This month we’ve got a story from one of my favorite current authors: N. K. Jemisin. I love nearly everything she does and, of her short work, Valedictorian (from Lightspeed) is one of my favorites.
What works so very well is Jemisin’s deft hand with the world building. She layers in hints at the speculative elements and the ways in which this his clearly not our world, but there’s also a glut of descriptions and moments that could very easily be lifted directly from a coming-of-age lit-fic story about a normal, mundane town.
She will be herself. No matter what.
For however brief a time.
These two lines from the opening section are a microcosm of how the world building is structured throughout the story. Lots of adolescents make those sorts of commitments to themselves. Our culture practically demands that either they make resolutions or actively reject making them (“Just say no!”) But an intrinsic implication of our rhetoric around adolescence is that of a long future, that the decisions and choices made will have far reaching impacts because the audience is young and their time is not brief. Something is off, though the nature of the something isn’t particularly constrained at this point.
Parents proposing that she get pregnant? Paying a fellow boy to help with that? That’s downright bizarre, though still doesn’t tell us, the audience, what makes their world different from ours. Rather than tell us, Jemisin dives into a description of a bright student in a mediocre school and nails it perfectly, without showing her hand.
But, and here’s part of the real craft of the story, there are clear hints that take on extra meaning with a second reading.
Zinhle’s mother is stubborn. This is where Zinhle herself gets the trait.
Old habits are hard to break, old fears are hard to shed, all that.
Many questions raised among very careful word choice, but no answers given.
We start to get some specific information in the next sequence which looks very much like the aftermath of a standard high school bullying scene. We find out there’s a wall people could have been shoved through. We find out that Zinhle is likely to be “taken away.” And the impression that the other students aren’t actually just being useless slackers comes through very clearly. What’s important here is that everything is still aggressively mundane. Zinhle isn’t thinking about whatever the wall is or what her future is likely to be; she’s focused on whether or not she’ll keep her tooth. This clearly isn’t our world in our here and now, yet it still feels comfortably like it is.
Then everything breaks open in the next scene. If you’re paying attention you’re realize this is the first scene where something actually happens. The first section is just exposition, the second a conversation that changes nothing, followed by more exposition and then the aftermath of a scene where something happened. Everything given to the reader up to the scene with Threnody is there entirely for the reader’s benefit. It’s part of a con Jemisin is pulling on the reader, convincing them that they’re reading a mundane setting about a very relatable girl with admirable principals. Where this story breaks from that is right here:
Then she remembers. The teachers never seem to notice her bruises. They encourage her because her success protects their favorites, and she is no one’s favorite.
This is the moment where Zinhle is demonstrably not a precocious teenager, but a wise one. And, because it is a break from form, it’s the first wedge of real criticism present in the story. Everything up to this moment was setup to make it clear that, yes, Zinhle’s world is bizarre, but it’s actually our world. That makes this rejection of Threnody’s revelations powerful because it’s not just a moment of character growth for Zinhle, but a model for the audience.
That done, Jemisin at last gives us the details of the world we’re watching. It could have come earlier, but it means more now, doesn’t it? We have all the reactions to this information laid out for us as we get to it. Also, this is where Jemisin starts delivering on some of her earlier word choices.
There’s more setup being done here, though. Before this section all we hear about is the danger of performing too well. But only one person is at risk of suffering the consequences for that. Meanwhile, ten percent of Zinhle’s peers are going to be culled for being the bottom performers. It explains why there’s such a cluster to the middle, but there’s also a lot of commentary packed into that. There’s no evidence that the bottom ten percent are bullied, only the person in contention for the top spot. Nobody wants to be part of the cull, but for some reason it’s worse or more frightening to be culled from the top than the bottom. That’s both irrational and a damning commentary on human psychology.
Speaking of human psychology, let’s take a really close look at what Jemisin does to signal Lemeul’s humanity and Zinhle picking up on it.
To her utter shock, he smiles.
He shakes his head and sits on the edge of the desk with his hands folded, abruptly looking not artificial at all, but annoyed. Tired.
The sudden vehemence in Lemuel’s voice catches Zinhle by surprise.
When he speaks, there’s remarkable compassion in his voice.
I’d characterize the overarching elements here as kindness and vulnerability. Neither on their own would, I think, have been sufficient but together they work. The vulnerability is interesting because it’s a way that Lemeul is the same as everybody Zinhle knows – even if they’re past the cull, they’re still at risk that their loved ones will be taken, and there’s a lot of work put into highlighting how small and close to obliteration her community is. For Zinhle, who clearly defines human as, “Like the people I’ve grown up with,” an absence of vulnerability would be a clear signal of inhumanity. For anybody wanting to dig deep into interpreting the commentary of the story, there would need to be a lot of exploration into whether that vulnerability was genuine, or merely a manipulative display from Lemeul.
The kindness is striking because it sets Lemeul apart from everybody else in the story. We see several incidents of people trying to be nice to Zinhle, but they fail because they fundamentally don’t understand or support her. It’s not just Threnody being a day late and a dollar short with her rage, but Zinhle’s parents urging her to get pregnant and her alleged friend accepting the gulf between them rather than trying to bridge it and join Zinhle. Lemeul is literally the first character in the story, aside from Zinhle, to have the conceptual space required for Zinhle to both make sense and be admirable. That can’t be faked – it is absolutely sincere from Lemeul – but it’s interesting that this ties into ZInhle’s acceptance of him rather than flagging him as strange.
The final two sections are, to me, what sets this story apart. I pointed out already how much of the story fills space without anything actually happening. With these final two sections we see that, actually, very little changed. Zinhle is going to the same ultimate fate at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her family, friend, and the other people have not changed in their understanding or acceptance of her. Her world isn’t going to change in any significant way.
What is different, though, is Zinhle’s understanding of that fate. She’s just as resolved, but now she actually knows what the consequences of that resolve will be. And while it has shaken some comfortable delusions she had that might have made it easier for her to tolerate her last three months there, it has also given her something to look forward to. Ultimately, this isn’t a story about a change either of character or world, and it’s not just a social critique piece either; it’s a single moment of compassion, delivered to a young girl, and given the context and space needed to understand why it was compassionate. Nobody is let off the hook and yet, there’s a remarkable amount of hope there at the end.