FANTAST IN FOCUS: NISI SHAWL

Nisi Shawl is a writer and anthologist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 2008, her short story collection Filter House won the prestigious James Tiptree Jr award. Nisi’s other stories and articles have appeared in places like Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Aeon Magazine and Tor.com. Her highly anticipated debut novel Everfair (which will be released on 6 September) is a steampunk adventure set in Belgian Congo during the grisly regime of King Leopold II. Hailed by the Seattle Times as “complex and engrossing”, Everfair chronicles the struggles of a group of missionaries who meet opposition while attempting to set up a socialist utopia.

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We caught up with Nisi and had the pleasure of learning more about her influences and future projects.

The Custodian: What was your earliest steampunk experience? Were you immediately taken by the genre or was it more of an acquired taste?

Nisi Shawl: It’s hard to say what my first steampunk experience was.  I read The Difference Engine (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) and The Anubis Gates (Tim Powers) when they came out.  Those were good.  But by the time I appeared on the World Fantasy Convention 2009 steampunk panel, I’d formed the opinion that I hated that steampunk stuff.  Analysing that feeling, I came to the conclusion it was due to steampunk’s overwhelming tendency to produce and support colonialist narratives.  My research prior to appearing on the panel gave me two–two!–examples of steampunk by POC [people of colour]: N.K. Jemisin’s The Effluent Engine, and a portion of the alternate history novel Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes.  That was it.  So of course I had to give the world my take.

C: When writing Everfair, did you watch movies or visit places that helped you to visualise the Belgian Congo?

N:  I wish I’d been able to visit the DRC and some of the other African countries where Everfair is set.  Alas.  I’m living rent check to rent check, and I’ve never come any closer than Florida.  As for movies, aside from the old chestnuts such as The African Queen, all I drew on was a rather 1988 film set in Kenya, The Kitchen Toto.  Mostly I relied on stills, maps, and imagination.

Belgian Congo stamp via Wikimedia Commons.

Belgian Congo stamp via Wikimedia Commons.

C: You’ve written a crash course on the history of black science fiction. Which authors on the list most influenced your writing? Which ones most affected your general outlook on or philosophy of life?

N: I don’t know if I can claim Samuel R. Delany as a literary influence, but I’d like to try.  His style, rigour, and audacity are certainly qualities I aspire to.  Mat Johnson’s humor and Gloria Naylor’s air of confidence are also on my to-be-emulated list.  When it comes to more general characteristics, the greatest of those were shown to me by Octavia E. Butler.  She was generous, kind, disciplined, gracious, self-aware, self-reflective, true-hearted, keen-minded–I could go on and on and on.  The way she lived her life was a daily lesson in how to be wonderful.

Octavia Butler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Octavia Butler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

C: Many of your short stories refer to African myths and folktales. Without giving too much away, did you find yourself accessing similar resources for the plot of Everfair?

N: If my stories reflect African mythology, that’s because it’s a very real part of my life.  I practise a West African tradition, Ifa, and the powers and images of that religion reveal themselves to me wherever I go, whatever I do.  So naturally I depict them in all my work, including in Everfair.  In fact, while drawing up notes for Everfair‘s characters I described them in terms of which of the Ifa divinities–orisha, they’re called–ruled their heads.  Of course there are particular scenes in which African-based myths are manifest, such as Wilson’s ordeal on a god’s anvil and the Rosalie’s malaria  cure.  And so on.  Other, perhaps subtler instances are there as well, though.  They’re in the book because they’re in my world.

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C: Did you have any difficulty writing about Congolese colonial culture?

N: I had many difficulties writing about Congolese colonial culture, but I’m not sure which you’re trying to find out about.  Probably you mean to ask was it emotionally difficult.  And yes, it was.  But no more difficult than writing about the thousands of distressing incidents of oppression enacted in contemporary times.  Injustice and suffering have no expiration date, but there are plenty of fresh servings of it wherever you care to look.

What was more difficult for me, actually, was trying to reconstruct that culture with at least a smidgenly bit of accuracy.

Steamboat on the Upper Congo River (c. 1890). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Steamboat on the Upper Congo River (c. 1890). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

C: You’ve worked all over the place and you must have had quite a few extraordinary experiences. Do these tend to flow subconsciously into your writing (and you recognise them later on) or are they actively inserted?

N: Probably my varied experiences flow into the work subconsciously.  For the most part.  I knew I could draw on my stint as an au pair when writing about Lisette’s time as nurse for the Albins, sure.  I often say, “It’s all material”, meaning everyone I meet and  everything I go through is subject to be incorporated into my writing.  This means you.

C: What’s next? We heard you might be working on an environmental thriller…

N: Next?  I just finished what I believe you were referring to with the “environmental thriller” prompt.  It’s a short story, and I don’t really think that would be an accurate description, though I wish it was.  If an environmental thriller is what you’re looking for, I recommend Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever and Arctic Rising.  My story, The Color of Money?  Well, we’ll see if it even IS a story.  It’s about a clash between petroleum and palm oil factions in Zanzibar, shortly after the close of Everfair.  It’s sort of like a pilot for an Everfair sequel.

I’ve written several short stories this year, and what I seem to be aiming for is to collect several of them in separate books as story series.  The most ambitious of these is the story series I call Making Amends.  It begins with Deep End my interstellar penal colony piece from over ten years ago. Of eight projected stories in this series, I’ve written five and have the cores of two more.

Nisi Shawl.

Nisi Shawl.

Follow Nisi on Twitter @NisiShawl.

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