Nisi Shawl is the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning author of Filter House, a stunning collection of 14 stories about far-future biological computer science, trickster creation gods, family ghosts, and resourceful princesses with a penchant for books and dragons. Her genre-bending (and genre-blending) work has been honored by Publishers Weekly, and nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. She will be the Guest of Honor at this year's WisCon, a prominent fantasy and science fiction convention with a focus on feminism and other social justice issues. I caught up with Nisi Shawl in March for a conversation about the line between science and magic, the importance of racial and cultural diversity in speculative fiction, and what, exactly, a filter house is.
Author, editor, and essayist Nisi Shawl.
JoSelle Vanderhooft:What initially attracted you to writing science fiction and fantasy, and what has kept you writing it?
Nisi Shawl: Hmm. I was attracted to writing it in some indeterminate way, at some indeterminate time. But what made me think "I can actually do this" was a novel by Suzy McKee Charnas called Walk to the End of the World. Do you know it?
JV: I'm afraid I don't, sadly. But what about it struck you?
NS: It is a post-apocalyptic novel about survivors from a shelter full of government bureaucrats and their secretaries. A rather dystopian novel. Excellent sour view of gender roles. And the protagonist escapes from this horrific society. And I was struck with the audacity of what Charnas was able to say in this form. I thought, "Wow, you can talk about all this stuff—and get paid for it!" What has kept me writing it? All the stories I want to tell.
JV: That sounds so amazing. It's definitely going on my "to read" list. While several authors seem to prefer either fantasy or science fiction, you write both—and a little murder mystery in between. What attracts you to so many different genres, and what are the benefits of writing in multiple genres?
NS: Genre-selection and enforcement are tricky things. If science fiction is fiction based on a worldview that privileges science, how do you decide what science is? I think I write in multiple genres because I have a worldview that places magic and science on an equal footing. I also think of some concepts as scientific which others see as magical. Sometimes they coexist quite nicely, as in "Good Boy." That has magic and science. The mother is trying to develop a scientific framework to explain what others see as magic. The mystery ["Little Horses"] I wrote because I'd been invited to do so. Anything else we should talk about concerning genre?
JV: Just one thing: Where does the line fall for you personally between science and magic—or does it fall at all? Though I guess that's more of a science question.
NS: I think of science and magic as ways of looking at the world. Sometimes one is more useful than the other. I don't know if I can draw a line through my life and have magic on one side and science on the other. Everything is both, and how I see it depends on how I look at it. I spent much of my youth climbing trees and growing molds—fighting imaginary dragons and conducting experiments, creating dyes from plants and making wishes on stars. The sense of wonder is common to science and to magic both, and I don't want to give up any of its sources.
JV: It's funny that we got on this subject because it's a good segue into another question I had about "Good Boy," which was one of my favorite from Filter House. In "Good Boy," you combine some hard biology and computer science with not only Yoruba cosmology, but the rich heritage of black music in the U.S. What is the connection between science and cultural heritage?
NS: There are all kinds of connections between science and cultural heritage. Science can be a way to learn about cultural heritage. Science can be part of one's cultural heritage, as Kressi [a character in "Good Boy"] notes in her reminiscences about McCoy, the black engineer. Science can preserve heritage as well as discover and explore it. A proper scientific approach can relieve us from prejudices that block us from understanding our cultural heritage.
JV: Can you think of any examples where this has happened?
NS: Maybe the only place I've seen an example of a scientific approach freeing me to enjoy my cultural heritage is in my own mind. By a scientific approach I mean approaching experience as objectively as possible, and examining experience via the scientific method—looking for phenomena which are quantifiable and experimental results which are repeatable, forming and testing hypotheses. And I thought along these lines on two occasions when I was preparing to give speeches at universities on African diasporic cultural heritage: one speech at Stanford about ghosts and ancestors, and one at Duke University about Yoruba religions. I found that adopting this perspective allowed me to present my material in such a way that nonreligious people could see the correspondences between practices and experiences they had labeled "rational" and "non-rational."
JV: Let's move on to horror in your work.
