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N.K. Jemisin: ‘I am still going to write what I am going to write.’

Photo by Laura Hanifin. Copyright 2015

In Raffi Khatchadourian‘s New Yorker profile of author magnifique N.K. Jemisin, Jemisin recounts the racism she witnessed as a child in Alabama in the ’80s, as well as the racism — editorial and otherwise — that she has lived through in her career.

“John Scalzi, the former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, heralded Jemisin as ‘arguably the most important speculative writer of her generation.’” (Edit, mine.)

Jemisin credits her father Noah — a painter — as someone who fully supported her writing not only by being her “first real editor” but also by creating art alongside her in long companionable afternoons he spent painting, while she composed on a couch nearby.

Jemisin’s writing process often begins with dreams: imagery vivid enough to hang on into wakefulness. She does not so much mine them for insight as treat them as portals to hidden worlds. Her tendency is to interrogate what she sees with if/then questions, until her field of vision widens enough for her to glimpse a landscape that can hold a narrative. The inspiration for her début novel, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” (2010), was a dream vision of two gods. One had dark-as-night hair that contained a starry cosmos of infinite depth; the other, in a child’s body, manipulated planets like toys. From these images, Jemisin spun out a four-hundred-page story about an empire that enslaves its deities. The book established her as a prominent new voice.

Above her desk she had hung family photos: glimpses of a truncated generational story. “Like most black Americans descended from slaves, it basically stops,” she told me. She once wrote about this loss—not merely the erasure of a backstory but also the absence of all that a person builds upon it; as she put it, the “strange emptiness to life without myths.” She had considered pursuing genealogy, “the search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche.” But ultimately she decided that she had no interest in what the records might say. “They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.”

Dad and I would pass time, whole afternoons, not speaking to each other,” she told me. “He would be working on a painting in his studio. I would be sitting on the couch, writing.

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