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Women in Speculative Fiction: Interview with Nisi Shawl, author of EVERFAIR

Welcome, readers! All month long I’m celebrating women in speculative fiction, and I’m thrilled today to kick it off and introduce you to Nisi Shawl, acclaimed author of speculative fiction in both the short and long form. Her first novel, EVERFAIR, was just released in September of 2016, and is described as a Neo-Victorian, steampunk alternative history set in the Belgian Congo. Nisi, please tell readers more about your book, and what inspired you to write it?

How great to get to share this virtual space and time with you all!  Everfair is the name of an imaginary Utopia located in Central Africa.  It is founded and matures during the novel of the same title.  My premise is that in the late 19th century, rather than using donations to fund the creation of the London School of Economics (which is what they really did), Britain’s Fabian Socialists joined forces with African American missionaries to purchase land near the Congo river basin from murderous tyrant Leopold II, King of Belgium.  My novel has been called post-colonialist steampunk, AfroRetroFuturism, and “a credit to the genre” (by Greg Bear!).  It was inspired mainly by the lack of steampunk acknowledging the racism and imperialism rife in the historical period it constantly evokes.  That’s what I wanted to do–in a fun way!

EVERFAIR makes use of multiple narrators to tell a complex story, and their perspectives are often in conflict with each other. What made you decide to tell the story this way, and were any of the characters’ perspectives uncomfortable for you to delve into?

Telling the story of Everfair from multiple differing viewpoints seemed natural to me, as that’s the way life works.  None of us is the final arbiter as to what’s real.  We’re all stars of our own movies and sidekicks or extras in everyone else’s.  None of EVERFAIR’s viewpoint characters were uncomfortable for me to inhabit; as I told one reader, I love them all.  Leopold’s viewpoint is absent from the novel, so that helped.  It’s represented only in a related short story, “Vulcanization” which was indeed uncomfortable to write.  Fortunately, it ended quickly.

The nation of Everfair has an anthem, which I had the pleasure of hearing you sing at a reading in Seattle. Why did you decide to include an anthem, and how does the anthem function as a symbol in your story?

All nations have anthems.  My character Jackie Owen, in particular, is anxious that Everfair’s disparate communities come together, and he sees an anthem as the perfect tool for joining them.  Jaymee Goh has some very smart things to say about anthems and nation-building in her review of EVERFAIR.  Later in the novel protestors repurpose the anthem to their own mission.  By the way, on my website I have a standing invitation for readers to contribute additional verses.  I’ve only written two, and anthems usually have at least five.

I love that! I hope readers take you up on that and contribute! Also, what connections do you see in Everfair to our modern-day American society?

No one’s ever asked me that before!  Well, obviously, in terms of place, the United States also started off as a Utopian project, and also has had to deal with a multiplicity of voices.  Regarding the difference in times between the novel’s 19th century setting and today, though, I think it’s an illusion.  There’s a truism that science fiction is about the author’s present, not about the future.  In looking both backwards and outwards, I’m using my own eyes, lensing the story through my own concerns.  So my attitudes towards race, gender, sexuality, labor, love, and violence, pervade EVERFAIR.  That means the short, one-word answer to your question is, me.

Nisi, you’ve been a long-time supporter of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in speculative fiction, and we thank you for all the boundary-pushing work you’ve done. How do you recommend that speculative fiction fans engage with the publishing industry to ensure that we continue to hear diverse voices?

Buy inclusive books, and/or ask your local public library to buy them.  Write editors expressing your gratitude and excitement when you see representation of diversity.  Nominate them for awards.  Back funding campaigns for inclusive anthologies.  Recommend relevant works to other readers.  There’s so much you can do!

Nisi, thank you for taking time out of your busy writing schedule to chat with me today. It has been wonderful.

Fans, please check out EVERFAIR and connect with Nisi at the links below.
• Purchase Everfair here.
Come to our online event on Sunday Feb 5, 6-7 pm PST, and chat with Nisi live!

Nisi Shawl, author of Everfair and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning story collection Filter House, co-author of Writing the Other: A Practical approach, and co-editor of Strange Mating: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, uses Twitter as @NisiShawl and Facebook as Nisi Shawl.  Her website is nisishawl.com, and the website through which she offers Writing the Other Classes is writingtheother.com/.

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Posted in Writing

About G.G. Silverman

G.G. Silverman is an award-winning writer living just north of Seattle. Her first book, VEGAN TEENAGE ZOMBIE HUNTRESS, a comedic Y.A. zombie novel, is available now on Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com, and at indie booksellers through Indiebound.org