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Singing to Chaos: Reading N.K. Jemisin


Image by Greg Razosky

I wish I could go to the book store and browse the shelves for “Fiction That Makes You Think.” But then maybe what has me thinking wouldn’t show up there, because not everyone thinks what I think. Not only that, but I discovered this year in my Mythology, Literature, and Fantasy Fiction courses that you can apply literary theory and Jung and Campbell to everything from The Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games. So now the literary world is literally my oyster.

Related, and bear with me for a moment: last year I had an epiphany. A good deal of my reading has been about social justice because I want to educate myself better about race issues and undo some of the harm that our racist society has done in my mind, so that I can do less harm in the world. Reading is my answer to everything, so I read: White Fragility, The Color of Law. And some fiction, too: The Invention of Wings about abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The epiphany was this: a large portion of the reading I’d been doing about people of color was not written by people of color. I recommend all of these books, because they are all amazing, but at the same time, even on issues of race, I was unconsciously centering white voices. Yikes.  

So over on Goodreads I made a shelf for Authors of Color and started being intentional. Over the last year I’ve read Ross Gay, Michael Eric Dyson, Solomon Northrup, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Blanco, Ibram X. Kendi, Fareed Zakaria, Linda Hogan, Austin Channing Brown, Ijeoma Oluo. Fiction: Tomi Adeyemi, Ibi Zoboi, Toni Morrison, Angie Thomas, N.K. Jemisin, and St. Octavia Butler (I imagine she wouldn’t like that characterization, but given her army of converts old and new, and my discipleship, she is stuck with it). I challenge anyone reading this to make a point of reading more authors of color.  

I’ve learned a whole lot from Coates, Kendi, Brown and Oluo. But it seems weird to me that what resonates the most when I think of it is the fiction. Butler, of course. God is Change… But today I want to talk about N.K. Jemisin

Have you found theology in fiction? Hear me out. 

I am three quarters of the way through Kingdom of Gods, Jemisin’s third book in the Inheritance trilogy. This is fantasy. Butler is fantasy/sci fi. These genres have long been regarded as a “fluff” genre in which there is not much “meat”, something you read purely for escapism, and a lot of it is that, but speculative is my brain food. Butler is pretty plainly intending to speak on issues that deal with African American history, in addition to questions of immortality and Godhood (Wild Seed). Jemisin is much less obvious, b1ut there are topics of slavery and immortality here, too. 

I’m thinking about her theology and cosmology. Let me give you a brief rundown. (Trigger alert: there is a good deal of sex in these books, and occasionally suggestions, but not scenes, of rape. If you are okay with that, I can heartily recommend them. I am not dealing with any of that here).

The Three are the founding gods of the world. They mated to create godlings, and one of them, Enefa, created mortalkind. When gods mate with mortals, they make demons, who are mortal. Demons have been abolished because their blood is lethal to gods and godlings and deemed too dangerous to the cosmos to live. If one of the Three is killed, the mortal realm ceases to exist. 

Much of high fantasy has a pantheon of gods. A good bit of it deals with mortals’ relationship to gods. What is fascinating about Jemisin’s trilogy is that the gods and godlings are themselves characters in the novels. In the first book, four of them have been chained and made mortal, and made to serve the mortal (human) ruling family. In the second and third book, the tables are turned and the one who imprisoned them is himself imprisoned in a mortal body. By making the immortal mortal, Jemisin is able to bypass the difficulty of making the immortal, the deity, a character we can relate to. 

The Three are, in order of their birth from the unknowable Maelstrom: 

Nahadoth. He (he can manifest as male or female but is generally male/father) is darkness, chaos, change (…. God is change….). He can never stick to one thing for long. He is firstborn from the Maelstrom and spent millennia alone. He is lethal and capricious and often malicious. 

Itempas. Itempas is the perfect foil to Nahadoth. He is light, order, changelessness. Surprisingly, Itempas is dark-skinned and Nahadoth is light-skinned, in manifest form. Itempas killed Enefa and imprisoned Nahadoth and three of his children when they rebelled. He is presented as the villain in the first book, then becomes human, imprisoned himself, in the second and third books. And he thereby becomes interesting. His worshipers, of course, are rigid law-givers, whom we find not at all sympathetic. 

Enefa. She is balance, life, and death, the scales that keep the other two in check. She created mortalkind. Itempas used the blood of his demon offspring to kill her out of jealousy over her relationship with Nahadoth. She was re-manifested. I’m not going to go into details about that because of spoilers. It’s mostly the other two I want to talk about, anyway.

Let’s parallel these two, for the sake of a theological argument, with the God of the Bible (Itempas: light, order, changelessness), and Satan (Nahadoth: unpredictability, chaos, darkness). Jemisin makes no delineation that one of these gods is “good” and one of them “evil”. They have natures, and they have to be true to their nature. Even Lil the Hunger, horrific as she is, is not really judged. But from the beginning Nahadoth, a character in the first book while Itempas is a vague deific non-personality, is the more sympathetic of the two. All the world worships Itempas, while Enefa is dead and Nahadoth in chains; worship of them all but vanishes. 

This has me thinking (intentional on the author’s part, I am sure) about our ideas of light=good, dark=bad. First of all, she flips their avatars’ skin color. She flips our sympathies toward them. 

Humans do not like change. We do not like chaos. We think we like “freedom” but when we define it, it turns out that what we often mean is liberty to impose our own order on others, rather than having someone else’s order imposed upon us. We also, being diurnal and with poor vision and not easily able to defend ourselves without tools, do not care much for darkness. These are the things that make us feel secure: light, predictability, numbers (as in community). Is it surprising that we worship light and order in the person of Yahweh? Is it surprising that we make Satan, personification of chaos, temptation, and darkness, our villain, in our theology? The Fallen is dark. In this mythos, it’s not shocking that people who are dark become villains, as well. I’m not saying it’s excusable, of course. But even Yahweh sat in darkness for millennia before he decided there needed to be light, and he created both light and darkness, no? 

If we think of Yahweh as Itempas and Satan as Nahadoth, in which we do not judge either of them as good or bad before examining their deeds as we know them in the scriptures, what would change? Which characters would we find most sympathetic? If we took out every scripture that offered a judgment – “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.” (Ex. 34:6) – “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5: 19) – and left us only with the power of story, what would be left? Who would the characters be?

It’s an interesting mental exercise I invite you to do. I am not trying to tell you that Satan is Good and God is Bad (or even, necessarily, that neither is neither, though that is part of the exercise). I am inviting you to examine your own mythos without prejudgments. Read your mythos as if you’d never heard it before, as if you were telling it to someone who was born on another planet. When I was explaining my fading theology to a therapist who had never heard it before, I suddenly realized: this is not who I want to be anymore. It took me five years at least before I found another answer. Sometimes you have to say No before you can find your Yes. 

I learned that the truth you believe because someone else told you to believe can never be your Truth. But I suggest, too, that No is not enough and can never be enough. You cannot define your life by rejecting a theology or a personal philosophy without replacing it with something that is True for you. 

Ask Why and What If, and find your Yes.