The ever-changing nature of memory, drawn through chalk art
‘The Fifth Season’ author N. K. Jemisin answers your questions
Judy Woodruff: And now to our monthly conversation for our Now Read This book club, in partnership with The New York Times, where you can read along with us and thousands of others, and then hear directly from the authors.
Our book club producer, Elizabeth Flock, has our pick for June. It's a story about the end of the world.
It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
Elizabeth Flock: What happens when a planet is threatened by environmental catastrophe and a few citizens develop special powers to resist? Are they heralded as heroes or feared and destroyed?
Our June book club pick, "The Fifth Season," is a fantasy novel that imagines a world just like that.
Author N.K. Jemisin is here to answer questions from our readers.
Welcome to the "NewsHour."
N.K. Jemisin: Thank you. Thank you.
Elizabeth Flock: So the fifth season is the first in a trilogy.
N.K. Jemisin: Yes.
Elizabeth Flock: For those who have not read, can you tell us a little bit about what you are after in this first book?
N.K. Jemisin: The first book is an introduction to the world and an introduction to the people who are trying to survive in this world.
And on this world, for whatever reason, there is excessive seismic activity, to the point that, every few years or so, there's a thing called the Fifth Season, which is similar to what we have had in our old world, the year without a summer, for example, where people have to learn to suddenly survive where they can't grow food, they don't see the sun for weeks months on end.
And so it's rally just about people surviving amid external and structural disasters.
Elizabeth Flock: Well, we have a lot of reader questions.
So, let's get to the first one, which I think is about where you began.
N.K. Jemisin: OK.
Solange Ashby: How did you decide to base this trilogy on stone lore?
N.K. Jemisin: I have always been interested in the ways in which human beings transmit knowledge. So I was interested in kind of playing with a culture that was very different from anything in our own world, and I decided to play with the written word in a more ephemeral form.
We talk a lot about how, when things are chiseled in stone, that makes them very permanent, very unchangeable.
Elizabeth Flock: Right.
N.K. Jemisin: And I wanted to talk about the fact that, no, human beings are involved, so it's changeable. So even stone lore, even something chiseled into a block of stone, can still be edited, can still be revised, and what that might mean.
Elizabeth Flock: And a lot of this stone lore is about the constant geological upheaval that happens in this world.
N.K. Jemisin: It is. And a lot of this stone lore is actually about -- it's survival mechanisms. It's ways for people to kind of prepare for the Fifth Seasons when they come along. It's basically a disaster preparedness guide.
But it's also a guide to how to understand people in a disaster.
Elizabeth Flock: OK, let's go to our next question.
N.K. Jemisin: OK.
Jeff Steele: The book posits Earth not as maternal and nurturing, but as paternal and evil. What are you trying to say about gender and gender politics?
Elizabeth Flock: Right. So, it's Father Earth, Mother Earth.
N.K. Jemisin: Yes.
Elizabeth Flock: Why?
N.K. Jemisin: Mostly, I just wanted to kind of mess with people's expectations.
I don't think of Father Earth as evil. The people of this world do, for good reason. But evil is in the eye of the beholder. And in a lot of cases, people are putting themselves into their perceptions of the world.
So I wasn't really trying to say anything specific about gender, other than to challenge the idea that the Earth was always nurturing.
Elizabeth Flock: I think we have another question from readers about what you were trying to say.
N.K. Jemisin: OK.
Bryan Pekel: Do you think that sci-fi and fantasy as a genre is particularly useful in deconstructing white heteronormativity?
Elizabeth Flock: ... change people's minds, beliefs?
N.K. Jemisin: I think all art can do that, yes. And science fiction and fantasy is art, too.
I know there are a lot of people out there who don't think so. But it's literature. It's just like any other form of literature. And its ability to change your mind is dependent both on the author's skill and the reader's willingness to accept a new way of thinking.
So, yes, definitely I think it could change minds.
Elizabeth Flock: In this particular book, what were you trying to say and affect people's opinions or beliefs?
N.K. Jemisin: I think, in all of my fiction, I am interested in exploring protagonists that are not normally seen in adventure stories or stories about changing the world.
So, I wanted in this case to kind of center the story on a 40-something, overweight, dreadlocked black woman.
N.K. Jemisin: Gee, I wonder where that came from?
But -- so I wanted to center the story on the kind of person that you normally don't see as a protagonist or as a hero. And I just wanted to see someone else change the world.
Elizabeth Flock: In this book, I think one of the particular things is that the way you write is so particular.
So I think we have a question about that as well.
N.K. Jemisin: Sure. OK.
Hewson Duffy: Why do you choose to have such a funny and involved authorial voice? It's unlike anything I have ever read.
N.K. Jemisin: I don't really choose that. It just happens.
Elizabeth Flock: Did it take you a while to develop that voice?
N.K. Jemisin: Not really.
When I'm first starting a new novel, I write what I call test chapters, where I will -- I know the sort of basic thing that I want to do, but I will write it with different voices, different perspectives. Sometimes, I will switch up the main character and figure out who needs to be telling the story.
Elizabeth Flock: We will continue this conversation and have it all available online and on our Facebook page Now Read This.
The book is "The Fifth Season."
N.K. Jemisin, thank you for joining us.
N.K. Jemisin: Thank you for inviting me.
Elizabeth Flock: And for July, we will come back to Earth.
Our pick is "The House of Broken Angels." It's a joyful, tender novel about family and migration by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea.
We hope you will read along and check out our Facebook page for insights from our authors and other readers. That's where you can join our book club, Now Read This, in partnership with The New York Times.