In late December, we sometimes talk to people who’ve had a very big year, but author N.K. Jemisin has had a very big three years. In 2016, she became the first African-American writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel. She went on to win the same prize last year, and again this year, making her the only author ever to win the award in three consecutive years — for her Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky.
The books take place in a world where natural disasters are more common and more destructive, and the people with powers to mitigate those disasters are feared and oppressed. “The core of it is that it’s a story about a woman; one of her children has been killed and the other has been kidnapped, and it effectively starts off with multiple kinds of ends of the world,” Jemisin says. “The idea is that it’s a story that takes place during the apocalypse, but the world ended when this woman’s son was killed.”
On what appealed to her about endings
I didn’t think of it as an ending. What I wanted to play with was the concept of, “When do we consider an apocalypse to have begun and ended?” Because in a lot of cases, what’s considered an apocalypse for some people is what other people have been living every day. It’s not the apocalypse, it’s just, it’s an apocalypse for you. And so when people say the world has ended, her world has been ending for most of her life — this is nothing new.
On parallels between her work and real-world oppression
A lot of [The Broken Earth] is speaking kind of from my personal places of frustration. You know, I tell people that I wrote the first book of the trilogy while watching [the protests in] Ferguson unfold on the internet, and a lot of the anger that you see,and a lot of the questions of our society that you see are me looking at tanks rolling down the streets of an American city, towards an unarmed, peaceful protest and treating them like the enemy. And why are they being treated like the enemy when literally all they’re asking for is to not get shot. You know, that was it, it was mostly just my frustration coming through in a lot of different ways.
On transitions, and keeping her day job well into writing the trilogy
I see myself going through kind of a major life transition, which I don’t think I had intended. But from my counseling work, I know that mid-life crises kind of jump you when you’re least expecting them. And suddenly becoming a successful author after years of being an author who was doing okay, you don’t think of that as a major life transition, but it has been.