The major structural conceit of The Fifth Season is that the protagonist is initially presented as three different characters, each with her own plotline, and only towards the novel’s end is it made explicitly clear that all three characters are actually the same person—Damaya as a young girl, Syenite as a young woman in her twenties, and Essun as a woman in her forties. She takes these new names after experiencing a major traumatic life change, as she essentially tries to assume a new identity and become a different person to leave behind the pain of the past. While Essun might choose her own new names, however, she also has other identities thrust upon her from the outside as an orogene and as a member of the Stillness’s system of use-castes, and she cannot ever really escape these “names” or aspects of her identity. Her own new names are a form of self-actualization, but her identity as an orogene is used to oppress her. Through the protagonist’s character, then, the novel suggests that identity is a fluid concept—that a self is made up of many experiences and labels, and that many of these can be used for either dehumanization or empowerment.
On one hand, identity and naming can be used as a means of pigeonholing and prejudice—literally pre-judging someone based on a stereotype of their identity. In The Fifth Season this mostly occurs regarding orogenes, who are almost universally discriminated against throughout the Stillness. Notably, the moment that a person is discovered to possess orogenic power, they are no longer even labeled as a human being. They are now an orogene, a “rogga”—an offensive but very common slur for orogene—and even their entire past identity and whatever relationships they might have had previously are affected by this change in public identity. In Allia, Syenite tries to argue with the bureaucrat Asael that she and Alabaster deserve polite and respectful treatment just like anyone else, and in the heat of the moment Asael finally blurts out, “but you’re a rogga.” Though Asael had previously been hiding her prejudice behind a thin veneer of politeness, her use of the slur shows how she really feels—that Syenite and Alabaster are not human at all, but just “roggas.”
However, this concept of identity as pigeonholing is more fluid when it can be co-opted by the very people being stereotyped and instead used for their own empowerment. As is the case with many targeted groups in the real world, some orogenes try to reclaim the word “rogga” as something positive, embracing the identity that the world has thrust upon them. The most notable example of this is Ykka, the leader of the nontraditional comm of Castrima, taking “Rogga” as her public use-caste name, refusing to hide who she is but also attempting to take the pain out of the word itself by making it a self-chosen name. Alabaster also uses the word rogga instead of orogene, but for different reasons than Ykka does. Alabaster doesn’t use the slur to reclaim it for his own empowerment, but rather as a despairing reflection of the harshness of reality. After Alabaster shows Syenite what the node maintainers really are—his own lobotomized children—he makes it clear to her that to those in power, all orogenes are nothing more than slaves and weapons, no matter how highly ranked or superficially celebrated they might be. Upon fully realizing this, Syenite feels that “there’s no point in dressing up what people like Syenite and Alabaster really are,” and that calling them orogenes is an insult when they are really treated like roggas. As a symbol of one kind of identity, names like “rogga” change depending on the context of their use.
Any person has a core self, the novel suggests, but it is fluid and made up of many parts—and for The Fifth Season’s protagonist, this means many personal names. She is born as Damaya Strongback, the name that her parents gave her and the use-caste that she was born into, an identity that she has no control over. After almost dying at the hands of a Guardian and passing her first Fulcrum ring test to save her own life, she chooses the name of Syenite (as Fulcrum orogenes take the names of minerals), a new identity that she is able to decide for herself to a certain degree. She has experienced great trauma and wants to leave behind the Damaya that she sees as naïve and weak, but her new name Syenite also means that she has at least temporarily decided to go along with the Fulcrum’s way of life, to strive to excel within the very system that oppresses orogenes. Finally, after the Guardian attack on Meov and the death of her son Corundum, Syenite wanders the Stillness until she assumes a new identity as Essun, of the Resistant use-caste. This last identity is wholly self-constructed, but it also means hiding a crucial part of her true self: her orogeny. None of these identities make up the whole of the protagonist’s self, the novel suggests—she contains Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, but also the experiences that bind these identities and that led her to change names in the first place. Ultimately, Jemisin paints a picture of her protagonist as a complete and complex woman, and shows the many ever-changing aspects of her identity: the categories that the world places upon her, her own chosen names and labels, and the sum of all her experiences.
Identity and Naming ThemeTracker
Identity and Naming Quotes in The Fifth Season
And then he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection. His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. […]
So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits.
Lastly, he reaches up. For power.
He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.
Then he breaks it.
If the problem is that ferals are not predictable…well, orogenes have to prove themselves reliable. The Fulcrum has a reputation to maintain; that’s part of this. So’s the training, and the uniform, and the endless rules they must follow, but the breeding is part of it too, or why is she here?
It's somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation.
