She wrote a fantasy novel about a dystopian New York City. Then it came true
Published 5th June 2020
Credit: Woojin Lee, CNN
She wrote a fantasy novel about a dystopian New York City. Then it came true
Sometimes, books come at exactly the right time, and that is certainly the case with "The City We Became," the first book in N.K. Jemisin's "Great Cities" trilogy. The fantasy novel is based on the idea that the essence of New York City is transferred to six humans -- each an avatar for the five boroughs and one for the city as a whole -- who must protect the city, and its people, from an intergalactic multi-dimensional threat that manifests as a gentrifying Woman in White. No one knows how the pandemic-battered New York will fare in the coming months or years, but Jemisin points to the solidarity and resiliency of the city.
"New York has found ways to come together to make it a safer, healthier, half-happier place. People are looking out for each other," she said, from her apartment in Brooklyn. "And the people who remain will still do what they can to be good New Yorkers, I suspect because there's something about being in the city that pulls that out of a lot of folks."
Jemisin, who was raised by her mother in Alabama but spent summers and holidays in New York with her father, became a full-time resident of the city more than a decade ago, and since then she has become the first author to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel (awarded to a science fiction or fantasy book) three years in a row, for her bestselling "Broken Earth" trilogy. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and the foremost voice for diversity and inclusion in the world of fantasy writing.
Below, Jemisin discusses her latest release and how she turned New York City into a setting for magic and allegory.
CNN: How did you come up with the concept for "The City We Became," and specifically, the idea that cities are birthed? In your opinion, is New York alive?
NKJ: I travel a lot and I've lived in lots of different places. Whenever you go to a new place, you get a feeling fairly quickly of whether you can be comfortable there, and if the place is welcoming to you and yours. New York has always felt like that to me. And I just thought, well, there must be something to that. If lots of people feel that personality or temperament, then there must be something we're all picking up on. And if there is a personality, there may be life.
CNN: In the book, five of the main characters each represent a borough of the city: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. What was your process for distilling the essence of each borough into a character?
NKJ: I started with whatever the stereotype of the borough is. And then I tried to understand something about the borough's history. Finally, I wove the characters with my own impressions of the borough. There's a substantial amount of just subjective opinion in there. I'm sure I'm going to hear it from Staten Islanders because my opinion of Staten Island is distinctly noticeable.
Brooklyn is 99 percent of what I know of New York, so I decided to make Brooklyn take a back seat because I love it so much. Even as a child, my father lived in Chelsea for a little, but then he moved to Brooklyn Heights. And this is before it was fancy, expensive Brooklyn Heights. He moved to Williamsburg in the 1980s when it was still a dump, and he still is there today. So I've seen the gentrification wave, and what it does; I was literally at ground zero of the hipster movement. But really, I wanted to de-center my Brooklyn-ness.
CNN: You have become one of the most recognized contemporary black writers in the fantasy genre. Can you speak to the importance of including more voices in a genre that has long struggled with diversity?
NKJ: I'm not doing anything different than what those old white men with beards living in middle America are doing with their fantasy stories. They're interjecting their white dude ethics and aesthetics into what they write, and I'm doing the same thing with my fiction. The only difference is that our society is configured to see one of those things as perfectly normal, and the other as pathology. Some of the early reviews of "The City We Became" criticized the book because it only has one white character. But I'm just doing the same thing that television shows like "Girls" do -- I'm just showing New York from my perspective. I've never seen New York as a white place where everybody has really large apartments. If I'm going to write New York, I'm going to write the New York I know, in which artists and queer people and black people and all kinds of people with different ethnic backgrounds are blending and talking to each other and eating each other's food. That is the New York I've always known.
Science fiction is about where we're going. But fantasy is about where we've been. If you look at these depictions of medieval Europe in fantasy novels written by middle American white dudes, it's not what the real medieval Europe was like -- art from the same period shows people of color and women in prominent roles. The fantasy we've been getting for the past few decades caters to a particular way of thinking about the world that needs to change -- especially regarding women, whiteness, race in general, and how cultures interact.
Fantasy is enhanced by having different voices. But I've always said that black and female and queer writers will know when we have arrived when our work doesn't have to be exceptional. When our mediocre wish fulfillment fantasies get published as often as the white dudes' fantasies get published.
CNN: Which authors have you been reading lately and what is it about their work that resonates with you?
NKJ: As part of my research for "The City We Became," I read "The Life and Death of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was a contemporary of the famous New York city planner Robert Moses, and people just simply didn't listen to her partly because she was a woman. But her perception of how to make safer and healthier cities was rooted in observations of how people actually interact. If Jane Jacobs had had the power to impact the city, the city would be a much healthier place.
