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Nora Jemisin: “I would love to just write and not have everything turned into a political battle”

The Hugo award-winning science fiction author discusses writing, race and diversity in publishing.

Back in the summer of 2011, the author Nora Jemisin was asked in an interview for the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America where she saw her writing career taking her in the next five years. She said it would be nice to win a Hugo – one of the genre’s top and most venerable awards.

In August 2016, the author – under the name N K Jemisin – did indeed win the Hugo for best novel, just about making the deadline for her five-year plan. It marks the end of a very interesting half-decade for Jemisin.

Born in Iowa, Jemisin, who turns 44 this month, was raised in New York and Alabama. After living in Massachusetts for a decade, she moved back to New York, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her Hugo award was for The Fifth Season, the first part of her Broken Earth trilogy. The second book in the series, The Obelisk Gate, was released just ahead of the awards ceremony.

The Fifth Season takes place on a world dominated by a single supercontinent which is home to a variety of races, all of whom must prepare for the devastating season of apocalyptic climate change. It’s smart, thoughtful and scary and, like the best science fiction, allows us to examine our own world through the lens of a very different one.

The Hugo awards are a big deal in science fiction, and winning one for best novel propels Jemisin to the upper echelons of genre authors. Instantly recognisable names even to non-sci-fi readers who have won the Hugo include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman and J K Rowling.

Jemisin is the first black woman to win the award for best novel in the 61-year history of the Hugos, and while this year’s awards might certainly be a celebration of diversity – Nnedi Okorafor won best novella for Binti, Chinese author Hao Jingfang scooped best novelette and Michi Trota, one of the editors of the winning Uncanny Magazine, is Filipino – it’s been a long battle for acceptance, for women, for writers of colour, and for Jemisin personally.

It isn’t too many years ago that she was shopping her first novel around publishing houses and getting what she refers to as some “uncomfortable” replies. “There were these little dog whistles, these coded notes,” she says. “I was being told that they weren’t sure how to publish a book like this, they didn’t know who would buy it.”

The inference was clear to Jemisin. No one knew how to market a black science fiction writer, and publishers were even less sure whether anyone would buy the books of a black science fiction writer. The experience of the market suggested not… but that was largely based on the performance of one writer and one book, says Jemisin.

“Back in the 1970s, there was an author called Charles Saunders and he wrote a fantasy novel called Imaro. It was re-released in the mid-2000s and it tanked. That was sort of the closest thing I had seen to what I was doing, and I was subsequently told by people that because Imaro had failed on its re-release, that’s why I wasn’t getting any interest,” she says.

She put away the book she was shopping around – she would later revisit it and it would be released in 2012 under the title The Killing Moon – and set about rethinking her strategy. She dusted off a manuscript she had started some 15 years earlier. Although she didn’t feel it was a successful novel, the bones of the story were. However, Jemisin was angry at the response to The Killing Moon, and that fed into a ground-up rewrite of what would become her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

“I’d been writing what were really very conservative novels,” she says. “Novels with male protagonists, written in the third person, with quests and journeys. It was what I thought fantasy novels should be, based on what was selling at the time.

“But it wasn’t a piece that was authentic, so I rewrote it. And I had a lot of anger at the industry. I wrote that book as an angry brown girl, and I was like, if people don’t want to publish my books, then fuck you.”

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is more fantasy than science fiction. It’s about a young woman drawn into a power struggle for rulership of a world populated by gods and demons, a culturally-diverse world without a sword-wielding white male hero in sight.

And suddenly the publishing industry had a market for the sort of thing Jemisin was writing. An auction took place and in 2010, with the publication of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N K Jemisin had arrived.

But what had changed? For starters, Jemisin had become a better writer. “I knew I was getting better because I was selling more short stories, and I felt I was writing good enough to be published.” But had the industry that didn’t know how to sell a book by a black woman featuring black characters changed for the better too?

