Spitting in the Face of Empire: The Millions Interviews Nisi Shawl

October 2, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 8 min read


Nisi Shawl’s debut novel, Everfair, reveals a history that could have been—that should have been. Shawl, a prolific writer of speculative short stories, wrote a steampunk alternate history that could just as easily be used as a how-to guide for creating a modern utopia.

The novel illustrates how people of vastly different backgrounds can work together toward a common goal. In this case, that goal is to create a safe place (named Everfair) for refugees from the brutality of Belgium’s King Leopold II in late 19th-century Congo.

On the surface, Shawl’s characters are so different as to be incompatible. There’s an African-American pastor. A disabled Chinese railroad worker who makes functional prosthetic limbs for maimed and broken runaways. A family built on polyamory. But each contributor to Everfair is driven by the same conviction that Belgium’s colonization of the Congo is destructive and vile.

Instead of meeting violence with violence, the founders of Everfair buy some land and set up their own anti-colonial haven. As it usually goes with these matters, the colonizers don’t take kindly to Everfair, but the book is ultimately a hopeful one.

In addition to her novel and short stories, Shawl writes a column on science fiction by Black authors for Tor.com, teaches writing, and has written extensively on the topics of inclusive speculative fiction and writing the other.

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nisi Shawl to talk about her novel, why it’s important to write about people from different groups and backgrounds, and what all of us can do to make literature more inclusive. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. The trade paperback version of Everfair is out now from Tor Books.

TM: Before Everfair, you mostly wrote short fiction. What was it like transitioning from the short form to the novel?

NS: Actually, I wrote three other novels before Everfair, it’s just that nobody bought them. So the transition wasn’t sharp. What I originally started out with was poetry, which is an even shorter format than the short story. So there was a transition, but it was much more gradual, and I was writing short stories at the same time that I was writing novels.

When it comes to Everfair I have been accused by some readers of writing a bunch of related short stories rather than a novel. There is actually an arc to the novel. It’s not the arc of a person, it’s the arc of a nation. People who know that going in might have an easier time of it. I do have a couple other series of short stories, one of which I would like to publish—that one will be a bunch of short stories acting like they’re a novel. I don’t think Everfair was. But then, I wrote it.

TM: Everfair the place is very much a character in the novel. Can you talk about writing the arc of the nation as opposed to writing a more individual-driven story?

NS: I realized as I was writing the novel that I would have to have a macguffin. I would have to have some sort of plot device that people could latch onto and say, “Well, it’s a love story. It’s a love story between Daisy and Lisette,” and then that would satisfy that need. But at the same time I just knew it was about Everfair, it was about the nation itself, about the project.

When it comes to creating a place as a character, I’m so glad that you noticed that, because it is a very important thing to me. My go-to guy on that is Raymond Chandler. He was writing in a different genre, he was a homophobe, he was anti-Semitic, problematic in many ways, but man, he could make a setting come alive and be active, and that’s what I study him for and that’s what I was trying to accomplish.

TM: Can you talk about your process, and your routine?

NS: I seem to write fairly finished drafts, I don’t do a lot of “write everything in 30 minutes and go back.” What I come up with is usually pretty close to what’s going to be going on. I have a critique group that I attend, and they help me with what is not actually on the page, or unintended consequences of what I’m writing. Then I often revise based on what they say and what an editor says.

As far as the routine, because I went to [renowned science fiction residency] Clarion West, I generally write in the afternoon. At Clarion West the classes are in the morning. So whereas most people are like, “Get up at five, write first,” no, I have to write in the afternoon. So I spend the morning exercising and taking care of all the other writing stuff that goes on, send a bio to this place—that’s why we’re having an interview here in the morning. Afternoon is writing time.

And I do this thing where you do 90 minutes [writing] and 30 minutes not writing. It’s not as fast as a sprint, but I do have timed breaks, and I do push through those 90 minutes.

I usually pray before I start writing. Because I practice a West-African tradition, I pray to Eshu or Elegba, any of those [deities] that mediate between the realm of what’s happening and what could happen, and ask for their help in entering and coming back from the world of the imagination. And then sometimes I do additional prayers based on what I’m writing.

TM: How does your spiritual practice feed into your writing, and how does your writing feed into your spiritual practice?

NS: There is quite a bit of overlap. The West-African tradition is very much about spirituality being bound up in materiality. That dichotomy between spirituality and materiality is false, and writing is one of the points at which that dichotomy breaks down. You’re writing about imaginary friends, as one of my friends put it, you’re writing about imaginary worlds, and you’re creating something physical with it—a related impression, not the exact impression you have, but a related impression in the mind of another physical being.

I do write quite a bit that depends on my spiritual practice. In Everfair, for example, one of the characters is a practitioner of a related tradition. Then there are other short stories where people are practicing it. Even when it’s not there on the surface, I think of my characters as related to different deities. We call it, in my tradition, someone is ruling your head. So you could be very much like Oshun, you could be very much like Ogun, and I think of my characters in those ways.

TM: What was the most challenging thing about writing Everfair?

NS: The most challenging thing was probably trying to do research about a people who had been killed off in the millions, a culture that had been just shredded, and a place that I had not been to and could not get to with the resources I had at hand. So that was challenging.

TM: How did you overcome the research challenge? Where did you find your information?

coverNS: I am a proponent of using multisensory research for anything like that. I did quite a bit of reading. I read things online, which led me to books I was able to get deeper into. One of my most helpful books is called African Reflections. It’s basically a catalog of an exhibit of the booty from an expedition to the area I was writing about, the Upper Congo, very shortly after the period I was writing about. That was very helpful because it had photos as well as really important essays. Sometimes I had to pass a side-eye on some of the things I was reading, some of the anthropological texts were obviously written from the point of view of someone outside the culture.

I also did quite a bit with music. I was able to set up a Pandora station with music from that region. I’m sure it’s changed over a couple hundred years, but it was so immersive, and that’s what I look for. I did some cooking. There was only one film [The Kitchen Toto] I was able to find, but I used that. Websites of people who were involved in it, people who have descended from it, people who have come to the area in the last 10, 15 years. All of that was helpful.

TM: One of the things I loved about Everfair was the truly diverse cast of characters—not just racially, but ethnically, religiously, in terms of sexual orientation and even disability. Was that a conscious choice or did it evolve more organically?

NS: I wanted not just to have people represented, but to have them have their own voice. That’s something that I find very helpful in this sort of “writing the other” mode that I’ve published a book about, that I teach about. It’s one thing to have someone talking about a Chinese railway worker, it’s another thing to have that builder speak for themselves. And that’s what I was very conscious of, that I wanted to have people speak for themselves. Nobody thinks they’re a bully or a villain, and I was very consciously trying not to have bullies and villains. When people would talk about themselves, what they saw, what they were doing, their motivations, it became much less black and white.

TM: You’ve done a lot of writing and teaching about how to “write the other” in a respectful, realistic way. What would you say to people who are afraid of screwing up when writing about people from different backgrounds?

NS: It’s important to do it because it’s good writing. It’s realistic. You have to, of course, do research, and you have to be mindful that you are doing things that could have consequences for the people that read, for the people that are part of a culture you’re trying to depict, but you still have to do it. You can’t just back out; that’s sort of creepy and cowardly if you ask me. The thing to do is remember that you might get criticism and that criticism might actually be helpful. It might be what you need to hear.

I have less sympathy for the people who are afraid for themselves, and more sympathy for the people who are afraid for others. In other words, some people are saying, “Well, I will get beaten up on and I will get vilified,” and others are saying, “Well, I could cause someone actual harm.” That I have sympathy for. And to that I could just say, do your best, and learn.

TM: Everfair is an alternate history/steampunk story. What drew you to this genre and this particular era and story of colonization?

NS: I had been confronted with the idea that steampunk valorized colonization and empire, and I really wanted to spit in its face for doing that. Alternate history, you know, I guess I am really attracted to it just because I just dislike this privileged narrative of “This is the way things are, this is the way things were supposed to be.” Just because something happened doesn’t mean that that’s the way it had to happen. And I think it helps us figure out where to go next if we figure out where we might have been coming from.

TM: What role do you see speculative fiction playing in our social and political lives?

NS: A major, major role. I think of speculative fiction as basically taking care of all of our needs when it comes to imagining ourselves, imagining ourselves doing better, imagining ourselves in the future, imagining ourselves in the past. To me, speculative fiction makes stories of ourselves in a world that is unknown and in some ways unknowable. There are films, there are games, there are novels, those are all ways that people use speculative fiction to tell themselves a story of what’s going on right now, and what’s going to happen, and what has happened.

TM: When it comes to inclusivity, what can writers, editors, and readers of speculative fiction do to make the genre better?

NS: For starters, as readers we can look for lists of writing that features inclusivity. Like lists of books by women, lists of books by disabled people, lists of books by trans people—and read them. You can, as a reader, back Kickstarters for projects like this.

As a writer, you can work to be more inclusive in your own stuff, and you can also encourage others, in particular those “own voices” writers. For instance, I accepted an invitation to a magazine and was asked who else they should request, and I had a list of all of these people I thought they should be in contact with. As a writer you can use whatever influence you have to get others noticed, as well as doing the best on your own that you can.

As an editor, you can look for and encourage the presence of writers outside the mainstream, dominant paradigm. And that includes not just saying your story is perfect so I’ll publish you, but saying your story is really cool in some interesting ways, and you have to revise it a little bit, but I’m going to help you do that and get that published.

reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, Penn. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com.