DWBG: Smiling at the end of the world
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Ch 13.-->Coda
Well, here we are at the end of The City We Became, and I’m leaving it without having the wonderful, “Oh, I get it!” moment I was hoping for. There was a lot of things that delighted me in this book—the love story between Bronca and Veneza, and Veneza getting to be a city herself, even as I felt it was a cheap pull narratively—and the things that disappointed me were mostly craft: structurally, there were a few things that didn’t really line up, especially the whole “We need Staten Island—no, we don’t need Staten Island,” thing, and then the weird “He will devour you—jk, no, he won’t,” thing. They’re narrative tensions that need to be resolved, and they weren’t, leaving that energy built up in the reader with nowhere to go.
With those objections raised, here are some of the other parts of this week’s reading that caught me:
Teachable moment between Brooklyn and Bronca over the things that Brooklyn said. Bronca’s adjustment of her racist comments to prejudiced; racism requires power. It’s a bit of a blunt hammer that Jemisin’s using to get these points across, but it feels good to see it, it’s a relief after so many years of subtle (and often, not-so-subtle) white supremacy/patriarchy inserted into every piece of media. Jemisin is not fucking around, and while I think this kind of teaching can overtake a dramatic moment—the conflict between Bronca and Brooklyn is used to address broader societal issues, rather than necessarily contributing directly to the narrative conflict we’ve got going on—we need this teaching pretty desperately, and these cries of harm need to be heard and acknowledged. So I’ll sacrifice a little narrative juice to get this right now. It makes me feel relief to read it, like a weight is being lifted, and I’m grateful for that.
There are a lot of things about Aislyn that bothered me; I think they were supposed to. If you look at Aislyn’s behavior as an analog for white feminism, that she would rather align with a clearly evil whiteness than put herself out to help women of color, it makes sense. And I’m okay with Aislyn turning on everyone; what I didn’t like was how important Staten Island was until she revealed her true self.
I do kind of love that it’s the polar opposite of the white savior story, though. And I think whiteness being held to account for some bullshit is definitely an idea whose time has come.
Either Aislyn is vital or she’s not. I would have loved if Veneza was also from Staten, and Aislyn’s betrayal turned into the rest of New York basically booting her out of the clubhouse to start over, and then Veneza is chosen. Narratively, it would have been a bit tighter, although I do love the moment Veneza Becomes so much that it takes some of the sting out.
The darkness hovering over Staten is an interesting idea; that feels like a whole new narrative there.
I find it really strange that we have two characters with the same name and yet we don’t acknowledge it at all. There’s Conall the predator, and then baby Conall who was never born. I feel like this needs resolution, and I was hoping that there would be something in the story that made this make sense. If it was there, I missed it.
Manny hulking out into King Kong! I love that! What’s more New York than King Kong?
“It’s impossible not to smile, too, here at the end of the world.” That’s a beautiful line.
I love that we end in family and community.
I hate the cheat at the end, saying that devouring was essentially just a metaphor, and waving away whatever the hell happened to London. If you play a card, play it through.
I like the hint of romance between Manny and the Primary… who still remains unnamed. I love the ending on friendship and community between these people. I love Veneza trying to get the Primary to eat.
Okay! So next week, we’re going to do the reading group questions (below) and then that will be it for our discussion of The City We Became! After that, we’re going to do another weekly discussion series… how do y’all feel romantic comedies?
Reading Group Guide questions from the book:
In The City We Became, the avatars draw their power not just from the city itself but also from representations of the city in popular culture and from stereotypes. How does the novel both utilize and undermine those stereotypes?
If your hometown had an avatar, what kind of person would represent it? What kind of magic would give them their power?
The City We Became is set in a real place and deals with real, serious themes, but also has magic. How do the supernatural elements enhance those themes? Could the same story have been written without the magical influences?
Manny is the only character who doesn’t remember anything about who he was before he became an avatar. What do you think this means about him, his borough, and his role in the story?
Reviews have called the novel a metaphor for gentrification. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
The Woman in White is an active antagonist while Staten Island is more passively allowing destruction to happen to the rest of New York without intervening. Do you think their roles are comparable? Which has the greater impact: the one causing the destruction, or the one with the power to stop it who stands aside?
The Woman in White justifies her actions by explaining that she is trying to save her own parallel universe from destruction. How does that complicate her role as the antagonist and the role of the heroes?
This book was published in 2020 around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US and during a time of widespread protests against police brutality? How does the timing affect your reading of the novel?