The Soul of a City: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

A soul is an ineffable thing. It cannot be seen or smelled, but your senses detect evidence that it exists. A smile, a sob, a kinesthetic or verbal tic, a way of walking, the peculiarly human brightness in someone’s eyes. We’re not androids, all of these things come together to say. We are not manufactured things. We are organic and singular. We are human.

The same, argues N. K. Jemisin’s latest, The City We Became, can be said of the metropolis. You can see the contours of a city’s soul in its skyline at dusk. You can hear its soul in the ambient chatter of its Chinatown, the musical haggling in its souq. You smell it on its buses and you hear it creak beneath your boots as you ascend the five flights of your walkup, arms burdened with grocery bags.

The way a city affects, attacks, adores you, all captured in the way you utter its name.

The City We Became is the first book in Jemisin’s Great Cities Trilogy. The City in question here: New York. The “We,” its six avatars, the flesh-and-blood-and-magic embodiments of its soul. When the novel begins, New York City has not yet been born. It has its skyscrapers and bodegas, its cops and its artistic directors, its three-piece-suit Wall St. hustlers and its East New York corner boy hustlers. It is a New York City recognizable to anyone alive in 2020. But at the book’s beginning, New York City, as much as history has dubbed it a megalopolis, is a collection of strangenesses, of people coming and going and leaving parts of themselves on their way through. That residue, mixed with the essence of the life still in those streets and apartments and jails and office buildings, forms a weight on the world and becomes connected to somewhere qualitatively Other. Its slums, its construction, its traffic, the music blasting from boomboxes, these begin to take on anthropomorphic shape. Listen closely enough to the stop-and-go of vehicles in the Holland Tunnel and hear a heartbeat.

But New York City’s birth is troubled. In fact, an attack on the city from a mysterious antagonist nearly results in a miscarriage. But the city’s midwife, a nameless Black urchin, beats back the menace, barely surviving the fight. After the city whisks its beaten hero, savior, and avatar to safety, the boy’s mentor, a protective, urbane, rough-edged man named Paulo, must seek out the other avatars, all of whom are enduring their own birth pangs.

***

In her latest novel, Jemisin literalizes many of the things we’ve associated with cities: their oppressiveness, their dynamism, their heartlessness, their comfort, their wrongness, their rightness, but also the idea that a city’s most fundamental components are the people in them. It is an ironic reification of the maxim that good worldbuilding is not so much about the world as it is about the people moving through it.

Each of the boroughs takes human form in surprising yet this-makes-sense fashion, and through these personifications, Jemisin explores the contradictions and complicated appeal of the city she calls home. Bronx’s attitude and attendant lack of trust of others, Queens’s status as a landing pad for refugees, Brooklyn’s marriage of hip hop and high politics, Staten Island’s resentment at being the forgotten borough and the racism that swims in its air, Manhattan’s tortured and complicated amalgamation of faces and races as well as its capitalistic impellent. Of course, having a single person embody the heterogeneity of an entire borough leads to broad generalizations. There are only so many characteristics that can be picked and assembled into a character before an author misshapes their creation into some chimera or Mr. Potato Head homunculus, a total less than the sum of its parts. Take a bunch of human souls, scale them up by the hundreds of thousands, the millions, and what appears on the page can only be incomplete. Still, Jemisin manages the impossible task with aplomb and a demanding, critical love. This is the trap we set for ourselves when we talk about the “character” of a place.

***

This conundrum—how to personify a city—vanishes with regard to the book’s antagonist. In our opposite number, we have the same: a “person” embodying a city. But two factors allow for Jemisin to avoid the risk of souls-collapsing. The first is that the antagonist adopts many “human” forms, takes many guises, casting themself as an ever-present and thus even more threatening villain. The second is that this villain, or at least a major aspect of them, already has an author.

H. P. Lovecraft looms large in this novel. References, explicit and implicit, abound.

In August of 1925, Lovecraft wrote the story “The Horror at Red Hook”. More a screed than a narrative, “Horror” follows an Irish detective named Malone as he investigates a sinister cult led by the recluse Robert Suydam. Malone’s investigation brings him in contact with what Lovecraft characterizes as New York’s seedy, squalid underbelly, a hell-on-earth that serves as a portal to an actual Hell, a place of “nighted crypts, those titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” The Red Hook of Lovecraft’s story is a “maze of hybrid squalor,” and description of its denizens is nothing more than a register of slurs. To call the epithets and xenophobic portraits captured in this catalog evidence of the author’s omnidirectional prejudices would be to indulge in criminal understatement.

Lovecraft looked at the non-Whites of the Brooklyn where he lived at the time and had visions of the demonic. The racial admixture of the New York City that has, throughout its history, been the engine of so much of the city’s charm and dynamism maddened Lovecraft.

A common dramatic device in Lovecraft’s work is to associate virtue, intellect, elevated class position, civilization, and rationality with white Anglo-Saxons, often posing it in contrast to the corrupt, intellectually inferior, uncivilized and irrational, which he associated with people he characterized as being of lower class, impure racial “stock” and/or non European ethnicity and dark skin complexion who were often the villains in his writings.

Lovecraft’s wife, Sonia Greene, a Ukranian woman of Jewish extraction, was not exempt from his bigoted pique. “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York,” she wrote after divorcing Lovecraft, “Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind.”

