“A myth, I repeat myself, is nothing but our active relationship with a phenomenon. Because no event or phenomenon exists in and of itself. Any thing or event exists only in relation to our experience of it, which we either conflate with an existing myth, or create new myths. And this is very important, and not only is not wrong to do this, it is absolutely essential.”
– Evgenii Vodolazkin
Recently, Ursula LeGuin announced the imminent death of what is so strangely called “literary fiction,” to be replaced in importance by what is called “genre” fiction. Her reasoning is sound–the more I read in both genre and literary (though I really hate using these fake terms created by marketing departments), the more it seems to me that only genre writers are willing to examine certain aspects of the human condition that are not easily defined or categorized by a society that more and more likes to pigeonhole everything.
That’s not to say that all genre writers do this well. Much contemporary fantasy is little more than a 13-year old boy’s imagination run rampant. But occasionally, a fantasy writer creates a world so compelling, with characters and moral dilemmas so real, that the effect is like reading Tolstoy or George Eliot or any other master of fiction who tried to illuminate the beautiful madness of what it means to be human.
N. K. Jemisin is such an artist. She has created a world that could have actually happened in some deep past that we have long forgotten about. Her alternate Egypt is almost as compelling as Egypt itself.
Most importantly, though, her humane approach to questions of faith, doubt, sacrifice, love, and so much more is just dazzling. When Facebook feeds make one sometimes doubt that people are capable of empathizing with others or of thinking at all, Jemisin presents us with characters and questions that are universal, but she refuses to suggest easy answers for anything. When literary fiction rarely looks at sincere faith in the divine with an unironic eye, Jemisin shows us flawed, suffering individuals who have every reason to turn their back on their faith, but who are too brave to do so. And we can’t help but look at them with awe.
While in our world people have largely lost the language of intimacy, where “love” has so become synonymous with “lust” that it seems anyone who doesn’t have sex after a successful first date is strange (at best), Jemisin creates a world where two people can love each other in heartbreaking ways, and yet hardly ever touch each other. It’s breathtaking.
For me, her choice to describe one character’s descent into madness in terms of moral choice is unexpected and brilliant. It’s rare to find tragic heroes in modern fiction, because I think a profound sense of tragedy is difficult to create without a strong belief in eternity. Ehiru’s transformation into the thing he fears most, and his ability to remain himself when losing himself, is as strong a characterization as Ivan Karamazoff’s descent into madness.
I can’t wait to read more of this incredible author.