Interview with Nisi Shawl9 min read

Resize text-+=

Nisi Shawl’s Everfair was one of the most anticipated novels of 2016 and garnered rave reviews from NPR,, The Washington Post, Strange Horizons, Los Angeles Review of Books, BoingBoing, and more. The cover copy phrases it much better than I ever could: A neo-Victorian alternative history, the novel explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. This masterful and inspiring novel turns one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced.

For those of us who have been following Shawl’s career for years, Everfair was the culmination of a vocal and public promise she made to the world at large. Everfair was what her work has always been pointing towards—she’s always written and championed the “un-possible,” through diversity of ideas, characters, and viewpoints. And the good news is, she has so much more on deck!

For those of you new to Shawl’s work, “Queen of Dirt” will quite literally give you a short story sized entry point into her writing style and speculative fiction ideas. Brit is a summer camp counselor, and while her students accept, adore, and respect her, she struggles with the labels society has given her because she doesn’t fit neatly into any of those labels. I’m not sure about elsewhere in the world, but I have found Americans are obsessed with labels. What is your religion? What is your sexual orientation? What is your race? What genre do you write in? What is your generation, your pants size, where you live, your family situation, etc, and we are expected to only choose one of the options in an insultingly short list. What about those of us who need to check multiple boxes, or search in vain for the “other” checkbox? Brit is a hero of the other box. No labels can encompass her. She may not know who she is quite yet, but she is more than comfortable in her own skin. She understands the power beneath her supernatural abilities, she uses her mode of speech to own her individuality. She’s the kind of strong female character who quietly laughs at that phrase, and responds to it with a side eye and “No shit. I’ve been here all along.” I adore Brit, and I know you will too.

Raised in southwestern Michigan, and currently residing in Seattle, Shawl has been publishing short fiction, columns, reviews, and essays since 1989. Most recently, her fiction has appeared in Streets of Shadows, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures, Steampunk World, Dark Faith 2, The Other Half of the Sky, Once Upon a Time, Paradoxa, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Her short story collection Filter House won the James Tiptree Jr. award and was nominated for a World Fantasy award. She is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society, and is the co-editor of the anthologies Stories for Chip and Strange Matings: Octavia E. Butler, Feminism, Science Fiction, and African American Voices.

She is perhaps becoming more well known for her work in writing craft education than for her fiction—along with Cynthia Ward, Shawl is the co-creator of Writing the Other, a workshop that became a book on the craft of writing and then became an incredible series of writing workshops for authors who are writing characters different than themselves.

Nisi was kind enough to let me pick her brain about all things Brit and bees, facing fears, how her connection to the land informs her writing, and daring to make the SF and steampunk genres brighter, bolder, and bigger. Speculative fiction is about ideas that push boundaries and alternate history is about asking “what if this happened a little differently?” Shawl successfully pushes those boundaries in new, exciting, confident, and forward-thinking ways.

Teaser! If you loved Everfair, you’ll love the last paragraph of this interview!

APEX MAGAZINE: Brit struggles with being the child her parents expect her to be. She isn’t interested in dating, she uses the way she speaks to empower her individuality, and oh yeah, she has supernatural powers. But Brit is exactly who she wants to be, even though she’s not yet sure who she is. “Queen of Dirt” references another time Brit used her powers to defeat a supernatural entity.  Do you have more adventures planned for her?  Will she get more opportunities to know and understand who and what she is?

NISI SHAWL: Brit’s previous adventure is called “Street Worm.” It first appeared in 2014 in Streets of Shadows, an anthology edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon. In 2016 it was reprinted in Street Magicks, edited by Paula Guran. But when I first wrote about Brit, she was a secondary character in a YA novel I haven’t gotten published yet. I do have a third story in mind. It’s called “Conversion Therapy,” and deals with the forced heterosexualizing of one of the kids in “Queen of Dirt.” If the anthology I came up with this plot for doesn’t happen, I may do it purely on spec.

What Brit is, who she is—it’s going to take her till college to figure that out. These stories are set in the recent past, and discovering terms for her sexuality that haven’t been invented yet is just not possible, even for someone with undoubted supernatural abilities.

AM: Please yes, publish “Conversion Therapy!” I really enjoy Brit as a character, so I’m interested in learning more about how her character was born. And in a similar vein, can you tell us about how you do characterization in general? When you start a story, or get an idea for a story, how do you know who the protagonist is, and what their life is all about?

NS: As I said, Brit is a secondary character in this unpublished novel of mine. She’s the heroine’s more self-assured and sophisticated best friend. Shes based somewhat on … I’m not sure I can say. Small, fierce, black girls I have known.

