Ellen Wright

The science fiction and fantasy author talks to CityLab about the parallels between fiction and reality in her new book, “The City We Became.”

“New York City itself has a phantom presence in the lives of every citizen and visitor,” N.K. Jemisin writes in her new novel, “The City We Became.” As she describes the transformation of a city into its own living being, she says, “Enough human beings occupy one space, tell enough stories about it, develop a unique enough culture, and all these layers of reality start to compact and metamorphose.”

“The City We Became” is weighty, vibrant reading, as Jemisin, the first-ever person to win three consecutive Hugo Awards for her best-selling “Broken Earth” trilogy, turns her attention to a city she’s called home throughout her life (though, as she describes it herself, she’s an “on-again, off-again New Yorker”). It’s a city under siege from an alien force, defending itself as it attempts to give birth to a human avatar capable of resisting the invasion.

Recognizing the need for greater support and solidarity, each borough creates its own human avatar, reflecting the diversity of the city itself. Still, tensions run high between the avatars, as the boroughs are tasked not only with confronting personalities molded in the image of their distinct enclaves, but learning to put aside old inter-borough grudges long enough to save the city they call home.

It’s a story resonant with the political climate of the day: The potential destruction of New York as a body of mythical beings is abetted by the twin forces of gentrification and white supremacy, each conspiring to make the city less like itself for those tasked with its preservation. In a moment in which real-life New York’s everyday movement has ground to a halt as infection spreads, it’s a painful irony that the story’s alien force, the Woman in White, spreads her power through the city virus-like, touching passersby who don’t realize they’ve been infected, gradually using more of the population already prone to these violent beliefs. Still, New Yorkers are a stubborn bunch: “Too many New Yorkers are New York,” the Woman in White laments. “Its acculturation quotient is dangerously high.”

CityLab talked to Jemisin about the complexities of mapping each borough onto individual characters’ personalities, what her childhood years in New York were like, and the ways in which New York is under attack by forces already coursing through the city. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in New York over the course of your lifetime?

I’ve engaged with different parts of New York in my life. I've lived in Williamsburg, Crown Heights and most recently Bed-Stuy. As a child, it was mostly Williamsburg, which was not what it’s like now. These days, it’s gentrification central, hipster central. There’s even been problems within the last few years of bars hosting white supremacist bands, that kind of thing, which was not the Williamsburg I grew up with. As a kid, it was mostly poor Latinos, artists, and Hasidic Jewish people. You got to understand the rhythms of all of those groups, and while not everyone was part of every group, they cohabitated and were able to interrelate. They had problems, they had stress with each other, but on the other hand, they also mostly got along.

And now, that kind of tripartite complexity to that neighborhood is kind of being swept away by people who hate all of us. Williamsburg would not be Williamsburg without a Hasidic and Puerto Rican and artistic presence. But the new folks coming in not only are effectively making it impossible for those groups to still live there, but they’re also like, “Get out and stay out, we don’t like you.” Cities and neighborhoods have always changed; that is a normal part of city life. But the extra measure of, “We’re going to make it impossible for pretty much anybody except for who looks like us to be here and still we hate you, and we’re going to show contempt for what made this city what it is,” that part is new. And that’s the part that I guess I’m engaging with or wrestling against.

In the book, as the embodiment of New York City struggles to come to life and needs the other boroughs to help sustain it, you write, “New York is too much for one person to embody.” What was it like to give definition to each of the individual boroughs, and shape their personalities as representations of millions of people?

What I wanted to do was deliberately engage with some of the stereotypes of the boroughs, that I, as an on-again off-again New Yorker, had seen and also seen defied over the course of my life, things we also see in the media and so forth. I deliberately created stereotypical representations of each borough, and then I tried to sort of complicate those. I know that I succeeded to varying degrees. I was not able to devote enough time, without making the book unnecessarily longer, to a couple of the avatars that I really wanted to.