Read me: an excerpt from "The City We Became"
Manny's stomach has knotted with fear. He can tell she's about to do something, and he still has no idea how to fight her. "What do you want?" he asks, to stall her. To buy time to think.
She shakes her head and sighs. "It would probably be sporting to tell you, but there's no sport in this for me. I just have a job to do. Goodbye, Manhattan."
All at once, she's gone. The Woman in White, that is; between one blink and another, the white woman's clothes and hair flicker back into their ordinary tints. She slumps a little, just an ordinary brown-eyed woman again. But after a moment of confusion, the woman's lips tighten and she raises her cell phone again. The camera light goes back on.
But something worse is happening. When the hairs on the back of Manny's neck prickle, he jumps and wheels around, suddenly convinced that someone is coming at him from behind. He sees the forgotten young couple on the lawn, still picnicking, but otherwise there's nothing there—
Wait. No. Rising from cracks and spars in the asphalt of the path... are ghostly little white nubs.
Manny grabs Bel and yanks him back just as white nubs rise through a crack he'd been standing on. More wriggle through even the unbroken portions of the asphalt. When Manny sees that no white nubs are rising from the narrow ring of bare soil that surrounds the tulip tree rock, and perhaps another three or four inches beyond that, Manny pulls them both to stand within this apparently protected circle. "What are—" Bel begins. Bel can clearly perceive the white nubs, Manny is relieved to see. At least he doesn't have to explain this, too. Bel backs himself against the rock, looking around in horror as the nubs become inchworms.
"Just disgusting," says the woman. She stands amid an ankle-high lawn of the tendrils now—and the one coming from the back of her neck has fissioned into two, both of them uncannily oriented on Manny. Incredibly, through all this, she's still recording them. Or—not just recording? An instant later a voice crackles from the phone's speaker. Manny can't make it out, but he hears the woman say, "I need the police. There are these two guys in Inwood Hill Park who are, I don't know, menacing people. I think they're drug dealers, and they won't leave. Also, they're having sex."
"Listen, woman, I don't think you know what sex looks like—" Bel splutters. In the distance, the young couple giggles, though Manny doesn't think it's because of what Bel said. They're busy making out and haven't noticed what's happening by the rock.
The woman ignores Bel, intent on her conversation. "Yes. I will. I'm recording them. Right, uh-huh." She hesitates, then screws up her face and adds, "African American. Or maybe Hispanic? I can't tell."
"I'm obviously British Asian, you stupid bint!" Bel stares at her openmouthed. Meanwhile, however, the tendrils are still growing, and getting long enough that they're going to be able to touch Bel and Manny even if they climb on top of the rock. Which probably isn't going to help, since the rock isn't big enough for two people to stand on.
Which reminds Manny that the rock is meaningful. An object of power—somehow. Shorakkopoch, site of the first real estate swindle of the soon-to-be New York. What can he do with that?
He pushes at Bel. "Get up on the rock," he says. "I need the room. And give me whatever is in your wallet."
It's a measure of how freaked out Bel is that he complies, scrabbling onto the rock and groping for his back pocket. "Worst mugging ever, mate," he quips with a shaking voice.
Manny has pulled his own wallet out of his pocket. He finds himself remarkably calm as he opens it and rummages for something that will serve that tickle of an idea in his mind, and a detached, analytical part of him contemplates this lack of fear. He should be terrified, after seeing what these tendrils have done to another human being. What will it be like to have his body invaded and his mind overtaken by whatever entity these things serve?
Like dying, he decides. And since some part of him has faced death before—he's aware of that suddenly; it's why he's so calm—Manny also decides that he's not going out like that.
There's not much in his wallet. Some receipts, a five-dollar bill, an Amex card, a debit card, an expired condom. No photos of loved ones, which will strike him as odd only later. An ID—but immediately he tears his eyes away from this, not wanting to see the name he had prior to this morning's train ride. Who he used to be is irrelevant. Right now, he needs to be Manhattan.
The instant his fingers touch one of the credit cards, he feels a flicker of that strange energy and focus that he had on FDR. Yes. "Land has value," he murmurs to himself, distracted from the rising, whipping field of white all around him. "Even public land, like in a park. It's just a concept, land ownership; we don't have to live like this. But this city, in its current form, is built on that concept."
"Please tell me you aren't losing it," Bel says from where he's crouched on the rock. "I don't think both of us can afford a psychotic break at the same time. We just signed a lease."
Manny looks up at him—and tosses the fiver to the ground, just beyond the rock's ring. He feels rather than hears a sudden, hollow, high-pitched squealing from where the bill has landed, and he knows without looking what has happened. Where the bill has touched the asphalt, it has hurt the tendrils, and caused the ones in that immediate area to withdraw.
