EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: N.K. Jemisin on After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia

N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author whose short fiction and novels have been nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her latest novel, The Shadowed Sun, was published in June 2012 from Orbit Books. Her website is nkjemisin.com.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with several authors involved in the new anthology, After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and featuring stories asking: If the melt-down, flood, plague, the third World War, new Ice Age, Rapture, alien invasion, clamp-down, meteor, or something else entirely hit today, what would tomorrow look like? Some of the biggest names in YA and adult literature answer that very question in this short story anthology, each story exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake—whether set in the days after the change, or decades far in the future.


CHARLES TAN: Hi Nora! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. For you, how would you define Dyslit or what are its essential characteristics?

NK JEMISIN: I think of it as post-postapocalyptic fiction. And I’m using that description both to suggest an artistic sensibility a la postmodern, and a necessary factor of dystopias that work, which is that they’re *us gone wrong.*  Usually that means Something Happened To Us — maybe not the apocalypse, but there had to be some trigger event that caused our world to hare off into the weeds.  So dystopian lit is not simply about messed-up societies, it’s necessarily about messed-up societies that exist in the shadow of, or in reaction to, our own.

It’s possible to write a dystopia that isn’t related to the present day or the current world, of course — half of science fiction and fantasy showcases such worlds (e.g. Mordor).  But what makes these terrible places dystopian is when readers can see institutions they respect, twisted; societal roles they understand, subverted; ideologies they empathize with taken to an extreme.  Seeing all that makes you twitch with a weird, intimate kind of horror — like the first time you see yourself in a funhouse mirror.  You know what you’re seeing, and you know it’s *you*, but everything you know about yourself is all *wrong.*

CT: What’s the appeal of Dyslit for you? Why is it important, especially for YA readers?

NKJ: For me?  I just like blowing stuff up!  Societies especially; it’s fun to (figuratively) throw them up in the air and see how they reassemble themselves on landing.

For YA readers, it’s important that they know that the world around them isn’t all there is, or could be.  Dystopias are meant to be cautionary tales, but I think they also inspire optimism.  A good dystopia can help people — especially young people who may still be in a very black-and-white, self-centered mode of thought just due to the usual patterns of developmental psychology — understand how large-scale systems begin and perpetuate themselves.  And how those systems can be destroyed, for good or for ill.

CT: How did you settle on the three rules Zinhle set for herself?

NKJ: I just remembered my own adolescence.  I wasn’t very much like Zinhle, at least not ’til college or so.  I wasn’t nearly as driven or as angry, and certainly not as isolated.  But I felt and reacted to many of the negative pressures she feels — for example, the assumption that because she is a person of color, she is inferior.  The pressure to be someone other than who she really wants to be.  Zinhle’s rules are the ones I needed, to stay focused and sane.

CT: What were the challenges in writing “Valedictorian”?

NKJ:It’s very much a “talking heads” story; there’s no action, and the wrongness of the dystopia is subtle, at first.  Conventional wisdom is that YA readers have short attention spans and need everything spelled out in a very obvious way, but I don’t believe that.  I remember enjoying subtle, thinky stories when I was young — if the subject matter was intriguing enough, thought-provoking enough, and presented well enough.  So that’s what I tried to write.  I’d initially made the dialogue segments very brief just to try and keep the pace and tension high, but my writing group members and editor (Ellen Datlow) pointed out that some parts of the story ended up being confusing because I wasn’t explaining enough!  So I went back and explained more.  But just a little more.  I hated being “talked down to” when I was a teenager; I liked — and still like — books that treat me as if I’m intelligent enough to make educated guesses, given enough clues.  So basically I wrote the kind of story I would’ve liked to read.

 

Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi).