By VICTORIA WHISKER
Title: The City We Became
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Published: Orbit Publishing House London
The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin, is a fantasy novel set in New York where a virus is spreading across the city. Sound familiar? The boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island are represented through human avatars. Equipped with their powers ranging from rap music to mathematics they must find each other, locate the primary avatar and combine forces to defeat the virus. The life of New York relies on eradicating it as “great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and learning and dying in their turn”. The city is fighting for its cultural soul.
For Jemisin this book is a form of therapy as she processes the city she loves turning into something else
This fantasy villain is The While Lady, who is the cause of the white antenna like infection which clings to its victims undetected. Through the infection she controls her victims, making white supremacy art collectives and New Yorkers shout out racist slurs. She is a metaphor for white supremacy and colonisation.
Vox wrote a review by Constance Grady which I disagree with. She states that the avatar’s relationship with each other “is what drives everything forward”, however I believe it’s only one character that is doing the heavy lifting. Despite the overarching narrative of saving New York, and subsequently the primary avatar, the book is primarily character, not characters, driven. Staten Island’s character is the glue that holds this book together, keeping me intrigued despite the fantasy element of the virus being confusing.
To give Jemisin credit, she is trying to introduce an otherworldly force that exists unnoticed to the common eye, avatars being personifications of boroughs, New York being living and a primary avatar, all while juggling the political allegories that are woven throughout. She uses this as a stepping stone for the next books of this trilogy, which makes sense why it takes the length of it to explain. However, I found the best description where the pieces finally all clicked into place to be in the later chapters of the book.
The finale has no pay off.
The book provides relief from Covid19. The New York avatars from all backgrounds come together to make a better city, giving a sense of united hope against a virus. Yet in reality, the virus is casual racism that grows into white supremacy. In an interview by Sona Charaipotra with Publishers Weekly Jemisin expresses, “I want to see people fight and make it the city that it once was”.
This is displayed in a scene where a character sees foreigners as dangerous strangers. A dirty foot stepped on their garden, and they reacted by transporting them out of their borough. Their reaction was shocking, yet given the background of who had influenced them, I also understood where they were coming from. For them it was easier to reject the unknown and scary, by clinging to what they’ve always been told to believe. This shows that despite New York’s diversity, ideologies such as crime being linked to race remain through prejudice. The garden incident could have been resolved by a conversation, and shows that we all have complex backgrounds and choose to disengage with each other.
In the interview she referred to gentrification. Where wealthier people move into neighbourhoods, changing the dynamic of the community as original inhabitants are forced out due to an increase in rent prices. This has affected the author personally having been forced to leave Brooklyn herself.
This book is an educational read, where the map of New York is often referenced and political undertones of the city are expressed. If you can stick through the chapters as your head grapples with the concepts, I believe you’ll be challenged to reflect on our multicultural cities in New Zealand.
Victoria is a recent English Lit and Classical studies graduate and who loves all things words. Stands by her beliefs in ‘The whole story is the best story’, God and a dessert stomach.