Jemisin points to what she calls a “watershed event”, for which we’ll have to roll back the years of recent internet history to what became known as “Racefail”. It began in the early days of 2009 as a discussion about, simplistically, how white authors write people of colour, specifically in science fiction and fantasy novels. It spiralled across various blogs and social media platforms, and got rather messy and shouty; you can search the term on Google and find any number of analyses of how it started and the fall-out from it. People still argue about Racefail, but there can be no doubt that it made mainstream publishers take notice, and put more effort into diversity in science fiction and fantasy, both in terms of representation in books and opportunities for minority writers.

However, just because Jemisin has had one trilogy published, is in the throes of her second, and has had her first novel, The Killing Moon, and its sequel out via a mainstream publishing house, doesn’t mean the war is won. She may have broken through the door that the gatekeepers who kept her first novel back were guarding, but the challenge now is to keep that door open for others.

Before the Hugos were announced, Jemisin outlined in a series of tweets the fact that she had been invited by no fewer than six magazines to submit short stories for inclusion. A good place to be, opined some. But, says Jemisin, the invitations came rather conspicuously following a rather damning report by the Fireside Fiction website into the absence of writers of colour from most sci-fi and fantasy anthologies and magazines.

Jemisin said she was honoured by the invitations but she knew of more than 30 black writers publishing in sci-fi and fantasy today, and pondered: “How many of them got invites?”

It is, she tells me, a problem endemic in American publishing today, that when it comes to black writers – to utilise the language of epic fantasy – “there can be only one!”

“There was a panel at a convention which asked who is going to be the next Octavia Butler,” says Jemisin, referencing perhaps the most prominent black female science fiction writer, who died in 2006. “It’s as though there’s one position for black woman, and it has to be filled by one person. It’s almost as though we have to choose between tokenism and exclusion, and neither is good, obviously.”

By dint of her success, Jemisin has become something of a figurehead in the fight for diversity and equality in science fiction. It’s a role that she's not completely at ease with, even as she recognises she has position and power to make other voices heard. “I would love to just write and not have everything I say or do turn into a political battle,” she says.

A lot of that is down to the Puppies. This is an unedifying tale almost as tangled as Racefail, but briefly: for the past couple of years two groups of conservative writers and readers who object to a perceived liberal, left-wing bias in science publishing – who call themselves the Sad and Rabid Puppies respectively – have tried to “game” the Hugo awards by encouraging supporters to get more traditional, right-wing, libertarian works on to the Hugo nominations list.

The Rabid Puppies group is led by an author and editor called Theodore Beale, who uses the nom de plume Vox Day. Back in 2013, Jemisin used her Guest of Honour speech at an Australian convention to decry the fact Beale had run for president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He responded on his blog in quite breathtaking language, calling Jemisin “an educated, but ignorant half-savage”.

It’s unfair to even refer to Jemisin in the same breath as Beale, but it’s difficult not to, especially this year, when her Hugo win and those of other writers of colour signalled a resounding defeat for the Puppies’ campaigns. Understandably, she’s pretty fed up of talking about him. “He’s a stock bigot,” she shrugs. “He’s mediocre as fuck.”

The potential for getting dragged into “political battles” was partly why Jemisin didn’t attend the Hugo awards (the main reason was she was in “deadline hell”), preferring instead to “sit in a friend’s place drinking homemade liquor”.

She did write an acceptance speech, just in case, which was read out by author Alyssa Wong at the ceremony. It included this observation: “I wondered how many of my fellow SFF fans, in a year headlined by reactionary pushback against the presence and performance of people like me in the genre, would choose to vote for the story of a fortysomething big-boned dreadlocked woman of colour waging an epic struggle against the forces of oppression.”

It feels like a lot has changed in publishing since Nora Jemisin started sending her first manuscript to publishers, but equally that there’s still a long way to go. Does she think she’d have a different experience if she was starting out in 2016?

“If I was trying to get published for the first time today I think things might not necessarily be the same,” she says. “After all, it’s 2016… and a black woman won the Hugo award for best novel.”

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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