The Big Idea: C. L. Clark

What you speak, and how you speak it, and the things you write in the language you speak: All more complicated than you might expect, especially when the dynamics of civilizations come into play. C.L. Clark has been thinking about this, and in this Big Idea for The Unbroken, delves deeper into the power and powerlessness of words.


The Unbroken was largely inspired by my time studying post-colonial literature in English and French. Many of those indigenous authors–of both fiction and nonfiction–grappled with the double-edged blade of the language. Many of them found themselves with the dubious privilege of an education by or in the metropole, and with their education in the dominant language had the opportunity to reach greater audiences. On the other hand, it often came with the crippling loss of connection to roots–to whole histories and languages.

This is not unique to nations that had the formal term ‘colony’ applied to them, either. Consider the United States’ and Australia’s treatment of their indigenous peoples. Consider the forced removal of Black Americans from their own roots. Consider Apartheid. Consider people of color everywhere who must distance themselves from their heritage in order to ‘successfully’ integrate into white society enough to be valid under–yes, under, not within–white capitalism.

The Unbroken is a story about the choices people have to make under colonialism. I’ve been reading fantasy all my life. It led to an unsurprising and yet surprisingly common obsession with England and France and Italy and all those other European sites that inspire so much of Anglophone fantasy. But as I studied colonial history, I learned the reality–not the fantasies–of these elegant cities I obsessed over but was never a part of. I connected them to their fantasy counterparts: if non-white characters existed, it was in direct opposition to the heroes and their war of conquest or their quest of exploration. And these conquerors were always so glorious and few of the writers were interrogating what happened to these gloriously conquered nations. It was a world without consequences–they were well and truly fantasies: white fantasies. And the characters of color were voiceless.

In The Unbroken, I flip the subject position. We’re not invested in the colonizers anymore, not like we’re invested in the people who are living under their conquest. I wanted to see how colonized people across different generations and locations, with different lives, would react to the heroes coming after their great magics, their artifacts. I couldn’t possibly contain all of the possible reactions to being conquered in one book, not even in one trilogy, and it would be ridiculous of me to try; humanity is so deeply varied. But it was important to me to at least crack the seal on the complexities of this situation that so many have the privilege to gloss over.

Originally, I wrote The Unbroken with a third perspective–an older rebel leader, Djasha. For various reasons, her point of view chapters were cut, but my passion for the struggles of her generation remained. Every generation handles the trauma of conquest differently–every individual does–especially as the level of physical threat changes. Still, while the older generation in The Unbroken leads the rebel council and clings to their original cultures (in their own ways, and to varying degrees of success and with varying desires for vengeance), I was especially interested in the perspectives of those who had never spent any time without the colonizing Balladairan influence. It’s a perspective I feel quite keenly.

Some of these characters follow the steps of their elders, hewing as closely as they could to the old ways, learning and keeping their language and histories alive. Some follow the torch of an idealized world they’ve never known into violent rebellion. Others straddle both worlds, blending just as comfortably in high Balladairan society as they do in the slums Balladaire has fashioned of El-Wast. Still, others actively try to distance themselves from any stain of ‘Qazal’–anything that might keep them from ascending in Balladairan society. There is a complicated mix of tenderness and self-loathing, hope and fury and compassion in all of these characters. All together, they show that the ‘colonized’ are not some faceless, homogeneous mass. They are people. We are people.

And though I can’t depict every possible reaction to the trauma of colonialism, I know I’m not the only author exploring these topics now, these perspectives. So the big idea here? It’s time to listen. Because whatever language we choose, we have never been voiceless.

The Unbroken: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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