Similar to Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, The City We Became is a reclaiming of the New York that Lovecraft vilified. In perhaps the greatest fuck-you to the man behind the Cthulhu mythos that has had such widespread influence on speculative fiction, Jemisin gives voice and human-ness to the objects of Lovecraft’s hatred. The center is moved, the periphery now the mainstream, the despised now the heroes. The City We Became is a praise song for all the things he despised.

The very first line of the book is “I sing the city.”

***

Lovecraft, the Ur-Villain, lurks in the novel’s shadows. So does another bigoted imp-made-flesh hover over the city, a man who dwarfs even Lovecraft’s capacity for enacting his prejudices in apocalyptic fashion on those not like him: Robert Moses.

As much as we may think of cities as organic things thrumming with life, they are manufactured entities. The Roman Empire’s aqueducts and Forum Romanum, the construction and organization of madrasas in Askia Mohamed I’s Timbuktu, the brutal Opium War-fueled forging of the Kowloon Peninsula into Hong Kong. Capitalism has bludgeoned many of the aforementioned and others like them into what we see now, and its deleterious effects are not absent from Jemisin’s novel. In fact, one of the most stunning features of this book is its positioning of capital waging war against the human beings of a place as a sort of Cthulhu. Gargantuan claws that rake expressways through neighborhoods, multifold human forms insinuating themselves piecemeal as the proprietors of new coffeeshops or as real estate developers or as disembodied city agencies expropriating land for condos. The source of mankind’s constant, subconscious anxiety, commanding perhaps the largest cult in the world.

Few people have done more to bludgeon New York City into a place where skyscrapers have essentially placed a price point on the sun than Robert Moses. Moses was President of the Long Island Parks Commission from 1924 to 1963, Chairman of the NY State Council of Parks from 1924 to 1963, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Parks from 1934 to 1960, Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (predecessor to the Metropolitan Transit Authority) from 1934 to 1968, and NYC Planning Commissioner from 1942 to 1960. Among other things. At one point, he held enough titles simultaneously to shame Daenerys Targaryen. All without once being elected to public office.

As detailed in Robert Caro’s Moses biography, The Power Broker, Moses used a budget surplus from toll revenue to place himself at the center of a vast web of patronage, creating public authorities that snuck him out from under the auspices of elected officials and the general public. Thus, autonomous, he built 16 expressways, as many parkways, and 7 bridges within New York City alone. He disdained public transit and believed in the primacy of the automobile. The Belt Parkway on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront separates residents from New York Bay and Jamaica Bay. The Henry Hudson Parkway sits like an asphalt gash between the riverfront and the rest of the island. Overpasses on Long Island were built just low enough to keep buses filled with non-white residents from beachfront state parks. Knowing this, it can be difficult to look at the Cross Bronx Expressway and not see traces of the animus that powered its rampage through the communities that dared to stand in its path.

Also part of his legacy are Central Park’s gaudy, expensive Tavern-On-the-Green and a highly-publicized effort to end one of the city’s most hallowed traditions: Shakespeare in the Park.

A New York City under siege from capital and the ghoulish whims of little men with outsized power is a New York City under the threat of forces dimensionally Other. It is also a New York City uniquely equipped to fight back.

In The City We Became, as in real life, fight back it does.

***

Nobody-makes-fun-of-my-family-but-me energy thrums through the novel. When a city’s constituent parts are made into flesh-and-blood-and-magic people, the term “character defect” takes on new meaning. The novel doesn’t posit that, absent all those elements of the city that make life difficult (racist police, luxury condos, rising subway fare, etc.), New York would turn into paradise on Earth. It is not Shangri-La. It is not Eden. It is New York.

It has withstood Robert Moses. It has withstood other countless attempts to undermine or destroy its structural integrity. The bodega persists. The local arts center almost wholly dependent on outside grants, that persists. The crush of bodies in a subway car, that persists. The gridlock on the FDR, that persists. The reggaeton blasting from boomboxes, that persists. Hip Hop persists, dollar slices persist, the idea of New York City as home, as that place where, in the words of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, all your attempts to escape cease, that persists.

Cthulhu has tried innumerable times to destroy New York City. It has taken many forms. And yet, New York City persists.

The New York outside the novel is leaden with horrors. Income inequality manifests in empty apartment buildings and a titanic homelessness problem. A creaking subway system grows more onerous and odious with each passing year. Attend any number of local town halls on public education in the city and witness some of the Brobdingnagian resistance New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has had to face in his efforts to desegregate public schools. Gentrification and the city’s privatization, coupled with all of the ways racism infects its public and private institutions, all come together to present a bleak future for The City With Bloodshot Eyes.

But Jemisin is at work unveiling a new future. In The City We Became, readers are shown a New York beyond the tunnels and bridges and roads named after men who no longer exist. She shows a New York, not of unmade communities, but of remade ones, the scar tissue stronger than unbroken skin.

New York City may be perpetually under attack. But it is always fighting back.

Hear its heartbeat.

Buy The City We Became From Underground Books

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Originally published in March 2020.
The City We Became
is available from Orbit Books. The novel is an expansion of Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great”, available here.

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night, which won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African, its sequel, Crown of Thunder, and War Girls. He holds a B.A. from Yale, a M.F.A. in screenwriting from the Tisch School fo the Arts, a Master’s degree in droit économique from Sciences Po, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. His fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, Omenana Magazine, Uncanny, and Lightspeed. His non-fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. Riot Baby is his adult fiction debut.

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