In general, my main characters are my stories. Their desires and situations are the things I’m interested in portraying. SF is known as a literature of ideas; my characters are my ideas and my ideas are my characters.

AM: Brit has to face the entities before she’s quite ready to. And I’ve got to say, I absolutely love how this scene plays out. There is so much power in this scene, the words practically leap off the page—Brit’s strength, the needs and wants of the entity, the music of the hive, the way she uses this experience to connect with and protect her camp kids. What can you tell us about how this scene came about? When you were writing the story, did you already have this scene in mind?

NS: I wanted Brit to experience horror and overcome it, and to me the most horrific thing is having my body coopted by someone or something else. Even when the goal is improvement, there’s a deep resistance to change embedded in us. I wanted Brit to face those fears, that resistance, and to triumph. For me and all who share them. Yes, I did have this scene in mind when I began writing “Queen of Dirt,” though I wasn’t clear till it came time to write the scene exactly what would happen, and how.

AM: Not to spoil the incredible scene with Brit facing the entities, but bees play a big part in what’s happening. Did you go into this story with knowledge of bees? What research did you do so that Brit would know about bees? And why did you choose bees?

Bee pendant from Crete

NS: I went into this story with a little very basic knowledge of bees, but I had to read up on them some to get them flying right, so to speak. I’m sorry to have to admit it, but most of my research was done online, via Wikipedia, Google, etc. That sounds weak and lazy, I know. In my defense, I was on a fairly tight writing schedule.

I chose bees for religious reasons. Bees are sacred to one of my religious tradition’s major deities: Oshun. Oshun rules honey and bees, also culture, beauty, wealth, and change!

AM: Of course I have to ask you about Everfair! Garnering reviews that are full of words like ambitious, monumental, enthralling, genre re-defining, diverse, and hotly anticipated, Everfair is the novel people have been waiting for! So, for those of us who haven’t heard the story already, can you tell us how this novel was born? What can you tell us of the journey that started with the idea and ended with the novel?

NS: Basically, writing Everfair was a dare I gave myself after realizing my dissatisfaction with steampunk’s status quo. I was put on a panel about steampunk at WFC 2009, which forced the realization upon me that a genre I should have loved to bits had managed to repulse me with its validation of imperialism and colonialism. I swore I’d make it better. In front of a room full of hundreds of people.

Once I had the concept of an alternative Utopia co-founded by African American missionaries and British socialists, I was able to find the right structure, characters, and time frame. I had immense—IMMENSE—amounts of help. People gave me places to stay, gave me money, books, ideas … Check out the acknowledgments. Andrea Hairston, another black woman writing speculative fiction, gave me the principle underlying the resolution at Everfair’s end. The journey was hard, and long, but never lonely.

AM: I live in the town you grew up in (surrounded by water as we are, it’s easy to think you are a mermaid here), and now you currently reside in Seattle. “Queen of Dirt” takes place at a famous state park on the Puget Sound. In your varied writing career, have your surroundings and environment had an effect on what you’re writing about or the feel of your prose?

NS: Yes, the land is always an important part of what I feel, and so essential to what I write. Many of my stories and novels (I’ve written four, but Everfair’s the first and only one to get published) take place in Michigan or the Pacific Northwest. Although I have written four short stories set at least in part in Philadelphia, a city I’ve never visited. Must give it a try some day.

The park where “Queen of Dirt” is set, Fort Worden State Park, is extremely familiar to me; I taught in a program like the one Brit’s in for ten years. I need to go back.

Fort Worden

AM: Along with Cynthia Ward, you started a workshop program on Writing the Other, which has now become a series of workshops and a handbook called Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, for authors who want to successfully write characters who are outside their personal experience. What’s been your most positive experience working with authors in this realm of writing?

NS: The best, best, bestiest has been seeing our students’ beautiful work come to life. I’ve likened the Writing the Other book and classes to a midwife, assisting in the birth of many texts, texts which could have had a difficult time. They could have been nonviable. Our work didn’t create them, but it did help them to take their first breaths. All those darlings move me to laughter and tears.

AM: Your first story was published in 1989. You’ve published countless articles, reviews, and columns, and now Everfair is out in the world. What’s next for you?

NS: More stories! I’ve got two others coming out in addition to “Queen of Dirt” this year, and two more on top of those in progress. And another two promised, and another in revisions. Plus I’ve got an outline for a sequel to Everfair called Kinning. And three completed unsold novels, and enough material for three more collections of fiction and nonfiction. Onward! More!

AM: Thanks Nisi! Onward? More? Yes please!

Support Apex Magazine on Patreon

Apex Magazine Ko-fi

$4 funds 50 words of Apex Magazine fiction!