Queens, for example, we didn’t get to see enough complication with her, in my opinion. But I wanted to start with a stereotype: Queens is the neighborhood of immigrants, it’s the neighborhood of the middle class in New York these days. We have always been the city that is in many ways the gateway of immigration in the United States, so there had to be at least one there. And I wanted to try and kind of engage with that. But she’s also a person, she’s got an attitude. She’s adapted to New York enough that her first reflex in moments of stress is to try to hit somebody.

This is what I wanted to do: Let’s start with the stereotype and then mess with it. Take Brooklyn, for example. I have lived all my life among women like Brooklyn, because that is what I see walking down the street in Bed-Stuy: working-class women who either made good because their families were able to get a foothold here, or who were struggling because that foothold is being pulled out from under them. Her character is someone who can speak to both — who can speak to middle-class life and to struggle life, you know? This is what I’m trying to encapsulate.

You lived briefly in New York as a child, then visited in the summer thereafter, before moving here again as an adult. What kinds of things did you come to realize about the city as you grew older and returned to living here?

I was five years old when I left New York. My understanding of New York at that point was just: It’s a great place to go. I didn’t have a more complex understanding that an adult is going to have of any place. I knew that I liked New York. I did not like Mobile, Alabama, where we moved. There really wasn’t a lot to compare there; children don’t understand the systems of the environments that they’re dealing with.

But later on, I understood some of what I had seen. I understood, for example, that New York had been nearly bankrupt for a good chunk of my childhood. I knew as a child that the crack epidemic was going on, because we’d go up on the rooftop in my dad's building and there would be little vials everywhere. But even then, it was just kind of normal for me. I was a typical Gen X kid growing up amid the constant detritus of economic collapse, just being an ‘80s kid. Later on, I understood exactly what those dynamics meant with those things I’d seen, what they meant in a greater context. But growing up, it was just a part of life.

You engage with the violence of white supremacy threatening the city’s future, both in the form of neo-Nazi artists being used by the Woman in White to attack the Bronx Art Museum, as well as Staten Island’s refusal to examine its own complicity in harming the rest of the city. Why are these forces so threatening to a city like New York?

That’s always been the nature of white supremacist violence in the United States. There’s always been those who were happily willing to exploit and target the foot soldiers of the movement, who tend to be young, disaffected men who are angry and don’t know why. They don’t know who to blame until somebody tells them it’s those people over there.

These dynamics have always existed in our society, but these forces were allowed to run rampant on the black community and other poor communities. There have always been checks enough to keep the destructive systems of society from basically cannibalizing the country, and that’s what’s changed: It’s affecting everyone now. There were chunks of the country that were always like, “We were perfectly fine with it as long as it’s only hurting those people there.” But now it’s everybody. It’s the latest way in which our society is trying to kind of self-destruct, and I don’t know if we’re gonna get through this. I hope that people will recognize what’s happening and, you know, find ways to push back against it. But I don’t know. We’ll see.

Your book is a unique model for a kind of collective problem-solving in urban space to confront issues that no individual could handle on their own. Given the moment we’re in, do you have any particular thoughts on what’s needed to make sure real-life New York makes it through what it’s facing?

I have no particular vision for how social cooperation would look in real life; I'm a fiction writer, not a community organizer or a philosopher. But I think we can safely look to history regarding large cities navigating major disasters. Generally, people who live in those cities do what’s necessary to help each other and help society on a larger scale. I think living in a city inherently makes citizens a little more community-minded than those who live in more suburban or rural places, in my opinion — and I say this as someone who grew up in a mid-size Alabama town as well as New York. Or maybe it's just a different kind of community. But I see strangers jumping in to help more often, up here, than I did down there. I see people getting organized here and in other big cities, sewing masks for doctors and offering to fetch groceries for community elders, not because they like or even know those people, but just because it needs to be done, and somebody’s gotta.

We know that what’s spreading corona[virus] isn’t population density but poor public health policy; dense areas can control this with aggressive testing and lockdown policies. So politicians and folks who don’t live here are welcome to point fingers all they want. Maybe it makes them feel better, to blame a scapegoat rather than fix their own house. Regardless, the big cities of America will do what needs to be done to make us and them safer. Somebody’s gotta.

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