NS: Some of my work has been characterized as horror, as well as Fantasy and SF.
JV: I could see why people say that.
NS: One review of Filter House talked about all the monsters in it. The reviewer was particularly frightened by the monster Ajala. Now to my mind, Ajala is a god. Not a monster. And there's no monsters in "Wallamelon"or "Bird Day."
How do you see my writing as horror? Any particular story?
JV: I think "Momi Watu" struck me as horror, because we get a glimpse at a world that has been infected by something, but we're not sure what, and seeing the panic the mother has about lice (which are kind of scary-looking for a lot of people) definitely made my heart pound a bit.
You know, I think a lot of your writing might get classified as horror because of how subtle it can be. In "The Raineses'," for example, you get a very piecemeal recount of what happened to the family in this house that has a lot of very horrific suggestions. And the idea in "Deep End" of downloading people of color into white bodies is really terrifying to me because of the oppression being perpetuated in doing that—though I definitely didn't see Ajala as a monster at all.
Moving on. Some of your stories, however, are very much folktales—specifically "The Beads of Ku" and "At the Huts of Ajala," which we've been talking about a little. Both of these stories are distinctly rooted in African storytelling. While common themes can certainly be found in all folkloric traditions, every culture nonetheless has its own unique way of telling tales. What inspires you about storytelling from different African nations?
NS: Well, it's probably in part that many of my ancestors came from lands in Africa. The tales are quite filtered by the time I hear them, of course: translated from their original languages, selected by academics, screened by editors. I'm not sure if what inspires me actually comes from the tales' sources."The Beads of Ku" was inspired in part by my youngest sister, who has always been a marketplace mama. There's an archetype in West Africa, a business woman who is daring, who has children but is by no means homebound. So I was drawing parallels between this archetype and what I know of its roots from personal experience.
"At the Huts of Ajala" was written as a challenge from my godmother, my spiritual teacher, Luisah Teish. It was an assignment, basically, so the folkloric elements came straight from her. I have another folktale-like story called "Wonder-worker-of-the-world" which strongly mimics the storytelling voice found in translated West African folktales. And there's a story that didn't appear in Filter House called "Cruel Sistah" that's based on a Scottish folksong, Ebonics-style.
JV: So, if I'm understanding correctly, you're not sure how you've been influenced per se because of how filtered these stories have been through a lot of factors?
NS: I'm saying I'm influenced, but I'm not sure where the influence comes from, and it's probably not what you could call pure.
JV: Gotcha. So many of your stories also focus on the importance of family in various forms, from friends who are close like family in "Wallamellon," to family ghosts in "The Raineses'." What about the concept of family (and particularly what family means to black Americans as a group) lends itself particularly well to science fiction and fantasy?
NS: Are my stories really focused on family? I guess I can see that if I look—the YA novel I'm revising is about a family curse redeemed. Blood is a magical substance; relations are how we relate.
JV: Not all of your stories are focused on family, for sure, but quite a few talk about family or ancestors.
NS: I am the one that left my family behind, so it's funny to hear you say that family is important in my work. I moved out at age 15 for several months, left permanently at 16. I live thousands of miles now from my home. But I do love my family, and I miss them all the time. My mother came to WisCon in 2009 when I received the Tiptree. She's coming again this year, when I'll be the guest of honor—and my youngest sister Gina will attend also, with three of her kids. So it will be a real family deal. Yes, egun, ancestors, are a foundational part of my religion.
JV: In the last few years or so, the issue of racism and other -isms in science fiction and fantasy has become a topic that more writers, critics, and fans are openly discussing, whereas before I think such discussions occurred more in spaces that were controlled by or made up predominantly of people of color. To what do you attribute this shift, and how do you see this discussion impacting the field?
JV: Wow. I don't know what to attribute it to, but I am very, very glad it has occurred. I mean, really, it's still kind of touchy territory to talk about race, age, sex in the context of literature. There's an awful lot of pushback. But at least there's some push forward.
