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Interviewing the AH Community: Nisi Shawl

Questions from Gary Oswald

Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So I regularly interview various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.

This week it is Nisi Shawl, the writer of 'Everfair', who can be found at their website and on twitter.

Hello Nisi! First of all, thank you very much for talking to us. When did you first get interested in the possibilities of Alternate History and what do you think attracted you to that genre?

I don’t recall an exact moment of epiphany concerning AH’s potential. Once I conceived of Everfair as steampunk it seemed evident to me that it would be AH, because the two subgenres are strongly linked in my experience. The first AH that I read as an adult was The Difference Engine, a steampunk novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Everfair is definitely both.

Your debut novel 'Everfair' is set in the Congo Free state and is about a steampunk free nation formed there by an alliance of African American missionaries, native Kingdoms and British Socialists. What was the inspiration behind writing a story in that setting?

Inspiration’s a slippery word. I had been learning at a very elementary level about Leopold and the Congo, and was rightly horrified. That was mass murder on an enormous scale! Then I was drafted onto a panel about the popularity of steampunk and pledged to write a novel based off of that historical hideousness, a sort of rude hand gesture aimed at the proponents of steampunk as an adventure in imperialism. But also, I was inspired by several of the historical personalities who serve as models for many of my characters. And I was also deeply influenced by the cultural and religious teachings of my West African-derived religious tradition, and so on. Start looking at sources of inspiration for any work, even any aspect of any work, and you find them overlapping one another, shifting in their effects, and generally presenting themselves as moving targets.

The use of Alternate History allows you to write a relatively optimistic story set in what in our timeline was a horrific crime and a scene of unrelenting misery. Is that one of the appeals of Alternate History over straight historical fiction to you, that you get to write happier stories for the victims of white supremacy and imperialism?

Yes, that is absolutely one of the major appeals of AH. Speculative fiction in general works as a species of thought experiment: If this change occurs, what will our lives look like? And AH in particular extends the parameters of these thought experiments beyond possible futures, into the realms of possible pasts and presents. One of the happiest strains of commentary coming out of reviews of 'Everfair' notes that the book’s readers feel as if what I’ve written is at least as plausible as actual history, if not more so. I think it’s really healthy emotionally and mentally to encourage an understanding of how plausible these sort of positive outcomes are.

While the names of some of your characters in 'Everfair' are obvious nods to real life people, you mostly tend to avoid using actual people in the way historical fiction mostly does but rather focus on entirely fictional characters. Why did you make that creative choice?

Most of Everfair’s characters are based on historical figures. I should probably put a key on my website. All but two of the viewpoint characters are either fictionalized versions of real people, or “mash-ups” of them. Jackie, for instance, is a blend of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. I did invent new names for them, but I relied heavily on research into the originals--up to a point. Because my large-scale history diverges, my small-scale history has to diverge, too. So Lisette Toutournier, a thinly cloaked Colette, gets to do all sorts of things her template couldn’t do--like officially marry a woman, shoot poisoned knives from a gun, and serve as an African nation’s ambassador. General Thomas Jefferson Wilson doesn’t die of tuberculosis at the age of 41 like his real-life counterpart George Washington Williams; instead, he flies aircanoes into battle and starts fashion trends. And so on.

Why did I do things this way? That seemed to be what the story demanded.

'Everfair' was your first novel, but by that point you'd already earned a great reputation as a writer of short stories. What about the story of 'Everfair' made you think it needed more space and did you find writing a novel harder or easier than writing shorts?

Actually, though Everfair is my first *published* novel, it’s the fourth one I’ve written. My third, “Speculation,” is coming out this autumn from Lee & Low. This means that I have been working through the differences between writing short and long form fiction for years.

My theory is that the basic structure of a novel is by necessity much simpler than the basic structure of a short story. Novels’ structures serve as armatures from which smaller elements--arcs, anecdotes, subplots, etc.--can depend. Short stories’ structures must include these complications in themselves.

The two art forms are deceptively similar. Both utilize words. But they bear roughly the same relationship to one another as choreography does to architecture, both of which utilize space.

Outside of AH, you're known for your workshops and guidebook on 'Writing the Other' alongside Cynthia Ward. Our authors are largely, though far from entirely, White and British. What would be the general advice you'd give our writers on trying to capture cultures they've never been a part of?

