The City We Became - N. K. Jesmin Review
By Divyansha Sehgal
If you’ve ever been to big cities, you know that they’re places with their own rules and idiosyncrasies. That no two of them are exactly alike – no matter how hard multinational fast food chains might try. (Looking at you Maharaja Mac.)
The City We Became is a book that runs on the same basic principle. That every city has a soul. And once a city grows old enough and unique enough to have its own character, it is born as a living breathing entity with a literal personalization – a person who represents the new city. At least that’s how it’s usually supposed to go.
Here though, New York City is dependably unusual and something goes wrong during its birth. She got five avatars, one for each borough, and the plot ensues.
At its surface, The City We Became is a standard quest story – get the band together, figure out the objective and then do your absolute best to attain it. This book is so much more than that! Jemisin’s New York City is predominantly Black, brown, female and poor, and I am here for All. Of. It.
So instead of focusing on the boardrooms, the corner offices, the nightclubs and brunch spots Jemisin shows off the music, the art, the graffiti and the subways. She centers history and the people that the city has exploited in addition to the money and power New York is already famous for.
This book is not a typical “New Yorkers come together in time of crisis” story (though there is a tiny bit of that), it is instead a homage to the differences in experiences that exist in New York City with its wide range of race and class disparity. While some generalization is necessary for a single person to represent a borough, the story is essentially an acknowledgement of the fact that the same experiences cannot be ascribed to vastly different people even if they happen to live in the same city.
Jemisin has lived in New York City for over a decade and this book is a love letter to the city she knows and cherishes. It is also a book for the New York of 2020. I first read this during the peak of the COVID lockdowns in the city, when everyone who could afford to leave the city did and Manhattan was a ghost town. When the hospitals were at overcapacity, the grocery store workers and nurses overworked, and armies of delivery people were risking their lives to keep the city running. When we were cheering for essential workers at 7pm and using our fire escapes as our backyards.
I loved this book instantly because Jemisin tells the story of that New York.
Contrary to what the recent spate of “New York Is Dead” think pieces would have you believe, Jemisin’s New York is alive and well even if the corporates have fled to the suburbs. Jemisin acknowledges the glitz and the glam, the bright flashing lights that draw millions to this city. But she goes further and shows you exactly why they stay. She shows you a city that was home to the Stonewall protests and one that has been rising up for BLM and Breonna Taylor.
The book has all the old adages that I expected going into a New York City narrative. The ‘money talks and bullshit walks’ of Manhattan, the Bronx’s ‘don’t trust no one’ attitude, the immigrant struggle of Queens and the stubbornness of Brooklyn are all well-known cliches. In the hands of the characters, these cliches turn delightfully powerful.
As a current resident of this great city, I delighted at every place and behavior I recognized, at seeing every emotion so perfectly characterized. If you let it, this book can serve as a guide to New York City, not just the glitzy tourist spots. Almost every place name I came across is a place you can find on the map.
Another thing I enjoyed a lot about this book was the representation of the Indian character. I wasn’t expecting an Indian character to show up in the first place because American literature by non-Indian authors doesn’t usually recognize us, and when it does, it’s usually as a punchline of a joke around accents or food. So I read most of that introductory chapter with bated breath, preparing myself to ignore whatever insulting stereotype was going to come my way.
It didn’t. It actually didn’t!
I let go of an invisible weight when the book ended and I realized that there was nothing offhandedly derogatory that was said about her. She was just another person in a wonderful cast of complicated characters.
And that is when I think I truly appreciated what a gift this book is. Jemisin held each and every one of her characters with love and empathy. She treated every part of the city with care and presented the truth as she sees it in the form of this book. She’s done a truly amazing amount of research for this book and even hired sensitivity readers to make sure she got everything right to the best of her abilities.
I want all authors to take note here, because it turns out it is possible to not be accidentally racist and unintentionally insulting in the media that you produce. You just need to care about all of your readers. It came as a lesson for me to demand more out of the books that I read. That I don’t have to settle for being ignored or minimized just because someone decided to publish the damn book.