Author Nisi Shawl, whose steampunk novel Everfair has been nominated for the prestigious Nebula Award, was kind enough to speak with Krypton Radio reporter Susan Macdonald in an interview.
Krypton Radio (KR): What would you like to tell our readers about yourself?
Nisi Shawl (NS): That I am full of love! If you read my stories, read them through the lens of love.
KR: Your novel Everfair has just been nominated for the Nebula. I know you’ve published over 50 short stories and countless articles. Is Everfair your first novel?
NS: It’s the first novel I’ve sold. I’ve written three others, but no publishers have picked them up yet. I would love to get the other novels I’ve written out there.
KR: Perhaps a Nebula nomination will change their minds.
NS: Isn’t it cool that of the five Nebula-nominated novels, four are debuts?
KR: Yes, definitely cool that four are debuts. [The five Nebula nominees for best novel this year are Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin, and Borderline by Mishell Baker. All but All the Birds in the Sky are first novels.]
KR: Is it true that researching and writing Everfair took over 6 years?
NS: Yes, it’s true–though I was also writing other things at the same time: reviews, essays, etc. In 2015 I published eight stories!
KR: For those readers who haven’t read Everfair yet, how would you describe it?
NS: I have tried a bunch of different labels to describe Everfair. AfroRetroFuturist is a mouthful, but that gets to the kernel of what I wanted to do. My one-line summary: African American missionaries team up with British socialists to carve a Utopian colony out of Leopold II’s genocidal reign over the 19th century Congo basin.
KR: AfroRetro Futurist is a good description. It doesn’t fit into any nice, neat little categories, does it?
NS: It is steampunk. It is alternate history. For some critics, not enough steampunk gadgetry. For others, tooooo many viewpoints!
KR: Everfair does have a large cast of characters: African-Americans in Africa, Europeans, actual Africans. Every reviewer I’ve read has commented on how diverse the cast is.
NS: I think where I lost some people is by letting those diverse characters speak for themselves. Giving them all their own voices. But that was important to me.
KR: Characters should speak for themselves. Can you tell us more about the diversity in Everfair?
NS: So many different cultures meet up in Everfair–I probably didn’t do justice to the possiblities. But I was fighting the tendency to flatten African cultures, which are *not* monolithic. And not isolated! So there are differences within the continent, as evidenced by Queen Josina, and her ambassadorship to other African countries. And then there are the Chinese immigrants, the Europeans of various sorts, the Indians (Bharatese in the book). Just scratching the surface!
KR: Everfair also contains sexual diversity: polygamy, homosexuality, etc.
NS: Yes–I had to write a little separate essay sourcing that element of the culture.
KR: Do you think sexual diversity is shown well in most SF & fantasy books?
NS: That’s pretty much how I learned about sexual diversity, reading SF. Of course, you can miss it entirely depending on who you chose to read. Samuel R. Delany, yes!
KR: You teach a class called Writing the Other. What does that entail?
NS: Work! Taking chances! Thinky thoughts! Asking questions is a big part of learning to Write the Other, and Tempest and I do our best to provide a good place to do that.
NS: Tempest Bradford, my current co-teacher. Previously, it was mostly me and Cynthia Ward. I’ve also co-taught with Victoria E. Garcia and Vylar Kaftan.
KR: I was surprised when Everfair came out that so many people referred to a little-known period of African history. I thought Leopold and his inhumanities were common knowledge.
NS: It’s not commonly taught in the US, at least. Leopold’s humanitarian nightmare was brought to more attention by Adam Hochschild’s excellent popular history, King Leopold’s Ghost.
KR: You mentioned on your website that you learned more in six weeks of a Clarion workshop than in six years of college. What did you find most useful from the workshop?
NS: Clarion West students, staff, and instructors took writing seriously. They gave me conceptual tools for what I was doing and immediate feedback about my failures and successes.
KR: Which authors influenced you the most in your literary career?
KR: I know you write steampunk and fantasy. (I loved “The Pragmatic Princess,” BTW.) Do you write in any other genres?
NS: My Amends story series is space opera. My YA novel Verde and the related stories (“Street Worm” and “Queen of Dirt”) are horror.
KR: Is Verde one of the ones that hasn’t found a publisher yet?
NS: Yes. Verde‘s still unpublished. My one-line summary: A tender, touching, mother/daughter story about body image, racial identity, and soul maggots.
KR: With the Nebula nomination — definitely if you win — maybe publishers will be more willing to take a look.
KR: Do you have any advice for young would-be writers?
NS: Read. Write. Pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t and how that happens. Pay attention to what other writers say about things of yours they read.
KR: I am jealous of your having lived in Scotland. How and why were you in Scotland, and has it influenced any of your writing?
NS: My best friend in high school was named Kate Duncan. She persuaded me to go look for the World Tree there with her. We had a delightful time though our hunt was unsuccessful. I did get to meet Lady Dewar and work in a sweetie shop. I haven’t set any stories in Scotland, but that sense of being at home in a strange land has probably helped. Helped me to write SFF, I should say.
KR: Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to Krypton Radio.
NS: Thank you for the cool questions. Love, Nisi[Feature image by Caren Corley]