‘The City We Became’ turns New York’s boroughs into multiracial avatars

N.K. Jemisin’s science fiction novel wastes no time with preliminaries. It’s a ferocious parable of modern race relations. 

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin, Orbit, 437 pp.

Every city has a beating heart – New York has six, in three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin’s stunning opening to her new trilogy, “The City We Became.”

Once a city reaches maturity, it gets a soul. “Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city ... quickens.”

But something goes wrong during the birth of New York City, and its avatar, a homeless black teenager with an artistic flair for tagging, is injured. Being the Chosen One isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “I’m still hungry and tired all the time, scared all the time, never safe. What good does it do to be valuable, if nobody values you?” he thinks.

Representatives of the five boroughs have to find a way to reach him ... and form Voltron (as I joked to eye-rolling colleagues, who apparently were not child nerds during the 1980s). Actually, they need to get to him before the Woman in White, an alien intelligence who infects others via Lovecraftian tentacles, does.

Manhattan, call him Manny, is a college student with a violent past he can’t quite recall – “smart, charming, well dressed, and cold enough to strangle you in an alley if we had alleys,” as Brooklyn, a former rapper turned city councilwoman, puts it. Queens is a South Asian math genius. Staten Island, the lone white avatar, has a racist cop as a father. (Manny spends way less time panicking about his memory loss than I would have, but Jemisin has so many clever touches, such as the avatar of Manhattan being able to use money and credit cards as talismans. Libraries, of course, are sanctuaries.)

Before reading “The City We Became,” the novel’s setup reminded me of Ben Aaronovitch’s highly enjoyable fantasy-mystery series, “Rivers of London.”

But Jemisin is doing something entirely original here. Early on there’s a scene that could serve as a litmus test for readers: Manny, having commandeered an old Checker cab, heads to FDR Drive, the scene of an infestation – and a traffic jam. Using an umbrella borrowed from a reluctant commuter, he jumps on the roof of the cab, preparing to joust with evil.

Jemisin doesn’t waste time on explanations or pleasantries. Her story is an unapologetically ferocious parable of modern race relations. She expects readers to keep up. If you know that H.P. Lovecraft, a Hitler supporter, had some very ugly ideas about race, those wriggling tendrils take on an added creepiness. She also expects you to know that when white people call the cops on people of color trying to enjoy a park in real life, they don’t have the excuse of an alien intelligence having taken over their mind.

In interviews, Jemisin, who saw each book of her “Broken Earth” trilogy win a Hugo Award, is pretty forthright about the racism she experienced as a science fiction writer of color. Accepting that third award, she said, “This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers: every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s ‘meritocracy,’ but when we win it’s ‘identity politics.’”

The great Octavia Butler (“Kindred”) once asked rhetorically during a TV interview: “Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from, ‘Hey, we’re here’?” With her career, Jemisin has added an emphatic, “Deal with it.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘The City We Became’ turns New York’s boroughs into multiracial avatars
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today