The people of New York City have long been considered its heart, their energies an undercurrent rippling beneath every block. But what if the city itself was a living, breathing entity with a soul so distinct it threatened the existence of other universes? In N.K. Jemisin’s latest book, The City We Became, New York is on the brink of being “born,” fighting to claim its own corner of the cosmos. Her characters represent each of the five boroughs plus one primary figure; the city is them, and they are the city. In the first book of what she is calling the Great Cities trilogy, the avatars, Manny (Manhattan), Brooklyn (Brooklyn), Bronca (The Bronx), Padmini (Queens), and Aislyn (Staten Island) discover that they must work together to find the unnamed primary figure of New York and defeat the Woman in White, the book’s antagonist, who wants to see the city obliterated. While the book is a work of fantasy, many of the Woman in White’s weapons of destruction take the form of real-world harms, such as gentrification, white supremacist propaganda, and police violence.
New York City, once the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in this country, is battling an eerily similar contagion in the book. The villain mobilizes hate and fear within New Yorkers by attaching “long, feathery white tendrils” to them that behave like a virus, rapidly multiplying with the goal of “infecting” as much of the city as possible. Like the coronavirus, the book’s fictional virus disproportionately endangers Black people in the city. As the real city was adjusting in late May to a new reality of masks, massive unemployment, and grief, a white police officer killed a Black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations and calls to abolish the police and the carceral state. The activism, mutual aid, and collectivism on display in the city then—and even now—feels “more like real New York for the last few months than it has in a while,” Jemisin said.
We talked on the phone roughly one month after the protests began about how a book she wrote almost two years ago turned eerily prescient, what makes someone a New Yorker, and why she hasn’t lost hope that the city she loves is too far gone to be reclaimed. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
JS: In a specific scene in the book, where a white woman calls the cops on Manny and his roommate Bel in the park, it’s kind of crazy how similar that was to the Amy Cooper incident.
NJ: Last year this happened 99,000 times with a Barbeque Becky, and all of the different iterations of that. We’ve seen so many versions of this for so long. It’s easy to write something that has some congruity. I guess I almost should have expected that something like this would occur during the time that the book was out.
JS: Are there any parts of the book that you would have written differently now, knowing what has happened in 2020 so far?
NJ: I might not have used the disease metaphor or the infection-contagion metaphor, simply because, now, there are some people who find that useful, and some people find it kind of comforting, but it’s also re-traumatizing to a lot of readers who were not prepared to encounter the pandemic that they were trying to escape in the middle of their supposedly escapist fiction. That’s probably it.
JS: Why do you think that the common portrayal in media of the city is very opposite to what you wrote?
NJ: In popular media, many of the people who write the TV shows and plays—we commonly get to see people live in penthouses and things like that. In a large part, we’re seeing New York as they see it, and that’s not a false New York. That is also New York. It’s just that, until Lin Manuel Miranda puts his very, very fantasized historical version of New York into a place, we saw nothing but the New York as written by wealthier, Upper East Side writers. I think a lot of it is just simply, we haven’t seen a lot of New Yorks written by people who lived in Black New York, which is the New York that I grew up in.
I grew up [around] artists of color and queer artists and in general, Art New York, which tended to be very multiracial and a bunch of other things. What we simply need is a multiplicity of viewpoints. I’m not doing anything that 99,000 New York artists have not done before me. We all write what we know, to the degree that applies in science fiction and fantasy. That’s really what it comes down to. What I know is very different from a typical New York playwright, or a person who’s only visited New York and they actually live in LA and write sitcoms.
JS: In the book, gentrification and racism are all embodied in the Woman in White. Does the fantasy genre make it easier to put a face and a name on systemic problems, whereas we can’t just assign a single person to be the only source of those problems in reality?
NJ: I don’t know that that’s a genre thing, but it is a “me” thing. Fantasy does tend to reduce evil to a singular manifestation. It’s a lot easier to go and track down a Sauron in Mordor and attack it with an army. Everybody understands that Sauron is bad. You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time trying to convince people that Sauron is a real thing and that elf lives matter. You don’t have to spend a lot of time convincing people of the basics in fantasy, and it’s a simple matter of you kill the bad guy, and it’s over. That is not like evil in the real world, and there is a comfort in that.
Fantasy is often considered to be escapist literature, and it is in that sense. We often keep it abstract—just “evil”—and not specifically the evil of racism, or the evil of classism, or the evil of simply believing that some people deserve to be mistreated, or that some people are less important than others and can be discarded with impunity. In that sense, yes, I would say fantasy is probably part of that. But the choice of what I am embodying in this singular, boiled-down version of reality is specific to me.
JS: Are there any places in New York that you think are particularly sacred or, on the other hand, places you think are particularly “infected”?
NJ: Right now, all of New York is particularly infected. Unfortunately, we are dealing right now with the pandemic. We’ve been fortunate in some ways in that the politicians that are centered around New York City, the mayor and the governor, have at least handled the pandemic as well as they could, considering the federal government is effectively antagonistic towards people surviving this. And at least that New York spirit of cooperation, for the most part, is happening.
This is a city where, when there’s a blackout, people jump out in the street and play traffic cop because otherwise nobody will ever get home, or where, after 9/11, New Yorkers just spontaneously showed up and tried to help to the degree that they could. Yeah, people will curse you out in a heartbeat, but they will also bend over backward to try and help you figure out where you’re going if you’re lost. That is as much a part of New York—the altruism and the beauty and the competence and the kindness—as the rudeness and all of the things that popular culture likes to latch onto.
New York is a symbol, and that’s literally what I was talking about in the book. New York has reached the point where it has meaning far beyond just a city. We have seen this throughout the pandemic. Florida’s kind of sneering that “we’re not New York,” as they deliberately institute procedures that have led to the uptick that is showing no signs of slowing down of Covid cases in their state. They did it almost in defiance of the fact that New York was doing distancing measures. That is just simply because we became a useful tool at that point, and that is the nature of New York as well.
We are a bludgeon; we are a weapon; we are a legend. We are the beacon that some people hold up in front of themselves as a motivation.
JS: Would you say that the majority of this book was written out of a love for New York, or a frustration, or both?
NJ: Love for New York and fear for New York. I’m 47; I’ve lived here on and off since I was 5. I have lived here enough to see New York go through massive changes. Around the time that I was born, the city was going through white flight as a result of desegregation. And then the city almost went bankrupt. Then there was a crack epidemic and all of these things. There was a period in the ’90s where the city was finally free of crack, but the drug war was still a huge problem. The police were a huge problem. But people were able to get jobs, and neighborhoods were being built instead of burned down. A lot of New Yorkers started to feel hope.
And then a different kind of plague began to hit, which was housing prices’ going so far beyond affordable that there’s effectively no middle class in New York anymore. Suddenly when new people came in, the city became beholden to real estate developers. Suddenly, we started to not get the funding that we needed for infrastructure and repair and things like that. What I see is the city’s growth and health being sapped by people that don’t seem to understand what the city needs to thrive. They’re happy to take what they want from it and go, but they’re not giving anything back.
But also, part of New York is fighting back when the city starts to become a place where the poor cannot live, or where Black people cannot just simply walk down the street and be themselves, or where disabled people can’t get around because the changes that we were supposed to impose on the public transportation system haven’t been funded, and so on. New York fights. New York sees a threat and begins to work against it, and that is also what I wanted to capture.
JS: Is there an avatar for one of the boroughs that you feel most connected to?
NJ: I actually tried to deliberately sever that sense of connection. I split it amongst all of the avatars.
Manny is kind of embodying my sense of wonder, I suppose. Brooklyn is probably my closest physical analog, but she’s an old school New Yorker, and I’m not. I am, in many ways still, a newcomer here, even though I’ve been here half of my life. I’m not a tried and true, do or die, Bed-Stuyer. I just moved here. She’s what I guess I’d like to grow up to be. Bronca is the sort of artistic engagement I grew up in, Art New York, and she’s modeled on actually the fact that my father was the director of the Bronx River Art Center for part of my childhood. I’ve seen what art and nonprofit New York is like, and I just wanted to speak to that.
So different people have different pieces of me, I guess. The one that probably doesn’t have anything of me is Aislyn.
You know what? Let me break that down. Dealing with the difficulty of establishing one’s identity is almost a universal thing. I think that’s something that everyone feels. So, in that sense, she’s probably a bit of me too.
JS: One passage that really stuck with me was when Mrs. Yu tells the avatars that “Gods are people.… They do jobs—bring fortune, look after people, make sure the world works as it should. They fall in love. Have babies. Fight. Die. It’s duty. It’s normal. Get over it.” It made me think about all of the activism that we’re seeing right now—and have been seeing, since activists have been doing this work for decades and decades. I wonder if that line had any sort of other meaning for you when you wrote it.
