Put two verbose, black science fiction nerds together and things are bound to get boisterous.
“Pardon my language again,” author N.K. Jemisin said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. She tries to use her expletives “appropriately, responsibly,” but that’s so time-consuming, and Jemisin has been busy lately.
Since releasing her best-selling, Hugo-winning, trilogy-ending “The Stone Sky” in 2017, she has edited “The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018” and released the short story collection “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?”
The collection revisits many of the themes Jemisin has explored over the course of her more than 20-year career — and does so in a format that’s important to her: She began writing short stories as a way to tap into her creativity back when publishers didn’t know what to do with books like hers about black characters.
“The industry hasn’t changed that fast or that much,” Jemisin said. “This is one of the reasons, I guess, to be glad for the attention . . . maybe my success can open more doors.”
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, loud cat interruptions and a shared penchant for unprintable language.
You’ve been a working writer for a long time, and it feels like now things have really come together.
This is more than I ever expected out of my writing career. I really just wanted to be able to pay the rent. And I would have been content to be able to pay the rent.
At the end of the day I’m really just trying to tell a story that is entertaining. It’s just that what is entertaining these days is some dark [stuff]. I was not expecting [“The Stone Sky”] to do as well as it did, partly because we are in the darkest timeline.
I remember the day after the presidential election everybody was just kind of sitting around numb. My Twitter feed sort of lit up with people who were like: Yeah, reading about the apocalypse is actually making you feel better right now. There’s a cathartic element to reading about people who’ve got it worse or people who are fighting back against things that seem overwhelming.
One thing I think is notable in your work is this conflict of should humanity be saved, even in its flawed form?
You can see some of that in some of the earlier short stories that are in the collection and you can probably see it in the “Inheritance” trilogy too because at varying points the Gods are like, “Should I just wipe these [people] out?”
Any writer that pays attention to human history is going to understand what we are capable of and be like, ugh. So many of those problems are of our own creation and can be easily solved by us just doing what is sensible as opposed to what feels good. A lot of people are perfectly, perfectly willing to make those changes. But then a handful of people, who unfortunately right now are in charge of the country, have decided that, “Well, we can’t do anything about climate change. Let’s just use it all up and make as much money as we can before we die.” This is exactly what is wrong with us. You know there are a number of psychological and sociological factors at play but what it all kind of comes down to is that we’re . . . stupid and you know we have such potential.
What draws you to writing science fiction and fantasy despite the ways it has often failed people like you and I?
Science fiction and fantasy has always had the potential to do a lot more than it has been doing.
The industry is still, on some level, catering to that core audience of fantasy readers in particular who don’t want to have the limits of their imagination pressed. They want comfort fiction. It’s going to reassure them endlessly that they are important, that they are the heroes . . . everybody else wants that too, though. This is the thing that I’ve been trying to show people with the success of my work. Everybody else wants to be the hero, everybody else wants to be reassured that they are important, that their decisions matter, that their culture matters. It’s a giant untapped market.
Because when you are a genre that caters to a single demographic group on whom racism and sexism pivot — when you are giving people the power fantasies that they crave but their power fantasies depend on other people’s subjugation? No, it’s not going to be a good thing.
Do you find it frustrating to always have to spell out race for people who naturally assume everyone is white?
It’s not even a question of whether we find it frustrating or not, it’s just how it is.
One thing that I find a little awkward is inserting descriptions of white people, because we’re all so used to white as the unmarked default — even I am used to that.
I don’t like using food metaphors [for people] because, as an activist (whose name I can’t remember) pointed out to me many years ago, many of the food metaphors are derived from the stuff that we were enslaved to ship and take care of. So she had coffee brown skin and brown sugar and all this other stuff. People died for that. [For white people] there is “peaches and cream” complexion and that’s about it. There’s not this subtle attempt to associate certain kinds of people with certain kinds of activities. White people’s range of activity is so wide that there is no set of words that naturally adheres to their descriptions.
Your short story, “The Trojan Girl” made me think about how people graft race onto characters even if you don’t tell them the race.
I don’t think about stuff like that. Mostly what I’m trying to do is just get a particular story across. It’s just that I do default to making every single one of my characters a person of color. Because that’s what I want to see.
As a black writer I have a responsibility to try and create more space for black characters. I don’t always do so. I also want to retain the space to write whatever I want to write because there is always the danger of black authors being forced to write black characters and that literally has happened in some genres. And I refuse to allow that to happen to me.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of one of Jemisin’s short stories. This version has been updated.
By N.K. Jemisin
Orbit. 416 pp. $26.