The Rhetoric of N.K. Jemisin’s Wiscon Guest of Honor Speech

It’s no secret that I’m a huge, giant, slobbery fan of N.K. Jemisin.  I’m such a huge fan that I usually get about two sentences in to describing how much I like everything she does and want more from her before a voice that sounds distressingly like Neil Gaiman pops up in the back of my head and goes, “Now, now.  Nora Jemisin is not your bitch.”  And then I whine at the voice and go, “But she’s so good!  Surely I’m entitled to demand more of the good stuff from her.”  The voice is so very polite, and so endearingly English that I bite my tongue and whoever I was talking to wonders why I started stuttering mid-sentence. This is a thing I share so you can guess at some of what was going on in my brain when I approached her the day after her guest of honor speech to ask whether she’d be okay with me analyzing her speech at the rhetorical level.  It was important to me that I ask since 1) Analyzing the rhetoric could be seen as being dismissive of the very important and worthy content 2) I know enough writers to know they trend toward neurosis and having somebody examine how their sausage is made could in some small way contribute to her writing or arguing less which is the opposite of what I’d want and 3) It’s polite and given that she was right there, was easy to do. Things I learned from asking her if she’d mind: 1) No, she doesn’t mind 2) It’s really hard to communicate coherently when you’re having loud arguments with phantom Neil Gaiman in your brain about where the line between gushing fangirl and creepy-entitled-fan is and 3) She probably actually has no idea that I’m the person who wrote a review of her book that consisted mostly of, “I want to eat her liver.”  I’m pretty sure I’m still going to have to answer for that someday. At any rate, I have her blessing, and the rhetoric in that speech is very cool, so here goes the analysis.  The whole speech is here, and you should go there to read it.  I’m going to quote it here extensively, but it’s better if you go read the whole thing on its own, first.

I’m tempted to just stop there, drop the mic, and walk offstage, point made. Chip’s a hard act to follow.

This is the first moment of rhetorical greatness in the speech.  One, it’s a really evocative image.  She doesn’t have to literally walk of the stage to borrow the impact of doing just that, which nicely lures the audience in.  We’re invested in listening to what she says from this point, because she didn’t just walk away, point made.  She’s taking the time to share more, and we want to hear what it is.  But it’s also very generous to the audience, crediting them with knowing and understanding exactly why should could just stop there and walk off.  It’s a signal that she’s assuming we’re peers.  The subtext is very “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” in nature.  Given where the speech goes, building this relationship with the audience is critical.

Like Chip said, this stuff has always been here. It’s just more intense, and more violent, now that the bigots feel threatened.

And it is still here. I’ve come to realize just how premature I was in calling for a reconciliation in the SFF genres last year, when I gave my Guest of Honor speech at the 9th Continuum convention in Australia.

There’s a ton going on here.  One, we’re tying the current situation back to the past, while invoking the authority of somebody external.  That gives legitimacy to the points we’re making about the current situation while bolstering the authority of the peopple we’re citing.  Then we follow that bolstering of authority up with a confession of error.  This is really neat because, set up this way, admitting the error becomes a means of reclaiming a position of strength in the rhetorical space.  You’re swapping out the current, weak position for a new one which as of this moment us unknown but untainted and therefore potentially stronger.  This is what many bad apologies try to do, and they fail becuase that’s the wrong place for this technique.  In a badass call-to-arms, however, it’s great, especially since minor admissions of error are humanizing and endearing, making the speech-giver somebody the crowd is more inclined to follow.

During the month or so that it took SFWA to figure out what it wanted to do with this guy, a SFWA officer sat on the formal complaint I’d submitted because she thought I had “sent it in anger” and that I might not be aware of the consequences of sending something like that to the Board.

The whole paragraph is a beautiful bit of summary, letting the audience know context and history in case they don’t with enough commentary that it’s not a straight-up “As you know, Bob.”  That’s important since it would undermine the assumption of peer-ness established early on and risk being patronizing.  It also does a fantastic job of drawing clear lines between the us and them.  I call out this specific sentence from the whole paragraph because it strikes me as the meatiest.  Before this sentence, the facts could be read as ones of the system working: bigot misbehaves, bigot gets punished, why are y’all upset?  This line torpedoes that possible interpretation while also drawing attention to the fact that while she’s not patronizing us, they patronized her rather ferociously.  The ironic tone taken in the whole paragraph gives “sent it in anger” an extra bite.  Of course she sent it in anger – she’s angry, and behavior like this is exactly why.  That extra bit isn’t something an audience is likely to be consciously aware of, but it gives some extra depth and stimulus for them to hang on to and keeps them engaged and listening.

