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Watch: N.K. Jemisin explains for the Vox Book Club why “cities are inherently terrifying”

“Manhattan is literally built on trash and blood.”

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.

On Wednesday night, the Vox Book Club went live on Zoom for the very first time to talk with N.K. Jemisin about her new book, The City We Became. For 45 minutes, we discussed what makes cities powerful, New York’s dark history, and the uneasy legacy of H.P. Lovecraft. Also I — and, I have to assume, every last one of the more than 100 people watching — admired Jemisin’s impeccable collection of plushes.

The conversation was the culmination of the past month of discussion we’ve been having here at the Vox Book Club. Next week, we’ll be moving along to our May pick, Donna Tartt’s classic campus murder story The Secret History. But for now, we wanted to share our live event with all of you, including those of you who couldn’t make it.

You can watch the full video of my discussion with Jemisin above; highlights from our conversation are below. Enjoy, and come hang out in the comments if you’re moved to talk further about The City We Became. You can also sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter for the latest updates on what we’re reading and discussing!

“The threats to New York that I am embodying in the story are threats that have a kind of viral flavor to them”

Constance Grady

Some of the commenters in the book club have taken issue with the idea that New York City is the first North American city to have come to life so far. How did you make that choice?

N.K. Jemisin

Well, first of all, I like New York. But it’s not actually the first North American city to have come to life so far. New Orleans would have been the first. Because I love both cities, I’ve lived in both cities, but I think New Orleans’s culture formed and cohered just a little before New York’s did. New York’s culture is actually still forming. New Orleans’s culture has already reached a point of public saturation or public knowledge.

It’s about both how people inside the city and people outside the city perceive it. Everyone’s got this mythic idea of how New York and how New Orleans work, and that’s what triggers the change.

People know the names of boroughs in New York. People sing songs about New Orleans. Everyone knows “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” even if they’ve never been to New Orleans. They’ve watched TV shows about it.

So New Orleans would have been the first city to come to life, but then something happened. And as [The City We Became] implies, there may very well have been something that happened in the case of all of the cities in the world in the last 50 years or so. São Paulo was the last city to be born without this extra interference that they start to realize is happening.

Constance Grady

So within the book, the interference with New York starts to act like an infection or a virus, spreading from person to person. What is it like to be putting out a book with a metaphorical virus threatening New York City, and disproportionately threatening people of color, at this moment of living through a pandemic?

N.K. Jemisin

Well, I sure as hell didn’t intend that! Given the vagaries of book publishing, I actually wrote this book almost two years ago. It would have come out last year, but after I finished it, I realized I had spent the last 10 years or so writing nine books, and I hadn’t taken a break in there. I was dealing with a lot of heavy personal family stuff, and I needed a break. So I took a year off, and [my publisher] Orbit decided to push back the release of the book by a year because of that. And so hilariously, it ended up dropping right in the middle of a global pandemic! Perfect timing. I did not intend this, obviously.

The threats to New York that I am embodying in the story, in various ways, are threats that have a kind of viral power, viral flavor, to them. I never really thought of gentrification as a viral thing, but it does operate in a very viral way. It jumps from one neighborhood to the neighborhood nearest by. It spreads insidiously. You see the warning signs of it, and then suddenly everything is changed in the area where it’s happened.

I, and other New Yorkers that I know of. tend to use disease metaphors when we talk about it. We talk about how when you can no longer get dollar coffees from the bodega and there are indie coffee shops all over the neighborhood, that’s stage one or two, and then when you see the Starbucks, that’s stage four and terminal.

So the metaphor ended up being very virus-related, and that was literally just happenstance. I was not expecting as many people as seem to have done to see that resonance, and to feel that resonance, and to react to it. But with the book’s release [landing] at the time that it has, and with the circumstances [it’s been released into], talking about New York at a time when New York is the epicenter of America’s response to this, it was really just a perfect storm of terrible things happening, and people needing a hook.

“Manhattan is literally built on trash and blood.”

Constance Grady

How did you come up with the personalities for the avatars? Because they’re quite distinct, each one.

N.K. Jemisin

Hilariously, I just decided to start with the stereotype. I have talked in other venues and on my blog about how stereotypes can be problematic. In this case, because what I am basing the energy and the life of the boroughs on is public perception, the general audience or attitude toward these places by outsiders who don’t really know them, I felt it was a good idea to start with the stereotype and then complicate that, and then make them real people beyond that.

Everybody knows Manhattan. Everybody that’s seen movies about New York or read books about New York, even if they’ve never been to New York or they hate New York, they think about Manhattan when they think about New York. We’ve seen that iconic skyline in movies and TV shows. We’ve heard all of the songs about the glitz and the glamour. I wanted to make Manhattan represent that by visually being a very handsome man, very charming, very friendly; the kind of person who gets along with almost everybody, who makes everybody feel like he’s one of them.

