The City We Became

by

N. K. Jemisin

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The City We Became Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of N. K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin was born in 1972 in Iowa City, Iowa. Though raised in Mobile, Alabama, she frequently visited New York City as she was growing up. She graduated from Tulane University with a B.S. in psychology and from the University of Maryland with a Master’s in Education. She has published nine solo novels: the Inheritance Trilogy, comprised of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), The Broken Kingdoms (2010), and The Kingdom of Gods (2011); the Dreamblood Duology, comprised of The Killing Moon (2012) and The Shadowed Sun (2012); the Broken Earth Trilogy, comprised of The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017); and The City We Became (2020), whose sequel The World We Make will be published in 2022. In addition, she has co-authored a Mass Effect video game franchise tie-in novel with video-game writer Mac Walters, Mass Effect: Andromeda Initiation (2017), and published a book of short stories, How Long ‘til Black Future Month? (2018). A popularly and critically acclaimed science-fiction writer, N. K. Jemisin has won Locus, Nebula, and Hugo Awards for her work. Most notably, every installment of her Broken Earth Trilogy won a Hugo Award for Best Novel. Currently she lives in New York City.
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Historical Context of The City We Became

In The City We Became (2020), great cities (cities with idiosyncratic histories and cultures) can become sentient and choose a human avatar from among their residents to represent them. If a city’s birth fails and the city’s avatar dies, a massive disaster ensues. The novel cites several real historical disasters as examples of cities dying at birth. Ancient examples include Pompeii, a Roman city in Italy destroyed by Mount Vesuvius’s volcanic eruption in 79 C.E., and Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that the Spanish conquered in 1521 and on whose ruins they built Mexico City. Modern examples include Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2005. The novel also references the 2010 earthquake that seriously damaged Port-au-Prince in Haiti. In addition to attributing real historical disasters to cities’ avatars’ deaths, the novel—set during New York City’s “birth”—also alludes to several important events in New York City’s history. For example, one major character, Manny, visits a rock called Shorakkopoch in Inwood Hill Park that memorializes Dutch colonist Peter Minuit’s1626 purchase of Manhattan Island from the indigenous Lenape people. Another major character, Bronca, participated in the 1969 Stonewall riots, famous demonstrations for LGBT rights precipitated by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Finally, at the novel’s end, the protagonists celebrate not July 4 but July 9, 1776—the day George Washington received a copy of the Declaration of Independence in New York City and ordered it publicly read.

Other Books Related to The City We Became

N. K. Jemisin is a science-fiction/fantasy author whose novel The City We Became (2020) critiques racism in the genre-fiction tradition. The novel repeatedly refers to the influential—but notably racist—science-fiction/horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937). For example, the true name of the novel’s antagonist, the Woman in White, is “R’lyeh,” which is the name of the dead city that houses the cosmic monster Cthulhu in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” In the same vein, “Dangerous Mental Machines,” a painting the Woman in White’s minions show to Bronca is “Dangerous Mental Machines,” references a derogatory description of Asian New Yorkers that H.P. Lovecraft used in one of his personal letters. H.P. Lovecraft is not the only famous science-fiction/fantasy author Jemison alludes to in The City We Became. At one point, the Woman in White reenacts the wizard Gandalf the Grey’s confrontation with the Balrog from the 2001 film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954). As Gandalf becomes Gandalf the White after his confrontation with the Balrog, The City We Became may be using the villainous Woman in White’s identification with Gandalf to subtly critique the racial whiteness of the science-fiction and fantasy traditions overall. Another novel that critiques racism in science fiction, fantasy, and horror is Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016). Like The City We Became, Ruff’s novel uses racist aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction to discuss U.S. racism more generally. In addition to discussing real-world racism, The City We Became may be using the science-fictional concept of city growth destroying neighboring dimensions as an allegory to explore real-world climate change. Likewise, critics widely consider N. K. Jemisin’s science-fiction Broken Earth trilogy—The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017)— to be a commentary on climate change.
Key Facts about The City We Became
  • Full Title: The City We Became
  • When Written: 2016–2019
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 2020
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Setting: New York City
  • Climax: Manny, Bronca, Brooklyn, Padmini, and Veneza wake up New York City’s avatar and drive the Woman in White’s infection out of their boroughs.
  • Antagonist: The Woman in White
  • Point of View: First Person, Third Person

Extra Credit for The City We Became

Cats! N. K. Jemisin owns a cat named King Ozymandias, whose name may refer to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792 – 1822) famous sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818).

Records at the Hugo Awards. N. K. Jemisin is the first and only person to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row, in 2016, 2017, and 2018.