But this is what it means to be civilized—doing what her betters say she should, for the ostensible good of all. […] With the experience and boost to her reputation, she’ll be that much closer to her fifth ring. That means her own apartment; no more roommates. Better missions, longer leave, more say in her own life. That’s worth it. Earthfire yes, it’s worth it.
She tells herself this all the way back to her room. Then she packs to leave, tidies up so she’ll come home to order and neatness, and takes a shower, methodically scrubbing every bit of flesh she can reach until her skin burns.
“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”
Because everyone’s starting to realize what the shake and the redglow and the clouded sky all mean, and to be on the outside of a community’s gates at a time like this is—in the long run—a death sentence, except for a handful who are willing to become brutal enough or depraved enough to do what they must. Even those only have a chance at survival.
None of the people at the roadhouse wanted to believe they had that in them, you saw as you looked around, assessing faces and clothes and bodies and threats.
“Never say no to me,” he says. The words are hot against her skin. He has bent to murmur them into her ear. “Orogenes have no right to say no. I am your Guardian. I will break every bone in your hand, every bone in your body, if I deem it necessary to make the world safe from you.”
“I have to do what you say or you’ll hurt me.”
She closes her eyes tighter. In dreams, that makes the bad creatures go away.
“And,” she adds, “you’ll hurt me even when I do obey. If you think you should.”
“Yes.” She can actually hear his smile. He nudges a stray braid away from her cheek, letting the backs of his fingers brush her skin. “What I do is not random, Damaya. It’s about control. Give me no reason to doubt yours, and I will never hurt you again. Do you understand?”
He’s not just small but stocky, as if his people are built for a different kind of sturdiness than the ideal that Old Sanze has spent millennia cultivating. Maybe his race are all this white, then, whoever they are.
But none of this makes sense. Every race in the world these days is part Sanzed. They did rule the Stillness for centuries, after all, and they continue to do so in many ways. And they weren’t always peaceful about it, so even the most insular races bear the Sanzed stamp whether their ancestors wanted the admixture or not. Everyone is measured by their standard deviations from the Sanzed mean.
“They kill us because they’ve got stonelore telling them at every turn that we’re born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.”
“Yes, but you can’t change stonelore.”
“Stonelore changes all the time, Syenite.” He doesn’t say her name often, either. It gets her attention. “Every civilization adds to it; parts that don’t matter to the people of the time are forgotten. There’s a reason Tablet Two is so damaged: someone, somewhere back in time, decided that it wasn’t important or was wrong, and didn’t bother to take care of it. Or maybe they even deliberately tried to obliterate it, which is why so many of the early copies are damaged in exactly the same way.”
“You think you matter?” All at once he smiles. It’s an ugly thing, cold as the vapor that curls off ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.” He jerks his head toward the body of the abused, murdered child. “You think he mattered, after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.”
She has never heard so much hate put into one word before.
Alabaster smiles, though the muscles of his jaw flex repeatedly. “I would’ve thought you’d like being treated like a human being for a change.”
“I do. But what difference does it make? Even if you pull rank now, it won’t change how they feel about us—”
“No, it won’t. And I don’t care how they feel. They don’t have to rusting like us. What matters is what they do.”
You think, maybe, you need to be someone else.
You’re not sure who. Previous yous have been stronger and colder, or warmer and weaker; either set of qualities is better suited to getting you through the mess you’re in. Right now you’re cold and weak, and that helps no one.
You could become someone new, maybe. You’ve done that before; it’s surprisingly easy. A new name, a new focus, then try on the sleeves and slacks of a new personality to find the perfect fit. A few days and you’ll feel like you’ve never been anyone else.
But. Only one you is Nassun’s mother. That’s what’s forestalled you so far, and ultimately it’s the deciding factor. At the end of all this, when Jija is dead and it’s finally safe to mourn your son…if she still lives, Nassun will need the mother she’s known all her life.
You are representatives of us all, the instructors say, if any grit dares to protest this treatment. When you’re dirty, all orogenes are dirty. When you’re lazy, we’re all lazy. We hurt you so you’ll do the rest of us no harm.
Once Damaya would have protested the unfairness of such judgments. The children of the Fulcrum are all different: different ages, different colors, different shapes. […] One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.
But Damaya understands now that the world is not fair. They are orogenes, the Misalems of the world, born cursed and terrible. This is what is necessary to make them safe.
What Damaya sees in them is something she does not understand at first, though she wants it with a desperation that surprises and unnerves her. As those first weeks pass into months and she grows familiar with the routine, she begins to understand what it is that the older orogenes display: control. They have mastered their power. […]
If to achieve this Damaya must endure a few broken bones, or a few years in a place where no one loves her or even likes her, that is a small price to pay.