But then actual New Yorkers and anybody that’s lived here longer, anyone who’s studied the history of New York, understands that Manhattan is going to be a little darker than it looks. I’ve talked about this in other interviews, too, but Manhattan is literally built on trash and blood. The lower part of Manhattan, Wall Street, is landfill. People don’t seem to understand that, but Manhattan Island was a lot shorter way back when it first formed. The bottom part of it is literally built up from trash.

And the workers who did that: for the most part poor, black, Irish, other people, all the various ethnicities that have come and poured their energy and their lives, literally, into New York. There were some excavations that happened maybe a few decades ago, where they found buried bodies that had not been marked in any kind of way. And that’s now the African Burial Ground, because the bulk of the bodies were slaves and freed people who worked down on the foundations of Wall Street. They dropped. They worked so hard that they died. And they literally just got paved over with no markers, no gravestones, no anything.

So literally Manhattan is built on blood! And trash, and garbage, and deception, and theft, and a bunch of other things. So I wanted Manhattan to be superficially very charming, very attractive, and underneath, something kind of frightening.

I did this with all of the boroughs. To some degree, the perception of each borough is based on what the other boroughs think of it, and to some degree, it’s based on actual history.

So Staten Island, obviously: It’s the one part of New York that consistently votes red when the rest of the city consistently votes blue. There’s something cultural happening there that makes it very different from the rest of the city. They’ve tried to secede from the city! They have failed! I needed to acknowledge all of this. But I also wanted these characters to be people on top of all of that.

This is a trilogy. I didn’t really have time to really complexify all of the boroughs. I felt like it would have been crowded if I’d devoted the same amount of attention to all five of the protagonists, plus the primary avatar. So I focused my attention on three of the boroughs. I deliberately did not focus my attention on Brooklyn, because I live in Brooklyn and I love Brooklyn and it’s my favorite borough, and writers are supposed to murder their darlings. So I put Brooklyn on a back burner, and Queens, unfortunately, ended up on a back burner, but I did feel like I was able to focus my attention on Manhattan and the Bronx and Staten Island, at least for now.

“I like to fuck with people.”

Constance Grady

The ending with the great borough switcheroo — where you think the whole time Staten Island’s going to team up with them but she doesn’t, and then instead Jersey City comes out of nowhere — was so much fun to read. Did you always know that was where you were aiming at?

N.K Jemisin

Yes. The book is inherently kind of predictable. I meant for it to be kind of a sentai sendup, you know, the five-man team that comes together to fight evil. You know what that’s going to end as. You know that the five-man team is going to get over their personal dramas, and they’re going to get everything together, and they’re going to make it work. And that just felt super predictable to me. And it’s intentionally meant to be kind of silly and kind of predictable in that way, but I like to fuck with people.

I want to remind people, this is a trilogy. The story has only begun. There are two more pieces of it. There will come a time when there’s a big fight at the end and everybody gets together, and yes, that’s predictable. But who those everybodies consist of — I wanted to remind people that cities and all political entities are concepts. They’re social constructs. They’re not hard-and-fast entities that have to be the particular way that they are. And assumptions and external perceptions are just as powerful as things like charters and laws and tax boundaries.

Yonkers is possibly in the sights somewhere. Other parts of Jersey could potentially get swallowed into New York. New York is this kind of huge amorphous entity in the minds of people who think about New York. Many of them don’t understand New York, and so because of that, New York is this kind of giant blob that covers the whole tristate area. All of it is fair game, as far as I’m concerned.

Constance Grady

Speaking of giant blobs, so much of this book is in conversation with H.P. Lovecraft and the tradition he was writing in. What is your relationship with those books?

N.K. Jemisin

I have read a little Lovecraft. I am not a fan. What I am engaging more with is Lovecraft’s legacy within science fiction and fantasy. One of the things that triggered this was the whole conversation that arose around the World Fantasy Award a few years ago. The actual award itself, the statue, was a little stylized head of H.P. Lovecraft.

Anyone that wants to can go back and take a look at the conversation triggered when the award was given to Nnedi Okorafor, who is another black writer, Nigerian American, who won for Who Fears Death. Great book. She won the award, and then she was like, “Uh, do you guys understand just how racist he is? And the fact that this person’s head I now have to have in my house, because I’ve put most of my other awards on display? You’ve given me this honor, but the honor consists of the head of a person who would have hated me.” And she pointed out just how racist Lovecraft was.

Honestly, I had not paid a lot of attention to Lovecraft before that, and I had not realized, before that conversation, just how bad he was. What shocked me during that conversation is that a lot of science fiction and fantasy readers were aware of how bad he was. Like, even for a “man of his time,” he was exceptionally racist. And a lot of people were perfectly aware of how bad he was, and were okay with that. Thought there was nothing wrong with honoring him by making him part of this award.

