Eventually, I considered it the topic of death.
I could kill myself now, probably. This was not normally an easy thing for any god to do, as we are remarkably resilient beings. Even willing ourselves into nonexistence did not work for long; eventually, we would forget that we were supposed to be dead and start thinking again. Yeine could kill me, but I would never ask it of her. Some of my siblings, and Naha, could and would do it, because they understood that sometimes life is too much to bear. But I did not need them anymore. The past two nights’ events had verified what I’d already suspected: those things that had once merely weakened me before could kill me now. So if I could steel myself to the pain of it, I could die whenever I wished simply by continuing to contemplate antithetical thoughts until I became an old man, and then a corpse.
And perhaps it was even simpler than that. I needed to eat and drink and piss waste now. That meant I could starve,and thirst, and that my intestines and other organs were actually necessary. If I damaged them, they might not grow back.
What would be the most exciting way to commit suicide?
Because I did not want to die an old man. Kahl had gotten that much right. If I had to die, I would die as myself–as Sieh, the Trickster, if not the child. I had blazed bright in my life. What was wrong with blazing in death too?
Before I reached middle age, I decided. Surely I could think of something interesting by then.
–N. K. Jemisin. The Kingdom of Gods, Book 3: The Inheritance Trilogy (2014, p. 1036). Orbit/Hachette Book Group: New York.
Steph: Today’s guest is Mike, longtime friend, webmaster of my digital domains. Mike is an author and the publisher of Reckoning: Creative Writing on Environmental Justice. Welcome, Mike.
Mike: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Steph: It’s very exciting to have you and to talk about our reading today. What did you think about our reading?
Mike: I feel that I was less offended by being thrown into a contemplation of suicide than I might have been at other times in my life. The older we get the more the specter of death is a part of life, not to get all goth about it. I also think of it in the context of the one Nora Jemisin book I’ve read, which was not from this series, but the other one. What’s that title?
Steph: The Broken Earth?
Mike: The Broken Earth Trilogy. I found the view of humanity in that book to be cynical. This jived with that impression. In a way I was somewhat disappointed about, because I want Nora Jemisin to have a less cynical view of humanity, though I know it is not fair for me to expect that of her.
Steph: So there’s some cynicism coming. I have two thoughts right off the bat. One is that this episode might need a trigger warning because of the content. And I’m not sure about the cynicism, at least that may be a global discourse that we should look at more. This particular passage is about one of the gods, not the humans.
Mike: I totally didn’t catch that from the passage.
Steph: Right out of the gate, quote, “This was not normally an easy thing for any god to do, as we are remarkably resilient beings.” But what’s interesting, this is one of the gods reflecting on the possibility of their own mortality.
Mike: I wasn’t sure if I was to read that metaphorically. Fantasy being what it is, you can have a character who is a god in one setting and a regular person in another setting. I happen to be reading my kid The NeverEnding Story, in which for the second half, Bastian is basically the God of Fantastica.
Steph: The other names in here are also gods. But what struck me as I was rereading it is how much it is reflective of the human experience in relation to coming to grips with our own mortality.
Mike: I’m struck by the performative aspect of it, which I think is something that absolutely comes up among humans considering death and suicide. I don’t think it comes up to everyone.
Steph: When you say performative, tell me more about what you mean.
Mike: Well, he — is this a he? I think it is.
Steph: I think it’s a male, yes. Male god, Sieh.
Mike: So he wants to die deliberately and he’s considering who to ask. These, I presume, are people or gods with whom he is close. The choices strike me as having an inherent performative quality. If he’s a god, other people regard him as such and so his death is going to have meaning. Even if he’s not a god, if he’s just a person, death has meaning. Who you ask has meaning.
Steph: Yes. That’s good.
Mike: I have not been close enough to suicide in my life…I mean, I can get really dark. My neighbor shot himself in the face when I was in high school. He did not leave a note. I really don’t think that guy considered the consequences of his actions or the impact because it was terrible for everyone except him.
Steph: There have been a couple suicides that have been fairly close to me. A very brilliant deaf mathematician that I was an interpreter for, killed herself, and my sister-in-law’s brother killed himself. My assumption is, is that the state of being that a person is in to take that act is so despairing, they’re not able to comprehend what the impact is going to be on other people.
I hear what you’re saying about, I think, the performance in this excerpt, this passage of a god contemplating his own mortality is also to recognize, like he says, what would be the most exciting way to enact his own death. The excitement piece is where the performative part comes in, I think. What would be the way that would have the most impact? That’s part of his intention.
Mike: It’s these lines at the end, “If I had to die, I would die as myself, as Sieh, the Trickster, if not the child.” So that goes over my head. And obviously there’s some context in the pantheon as to what those roles represent. I think of Osiris, who was the sun, and also a god of wisdom. Gods played different roles to different adherents.
Steph: Would it be anthropomorphism to make a god like us? Because as I was reading it, I was thinking about processes in my own life and aging, and as you said, we think of things differently the older that we get. Things that weren’t on our register before, or they change in their importance or significance. I think of youth not thinking that we’ll ever die, and the things that we undertake not knowing there’s risk or not having a conception of how that will play out over time.
And then coming to that point of it really is about the body, and that this god in this story has become weakened, whatever way, that he’s now vulnerable to the things that mere mortals are vulnerable to; that he could starve himself to death, that he could die of dehydration, that the organs that he’s through the powers of being a god has never had to worry about before because they could easily be replaced or regrown or whatever, now. It’s the regenerative capacity of his godhood that has passed, but then he’s also trying to take agency in that event.
