant to be a love letter to the city, but it’s also meant to be a warning that we’re going to lose these things that we love about New York if the situation continues.
It wasn’t really so much that I wanted to give people that warning. What I’m always trying to do is just tell a good story. But in this case, if I’m telling a story in any given setting, I’m going to be honest about how I think people really act, and the kinds of systems that will develop. If I’m writing about New York, then I’ve got to write about real New York and the real stuff that we’re doing, in addition to tentacles and stuff.
Aspects of my ordinary, everyday life sometimes leap out at me as magical or as something that I want to kind of explore more in magical form or in story form.
This is the thing that most people seem to experience or have talked about, which is that when you go to a city, when you either go there to visit or you go there to live, a lot of times people can kind of sense which cities are compatible with their own personalities. Usually when you visit a new place, you either have the sense of, yeah, I could live here and I could be happy here or this sense of, you know, this place is foreign and strange and I don’t like it. It’s a thing that most people seem to experience. To me that suggests that there is a personality or a character to these cities. And it’s just a matter of calling that out and making that explicit when I decide to tell a story.
It was quite a trip to read half of the novel before most of us realized that the covid-19 pandemic would get so bad, and then read the second half while I’ve been privileged enough to be hunkered down at home. To read about a group of people—queer, black, Native, immigrants—coming together to defend the city that they love from an outside invader bent on destroying what makes the city vibrant, that feels even more resonant now, as we recognize that it’s black and brown people, immigrants, Amazon warehouse workers, restaurant workers, sanitation workers, nurses and doctors, who are the ones keeping our city and people literally alive.
I’m depicting the New York that I know. I am a black woman and I’m an artist’s daughter. I’ve lived in a New York that did not look like Friends or Seinfeld. And whenever I see these weird media depictions of New York, they feel like some kind of alien universe where, you know, everything is opposite.
When I think about the Bronx, it would not occur to me to make a white person as the core of the Bronx. I barely know anybody white from the Bronx. But that’s just me, too. I know lots of white folks in the city, but most of them live in Manhattan or Staten Island. I just wanted to depict the New York that I knew, which has never looked like Hollywood New York.
I was aware of the fact that I was going to get possibly some pushback from people for not making, you know, X character or whatever or a certain number of characters white. But generally, I don’t get a lot of pushback on that. People know my work by now. They know me.
However, there’s also a tendency for people to still believe that there’s some truth, even a grain of truth, in the Hollywood depiction of New York. And it’s just such horse shit. It’s just the opposite of what the city has always been.
You have several references to H.P. Lovecraft in the novel. There’s been some pushback in the science fiction and fantasy world around awards named for an avowed racist. Someone else described the Woman in White in your novel as taking on an almost Lovecraftian form. Did it feel important to you to include those explicit references in The City We Became?
The choice to go with a kind of Lovecraftian entity as the representation of evil was partly inspired by the whole debate about the Lovecraft statue for the World Fantasy Award. They did change it, and it is much better now. It’s quite beautiful. But it was partly inspired by the debate surrounding making that change, because there are a lot of people in the community who were like, well, yeah, we know he’s a horrible racist, but we should still honor him.
I have always been of the opinion that we should still read the works if we choose, if we have the energy to do so. We should still read the works of people like that, because we need to understand how they think. But there’s a difference between reading the work and engaging with the work critically and reading the work so that you can lavishly honor, and without question, these people who have these ideas. And I was never going to do that.
But also a good portion of it is just that the things that are afflicting New York don’t have a face. The true evils that are destroying New York, there’s no mustache twirling villain anywhere. There is no villain of any kind really actively planning to destroy the city. It’s just a series of incredibly self-serving people who aren’t thinking long-term, who are thinking in terms of short-term gain, and politicians whom New Yorkers have elected. It’s grotesque. It is a thing that I find monstrous. So why not literalize that? That is one of the joys of writing fantasy, that you can put a face on that amorphous evil that you perceive as a threat. It works as a metaphor, but it also just works as a way of fantasy wish fulfillment or stress relief, whatever you want to call it. [laughs]
Was it stress relief for you to write this novel?
Definitely. Like I said, there is no face on the things destroying New York right now. Putting a face to those forces and having people be able to wield power and destroy that evil is probably the ultimate fantasy wish fulfillment. Because I wish that I could just get together with five of my closest friends and go beat down gentrification. [laughs] But it’s not quite that easy.
It struck me that one of the manifestations in the novel was the very blandly and appropriately named Better New York Foundation.
And there are some good foundations like that in New York. Not necessarily, you know, sponsoring Lovecraftian evil art.
I live in Bed-Stuy. I moved here two years ago. One of the things that I had to realize about Bed-Stuy is that by moving here, to some degree, I’m contributing to that force of gentrification. I’m trying to counter that. I’m getting involved in the community. I have joined my block association. I’ve got some elderly neighbors in the area, I’ve been trying to bring them stuff during this whole business. People here are slowly warming up to me, but mostly they’re like, well, she’s just another one of them. And yeah, I’m a black woman who’s moving into a black community. To some degree that also mitigates the effect of gentrification, but I am a contributor, and that is a thing that I have constantly thought about.
