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In this installment of the Toonari Post’s interview with critically-acclaimed fantasy author N. K. Jemisin, she discusses how she incorporates real-world material into her fiction, as well as her willingness to discuss politics on her blog.
Toonari Post (TP): It’s interesting that you incorporate so much real-world material into your speculative fiction.
N. K. Jemisin (NKJ): Well, that to me seems to be what speculative fiction is supposed to do. I always thought of that as the way that good books were written. Maybe this is my bias, but I always took to heart the old adage that you’re supposed to write what you know, which makes no sense in the case of speculative fiction writers because of course we don’t know it—it’s speculative! But for a while I thought I would write what I knew, so I would go and visit places and see things and learn more and I could then speculate based upon those real things that I had seen. And I always assumed that that was normal, and that was how writers were supposed to do things.
Then I realized that that is not actually how epic fantasy is written. A lot of the epic fantasies that I mentioned—the ones that were referential to Tolkien without doing the amount of research that he did—were written by people who, while they may have been members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, had never actually been to England and looked at a castle. They had never been to some part of Europe that actually had leftover medieval dwellings and based their settings on that, or they’d never done any research into what real medieval life was like. I complain about this a lot with epic fantasy where you see all these depictions of medieval northern Europe that have no people of color in them and only one, maybe two, ethic groups.
Usually, humans and elves are the only two ‘ethnic groups’ even though they’re really not even the same species. But the reality is that medieval Europe was full of contact with other cultures and other societies, from Jewish traders to people who were traveling the Silk Road to China and the Middle East. It doesn’t make any sense to depict medieval societies where there’s never anybody brown or anybody from a different cultural background. I see those excuses made and I realize they didn’t actually do the research. While it is fantasy, that doesn’t mean it has to be bullshit.
TP: On your blog, you make no secret of your political opinions. How does your activism influence your writing?
NKJ: For one thing, I’m not really that much of an activist. I think of activists as people who put themselves in actual jeopardy. I suppose that, to some degree, I am risking my career by being really open about how I feel about things, but I honestly don’t think that’s the case. Anybody who reads my stuff is going to pick up on how I’m feeling about certain things.
Now it’s not like I’m writing polemics, and in my writing I actually espouse a lot of opinions that I don’t actually share. But the whole idea of a writer being online is that they are more accessible to people. If anyone is going to try to access me, they’re going to get…well…me. I don’t see any reason to hide how I feel about certain things. Although I don’t consider myself an activist, my beliefs do permeate my work in a number of different ways, like how I feel about history being mangled in order to fit the Dungeons and Dragons version of medieval Europe.
TP: Your work does play around with issues of gender and sexuality in a very understated way. In other words, you avoid turning your writing into a bunch of “Very Special Episodes.”
NKJ: That’s because Very Special Episodes don’t work. I see no reason to treat human beings and human issues as exceptional, or try to treat human issues that are outside the mainstream as exceptional. As far as I am concerned, human life is a mélange of different people from different backgrounds doing all these things at once. I try to capture as much of that as I can in my fiction because it feels more realistic. It’s not a matter of good writing, not activism. If you want to do good characterization and worldbuilding, your world will reflect the complexity of humankind.