Mike: It strikes me that this is different from the way an alive person in the world could contemplate their own death. Because again, as you say, if you’re thinking suicidal thoughts, maybe you’re not thinking clearly and you’re having a hard time considering what could come after. I totally understand that. But even if you’re not, if you’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer, having lived through that recently with a couple of my relatives, I imagined that a lot of what they were thinking about was the social expectations of grief and of the anticipation of grief.
So maybe people think this way, but they don’t articulate it to the people around them, I would think. Unless they have someone that they have an incredible trust in to not freak out. What is the best way for me to die? Well, you’re already thinking about something that humans mostly shy away from. I’m trying not to, now. Because of these deaths that I have seen in my life, I’m trying to think according to a conventional wisdom that I’ve heard: death is part of life. It’s a thing that happens in your life.
You’re born, and that’s a process everyone goes through. You go through puberty, which is a process most people go through. There are these milestones, and death is one of them that just doesn’t have anything on the other side. So I try to think of it that way, but I don’t talk to a lot of people, frankly, about thinking of it that way. I think because there’s this… taboo is not the right word, but —
Steph: There’s social practice.
Steph: That’s fabulous. I mean, I can bring in this concept of structures of interaction now and say we’re in a culture, and it may be different in other cultures, but we’re definitely in a mainstream culture in the United States where death is not an open topic. And the contemplation of how one might die, when, where, with or without control of the circumstances, with or without intention as to whether it’s a meaningful death, whether it’s a death that serves a purpose, or if it’s just the natural death that occurs in a life.
The articulation of this passage, if I think about a structure of interaction, is there’s an individual, in this case the god Sieh, who’s verbalizing, putting into language some thoughts about mortality and the inevitability of death, and what is the usefulness of dying, what could be? That counters the typical ways or discourses that we use to talk about death and dying, whether it’s intentional through suicide or through natural means like disease and old age, or it could be violence. There’s a lot of ways and they all interact with each other.
Mike: I’m thinking about this as a writer and a reader. One of the things that’s afforded by having the ability to contemplate this whole other setting where rules may or may not apply: the human condition may or may not apply from the perspective of a god, death means something different. I think that’s what we’re seeing in this passage; it enables him to think of it not exactly objectively, but with a calm that humans don’t generally employ when talking about death to each other.
That immediately makes me wonder how the author is approaching this idea. Did she say, “I’m speaking in the voice of a god, it allows me to step back,” or is this something that Nora Jemisin herself–and I hate assigning agency to an author like that, but it’s fun to talk about nonetheless–is this an aspect of how she thinks about death?
Steph: Well, it goes to the opening comment you made about feeling a sense of cynicism. It’s actually triggering in my mind, having just watched the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. If in fact all versions of reality are possible, or even all versions of reality are playing out, then the move to, “it doesn’t matter, let’s just be cynical”, is one option. The other move is, “yes, and because that’s the case in the circumstance of the life that we’re in, we need to do everything we can to endow meaning.”
Mike: Here’s a take that addresses the, possibly, if I understand it correctly, addresses the structure of interaction as we’re talking about it here. How dare you subject me to such a short excerpt and make me try and interpret it this way. You were like, “Don’t bother reading the whole book. This isn’t that kind of podcast.” And I’m like, “But how can I understand the author’s intent and the full roundness of her meaning without the rest of the setup for what gods are in this world?” I mean, perhaps this is your intention with the removal from context. You want to talk about the disconnects.
Steph: That’s right. Things are always fractured, and in our interactions with each other, we’re always only getting a piece. And from that piece, if we think of it holographically, it’s all there, but do we clue into the pieces that give us the wholeness, or do we just extract a few things that support whatever worldview we’re already coming from, or reinforce a stereotype. Can we take these partial bits and open them up?
Because that’s how human communication works. We misunderstand each other or miss the meaning that was hoped for and have to co-create it again together. I want the reflection of these other voices and how we interact with them to be the focal point of coming to understand the structures of interaction that we all are already operating within.
Mike: That seems like it could be a good ending.
Steph: Thanks so much for being with us today, Mike. Are you sure you don’t want to say something about Reckoning?
Mike: Reckoning is amazing. What can I say about it? It is a diverse collection of voices that you likely have not heard these kinds of voices all in one place, and they’re all talking about environmental justice, which in my opinion is the primary struggle of our times. There’s some speculative writing in there and some mimetic writing. They all jumble together in a way that I hope provokes new ideas. I hope you go check it out.
Steph: I encourage everybody too as well. Thank you, Mike, for joining us today.
Mike: Thank you for having me. It was great fun.
This short reading of an excerpt from N. K. Jemisin’s The Kingdom of Gods (starting on p. 1036) was originally published on the Structures of Interaction podcast on July 20, 2019. The conversation about the reading with Guest Michael J. Deluca was recorded on February 13, 2023.
Michael J. DeLuca is the publisher of Reckoning, a nonprofit journal of creative writing on environmental justice. He’s also involved with the indie ebookstore Weightless Books. His novella, Night Roll, was a finalist for the Crawford Award in 2020. A novel, The Jaguar Mask, is forthcoming from Stelliform Press in 2024. He lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with partner, kid, cats, plants and microbes.
Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.
Transcript by Esther Wokabi.
Shownotes and Transcript are published at www.reflexivity.us.