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Vox Book Club, The City We Became, Week 1: New York City is born. What happens next?

Let’s sing the city with N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became.

A book with the words Vox Book Club on the cover. Zac Freeland/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the first discussion post for Vox’s new book club! We’re talking N.K. Jemisin’s new novel The City We Became, about a fantasy of New York City that has come to life and is in mortal danger. In this first conversation, we’re covering everything from the prologue up through the fifth chapter, “Quest for Queens.” I’ve read up through the end of the book, but there won’t be any spoilers in the main post. If you want to discuss spoilers in the comments, make sure to label them clearly.

The central idea of The City We Became is a rich and meaty metaphor. Cities, we learn, can come to life, “as more and more people come in and deposit their strangeness and leave and get replaced by others.” And once a city is alive, it’s embodied by an avatar.

New York City, in the first pages of this book, comes to life. But something goes wrong. An enemy attacks. And the city’s avatar disappears.

Luckily, New York is a city of cities. It’s built of boroughs, and each borough has its own avatar. And now, they’re awakening as well.

Meet the avatars

We start off with New York City himself, who doesn’t have another name that we know of. What we know about him, about the person who embodies the spirit of the city in this book, is that he’s black, queer, and homeless, and spends his days painting graffiti all over the city. That is who New York City is in The City We Became: a city that includes Wall Street and finance bros and the idle rich, sure, but whose true spirit lives in the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the artists.

New York is also the only character in this book who talks to us in the first person. Everyone else gives us their perspective in a tight third person, but New York is always I. And he hints from the very first line that his I and the city itself are one and the same. “I sing the city,” he tells us, in an echo of Walt Whitman’s famous “I sing myself,” and the implication is that for this man, singing himself and singing the city are one and the same.

But after New York goes into a coma and disappears, we leave his first-person narration behind and move into the slightly more distant narration of the avatars of the boroughs that make up New York — starting with Manhattan.

Manhattan, currently calling himself Manny, has amnesia, and we don’t totally know why yet. But it makes thematic sense for Manny to have lost his memory, because Manhattan is a place where people go to reinvent themselves and start over. It’s also a place where money talks and bullshit walks, so when we see Manny’s powers in action, they rely on the ritual power of money, real estate, charm, and when all else fails, threats.

Manny’s charm depends on a certain amount of two-facedness. He’s good at convincing people he’s on their side, and everyone he meets who isn’t white thinks he belongs to their particular race, although Manny himself is pretty sure he’s just black. And over the course of this section of the book, he becomes aware that being the avatar of Manhattan means embodying the worst of the borough as well as the best of it: He is, he thinks, “Every murderer. Every slave broker. Every slumlord who shut off the heat and froze children to death. Every stockbroker who got rich off war and suffering.” What remains to be seen going forward is how he will deal with that fact.

Also dealing with the worst impulses of their borough is Staten Island, who we meet as Aislyn. Each of the five boroughs seems to be compelled to unite together in order to save New York City, and when we first meet Aislyn she is preparing to take the ferry into Manhattan to do just that. But Staten Island is New York’s most parochial and insular borough — the only borough that can be consistently counted on to vote red — and Aislyn finds herself torn between her desire to help the other boroughs and her desire to keep to herself, on her own island.

Aislyn is also the only avatar we’ve met so far who is white, and it’s immediately clear that there’s more than a little racism behind her distaste for the other boroughs. When a black guy accidentally jostles her in line for the ferry, she panics at the sight of his skin, screams, and claws her way out of the station. And the villainous Woman in White — who we’ll get to below — seems to think that Aislyn’s fear and racism and resentment will be very useful.

The Woman in White also approaches the Bronx, who is embodied by Bronca. Bronca’s the most prickly of the avatars we meet, quick to pick a fight with anyone and everyone, but she has good reason to be on her guard: She’s a queer Lenape woman who lived through Stonewall, and she has seen shit. Now, her first priority seems to be to guard her art center and the artists she works with there. And Bronca’s sense of self-preservation — her desire to prioritize what is hers over the safety of the rest of the community — offers another opening for the Woman in White, who manages to plant one of her white nodules in Bronca’s art center.

We don’t meet Queens in this section, and while we do meet Brooklyn, we don’t get inside her head yet. So we’ll save a full discussion of both of them for next week. Meanwhile …

The real villain is reactionary politics

The Woman in White is the antagonist our avatars are facing off against, and she has found a potential foothold in at least two of them. Her weapons are those of whiteness and colonialism. She builds weapons out of a white lady who calls the cops on a couple of brown guys for quietly walking through a park together, out of gentrifiers who excitedly discuss how cheap the rents are in Inwood but “just don’t understand why they have to play their music so loud,” out of everyone who wants to make the city dangerous for anyone who does not look like they do.

It’s eerie and unsettling right now that the Woman in White does her thing by spreading creepy white nodules from person to person “like a goddamn disease,” but the disease is not a coronavirus metaphor. It’s closer to the smallpox blankets of British colonialism.

The Woman in White is a force who is opposed to everything that makes cities living and vital and real: multiculturalism, people of different backgrounds living together, neighborhoods with distinct cultural identities. She is antithetically opposed to progressivism, and she fights against it with reactionary politics.

Let’s talk!

You can use the following questions as a guide for your conversation about The City We Became here in our comments section, or in your own community. Or start off with your own questions! We’re just here to talk about books and have fun.

(And as you think the book through, also get ready for our live Q&A event on Zoom, coming at the end of the month, details TBD. To be notified by email once we have set a date and time for the live event, sign up for our newsletter here.)

  1. The City We Became is a love letter to cities. What’s your favorite city, and what kind of person do you think its avatar would be?
  2. What other cities do you think meet N.K. Jemisin’s criteria for being living entities?
  3. Are reactionary politics a true threat to the nature of cities? What are some real-life places where the metaphorical Woman in White was or would be successful?
  4. A lot of other fantasy stories in which physical places are alive tend to make those places part of the natural world: There are tree spirits and river spirits and mountain spirits. How does it change things to have the animate living place be a man-made city instead?
  5. Pick your player: Which of the boroughs we’ve met so far is your favorite, and who has the most effective powers?
  6. There’s a dramatic style shift between New York’s section, which is first person and fragmented and lyrical, and the rest of the book, which is more traditional. How did you feel about the style shift? What function do you think it serves within the book?
  7. Bronca is just as personally opposed to the Woman in White as Manny and Brooklyn are, but the Woman finds a toehold with her anyway. What’s the weakness the Woman is exploiting there, and how does it help her in her reactionary quest against the city?
  8. The Woman in White’s color coding is very pointedly white, in opposition to the traditional fantasy color coding in which evil things are dark or black and good things are light or white. Does that switch change the way you read this book? How so?
  9. The City We Became comes after the huge success of Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which won a record-setting three Hugo Awards. How does this new book compare to the last three?

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk!