LSFRC 2021 Papers
Living Beyond Stonelore: Suturing towards Multi-epistemic Literacy in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth
The Fifth Season (TFS), the first novel in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth (TBE) trilogy (followed by The Obelisk Gate [TOG] and The Stone Sky [TSS]), opens with the imaginatively forceful promise to not succumb to dystopic pessimism: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things” (1). Dreaming up other possible worlds and otherworldly possibilities is, of course, central to speculative fiction: Jemisin’s trilogy envisions liberatory potentialities and contemplates today’s modern/colonial order, as it thematizes the intertwined oppression of racialized subjects and extractivist environmental relations. Other scholars have argued that TBE imagines a non-exploitative relationality to the environment (Miguel 471; Iles), notably through orogeny: the “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events” (Jemisin, TFS 462). However, an expressly decolonial reading of Jemisin’s narrative remains absent, despite the coloniality of Jemisin’s storyworld, wherein orogenes (people with orogenic ability) are enslaved by the imperial power of Sanze. Therefore, I perform a decolonial reading of the series, addressing especially the ethico-politics of the non-imperial community Castrima, and argue that TBE unsettles the coloniality of being through the formation of a multi-epistemic literacy.
Below, I outline a decolonial, Black feminist framework to appraise the coloniality of Jemisin’s storyworld. Subsequently, I address how previous posthumanist readings of the series obscure the racialization central, to Jemisin’s narrative, using Afro-Indigenous critiques of posthumanism, which often employ Sylvia Wynter’s characterization of Eurocentric conceptions of humanity as a “liberal monohumanism” whose subject is “Man” (Wynter and McKittrick 11, 9). Following Wynter’s provincialization of Western humanity, I read orogenes as performing an alternative humanism—specifically Julietta Singh’s dehumanism, which unsettles Man’s rationality of mastery. I read the underground community of Castrima as enacting a dehumanist becoming, which allows it to initiate a multi-epistemic dialogue. It thus sutures the mode of being propagated by Sanze and its “stonelore” (rules that guide communities [Jemisin, TFS 4]), with a decolonial humanism, to form a multi-epistemic literacy that enables a responsible ethico-politics of entanglement.
Imagining ‘The Human’ beyond Man
Foundational decolonial scholar Aníbal Quijano contends that “the model of power that is globally hegemonic today presupposes an element of coloniality” (533). Quijano formulates modernity and coloniality as coeval concepts, a binomial that Rolando Vázquez summarizes: “while ‘Modernity’ . . . enacts the dominant way of worlding the world, ‘Coloniality’ expresses the absenting of the other” (189). Decolonial critique therefore strives to humble modernity’s (purportedly universal) narratives and Eurocentric knowledge (with Eurocentrism comprising a particular rationality of knowledge [Quijano 549-550]), while fostering the opportunity to listen to suppressed knowledges (Vázquez 184). The central axis of modern/colonial power is race: a technology of domination that installs hierarchies within humanity (Quijano 533).
Black studies further develops race as a hierarchizing mechanism. Wynter pointedly provincializes Eurocentric humanity: “our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, . . . overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself” (260)—though Man presents but one genre of humanity. Alexander Weheliye subsequently theorizes race as a hierarchizing mechanism with the notion of racializing assemblages, which “construes race . . . as a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans” (Habeas Viscus 4). Because of the dehumanization affected by racializing assemblages, simply conscripting excluded subjects into Man cannot undo their subjugation: “to become human without qualification, you must already be Man in its idealized form, yet Man, understood simultaneously as an achievement and bio-ontology, implies whiteness and specifically nonblackness” (Jackson, Becoming Human 33).Therefore, the very definition of humanness requires rethinking (Wynter 268). Various authors develop alternative humanisms, such as Weheliye’s juridically-oriented notion of habeas viscus, which attends to the ways “the law pugnaciously adjudicates who is deserving of personhood and who is not” (Habeas Viscus 11). Man’s juridical systems cannot guarantee justice, because their selective functioning precisely facilitates the violence inflicted on those touched by racializing assemblages (124). Black speculative fiction presents fecund ground for articulating alternative humanisms, by complicating Western notions of personhood (Schalk 3), and its “stubborn epistemological logics of human domination” (Brown 7).
Decolonizing the Stillness
TBE unfolds on the acerbically named continent of the Stillness, whose lands move unceasingly. Its people therefore live “in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness” (Jemisin, TFS 8), under the threat of apocalyptic seismic activity that could trigger Fifth Seasons: winters that can last centuries and render the Stillness uninhabitable. The continent is sparsely populated by comms, “unit[s] generally corresponding to one city or town” (459). Though the Old Sanze empire has mostly withered, “in practice, most comms still follow Imperial systems of governance, finance, education, and more” (464). The coloniality of Sanze’s power thus persists, as does a coloniality of knowledge in stonelore: stories instructing comms on surviving Seasons, which advise comms to banish orogenes. Orogeny, the ability to perceive (to “sess” ) and redirect seismic activity, is an ostensibly useful ability considering the Earth’s continuous dynamism. However, orogenes (derogatorily called “roggas” ), are considered a non-human species. A Sanze council ruled that “though they bear some resemblance to we of good and wholesome lineage, any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood” (TOG 258)—the Stillness’s juridical assemblages only selectively grant humanity. Orogenes are subjected to the Fulcrum, an institution that effectively enslaves them to control the Stillness’s ever-moving lands. While orogenic ability is distributed across abilities, genders and sexualities, the systemic marginalization of orogenes particularly echoes African-American experiences of racialization (Iles sec. 4.1). It is therefore fitting to read the exploitation of orogenes through the prism of Black feminist theory.
The Fulcrum is supervised by an order of Guardians, superhumanly strong persons implanted with pieces of Father Earth, making them obey his will: the Earth is alive and sentient, and wars with humanity because the ancient civilization of Syl Anagist exploited its resources. The Guardians are one of TBE’s various not-quite-human figures, with the most inhuman undoubtedly being Stone Eaters: a “sentient humanoid species whose flesh, hair, etc., resembles stone” (Jemisin, TSS 413). Through these different figures, TBE contests a simple notion of humanity. The series’s central narrative concerns Essun, an orogene who escaped the Fulcrum. She tries to find her kidnapped, orogenically gifted daughter Nassun, who, faced with the violence inflicted on orogenes, decides to end the world’s injustices by destroying the world. Essun instead strives to end the Seasons, repair the Earth and save her daughter. Thus, both hoping to overthrow the oppressive systems enslaving orogenes, mother and daughter eventually face each other. Ultimately, Essun sacrifices herself to save Nassun, making the estranged daughter decide against her destructive determination and instead fulfill her mother’s regenerative aims. The series, which describes the impending Fifth Season in a striking apocalyptic register, ends on a hopeful note, with the Fulcrum destroyed, the Guardians gone, and a truce made with Father Earth. What lies ahead for the Stillness is building the world anew—which requires decolonizing its modes of living and knowing.
Despite the persistent coloniality of the Stillness, previous authors have not engaged the series through an expressly decolonial perspective, even as they point out the colonial qualities of Jemisin’s storyworld. The Stillness’s coloniality is connected to its ecological cataclysms: María Ferrández San Miguel writes that TBE presents “the subjugation and exploitation of certain groups . . . and of nature” as coeval (474). For instance, Syl Anagist exploited a group of genetically engineered proto-orogenes, “to enslave the world itself” and harvest its resources (Jemisin, TSS 335). However, the Earth destroys Syl Anagist, initiating the Seasons to wipe out humanity. Both Alastair Iles and Miguel observe that TBE thus connects the exploitation of marginalized groups to that of Earth: what must follow from the series’s conclusion is a different relationality to both orogenes and Earth. Concretizing this relationality, Miguel argues that the series proposes the “possibility of regeneration in the figuration of the posthuman being and the promotion of a posthuman form of ethics” (474). Miguel thereto reads the series’s not-quite-human figures as posthuman configurations that “radically expose and threaten key dualisms of the Western philosophical tradition” (481), especially showing the entanglements between nature and culture.
Though I agree with Miguel’s reading in many respects, I contend that reading the series’s characters as posthuman obscures its focus on racialization. Though considering ‘the human’ a discriminatory term, Miguel’s reading of Jemisin’s characters as posthuman subjects suggests that within posthumanism the dehumanization suffered by orogenes (and their real-world counterparts historically and today) becomes irrelevant. Even as they are enslaved by their exclusion from Man’s humanity, posthumanism can incorporate these dehumanized peoples, and thereby it solves the problems plaguing pre-posthumanity. This reasoning then obscures the theme of racialization, and arguably undoes its critical potential. Miguel contends that Jemisin’s “figures of hybridity embody the liberatory potential of the posthuman” (481), but we do well to heed Zakiyyah Jackson’s cautioning “against a quixotic celebration of hybridity”; she demonstrates that:
the transgression and subversion of . . . boundaries is at least as central, if not more fundamental, to the production of [antiblackness] as the semblance of an absolute distinction. . . . Antiblackness does not require choosing one strategy—strict boundaries or hybridity—over the other. (Becoming Human 156)
Considering hybridization a liberatory means overlooks its weaponization within Man’s reservoir of antiblackness. Therefore, reading TBE’s dehumanized subjects as hybrid figures does not necessarily undo the subjugation effectuated by the racializing assemblages of the Stillness.
Moreover, various Afro-Indigenous critiques demonstrate the epistemic limits of posthumanism, contending that it remains predicated on whiteness and liberal humanism. As Laura Forlano summarizes, these critiques find it unproductive “to speak of the posthuman when so many people . . . have not been historically included in the category of the human in the first place” (28)—which is why Weheliye urges posthumanists to consider other humanisms rather than entirely discarding the human or equating it with Man (“‘Feenin’” 40). Jackson finds that posthumanism “continues to equate humanism with Enlightenment rationality”—but “is it possible that the very subjects central to posthumanist inquiry . . . find their relief outside the epistemological locus of the West?” (“Animal” 673). Indigenous feminist Zoe Todd answers this question affirmatively, while identifying a tension between Indigenous thought either “not being acknowledged at all,” or it being distorted and misrepresented by appropriation into Eurocentric frameworks (9). To work responsibly, I therefore acknowledge my embeddedness within Eurocentric frameworks. Though I do not employ Afro-Indigenous knowledges directly but rather secondary sources dialoguing with such knowledges, I nonetheless treat the strands of thought I engage carefully and with accountability, to “take responsibility for the epistemological and ontological worlds we enact” (Sundberg 40).
Orogenes Beyond Man
Thus, departing from posthumanism’s limits, to return to the question of humanness. Rather than reading TBE’s differentially humanized figures as posthuman, I read them as performing a humanism beyond Man. The subjugation of orogenes reflects the racializing assemblages that hierarchize humanity: Stills represent Man, and through racializing assemblages they exclude orogenes, Guardians (both not-quite-humans), and Stone Eaters (nonhumans) from their professedly universal humanity. Regardless, many dehumanized figures proclaim their humanity. For instance, Hoa, a Stone Eater accompanying Essun, forcefully returns the question when Essun doubts his humanity:
“Are you human?”
At this, [Essun] cannot help but laugh once. “Officially? No.”
“Never mind what others think. What do you feel yourself to be?”
“Then so am I.” . . .
“Uh, not anymore.”
“Should I take your word for that? Or listen to what I feel myself to be?” (Jemisin, TOG 281-282)
Hoa again stakes out an alternative humanism when he makes amends with a rival Stone Eater, who could not reconcile his humanity with his immortality: “Stubborn fool. There is the despair of ages on his face, all because he refuses to admit that there’s more than one way to be human” (TSS 391). TBE thus opens up different ways of being human, and contests the immutability of notions of ‘the human.’
To concretize the humanism of Jemisin’s characters, I turn to Julietta Singh’s definition of dehumanism, which aims to unsettle the modern/colonial rationality of mastery. Singh considers mastery a pervasive dimension “in the fabric of modern thought, subjectivity, and politics” (2), an impetus that “relentlessly reaches toward the indiscriminate control over something—whether human or inhuman, animate or inanimate” (10). Dehumanism instantiates a mode of non-masterful, vulnerable relationality: “a practice of recuperation, of stripping away the violent foundations (always structural and ideological) of colonial and neocolonial mastery that continue to render some beings more human than others” (4). Because dehumanism multi-directionally extends into non-masterful entanglements (145), I follow two relations in TBE, specifically in non-imperial comm Castrima: their environmental submersion, and their relational, decolonial governance.
Environmental Immersion and Relational Becoming
Led by orogene headwoman Ykka, Castrima is a comm (community) where orogenes and stills live together without enslaving orogenes. Notably, it remains non-imperial through its relationality to its environments: it is located underground. Rather than the ecological mastery of domination (Singh 12), they thus establish a relation of immersion. Macarena Gómez-Barris critiques modern/colonial extractivist mode of ecological domination (5), and describes a non-masterful alternative in Afro-Indigenous cosmologies that “live alongside and within intangible geographies by cultivating rather than domesticating them” (38). To escape Sanze’s reach, Castrima resides in an underground geode: conventional comms would not inhabit this space because of the dangers posed by Earth’s non-stop motions, but when it is inhabited by orogenes, the geode protects Castrima—orogeny powers the geode to perform tasks like filtering air and water. Castrima thus enacts a non-masterful, submerged relationality to the environment instead of ransacking their environment, refusing an extractivist relation that “reduces, eliminates, and destroys [the environment’s] heterogeneity” (Gómez-Barris 108).
Castrima’s non-exploitative relationality to orogenes additionally indicates a non-masterful entanglement enacted throughout the series: a practice of relational becoming. This is reflected, firstly, in the novels’ narrative form. The Fifth Season switches between three characters: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, though the former two are revealed to be earlier phases in Essun’s life. However, The Fifth Season relates the stories of Damaya, Syen, and Essun not chronologically but in parallel: a narrative form that reflects how her enslavement has fractured Essun’s identity, as “often occurs when identities are—through a combination of violence, historical precedent, and social constructs—determined for a marginalized people” (Wickham 392). TBE’s unconventional second-person narration reiterates this fracturing: Jemisin denotes Essun as ‘you,’ which simultaneously addresses the reader and establishes an intimacy with Essun (Wickham 396). Damaya’s and Syen’s stories are instead narrated in third-person perspective, further distancing Essun from her previous lives. Additionally, the formal emulation of Essun’s fractured identity “problematize[s] the sovereign ‘I’, [by putting] the liberal humanist Self at risk” (Jackson, Becoming Human 81). By fragmenting Essun’s story and addressing her and the reader as ‘you,’ Jemisin upends the liberal sovereign ‘I,’ unsettling the presuppositions of Man’s subjecthood and its sovereignty—a form of mastery and “a dangerous ideal as it stands in opposition to the recognition of relationality” (Becoming Human 146).
By upending the liberal sovereign Self, TBE enables a dehumanist relationality that is also enacted through its dynamic narration. Singh describes dynamic narration as:
upturning and reshaping those narratives that have cast us as particular kinds of subjects[:] dynamic narration moves us [towards] a politics of entanglement from which other world relations can begin to flourish. Dynamic narration is therefore a gesture toward dehumanism—an act of narratively inhabiting the gaps and fissures of our own subjective constructions [to] refuse the violence of splitting ourselves off from the less agreeable aspects of our being. (120)
TFS inhabits the interstices of Essun’s fractured subjectivity, forcing her and the reader to reconcile the different aspects of her identity, such as when she meets talented orogene Alabaster again after many years. Alabaster has only known her as Syenite, and so her past returns: “he returns his attention to you. (To her, Syenite.) To you, Essun. Rust it, you’ll be glad when you finally figure out who you really are” (Jemisin, TFS 446). In truth, Essun is all of her identities and dynamic relations, as TOG beautifully illustrates: “After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you” (TOG 1). Essun is herself, Damaya, and Syen, as well as those she encounters. Such fundamental relationality, then, can only engender an ethico-politics of individual, collective and ecological care and responsibility.
Castrima’s Suturing toward Multi-Epistemic Literacy
The notion of responsibility finally brings me to multi-epistemic literacy. Gayatri Spivak, writing on human rights discourses, proposes to view not rights as a remedy to global wrongs, but rather responsibility. Nikita Dhawan summarizes: “We need to move from ‘rights-based cultures’ to ‘responsibility-based cultures,’ wherein instead of responsibility for the other, we are responsible to the other” (501). Whereas (juridical) responsibility forthe other reinforces hierarchical relations, a responsibility to the other enables listening to the “call of the other” (Spivak 152). Singh advocates vulnerable listening as a practice to “produce new forms of engaged entanglement with and beyond ourselves” (139), which productively aligns with practicing a multi-epistemic (Kuokkanen 155), or, in Spivak’s terminology, transnational literacy that aims to counter discontinuities between elites and the subalternized (Dhawan 499). Within this practice, Spivak proposes the concept-metaphor of suturing: weaving together different epistemic positionalities and practices to “undo the weaving of centuries old patterns of oppression” (Macdonald 48). Castrima illustrates listening and “learn[ing] to learn from below” (Spivak 170): unconventionally, its leadership mostly consists of orogenes, and even a Stone Eater is asked as council (Jemisin, TOG 22). Castrima thereby breaks with Sanze’s coloniality of power/being/knowing.
Essun’s experiences with Ykka further illustrate epistemic exchange through listening. Though Essun is trained by the Fulcrum, Ykka, an orogene without formal training, practices orogeny in ways Essun cannot: “She’s a feral. . . . And yet there is a solidity to her, [an] implication of strength . . . which makes you doubt your Fulcrum-ish assessment of her” (355-356). Essun’s framework cannot grasp Ykka’s abilities, a different realm of orogenic sensibility. Essun realizes that “orogeny isn’t about rank” (28), and consequently humbles her perspective: “Maybe [Ykka] couldn’t shift a pebble because who . . . needs to shift pebbles? That’s the Fulcrum’s way of testing precision. . . . Maybe she failed your tests because they were the wrong tests” (359). Humbling her framework then enables Essun to learn from Ykka to sensibilize herself to magic, which Essun previously failed to do: “Alabaster failed to teach it to you because he was like you—Fulcrum-trained and Fulcrum-limited. . . . Ykka, feral that she is, with nothing to unlearn, was the key all along. If you hadn’t been so arrogant. . .” (363). Essun demonstrates Dhawan’s assertions about decolonizing philosophy: beyond integrating marginalized knowledges, what is needed is “a reorientation of our normative commitments, wherein instead of familiarizing ourselves with the unfamiliar, we face up to the greater challenge of defamiliarizing the familiar” (Dhawan 501). Essun’s recognition of the Fulcrum’s epistemic limits illustrates how recognizing “the limits of our power to know opens up possibilities of other practices of decoding ethics” (501). Humbling hegemonic perspectives and working towards multi-epistemic literacy enables new ways of being and knowing—and only through this multi-epistemic practice can Essun save the world. TBE thus dramatizes the process of suturing towards multi-epistemic literacies: Essun establishes a reciprocal practice, as she not just broadcasts the Fulcrum’s ways but learns to listen, thereby displacing Sanze’s coloniality of being and knowing.
Recognizing the coloniality undergirding the storyworld of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, I offered a decolonial reading of the series. Whereas posthumanist approaches inadvertently obscure the racialization central to Jemisin’s narrative, and furthermore remain predicated on the liberal humanism and Eurocentrism that TBE precisely unsettles, I read Jemisin’s variously dehumanized figures as performing a humanism beyond Man. Reading TBE through a dehumanist lens illustrates how the series upends the logics of mastery and instead works towards a relational, decolonial ethico-politics. The non-imperial comm Castrima especially highlights vulnerable entanglements with both the environment and dehumanized others, and I have subsequently read its practices as enacting the formation of multi-epistemic literacy. To unsettle the coloniality of being and knowing, a reciprocal multi-epistemic practice is necessary, which entails responsibility and listening to the call of the other—and, crucially, humbling one’s own epistemic positionality. TBE shows the imperial knowledge of the Fulcrum to be but one modality of practicing orogeny, not a universal understanding of this ability. Paralleling the series’s illustration of multi-epistemic practices, throughout this article I attempted to demonstrate not only how different conceptual frameworks produce different readings, but also how we may in academic practice traverse multi-epistemic challenges responsibly and accountably, without erasing Afro-Indigenous knowledges. In this particular instance, this entails not so much incorporating subjugated knowledges but rather defamiliarizing established, Eurocentric frameworks and their institutional privileges through decolonial critique.
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Danny Steur is a graduate student in the Media, Arts and Performance Studies Research Master’s program at Utrecht University. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in media and cultural studies cum laude and presently pursues his interests in contemporary cultural theory, post- and decoloniality, and the imaginative criticality of speculative fictions.