But I suspect every person in this room who isn’t a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of “you don’t belong here”.

This is straight-up “my problems are your problems, and your problems are my problems.”  Peer-group building.  “Us” reinforcement.  She just co-opted everybody who isn’t a straight white male into her cause.  The “aggressions micor and macro” part is especially critical since it gives permission to everybody who hasn’t received death and rape threats to feel like they belong in that group.  Me, I was doing the, “Er, not really?” until that line.  After that line, well, all the stories I could share are fundamentally boring, but there are plenty.

(Incidentally: Mr. Various Diseases, Mr. Civility, and Misters and Misses Free Speech At All Costs, if you represent the civilization to which I’m supposed to aspire then I am all savage, and damned proud of it. You may collectively kiss my black ass.)

And here, gentlefolk, is the line where I went, “Oh hells yes, am I need to go blog the rhetoric in this speech RIGHT THIS VERy SECOND.”  This line is brilliance laced with crack.

1) It reclaims rhetoric used against her, turns it around, and makes it a bludgeon for counter-attack. Suddenly “half-savage” is so mincing and weak.  It’s a variant on the trick used with the admission of error earlier, but with an added layer of pulling the rung out from under the “them.”  Intead of switching positions from weak to strong, it recharacterizes the position she’s in.

2) You-my constructions reinforce the us-them dynamic she’s building.  Not all speeches need an us-them dynamic, but all calls-to-arms do, and the success of said call depends on how well the lines around us and them are drawn.

3) “Kiss my black ass,” is a cultural cliche.  Everybody, including Hollywood, knows that a mouthy, defiant black American is willing to whip out this particular invitation as needed.  It’s an ethnic middle finger.  Using it here reinforces the power of “all savage.”  It’s an assertion of the ethnic and racial tones, a claiming of ownership over them, and an aggressive declaration that they are, in fact, a strength.  And since she’s drawn her us-them lines very effectively up to here, everybody in the room gets to share in the power of that assertion, whether or not they’re in posession of a black ass to be kissed.

(I don’t even need to name a specific example of this; it’s happened too often, to too many people.)

Nice reinforcement of us-them.  It gives the audience permission to not know exactly what she’s talking about after she’s gone through a long list of things that anybody following closely could tie to this or that specific event.  It’s okay that you aren’t following closely – it’s ubiquitous, we all  know that, we’re a team, let’s move along.

Yeine, the protagonist of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, was almost a white man because I listened to some of what these people were saying.

The objective brilliance of this particular line is questionable, but it gut-punched me.  That would have ruined that book, and the thought that it nearly happened fills me with a sort of existential terror that has brain-Gaiman sighing in polite exasperation.  I suspect anybody who loves this book correctly, that is to say the way I love this book, would feel the same way.  Anybody else, this is a wasted line.  But her audience was a convention where she was Guest of Honor – it’s a pretty safe place to make a gamble like this.

For the first time in my life I was diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier this year. It’s back down to normal, now, but bigotry kills, you know.

Our second admission of weakness, a pause in the rising rhetoric of power-claiming.  We’re humanizing again, putting an intimate, tangible face on the violence and consequences of the violence referenced in summary and abstraction so far.  We’re all in this together, we’re all cheering for our speech giver, and look at the sacrifices she’s already made, the personal, specific damage already wrought.  This is critical, because it sets up the need for assistance that justifies the call to arms.

So. If they think we are a threat? Let’s give them a threat. They want to call us savages? Let’s show them exactly what that means.

And from here on we’re in a tumbling, climactic, super-empowering call-to-arms.  There’s no weakness here.  It’s all assertion and instruction. It’s a claim of ability supported by concrete guidelines for how to execute it.  This is where she cashes in on the setup of the earlier speech.  This is where she closes the loops she openened earlier, ties up her loose ends, justifies staying on the stage even though she could have just dropped the mic and walked away.

Fucking fight.

Short, sweet, to the point.  Yes, ma’am.

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