“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”
In today’s world, amidst the ongoing tensions caused by the fight for racial equality, isolation from the Coronavirus, and political dissent in the aftermath of a negligent administration, it seems that humanity is more divided than ever. N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became erases those arbitrary borders, and reminds us of the power of diversity and togetherness in the face of adversity and prejudice.
Each city is born, lives and dies. Now, it is New York City’s time to shine. Five individuals, all of varying creeds, races and identities wake up as the manifestation of New York’s boroughs: Brooklyn is a Black rapper turned politician, who fits in time as a single mom alongside her never-ending work for her community; Bronca, or the Bronx, is a Native lesbian who’s not afraid to use her steel-toed boots to protect her love for art; Aislyn of Staten Island is a troubled young woman, weighing her personal worth against her family’s traditional, conservative values; Padmini of Queens is a tech-savvy, happy-go-lucky South Asian immigrant; and Manhattan, or Manny, for short, has fallen head over heels for his city, and is determined to save his love. Brooklyn, Bronca, Aislyn, Manny and Padmini must put aside their struggles to become one New York City. Their task? Defeat a Lovecraftian ‘Karen’ who uses her xenophobic tentacle monsters to infect everyday New Yorkers with contemptuous paranoia, and drive citizen against citizen. This novel is a love letter to New York City, and what it represents: community, dreams and a can-do attitude.
Personally, the characters and their relationships are what makes the novel great. N.K. Jemisin creates characters that you can root for, but also criticize for their flaws, channeling inspiration from Sense8 and Good Omens. Characters clash and connect, and must put aside differences to understand and help one another. The diversity in this book allows the characters to feel like genuine New Yorkers, evocative of the melting pot of the city. Almost every character in the novel is a person of color and/or queer, and their identities influence their borough of the city, and the fight as a whole.
Bronca, the lesbian grandmother of our dreams, is bad-ass, ambitious and impassioned, determined to take no shit and pay it no mind. Bronca is a deeply flawed individual, prone to picking fights with others as a coping mechanism. She stood her ground at Stonewall, at Act-Up, and during today’s rise of right-wing ideology, she becomes the victim of a white supremacist smear campaign over the course of the novel. It is not until she realizes those around her love her and want to help her that she is able to rally her community around her and find justice in their compassion and empathy, demonstrating the importance of queer community.
N.K. Jemisin takes H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled horror monsters, and makes them her own, utilizing the Cthulu to dramatize the insidious nature of injustice at the heart of modern society. Jemisin’s subversion of Lovecraft allows her to topple a racist institution, and build a new one in its place. Today’s bigotry is dramatized in the form of The Woman in White: a wealthy white woman who gentrifies neighborhoods and disregards those who actually call them home. Jemisin calls out modern day prejudices in all degrees, from internet doxxing, to sideways glances and microaggressions, to outright disrespect and violence.
This is one of the most unique science-fiction novels I’ve read in a long time; it feels fresh and innovative, and dissects real, harsh truths in our society. It describes not only what it means to be a marginalized New Yorker, but what it means to be an American: the desire to fit in and band together as a diverse community, but having to face discrimination at your front door. N.K. Jemisin is THE science-fiction writer to look out for, as she combines the classic hallmarks of the genre with allusions to current events, imbuing her narratives with humor and candor. So, queue up Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and buckle up for a wild romp around New York City.
Trigger Warnings: Racism, homophobia, hate crimes, use of slurs, gaslighting, white supremacist ideology, Nazi ideology