NJ: That’s an interesting interpretation, and I like that one, but that was not what I was thinking. The idea that the community activists who I see doing incredible things, especially now in this crisis, the idea that those people are, in their own ways, gods—I love it. What I was more thinking was just decentering a Christian focus on the world. The Christian way of looking at the world tends to be sort of all-encompassing and implying that this is the only way to think of a religion, or a faith, or a God, and that’s not how I think. Effectively, what’s happening in The City We Became is a kind of animism. It’s a piece of many African belief systems that specific items or focuses in life develop their own energy and their own life. The idea that God is this numinous thing that is an old man in the sky, or whatever you want to call it, is not universal, and I just wanted to get at that. That’s a fascination I’ve had pretty much since my first published novels, the Inheritance Trilogy. I just wanted to pull people away from thinking that the there’s going to be a binary good-evil way of looking at the story.
JS: This is maybe an existential question, but what makes someone a New Yorker?
NJ: Oh, that’s deeply existential. I think there comes a moment after you’ve been here for like a year or so, when all of the sudden there’s this moment where you just suddenly realize this is your city, that you don’t want to live anywhere else. Once that moment comes, you understand that this is part of you now. Even if you go somewhere else, you’re always going to be a New Yorker on some level. You’re going to miss it. You’re going to feel it. That’s when you become a New Yorker. New Yorkers are chosen, New Yorkers choose themselves. And then New York tests them to kind of make sure it’s real. And if they can handle that, then yeah, they become New Yorkers in that moment. You don’t have to be born a New Yorker. This is a city that’s hungry for new people.
JS: What was your moment?
NJ: Two thousand and seven was when I moved here, but I lived in New York on and off for much of my life. I thought of myself already as a New Yorker, but I hadn’t done the daily commute. I had not had to deal with New York snow other than to play in it when I was a child. I had not walked through sweltering streets where the heat is coming from both above and below because the sidewalks have soaked up so much sunlight.
It was not a specific thing, but I remember that I was walking down the street in my neighborhood. At the time I lived in Flatbush, across from the bottom edge of Prospect Park. It was evening. I was coming back from work. I was exhausted. The light was slanting down just so, and it was hitting the bricks of the buildings that I was passing. It was making the leaves on the trees and the flowers translucent. There was almost a ringing sensation. Maybe that means that I’m hallucinating, but it was just a moment when I was like, “Oh, now I’m a New Yorker.” And I’ve heard other New Yorkers, other transplants, describe a moment like that. I don’t know if you’re a transplant yourself?
JS: Yeah, I’m from Arizona.
NJ: I can’t say if it’s true for everyone else, but like I said, I’ve talked to some people who’ve had that experience. Did you have that moment yourself?
JS: I don’t think so. I’ve only been here since January.
NJ: It takes about a year, from what I hear. Also, you came in an interesting time. Oh my gosh. This has been your only experience of New York.
These are New York experiences you’re having in these six months that you’ve been here. It’s a hell of an intro, but you’ve probably seen more real New York than I have in the last 10 years or so of living here, because it’s felt more like real New York for the last few months than it has in a while. And I’m glad to see it. I had begun to fear that the old New York’s dead. It is not dead.
In a few months you’re going to start to see this massive wave of gentrification, almost in defiance of the New York that is fighting in the streets for reduced police presence in specifically Black neighborhoods. We’re going to see pushback, and you’re going to see attempts to, once again, gloss over the real New York.
But that is a useful education to have when, now that you know what the real New York looks like, you start to see it be slowly obscured or slowly, deliberately hidden. That is what I was writing this book to show.
JS: Will everything that’s happened in the last five months heavily influence the rest of the trilogy?
NJ: It has, because I had intended to do some things in later volumes that got stolen by reality. You can kind of see in the first book that I had been planning to explore an angle with NYPD, which I suspect you can now guess where I was going to go with that. I may still go with that because NYPD is still going to be NYPD. They didn’t get defunded; nothing has changed. I don’t know exactly how I want to handle that. That was for book three and, once again, thanks America, for stealing my ideas. That’s where I am right now.
JS: I think I had read in another interview you had done about the book that you were considering putting in characters that were very similar to some New York politicians. Is that still happening?
NJ: That’s still happening. I’ve actually had a great time lately having research conversations with community activists, and City Council people, and aides to City Council people, who have been helping me understand: How do you run for mayor in New York City? So, there’s that, if that is not a clue. (It is a clue.)
JS: What have you been doing to pass time or stay interested in things while being under lockdown?
NJ: I think the most useful thing that I’ve done is I have started to ration my social media so that I am basically only on Twitter for about an hour, give or take, in the mornings, and then I’m done. If I continue to look at Twitter, it’s so enraging that there’s nowhere to go from that. I don’t have the creative energy left after it’s been swallowed by anger.
I’ve always been a biker. I was actually just out there today, just tooling around the neighborhood, trying to see what’s changed, worried that one of my favorite little Haitian coffee shops might be closing, stuff like that. That’s as much self-therapy as research. I have to keep my own sense of New York intact if I am to write about it accurately.