The City Born Great

image of The City Born Great on a Paperwhite
You really need to see this beautiful Richie Pope cover in color, though. “The City Born Great.”

I read N.K. Jemisin‘s “The City Born Great” late last night, when I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t stop thinking about the wreckages of Covid-19, or the ways in which our society values some lives over other lives. It was an interesting time to choose to read a short story like “The City Born Great.” It was also the perfect time, and the perfect story.

“The City Born Great” is short. It’s very, very short, a tiny little thing, more than 6,000 words, less than 7,000. In those few words it sings a powerful song, the story of the city and of the people and places that make it, and also of the ways in which people hurt other people. The nameless narrator, the artist on the cover, is young, Black, and gay. His country might not love him, but he loves his city—in this case New York—with a fierce passion, an intensity that he doesn’t always understand. And because he so loves his city, because he is so intensely tied to its heartbeat and its flesh and bones, he is the one to see it safely into the world.

“The City Born Great” is fantasy, of course, but it’s that incredible fantasy that is so intensely rooted to our world that sometimes it barely feels like fantasy at all. As a Chicagoan I have no trouble imagining the heartbeat of a city, because I’ve grown up hearing it, too. I feel the city as a living thing, just as Jemisin describes it here—I think most urbanites, those of us who love our cities and feel ourselves tied to them, bone and blood and sinew, feel something similar. And the harsh structural realities Jemisin describes, from homophobia and racism to police brutality, are realities we see play out across our cities and our towns every day.

“The City Born Great” is short, a little thing that packs a powerful punch. It’s beautifully written, and that illustration, by Richie Pope, is the perfect accompaniment. I read it on Kindle, when it happened to float across my recommendations, and I’m even gladder, now, that I have the book that must have come from it—The City We Became—on order from my indies. You don’t have to read it on Kindle: it’s available, free, from Tor, the cover in full and glorious color. It’s a perfect, powerful short story at any time, but right now, in this harsh moment, “The City Born Great” is even more important than ever.