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Queering the Genre: N. K. Jemisin

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N. K. Jemisin is one of those writers who, having published her first novel in 2010, has rather exploded onto the bookshelves of the genre scene; since then she has published four more novels, finishing one series and writing another from start to finish; she’s got another novel in the pipeline for release in 2015 (pushed back from August 2014 so that she can once again get a whole series out in relatively short succession), and a novella in the world of her first trilogy coming out in December this year. And that’s excluding her short fiction. She’s also been nominated for a number of awards, including three Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice awards (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Shadowed Sun) and a Locus award.

Spoilers follow for the Inheritance Trilogy and for the Dreamblood Duology

She’s also a woman of colour writing about characters of colour many of whom are queer, in non-Western cultures, and hanging one series entirely on the queerness of her characters.

Let me repeat that; one of the most prolific novellists to appear in the genre in the last half-decade is a woman of colour, who writes about characters of colour, in non-Western cultures, and centred her first series on a queer relationship between gods. This (I hope) is the future of our genre.

The Inheritance Trilogy is a series about imperialism and colonialism, about power and privilege, about power relations and their effects… and about love, and how love can go wrong. The events of the three books take place over a long chronological spread, and can almost be read as standalone, although that risks missing the interesting developments from novel to novel. Jemisin’s world was created by two gods, Nahadoth and Itempas, both gendered male (for the most part; Nahadoth has a penchant for changing his gender sometimes, but is for the most part male), who are lovers, until they create the female Enefa; at which point a polyamorous relationship begins, until Itempas – “Bright Lord of Light” – grows jealous, murders Enefa and imprisons Nahadoth. That’s the backstory to the first book; don’t say Jemisin doesn’t make life interesting! The trilogy follows the consequences of this, and in so doing, look at love and the nature of it quite fascinatingly; but what they also do is refuse to mark sexuality as a “special status”. It’s essentially a thing that is just there, not worth comment; and the refusal to pin down Nahadoth’s gender simply as male is well carried out an meshes interestingly with my own queer experience. They’re also straight-up well written, of course!

The Dreamblood Duology on the other hand makes sexuality a marked state. Njiri’s love for Ehiru is forbidden, not because it is homosexual attraction, but because it is sexual attraction at all; Gatherers are supposed to be asexual, and indeed passionless, beings. The Killing Moon uses that necessity of emotionless to explore how important emotion is, how damaging suppressing it can be, and again, the importance of love; unlike The Inheritance Trilogy, however, here love is a redeeming force, something that can bring peace to people. Sexuality per se becomes a marked state, heterosexuality as much as homosexuality, for the euthaniser-priests the Gatherers; this approach again yields fascinating results in the novel, as Nijiri’s mix of shame and love play out (in, perhaps problematically, the context of both unrequited love and a master-apprentice relationship).

Jemisin’s sympathy for her characters is both consistent and amazing, as is her portrayal of a number of different cultures, something that appears across her work; Jemisin refuses to go down the typical epic fantasy route, using some few tropes of the genre but otherwise striking out into largely untapped territory, drawing on a number of non-Western cultures for elements to create wholly new fantastical cultures (fantastical in the centrality of, and their reliance on, magic) for both the Dreamblood Duology and The Inheritance Trilogy. This is innovative work that places queer identities, and perhaps more to the point queer people of colour, at its heart; and does not make them remarkable for having agency, being capable, or loving, but rather treats those as the baseline norm that they are.

If you’re looking for queer characters of colour, a good mix of genders in the characters, and some fantastic non-Western settings in your epic fantasy, N. K. Jemisin is a great place to start. Read her works, ye literate, and rejoice.

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1 Comment

  1. […] and Shill might just have to grow up faster than she thinks. ~~~~~ I talked about N. K. Jemisin in a post back in May last year, and specifically about the Inheritance Trilogy. This novella was written for […]

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