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In the run up to the Hugo Awards, Atlantic magazine’s writer Vann R. Newkirk II interviewed N.K. Jemisin on her finalist position for the Best Novel Hugo Award. Of course, The Fifth Season went on to win the award.

Jemisin’s nomination and win in the Best Novel category are historic, as she’s the first black writer to achieve this milestone. Newkirk notes the brilliance of the ideas in the novel, and Jemisin admits that a story of this length and scope has been somewhat difficult for her to deal with. Then they go on to politics in the SFF genre (i.e. the Sad/Rabid Puppies) and what has informed the content of what will be a trilogy with The Fifth Season as the first installment. Jemisin notes that she has read a lot of history that will go into the oppression theme of the trilogy. She also suggests she will add “hints” from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust to the extant slavery theme and what Newkirk calls the “racial critiques” the first book presents.

In light of current social trends, Jemisin’s comments seem confusing. One of the hot-button topics in the culture war is cultural appropriation (already featured in other blogs here). Some people might consider Jemisin already privileged because of her American birthright, and with her nomination and Hugo win, she has now joined a privileged class of SFF writers. No one questions her right to comment about slavery and oppression, as she comes from a heritage of African American slavery, but is it cultural appropriation for her to borrow from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust? Will it be transgressive for her to be putting words in the mouths of Asians and Jews? Also, as an American, is it transgressive for her to be making assumptions about Africa and African history?

I’ve asked these questions before just as a theoretical, but here we have an actual example. Is Jemisin planning something that will be considered cultural appropriation? Or should she not be limited by her race and heritage to writing only about certain racial groups and a certain cultural experience?

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