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Sometimes readers need to be traumatized, author N.K. Jemisin says
Our June pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club Now Read This is “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin. Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
When N.K. Jemisin began writing “The Fifth Season,” the first of a trilogy of sci-fi books that would each go on to win the Hugo Award, she knew that she would start the story with the end of the world. She wasn’t certain, however, that she should also start the book with the death of a child.
“Why traumatize readers unnecessarily?” she writes. But in the end, Jemisin did begin the book with a mother, Essun, learning that her son is dead. To Jemisin, “sometimes it is necessary” to traumatize readers, especially when writing a book about oppression.
Although on its surface “The Fifth Season” is about a make-believe world wracked by environmental devastation, it is also about the people in that world who have special powers to stop it, and who are brutally oppressed for having them. Jemisin says the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown helped inspire the novel.
Below, read more of what Jemisin was thinking as she wrote “The Fifth Season.” If you’re reading the book now, beware that these annotations contain spoilers.
prologue: you are here
Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and wonders what her mistake was and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket — except his face, because he is afraid of the dark — and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.
What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.
And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it:
He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.
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