INTERVIEW: How Anime Opened NK Jemisin’s Eyes (and Books) to Different Stories
“I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the Zeitgeist: We creators are the engineers of possibility. And as this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future, so will go the world.”
—NK Jemisin, during her third Hugo Award acceptance speech for Best Novel.
You can’t discuss sci-fi in the 21st century without naming NK Jemisin. The first author to win three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel (science fiction’s most prestigious accolade) Nora Jemisin’s works have been translated into 20 languages while gathering Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards—as well as movie rights for her Broken Earth trilogy (TriStar Pictures) and TV rights for The Great Cities (Walden Media)—along the way.
Yet before she wrote some of sci-fi and fantasy’s most celebrated modern works (including DC’s Green Lantern series, Far Sector), NK Jemisin was a lover of anime. Specifically, shojo: Tired of shonen’s grip on the late ‘90s causing a lack of access to other genres for Western fans, Jemisin co-founded Shoujocon in 2000, the “first and only convention in the world for fans of shoujo manga and anime”.
Crunchyroll spoke with Ms. Jemisin about Shoujocon, her anime roots and its influence on the narrative themes of (as she describes it) “resistance to oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up.”
[Note: NK Jemisin’s interview contains spoilers for Land of the Lustrous, the Broken Earth trilogy and the Great Cities duology.]
Crunchyroll: Thanks for speaking with us! You have some fans on the Crunchyroll team. What was your first introduction to anime (or manga)?
Jemisin: I have a very hazy memory of watching Astro Boy reruns and some kind of live-action version of Ambassador Magma. I must’ve been five or six. I don’t remember that well, though, so I’ll go with Robotech.
The giant sakura tree in shojo anime Magic User’s Club partially inspired the World Tree in Jemisin’s Broken Kingdoms trilogy.
Do you feel anime lends itself to any strengths in storytelling (e.g., worldbuilding, themes, etc.)?
Jemisin: Not really. Stories are stories, and I love all good stories regardless of format or genre. But it’s been useful to me to consider the ways in which culture impacts a story’s structure, and what stories get told. For example: I was already into space opera before I encountered Robotech, because I grew up on Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, things like that.
Robotech blew my mind, because I saw stuff there I’d never seen in American media up to that point. I saw heroes die, but the show kept going. I saw women warriors who weren’t scantily clad or incompetent. I saw an interracial romance—yeah, Star Trek had the first interracial kiss but it never went farther than that. Roy and Claudia were an actual, long-term, healthy relationship! So I watched more anime, including some Miyazaki, and there I saw unhappy-but-good endings. The heroes didn’t always win! The villains sometimes changed into heroes! I was used to the simplistic black-and-white, good-and-evil binary that’s so endemic in American stuff, and anime’s shades of gray pulled me out of that rut.
So I started paying attention to how other cultures told their stories—what interested them, what didn’t, what they considered scary or romantic or funny. I’ve listened to old Italian men spin a tale in a tavern; I’ve watched a storytelling contest for Navajo children; I’ve listened to a griot singing the story of Sundiata Keita; I’ve collected African-American tall tales from elderly relatives. So I guess I have anime to thank for opening my eyes to how many different kinds of stories there are in the world, and how amazing some of them can be.
In 2000 you co-founded and ran Shoujocon, self-described as the “first and only convention in the world for fans of shoujo manga and anime”. What was it like organizing a con for shojo fans?
Jemisin: Was it 2000? Good Lord, half my life ago.
It was exhilarating and exhausting. There’s something so exciting about working together as a group of (mostly) young people who wanted to see a thing happen and then poured all their enthusiasm into making it happen. It probably felt a lot like working in a startup—one with no money, lol. One of my besties, known as Katchan in the community, and I agreed to be co-founders because neither of us wanted to get stuck with all the work. But that didn’t happen, because once we figured out who were our core group of “reliables” and yeeted a couple of deadweights, people really worked their asses off.
The first con was small and chaotic but went great, and we made a small profit. The second was three times bigger; shocked the hell out of us but it also went great…I think. All I remember is the afterparty, the rest is a blur.
… More importantly, I think we achieved our overall goal. Shoujocon grew out of discussions between fans who felt frustrated and neglected by the “bro” culture that dominated anime fandom at that point. Most of the stuff being imported to the US back then was shounen or seinen (or hentai)—the preferences of middle-aged white dudes who just wanted fighting and fanservice. There was this whole other world of material that we just weren’t getting, so us fans had to DIY it. We formed fan-translation clubs for manga that no US publisher would touch because it was too “girly;” people routinely would travel to Japan and score doujinshi to sell Stateside, people were self-teaching and co-learning kanji/hanzi so they could attempt to read light novels…We were fans of color, queer fans, parents of little girls, old ladies who ran fanzines, non-Japanese Asian fans who wanted to spread the good word about manhwa and k-dramas, and even a few cishet white guys who just wanted something different.
Looking at the media landscape in English-speaking fandom today, and all the stuff that’s now readily accessible at places like Crunchyroll…I think we did it. Companies took notice of Shoujocon’s growth and success while it lasted, and the fact that we were getting good guests. Other cons took notice of some of our innovations, and people started asking for shoujo tracks at those cons…Anyway, I will 100% toot our own horn and say that I think Shoujocon was the start of a sea change in which people finally realized anime and manga were for everyone. Achievement unlocked.