So that was the part that I was really engaging with, was the idea that our faves are problematic but we’re going to ignore the problem. There was a whole debate about, “Do we go with the author-is-dead interpretation? Do we ignore the part of his life that was racist and just focus on the work?” Well, you can’t, with him. Because when you look at his letters and how he describes people of color and people who lived in New York City, you realize that that is the basis for his fear of the other, his fear of the unknown.

And that shows itself in his artwork as well, most prominently in his short story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Which is actually set in New York, and which actually does talk about the inherent degeneracy and scariness of people in Brooklyn.

I wanted to engage with that. I wanted to engage with the fact that his perception of the scariness of the diversity of New York and the complexity of New York — he found that terrifying, and he used it as the basis of horror. I find it fascinating, and I wanted to use it as the basis of power.

Constance Grady

And one of the things that’s so interesting about the reveal that the Woman in White is R’lyeh is that a lot of the things that made that city scary to Lovecraft — that it has non-Euclidean geometry, that it’s a city at all, that the creature inside of it is mostly worshipped by brown people — those are things that you have been deconstructing throughout the book and talking about why they’re not actually scary. So is there a possibility that there’s something going on with her that is more than what we currently know?

N.K. Jemisin

Yes, and I can’t talk about that without going into books two and three, which are still currently forming in my head. I’ve started writing book two, but I don’t like talking about works that are still in progress.

Most definitely there’s more to her, but really I just wanted to get at the idea that cities are inherently terrifying. Cities are harmful. In real life, cities change weather systems around them. They’re a massive environmental hazard. When you find ancient cities and you dig down a little, you realize they did things like change the water table nearby. There have been studies of cities that show how they change the climate, how weather systems change and twist when they pass through a city.

Cities are powerful, and inherently kind of harmful to bare nature. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those cities are evil. That’s really just the nature of having a large agglomeration of human beings in one place.

I really just wanted to play with the inherent scariness of the city. And the forces that R’lyeh represents in my fiction versus what they do in Lovecraft’s fiction — I’m not scared of people of color and their strange non-Euclidean math. I’m not scared of math! Anymore. When I was a kid it was a different story. So I decided to make R’lyeh representative of what actually does scare me, which is homogenization, assimilation, being scared of math, that kind of thing. I just wanted to play with the concept of it.

It’s not going to be Lovecraft’s R’lyeh. There’s no tentacle monster sleeping in it, it’s obviously not stuck under the ocean. But I am still playing with the idea of it as a city that is still somehow inherently inimical.

“New York is not a city of young people.”

Constance Grady

One audience member says, “I thought the decision to have four of the five boroughs represented by women was really interesting, especially in light of New York’s male avatar. I would love to hear more about these gender decisions and what drove them.”

N.K. Jemisin

This is going to sound kind of woo-woo, but I literally just sat back and let the ethers tell me what each avatar needed to be, and then the avatars formed in my head. I did not make conscious choices in those cases.

When I originally started tossing around this concept in expanding the short story that this originated from, my first thought had been that because I was trying to do a sendup of sentai — sentai, for those of you who don’t know: Power Rangers. Five people wearing colored costumes who form like Voltron into a giant robot to fight evil. It’s the same concept that you see in like 9,000 superhero comics on this side of the pond and elsewhere around the world. Anyway. When I initially thought of making this a sendup of a sentai show, I initially thought that I would make them all teenagers, because that’s what sentai shows do. Sometimes you see really good parody shows where the sentais are all middle-aged office workers.

But then I started tossing around the idea with my editor, and she pointed out that New York is not a city of young people. It is not a city even primarily of young people. It attracts young people, but it attracts dreamers and visionaries as well, of all ages. And there are the people who are born and bred here, who will die here, as well. So I needed to complicate it away from my parody thoughts.

And then as I started to consider what each energy flavor of the city would be, the characters formed in my head. I didn’t make a choice about Bronca. That just became a thing.

“A single event had these ripple effects.”

Constance Grady

Another audience member asks, “Did you learn anything cool or new about New York during the writing process?”

N.K. Jemisin

I wasn’t so much interested in the history of New York as I was in the power dynamics of New York. That was something that I found more useful and fascinating. I’ve actually been listening to a really great history podcast of New York called School Colors; it’s talking about the 1968 teachers’ strike of New York, which I had never heard of, which was apparently the biggest teachers’ strike in the nation. It’s incredibly in-depth in talking about how this strike literally changed the city for the next generation. A single event had these ripple effects that were so powerful that it impacts how gentrification is playing out today. These are the kinds of things that I needed to understand.

I knew a lot of basic facts about New York. What I needed to understand was how they form like Voltron to impact how the city reacts to things, even now.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the inaugural Vox Book Club session! If you’d like to join us in May, here’s the info for how we’ll be tackling Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.