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Author Spotlight: N.K. Jemisin

How did “Valedictorian” come about?

I’d been thinking about writing a YA story set in the world of “The Trojan Girl” (another short story of mine, published a few years earlier) for a while. The story I originally had in mind was centered on the eponymous girl from that story, but I realized as I played around with the concept that there were other stories that needed to be told, first. At around the same time, I saw a news article going around Facebook about a young black woman who was fighting to be named valedictorian of her graduating class. She had the highest GPA—but a group of parents and school administrators was pulling shenanigans to deny her the honor, changing the rules and so forth. She was enduring some harassment from her classmates and even death threats, but she was still fighting—and thing was, she already had a standing early-admission acceptance to a very good college on scholarship. Her community didn’t want her to have the honor. She didn’t need it . . . but she wanted that honor, even though circumstances and everyone around her had essentially rendered it meaningless. It had meaning to her. Her fight gave it meaning.

It reminded me that my own high school graduating class had a similar situation with its valedictorian. I realized I’d seen several news stories to this effect over the years. It’s not always an academic honor that’s being denied; sometimes it’s homecoming queen, or something else. But the pattern of who earns the honor, and who the community wants to give honor to, repeats itself again and again. Zinhle was born of all the girls who have to demand respect because others think they don’t deserve it.

What was “The Trojan Girl” about, for readers who haven’t read it?

That one was set in the same world as “Valedictorian”, but much earlier—before the war between the posthumans and the humans, but after the artificial intelligences have begun to be born. It follows a pack of AIs, who’ve chosen to model themselves after wolves because they don’t think much of humans, as they hunt through the “cognitive internet” and realspace in pursuit of a very special newborn AI. They don’t have good intentions in mind, but that’s okay, because she’s not what they think she is.

Why did Sam’s dad say what he did about Zinhle’s family?

Because he’s a mediocre man resolving his personal feelings of inferiority by telling himself that other people are more inferior. Stock racist reasoning.

Why did you pick the characteristics you did for how selections are made? Did you consider other characteristics: for example, compassion, kindness, artistry, other kinds of intelligences not well assessed in a school environment?

The reservation (because that’s what it is) that Zinhle lives in is based on modern-day “middle America.” As a society we don’t especially value compassion, artistry, emotional intelligence, etc.—or at least that isn’t reflected in our educational system, if we do. I went with the characteristics we do seem to value, at present: Test-taking skill. Conformity. Systematization.

Any news or projects you want to share with us?

Yes! Currently I’m working on the second book of the Broken Earth trilogy, of which the first book (The Fifth Season) is due out in August of 2015. I’ve also got a new novella in the Inheritance Trilogy ’verse coming out at the end of this year, in December, called “The Awakened Kingdom.” It will be sold as part of the Inheritance Trilogy omnibus also coming out in the same month, and as a standalone ebook.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.