Start small. Don’t immediately go for the hard task of writing a novel-length work from the viewpoint of a member of that culture. Do your research, and I mean really do it--consider your sources, consider their intended audiences, consider analogous relationships, and so on. Avoid the extremes of “These people are exactly like me, when you get right down to it” and “These people are completely weird and different.” Ask for help, and reimburse your helpers.

Finally, buy the Writing the Other book, take the Writing the Other classes, and explore our resources. There’s a lot to learn, and that’s what Writing the Other is meant for.

In Historical fiction in particular, it is often very difficult in that a lot of societies were deliberately destroyed by colonialism and we don't always have records from those people as to what things were like on a day to day basis prior to that. How did you grapple with that problem yourself in 'Everfair' and writing Mwenda?

Yes, so much knowledge has been lost. Sometimes I resort to chauvinist writers’ work, which I try to view through a sort of corrective lens, translating terms like “witch” and “primitive” to “healer” and “indigenous.” I also attempt a bit of triangulation wherein I extrapolate cultural content from neighboring cultures or those in similar situations. With Everfair, I accessed a great deal of material via an art book titled African Reflections. That book contained photos and drawings collected in the time and area I was particularly concerned with, plus it showed me photographs of musical instruments, ornaments, and other treasures collected by museum staff. I based King Mwenda’s depiction on historical accounts of a ruler of that locale’s Azande people, adding details drawn from my interactions with modern strong Black men.

You describe yourself as a 'Social Justice Bard' and your history as an editor has been one of an effort to boost the voices of feminists, lgbt people and people of colour. How welcoming or otherwise have you found Speculative FIction spaces for that effort?

The welcome and the indifference I’ve perceived for my efforts to boost the presence of marginalized voices has been markedly mixed. And it has changed. I’ve received several awards commemorating my work: the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, the FIYAH magazine Ignyte Award, the Locus magazine award, plus the awards citing the publication of my anthology of speculative fiction by authors of color, New Suns. So there’s that, and there’s the increased presence creators of color in the field over the decades. There’s also, of course, rising hostility to that increased presence. And there are lingering artifacts of past inequities, such as lists of the “best” 100 SF novels based on familiarity with an enormously white/male/straight/cis canon. Speaking personally, there’s the ignorance in response to cultural elements of my own fiction, such as one man’s disbelief that jealousy over straight hair could motivate a murder. And such as one woman’s confusion that a black neighborhood in which one of my stories is set is free of crime. So the picture of acceptance and understanding of inclusivity is a varied and moving picture. One which I hope is improving overall.

When I have participated in active protests and campaigning, I have often encountered a cynicism about the extent fiction can ever create real change, but well there must be a reason authoritarians keep banning books. Do you feel you can change minds and the way people view the world through your writing?

You’ve pinpointed the contradiction: if stories aren’t an important force for challenging authoritarianism, why should anyone bother banning them? But stories are how we understand the world. Stories are how our minds work. Telling certain stories, and telling them in certain ways, influences our audiences’ minds. And minds are at the center of any real change.

When I was a teenager during the 1970s, a frequently asked and ostensibly rhetorical question was: “If you overturn the current social order, what will you replace it with?” The question was ostensibly rhetorical because we hippies weren’t supposed to have an answer. Speculative fiction is full of proposed answers to that question, though. Stories of possibility, warning stories, stories of surprise, stories of consequences--how can thinking about these stories *not* change how we view the world, and thus, how we behave in it?

What can we expect from you in the future? Do you think you have another AH novel in you?

I will leave the ultimate categorization of what I write to others. I have written four short story sequels to Everfair: “Sun River,” “The Colors of Money,” “Slippernet,” and “Vulcanization.” The first two I’m fairly confident qualify as AH. “Sun River” is in an anthology called Clockwork Cairo, and “The Colors of Money” is in the Sunvault anthology. “Slippernet” is set in our near future, following a timeline that develops out of Everfair’s AH events. It was published by Slate Magazine. “Vulcanization” has been called horror, and it’s available online at the Nightmare Magazine site.

I’ve just finished a draft of a novel-length Everfair sequel, too. It’s called Kinning. But that book is so weird I’m really not sure what it is.



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