One of the ways I’ve begun to understand that that force works is by slowly and almost insidiously moving into communities, via nonprofit organizations and things like that. There’s been an ongoing problem in Bed-Stuy with deed theft. It’s a thing that happened in my novel to Brooklyn, and it is modeled on things that have been actually happening to families right now here in the city, not from the Better New York Foundation, but from a differently named nonprofit foundation, or from unscrupulous individuals who do shady things down at the Department of Buildings. This is what I was trying to wrestle with and engage with, that sense that it’s an uncontrollable wave that I have unfortunately joined and that I am complicit in and that I can try to mitigate a little bit, but that there are also even more insidious and even more dangerous elements of that wave. And that maybe by pointing the spotlight on them, I can also help to mitigate that. I guess maybe, to some degree, writing the story was my attempt to kind of try and help a little bit.
I sent it to one of my overseas editors, and she responded with, does this really happen? Yes! But it was just utter disbelief, and she was writing from the UK. I’m like, yes, and it might be happening in London. You might want to look into that.
You’ve described yourself as a supercharged introvert in the past, and I don’t know if you’ve been feeling this, but I’ve been having this very strange cognitive dissonance of feeling very isolated while also feeling overwhelmed with social contact and all of the Zoom hangouts and FaceTime chats. Have you been experiencing that? What have you been doing?
Because I’m doing this virtual book tour, it has been this weird… This is my normal life. I live at home, I work at home. I don’t normally go out to do my job except when I’m doing social events where I’m doing promotion for a new book or something like that. And doing all of that from my home has been both wonderful because, you know, I was looking forward to doing my first book tour, but I was also dreading it. I’m tired of travel. I hate planes at this stage of my life. I used to love travel but at this point, I’m like, if I don’t have to get on a plane, I’m good. Now, I don’t have to do this one city a day jumping around that we had originally planned. And that’s great. I’m sitting here in my little footie socks. [laughs] I’m sipping a drink, not right now, too early in the day, but I’m sipping a drink from Peaches cause they’ve been giving out giant gallons of alcohol. [laughs]
I’m still busy. It’s still social. Now I’ve got to sign a couple of thousand bookplates which we’re going to mail to the bookstores. I did 300 signatures yesterday. The special edition is still going to go out.
I am an introvert. In my house, theoretically, this is my quiet time, my creative time, but also, the world is coming into my house. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just very strange.
What have you been doing to make time for yourself?
I’ve found it difficult to write in this period, and I understand why. I was a psychologist in my day job life. There’s a theory called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which you may have heard of. It’s usually depicted as a pyramid, and at the very bottom and broadest point of the pyramid are the basics of daily living, like food, shelter, health, basic stuff. You can’t worry about the stuff at the top of the pyramid, like art, and self-actualization, and existential stuff. It’s difficult to even muster the energy for those kinds of things if you’re still stressing about, do I have enough rice to get through the next two weeks or, can I make do if I run out of blah, blah, blah? What happens if my aunt, who is driving me nuts, what if she does get sick? I live in New York. She’s in Alabama. I can’t travel right now to help her. What do we do? So while I am stressing about these very basic things, I’ve allowed myself to not write.
To some degree, that’s kind of disingenuous, because I knew I was going to be on the book tour during this period. I budgeted to have this period free, because I knew that I was just not going to have the wherewithal to travel and write. But I was also not expecting to be thinking “pandemic” as the reason I can’t write.
No one is writing King Lear right now.
Yeah. And people pointed out, I’m sure that you’ve seen the sort of jokey things that people pointed out that Shakespeare actually did when he was stressing about the Black Plague and whatnot.
No one’s writing King Lear! If we’re able to write fanfic, we’re doing good. [laughs] If we’re able to sit around and not be stressed out or freak out, then we’re doing good. And we’re fortunate if we can do that.
You’re a fan of writing fan fiction.
I do that for stress relief, too.
I’ve been writing it basically since I came on to the Internet in the ’90s when I was a grad student. It’s always been just a nice place where I can write whatever I want without having to stress about, you know, is it professionally edited?
But I honestly haven’t been able to write fanfic during this. It’s so stressy right now that if I just get through the day, get my business done, make sure everybody I know is okay, I’m doing good.
The City We Became is the first book in a trilogy. Can you share what comes next?
I have the next book outlined. I’ve actually already begun it. All three books are still going to be in New York. A lot of people seem to think that I’m going to jump to another city. I’m not sure why, but this was always meant to be a New York-based, New York-centered trilogy.
There will be a more explicit examination of the politics, because one of the plot elements is going to be a mayoral race involving a New York politician who closely resembles some real-life people.
I’m going to figure out how much I can get away without having particular people come at me for infringement or defamation. [laughs] I’m probably going to actually make them a blend of a few politicians, because we’ve got some real choice ones here in New York.
The core of it is that a particular person is running for mayor, and the avatars of New York decide to stand against this person. Brooklyn decides that she’s going to run for mayor. And that’s all I can share at this point.
Can I ask, though—is it a billionaire who decides to run for mayor?
[laughs] I’m going to make this person a blend of several people, because some of our billionaires are a little lawsuit happy.