World of mutants inspired by a dream

Science-fiction fantasy novel The Fifth Season helped author N.K. Jemisin become the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel

NEW YORK • When N.K. Jemisin was halfway through writing her fantasy novel, The Fifth Season, she called her editor in a panic and said she could not finish.

She felt the story - which unfolds in a world where mutants who can control seismic energy are feared and oppressed - was too painful to write, given the uncomfortable parallels to persistent racial injustice in the real world.

"I was wrestling with, 'Should I even be writing this story? Am I good enough to write this in a way that brings justice to it? Am I trivialising the things that are happening in the real world by treating them in this allegorical fashion in a world that doesn't exist?'" she said.

Her editor told her to take a break and write something else.

Six months later, Jemisin was ready to tackle The Fifth Season again and this time, she finished it.

Last weekend, that book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, one of the top literary prizes for science- fiction and fantasy writers.

N.K. Jemisin (left) explores power, identity and belonging on a macro scale in The Fifth Season (above).
N.K. Jemisin explores power, identity and belonging on a macro scale in The Fifth Season (above). PHOTO: LAURA HANIFIN

A couple of days later, Jemisin's publicist told her she was the first black writer to win a Hugo for Best Novel. Black authors have won in other categories, including Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, who were honoured for short fiction, but never for best novel.

In a telephone interview, Jemisin, 43, who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, spoke about what the award means to her, diversity in science fiction and spaceships as phallic symbols. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

I enjoyed your expletive-laced blog post describing your initial reaction to finally winning a Hugo, five years after you were first nominated. What does the award mean to you? For a very long time, I questioned the kind of work I write - fantasy that isn't particularly interested in mediaeval Europe and old Western myths and, in some cases, science fiction that isn't interested in the typical Golden Age future that you used to see, where you saw Middle America, straight white guys, up in space doing things with phallically shaped spaceships and weapons, and spreading democracy and truth, justice and the American way - I've never been interested in that.

And I wondered, even before I ever got published, whether I had a chance of being successful in a field by defying so much of what the genre, maybe in cliched form, seems to embrace.

The truth of the matter is the genre has never been just that. What I'm seeing here is that I'm not alone in being tired of mediaeval Europe and phallic spaceships. You are the first African-American writer and the first woman of colour to win a Hugo for Best Novel. What is the significance of that overdue milestone for you? If it is indeed true, I'm shocked, not in a good way.

People of colour have always been here. Women have always been here. And for a genre that supposedly prides itself on, to quote Gene Roddenberry, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, and being more progressive than the rest of the world, though there are some who don't think we should be, for a genre that prides itself on that to have never given the Best Novel award to another black person, that's bizarre.

Am I trivialising the things that are happening in the real world by treating them in this allegorical fashion in a world that doesn't exist?

AUTHOR N.K. JEMISIN on how she found it painful to write The Fifth Season, given the parallels to racial injustice in the real world

It's also indicative of a general tendency in literature. We tell ourselves we're more forward- thinking and that's just not true.

If we don't make the same effort at anti-racist and anti-oppressive thought, we're not going to be any better about it than anybody else. I'm glad that this is changing. Where did the idea for The Fifth Season come from? The idea for the core of the story, a society of disaster preppers who have the ability to stop and start earthquakes - that came to me from a dream.

I dreamt of a woman walking towards me with this furious look on her face and a mountain floating along behind her, and I remember being convinced in the dream that this woman was (mad) at me and she was going to throw the mountain at me if I didn't figure out why she was angry.

From there, I came up with a world where people might need the ability to control seismic energy in ways that transcend the laws of physics. The Fifth Season takes place on a planet unlike ours and features a mutant race with the ability to control nature, and it addresses very real issues such as oppression and climate change. What does fantasy allow you to do as a writer that realism can't? I tend to write society as I see and understand it.

In my first series, the Inheritance trilogy, in the first book, you are dealing with a woman of colour from an impoverished culture, being brought up among wealthy, privileged white people and having to cope and perform in ways that she has not been raised to do and that was drawn from some personal experiences.

I do that in everything - explorations of power, identity and belonging.

In the case of The Fifth Season, that's the first time I went macro scale with it.

Rather than talking about individual interactions within discriminatory settings, I decided to focus on an oppressive society at the macro scale and what that society does to individuals.


• The Fifth Season is available online for $27.82 at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline 'World of mutants inspired by a dream'. Subscribe