Images from Shoujocon’s 2000 debut.
Is it true you funded that debut year selling fan-donated yaoi and shojo manga (Animal X, Bon Kuraaju!, Black Moon, etc.)?
Jemisin: I don’t remember the specific things we sold, because there were hundreds of auctions before it was all done. But yep, that’s how we funded it. We were all broke as hell—I was still in grad school at the start of it—so there was no individual investment. There was no Kickstarter back then, the internet was still the Wild Wild West. So we did…analog crowdfunding, for lack of better description? We had virtual meetings on IRC—commonplace now, not really a thing back then. We taught ourselves HTML and built websites and posted announcements in places like AOL and Usenet anime forms, asking people to donate their secondhand shoujo/yaoi/BL doujinshi, anime merch, manga, et cetera. That part was mostly Katchan.
Then they shipped it to me…and I sorted it, wrote descriptions, and put it up for auction on eBay. … That was a ridiculous amount of work—but the whole thing was a success. The auction itself helped to hype the uniqueness of shoujo and related material; lots of people got introduced to shoujo for the first time because of what we sold.
Did reading boys’ love & shojo manga influence any of your own characters’ relationships (e.g., Manny and Neek in The City We Became/The World We Make)?
Jemisin: Probably not. There weren’t a lot of Black people in BL/yaoi, and BL relationships don’t bear much resemblance to realistic relationships (to the degree that “realistic” applies to two people who magically embody the spirit of a city).
Fans have compared The Land of the Lustrous’ Gems (humanoids with bodies made from minerals/gemstones) to the stone eaters in the Broken Earth trilogy (humanoids with bodies made from a substance like marble or stone). How would you compare Phos’ metamorphosis in Land of the Lustrous to Essun becoming a stone eater in The Broken Earth series?
Jemisin: I did finally get a chance to watch the anime last year! Gorgeous. I loved it and started the manga not long ago. Only in the early volumes, so no spoilers, please.
I can see why people would compare them; you don’t get a lot of rock people in either Western SFF or manga. My first thought was actually “reminds me of Steven Universe.” It didn’t remind me of my own work at all. But then I’ve only seen “Phos’ metamorphosis” up to the point of the end of the anime, so…I don’t know? I’m a little nervous about the rest of the manga, now!
Your latest duology, The City We Became & The World We Make, hit a bit like watching shonen: Chapters often felt like mini-arcs focusing on a character or two with a battle/action sequence that resolved by chapter’s end. Was this an intentional mechanic, given the ensemble cast?
Jemisin: I was thinking of it more like a sentai show, actually, with a team coming together and forming a giant robot. (In this case the robot would be the city of New York.) I think the overall duology probably got influenced more by the Pacific Rim films than anything else—tho obviously those are influenced by kaiju movies and manga, as well as Lovecraft. The silliness of the Great Cities books might show some manga influence; my favorite sentai was Shinesman, a silly send-up of sentai that was basically “But what if they all worked in The Office?”
In the past you’ve expressed the desire to play with Clarke’s third law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) and its corollaries (systematized magic is indistinguishable from science). Whether it’s anime or novels, how much play do you feel creators have between explaining/not explaining their magic systems?
Jemisin: They have as much play as they choose to use. I wrote a whole trilogy (the Broken Earth books) that played with Clarke’s Law, but I still didn’t *explain* the magic because I don’t care about that. I’ve met creators who do care and pour a lot of energy into explaining their systems, or who even provide stats that people can use to create games and so on, and no shade on them. There’s plenty of room in the speculative mediascape for all kinds.
Rapid fire questions! Your top anime: Go.
Jemisin: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is always good, forever. Land of the Lustrous is gorgeous and thought-provoking but sadly there’s only one season. Finally got around to Madoka a decade after it ran; also gorgeous, and an excellent subversion of the mahou shoujo subgenre.
Apart from that, though, these days I’m just watching stuff to shut off my brain for a while, so I’m not sure I can really recommend any of it with a straight face. SPY x FAMILY is hilarious and sweet. Food Wars is very silly but fun. JUJUTSU KAISEN is very pretty, tho a bit mindless. At the urging of my niece and nephew I’ve gotten into My Hero Academia, and to my shock it has turned into an in-depth exploration of criminal justice and childhood trauma, wtf. I just started TRIGUN STAMPEDE and I like it so far, but I’ve only seen two eps. I don’t really watch much TV or film anymore.
What manga should everyone read?
Jemisin: Fullmetal Alchemist. Shounen, but written by a woman (Hiromu Arakawa, who pulls NO punches), and perfect for our current political moment. Also lots of fun.
Something you can’t write without (music, tea, poster with a dangling cat saying Hang in there, etc.)?
Jemisin: Music. Or just background noise in general; before COVID I used to write in coffeeshops.
You’re an avid gamer—what titles could you replay for eternity?
Jemisin: I don’t know about eternity, but my all-time faves right now include Journey, the Mass Effect trilogy, Dragon Age 2, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Outer Wilds, Control, and Shadow of the Colossus.
Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us!
David-Christopher Galhea is the Director of Editorial at Crunchyroll. He enjoys tea and quietly reading in the shadow realm. Twitter: @dch_galhea