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N. K. Jemisin
An Appreciation by Kate Elliott

In trying to track down how Nora and I first met, I ran across two emails from 2009.

First, she emailed me to thank me for writing a blurb for her (fabulous) debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (“the provocative and exciting debut novel by a writer whose work I hope to be reading for a long time to come,” a comment I enthusiastically stand by).

Four months later I emailed her to ask if by any chance she would be willing to beta read an early draft of Cold Magic, and she kindly was. The critique she gave exemplifies a lot about her: She cut me no slack because she simply assumed I was up for the truth.

Her writing on science fiction and fantasy, entertainment, race, and politics has made a powerful impression in the field, first on LiveJournal and later on her own blog and in other online venues. In the USA, it is never a simple or safe act to speak openly and honestly about culture and history, and even less simple or safe to do so when you are a black woman. As a writer of both non-fiction and fiction in multiple forms, Nora consistently and persistently speaks truth. She hasn’t been “shy about offering suggestions for change,” as she said in her Guest of Honor Speech at Australian convention Continuum in 2013, where she discussed how “it is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors.” She doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring hostile attacks or pretending that racism and sexism do not exist, and I want to express my own great appreciation of how vital it is to the field and for every one of us that Nora is willing to keep putting herself out there and calling out the bigotry in the field we love. She shouldn’t have to, but she does. It takes courage and stubbornness and brilliance, all of which she possesses in abundance.

N.K. Jemisin. Author's Photo.

Every time she writes that “everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres” (WisCon Guest of Honor speech, 2014), she holds up a lamp that acts as a beacon to bring more writers and artists and readers and professionals into a field that, to truly fulfill its promise, needs to be actually as universally vast as the claims made for its vision and scope. Of course most of us know her best for her fiction. She started publishing short fiction in 2004. Her excellent debut novel came out in 2010 and won the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel as well as the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award; it was also nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Crawford, Gemmell, Tiptree, and World Fantasy awards. Say that five times fast. Her sixth novel, The Fifth Season, is due in August 2015, and is one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year.

For me one of the striking elements of Nora’s fiction is its insistence on unfolding the human condition in a way that demands we consider humanity in all its worst, and best, aspects. Hers is a complex vision that doesn’t trade in easy answers. She reminds the reader that people are complicated, flawed, and inconsistent, that they make mistakes and compound them and maybe, possibly, try to redeem themselves. She sees both cruelty and love as possibilities, and her work always digs at the deep connections that, for better or worse, link people together.

She is also adept at voice. Her first person writing truly creates the personality of the speaker; none of her first person narratives could ever be mistaken for any of the others because they are each so distinct both in language use and in how and what they convey about the individual telling the story. Her third person prose has gorgeous descriptive language and the ability to shock and delight in equal measure.

Nora and I met in actual person at World Fantasy Convention in San Jose in the Fall of 2009. I vividly recall going to her reading; the room was packed, and the space breathed a palpable excitement as she read an excerpt from her forthcoming debut. Her command of voice, the way she uses language to evoke personality and setting, has a strength that makes her writer’s voice unmistakable and unforgettable.

Many of our subsequent meetings have taken place over food and/or drinks: a Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan, a Brooklyn hipster joint, her launch party for the novel Kingdom of Gods, complete with the game Twister (the main character being a trickster/ child god, natch) and mixed drinks appropriate to a “Sleepover of the Gods” themed pajama party, like the Rummy Bear (White rum, blue Curacao, lemon juice, simple syrup, with gummy bear garnish).

However I have a special personal fondness for the visit she made to the Big Island of Hawaii to do research for The Fifth Season. I flew over for the day from Oahu, and we drove around the Big Island seeing Akaka Falls, Waipio Valley, an ancient Hawaiian heiau (temple), and (of course) eating and drinking. All that day we carried on an extended conversation about women in genre, a discussion we afterward kept encouraging ourselves to try to recapture in a joint blog post which we never had time to write. We touched on a little of it in our joint Rocket Talk podcast discussion with Justin Landon, at Tor.com.

Here’s the thing about Nora: She has a lot of important things to say, and I for one will never get tired of listening to and reading her.

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple SF/F novels, including Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, and Jaran. She lives in Hawaii where, for fun, she paddles outrigger canoes.


Originally published in the Souvenir Book at Arisia, held January 16-19, 2015, in Boston, Massachusetts. N. K. Jemisin was the Writer Guest of Honor.