Bel stares at this. Frantically he pulls a handful of disordered bills out of his wallet. Some of them are euros, some British pounds, US bills, and a few pesos; clearly Bel travels a lot. He tosses one of the pound notes. It lands not far from the bill Manny threw, but nothing happens.
"I told you to give it to me," Manny says, snatching the wad of bills from Bel's shaking fingers. Doing this strengthens the strange feeling; Manhattan was built not only on land valuation, but stolen value.
"Just trying to help with this bollocks," Bel snaps. "God, do whatever nonsense you have to do, they're getting closer!"
Manny starts casting the bills around the edge of the field of white, make-it-rain-style. He quickly sees that the money is having an effect, but not much of one. A five-pound note clears the space underneath it, but no more, and he loses sight of it after a moment amid the surrounding field of tendrils. The euros and pounds work, too, but it seems to depend on their value. A hundred-dollar bill clears not only its own space, but an inch or so around itself. A hundred-euro note clears slightly more—but all of it together adds up to only enough space to keep the nearer tendrils from being able to reach Manny. And if the tendrils keep growing, they'll eventually be able to reach Manny no matter how many additional inches of land he's gained.
That's it. Suddenly, Manny understands: he is effectively buying the land around the tulip tree rock. But it costs a lot more than sixty guilders now. "Bel, do you know how much Manhattan real estate runs? Per square foot?"
"Are you actually insane."
One of the taller tendrils whips toward Manny's thigh, and he swats it with a twenty-dollar bill. It squeals and withdraws. "I really need to know, please!"
"How the bloody fuck should I know? I'm a flat renter, not a buyer! Maybe a thousand dollars a foot? Two thousand?"
That's the problem, then, Manny realizes, with a bitter groan. Manhattan real estate is horrifically expensive, and they don't have enough cash to buy their own lives.
In desperation, he tosses his Amex, and that has the biggest effect yet, clearing a rectangular chunk of space the size of a sedan. Apparently he's got good credit. Bel doesn't have any cards, however, and there are tendrils beyond the space he's cleared—and now Manny's only got the debit card left. How much money is in his bank account? He can't remember.
"Okay," says the woman, with satisfaction. Manny is stunned to realize he forgot her for a moment. She smiles at them from amid the thickest knot of gently waving tentacles, her head and shoulders now festooned with at least a dozen. "The police say they're on their way. You people might have been able to get away with doing drugs or blowing each other in broad daylight before, but I didn't move here to put up with stuff like that. We're gonna get you out, one by one."
Manny's consternation about Manhattan real estate prices is eclipsed by sudden dry-mouthed fear. If the police do show up—which isn't a guarantee; even as a newcomer, he can tell Inwood is still too brown a neighborhood for a definitive or quick response, especially during a citywide emergency—they will walk right into the rapidly growing field of white tendrils that now surrounds Manny and Bel. And if one tendril has turned a nosy, racist white woman into a conduit for disembodied existential evil, he doesn't want to see what infected NYPD will become.
He's getting ready to throw the debit card, and hoping desperately that that account just happens to contain a million dollars or so... when they hear another cell phone.
New York, New York, big city of dreams...
It's mostly a gabble of tinny sound from this distance. Probably an iPhone. But from the gabble, Manny can make out handclaps over a beat. Electronic drums and... a record scratch? Like in old-school rap?
Too much... too many people, too much...
Manny whips around to see a middle-toned Black woman coming toward them along a path that converges with the Shorakkopoch clearing. She's tall and strong, with an upright carriage and thighs that are nothing but curve, the latter accentuated further by the pencil skirt she's wearing the hell out of. Some of her bearing comes from all this style, plus smart heels and an elegantly texturized, honey-blond-dyed cap of curls—but most of it's just her. She's a presence. She looks like either a CEO on her way to an incredibly stylish meeting, or a queen who just happens to be missing her court.
Then Manny sees that she's also holding up a cell phone. Instead of filming, however, she's using this one to blare music. The song is a little before Manny's time, but he's heard it once or twice, and—ah. With every tinny beat of the synthesized drums, the field of tendrils that has filled the tulip tree rock clearing begins to twitch en masse. As Manny inhales in relief, the woman steps onto the cobbles, and the tendrils flinch away from the brisk click of her heels. The ones she steps on actually scream, in tiny hissing squeaks as they writhe—and then vanish. When she directs the phone downward, the ones that haven't already withdrawn shudder as if each beat is a painful blow. Then they crumble away, leaving no residue or sign that they were ever there. The tendrils are crumbling away everywhere.
Too much... too many people, too much... Yes. The city might welcome newcomers like Manny, but mind-controlling parasitic otherworldly entities are the rudest of tourists.
"Five of us," Manny murmurs. He knows who, or at least what, this woman is.
"The City We Became" is available now from Hachette Book Group.