Ballerina Book Club: Discussion questions for N. K. Jemisin’s ‘The City We Became’

Ballerina Book Club: Discussion questions for N. K. Jemisin’s ‘The City We Became’

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Let’s discuss N. K. Jemisin’s “The City We Became,” this month’s book club pick

Aug. 27

“We’re New York. Welcome to the party.” – N. K. Jemisin, “The City We Became”

This week marks the close of our time with “The City We Became,” and we hope that you enjoyed the reading journey. If you missed our live discussion of the book on Instagram, you can catch up in the post above.

We certainly don’t want to give way to spoilers if you haven’t quite wrapped up the final chapters, so we will leave with two questions: How do you feel about the way the boroughs (plus a friend) came together in the end? What do you think we can expect from the next two books in the trilogy?

Be sure to read through our discussion questions from the previous chapters below and be on the lookout for our September Ballerina Book Club pick, which we’ll announce next week.

Aug. 20

Updates for chapters 7 through 10: We finally met the avatar for Queens, Padmini. As we quickly learn, she’s a math genius who uses her skills at a tremendous scale. After a nasty run-in with the Enemy (we might never swim in NYC again), Padmini is found by Manny and Brooklyn, uniting three out of five of the borough avatars. As we get to know the characters, we see how they need each other to survive. Still, the question remains: Will they actually come together? (Based on Aislyn’s chapters, we aren’t placing our bets just yet.)

Aug. 13

Updates for chapters 1 through 6 (plus the prologue): As we enter into the second week of August, one thing is on our minds at Ballerina Book Club: the first six chapters (plus the prologue) of N. K. Jemisin’s “The City We Became.” A lot has happened since we last left off. Not only has New York City gone through a tumultuous birth (more on that later), but it has started to awaken into its own while its young avatar (the literal embodiment of the city) remains vanished. The first six chapters of the book introduce us to four of the five remaining avatars, who each have their own run-ins with the book’s villain, the Woman in White.

Discussion questions:

  •  As the city’s primary avatar begins to understand his role in bringing the city to life, he starts spraypainting “breathing holes” across the city. Consider the passage:

There’s a soft, strange sound as I lay down the last streak of black. I pause and look around, confused for a moment — and then the throat sighs behind me. A big, heavy gust of moist air tickles the hairs on my skin. I’m not scared. This is why I did it, though I didn’t realize that when I started. Not sure how I know now. But when I turn back, it’s still just paint on a rooftop.

What role does art — particularly graffiti — play in bringing the city to life in the book? How does that overlap with the city you know? And, finally, how does this scene differ from the sinister art we encounter with the Bronx avatar later in the book?

  •  A line appears between what constitutes an authentic New Yorker and a tourist, but it’s not necessarily drawn by where you were born. How does the book establish what makes a New Yorker? And what makes the city “real”?
  •  New York City isn’t the first (nor will it be the last) municipal to come to life or the first to struggle with the process. What other cities can you imagine taking on an autonomous form?
  • In the first chapter, we meet Manny, the avatar for Manhattan. He has a terrible time remembering who he was before he arrived in the city. His memory loss arrives in dashed bursts until he seems to accept that he is “new.” How does belonging and identity come to form Manny and the other avatars?
  • What role does color play in creating the rules and delineation of good vs. evil in the book’s world? How does it overlap with our own realities?
  • We first meet the Woman in White in Inwood Hill Park, where she takes the form of a short, white woman dressed in office garb. She comes to the attention of Manny and his roommate, Bel, when she stomps over to the pair, camera out, recording. When they take a step toward her, confused about why she is harassing them, the woman retreats and says: “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! If you lay a finger on me, I’ll scream and the cops will shoot you! You druggies! Druggie perverts!”

Shortly after this racist outburst, Manny notices a white wisp protruding from her collar (calling back to tendrils we’ve seen before). He yells out: “That’s not who you really are … Show yourself.” After she’s recognized as Not Human by Manny, we learn that she is an infectious, otherworldly being, hellbent on stopping the city from existing.

How does the Women in White’s interactions with the avatars compare with the quiet infections that she spreads across the city? What does it mean to be able to see what is happening, and why are some people unable to perceive the infection as it grabs onto them?

  • The avatar for Staten Island, Aislyn, seems vulnerable to the Woman in White, and Bronca, the avatar for the Bronx, also has her moment where it almost appears as if the Woman in White is getting to her. What connects these two women?
  • Bronca is Lenape. How does her heritage tie her uniquely to the city? Especially in regards to how Brooklyn describes the Bronx (and therefore, Bronca) as “the heart of New York”?
  • One lesson that Brooklyn gives Manny is “What people think about [New Yorkers] isn’t what we really are.” What did you make of this?
  • How does money resonate as a talisman? What do you think this signifies for later chapters?
  • Horror author H.P. Lovecraft is mentioned by Padmini at the start of her introduction chapter. What connections can we draw between issues in the book and his real-life xenophobia and racism?
  • When Padmini witnesses the destruction of the bridge, she almost dismisses it for a movie. But when the screams that follow reach her, she quickly understands that the destruction is not fictive. This isn’t the first time that sound has prompted belief (or that sight has been questioned). How do the senses factor into discerning what’s real and what’s not?
  • As Padmini watches the young boys in Mrs. Yu’s pool almost get overwhelmed by the Enemy, she notes: “The thing in the pool will do worse than kill the boys; it will take them away. To where and for what? Who knows, but it can’t happen.”

What do you make of this looming threat? How does this feeling relate to the mentions of ICE?

  • Buildings take on the powers of their avatars to become “more” Queens, or Brooklyn, or Manhattan. What does it mean and how does this relate to questions of authenticity?
  • Over the course of the chapters, we gather insight into why the avatars feel they have been chosen. How did the images of the boroughs in your mind align with how they were presented by the characters?
  • After a long stretch of total amnesia, we start to get glimmers of Manny’s past life, and it isn’t all so great. How does this map onto the complicated reality of Manhattan in real life? What does it mean to willfully forget part of yourself?
  • The avatars must give themselves over to the city, but what does this mean longterm?
  • Brooklyn uses lyrics and music to win literal battles. How does music inform the legacy of Brooklyn? How has it shaped the city?
  • The feeling associated with the Enemy is the “antithesis of presence.” Consider the quote: “As if they erase some tiny part of New York with every iota of its space they occupy.” How does this threaten the city?
  • Let’s talk about the Better New York Foundation. Not only does it rip the deeds to Brooklyn’s family’s properties from underneath them, but it also threatens Bronca’s job. Raul describes the foundation as “very well resourced, very private and very dedicated to raising the city from its gritty image to the heights of prosperity and progress.” What effect does this “progress” have on the community? How is it achieved?
  • What role does social media play in spreading fear?
  • Unity is a recurring theme. How does it generate strength?
  • Out of all of the avatars, Aislyn seems to have the most trouble knowing who to trust intrinsically. In chapter 10, we learn a little bit about her relationship to her father and to others. How do these interactions help us understand or complicate her hesitations?
  • Jersey City becomes an honorary extension of New York City. How is this reflected in reality?
  • How did you feel saying goodbye to Paulo? What was his role in the book? Do you think he’ll come back in the future?

We could go on and on, but for now, happy reading!

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Top Image: N. K. Jemisin's "The City We Became."