“What do you want? An apology? Then I apologize. You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be…uncomfortable?”
“Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.’”
“You’re a rogga,” Asael snaps, and then has the gall to look surprised at herself.
“Well.” Syenite makes herself smile. “At least that’s out in the open.”
The young man has a sash around his waist that is soft and peach colored and there solely for decoration, as far as you can tell.
Except it’s not really decoration. You notice how they look at you when you walk up: a sweep of the eyes, an inspection of your wrists or neck or ankles, a frown as you are found wanting. The impractical cloth has one very practical use: It is the marker of a new tribe in the process of being born. A tribe to which you do not belong.
She scrambles backward again, tries to get to her feet again, tries again to reach for power, and fails in all three efforts. Even if she could succeed, though—he’s a Guardian. It’s her duty to obey. It’s her duty to die, if he wills it.
This is not right.
“You need not understand,” he says, with perfect kindness. “You need do only one thing.” And then he lunges, aiming the poniard at her chest.
You’ve always known better. How dare you expect anything else? You’re just another filthy, rusty-souled rogga, just another agent of the Evil Earth, just another mistake of sensible breeding practices, just another mislaid tool. You should never have had children in the first place, and you shouldn’t have expected to keep them once you did […]
There’re so many ways to die in this place. But they know about all of them—seriously—and as far as I can tell, they don’t care. At least they’ll die free, they say.”
“Free of what? Living?”
“Sanze.” Alabaster grins when Syen’s mouth falls open.
(Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.)
He does understand. She bites her lip and feels fresh tears threaten. It isn’t right that she loves him, but many things in the world are not right. So she fights off the tears, and makes her decision. Crying is weakness. Crying was a thing Damaya did. Syenite will be stronger.
“I’ll do it,” Syenite says, softly. “I’ll pass the test for you, Schaffa. I promise.”
“My good girl,” Schaffa says, and smiles, holding her close.
And what do they even call this? It’s not a threesome, or a love triangle. It’s a two-and-a-half-some, an affection dihedron. (And, well, maybe it’s love.) She should worry about another pregnancy, maybe from Alabaster again given how messy things get between the three of them, but she can’t bring herself to worry because it doesn’t matter. Someone will love her children no matter what. Just as she doesn’t think overmuch about what she does with her bed time or how this thing between them works; no one in Meov will care, no matter what. That’s another turn-on, probably: the utter lack of fear. Imagine that.
“Heh.” Innon sounds odd, and Syenite glances at him in surprise to see an almost regretful look on his face. “Sometimes, when I see what you and he can do, I wish I had gone to this Fulcrum of yours.”
“No, you don’t.” She doesn’t even want to think about what he would be like if he had grown up in captivity with the rest of them. Innon, but without his booming laugh or vivacious hedonism or cheerful confidence. Innon, with his graceful strong hands weaker and clumsier for having been broken. Not Innon.
“All the accounts differ on the details, but they agree on one thing: Misalem was the only survivor when his family was taken in a raid. Supposedly his children were slaughtered for Anafumeth’s own table, though I suspect that’s a bit of dramatic embellishment.” Alabaster sighs. “Regardless, they died, and it was Anafumeth’s fault, and he wanted Anafumeth dead for it. Like any man would.”
But a rogga is not any man. Roggas have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love. For his presumption, Shemshena had killed him—and became a hero for doing it.
“Freedom means we get to control what we do now. No one else.”
“Yes. But now that I can think about what I want…” He shrugs as if nonchalant, but there’s an intensity in his gaze at he looks at Innon and Coru. “I’ve never wanted much from life. Just to be able to live it, really. I’m not like you, Syen. I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t want to change the world, or help people, or be anything great. I just want…this.”
Promise, Alabaster had said.
Do whatever you have to, Innon had tried to say.
And Syenite says: “No, you fucker.”
Coru is crying. She puts her hand over his mouth and nose, to silence him, to comfort him. She will keep him safe. She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom.
Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave.
Better that he die.
Better that she die. Alabaster will hate her for this, for leaving him alone, but Alabaster is not here, and survival is not the same thing as living.
“After Meov. I was…” You’re not sure how to say it. There are griefs too deep to be borne, and yet you have borne them again and again. “I needed to be different.”
It makes no sense. Alabaster makes a soft affirmative sound, though, as if he understands. “You stayed free, at least.”
If hiding everything you are is free. “Yes.”
“I understand why you killed Corundum,” Alabaster says, very softly. And then, while you sway in your crouch, literally reeling from the blow of that sentence, he finishes you. “But I’ll never forgive you for doing it.”