What caused the change? I wish I knew. It's been a long struggle, and on so many fronts. Billie Holliday was denied sponsorship from Ivory Soap because black people were perceived as dirty. Now we've got all these black models, and the idea that one couldn't be used in a soap commercial is just ludicrous. So to a certain extent it's probably due to pop culture. But the open discussion of one -ism doesn't mean equally open discussion of them all. There are still areas of prejudice, still sanctioned hates. Just not the same ones.
JV: On that note, Writing the Other is a wonderful primer on how an author can prepare to write characters whose race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other identities differ from his or her own. How can reaching beyond one's own experience or background as a writer be beneficial, and what, in your experience since co-authoring Writing the Other, have you found to be the most common pitfalls of such attempts?
NS: The benefits of writing the Other well are more verisimilitudinous writing, for one, and a broader audience for another. You get better, and more people can relate to what you write. These benefits make most writers happier. Their editors and publishers, too.
The pitfalls I've seen are mostly due to willful blindness and/or laziness. As an analogy, I have an acquaintance who is sure she is one of the most racially sensitive people on the planet. She has a black friend! She attended a consciousness raising workshop one weekend! The work of writing goes on always. And the work of writing the Other well goes on always also. It's like tai chi or yoga. You do it more than once. You do it every day. You get better at it, and you can always get more better at it.
JV: Which authors from any genre inspire and intrigue you most today?
NS: Gwyneth Jones. I just read her new short story collection, The Universe of Things. That woman tries stuff other people don't even know how to dream of. I have said it before, and I'll say it again: Raymond Chandler, for his descriptions. Colette, for her vivid personifications of nonpersons: objects, pets, weather, furniture, gardens. I adore Mat Johnson's new novel Pym, and his graphic novels Dark Rain and Incognegro were also splendid. Audacity wins me over every time. Samuel Delany has done some of the best, most poetic writing of the last two hundred years. Graham Joyce makes me very happy, though I wouldn't say he inspires me. I never think I'm going to do something because he did it. He does write a lot about families, though. John Crowley's Engine Summer inspires me, I've read it five times now. Howard Waldrop inspires me because, again, he does so much that's so weird and does it so naturally. Eileen Gunn inspires me as a writer—another stone risk taker, with the chops to pull chanciness off. I'm inspired by some of the people I've put together in the volume of The WisCon Chronicles I've just edited: Jaymee Goh, Maria I. Velazquez, M. J. Hardman. They're not famous. Yet.
JV: What projects are you currently working on? Do you have any stories, novels, or articles scheduled for publication in the near future?
NS: Girl, do I have projects! Let's break it down by activity. Editing: I just finished WisCon Chronicles 5: Writing and Racial Identity , with my theme as stated above. And I am currently Reviews Editor for The Cascadia Subduction Zone, a literary quarterly published by Aqueduct Press.
Revision: I'm revising a novelette called "Something More," a fantasy based on the life and death of British folkrock singer Sandy Denny. That's for the GOH book Aqueduct is publishing at WisCon 35. And the first week in April I'll spend revising "Speculation," a fantasy novel for 10- to 12-year-olds, set in a small Midwestern town that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. I have a publisher for that—but no contract yet, so I'll say no more.
Writing: I've promised a short story for an anthology on rivers to a writer-turned-editor acquaintance. I'll be setting a love story in the estuary stage of things. And I'm six chapters in on my Belgian Congo steampunk novel, which I could totally write if I had sponsors for the next 35 chapters. It's maddening. I know what I want to do and how I want to do it, but there are all these revision deadlines to take care of first, etc. I have also promised a short story for the second Steam-Powered anthology, which I'm envisioning at the moment as a section from the novel. Yes, there are lesbians.
NS: Finally, upcoming publications? Well, WisCon Chronicles 5—I really did contribute to that book's essence by editing it. The GOH book, which I want to call "Something More and More" And in an Oregon-based literary magazine called Phantom Drift I have a story coming out called "Just Us." I can't tell you what that one's about. You have to read it.
I also co-edited an anthology on Octavia Butler a while back, and it is now being considered by another, bigger publisher than we originally proposed it to. My coeditor is Rebecca Holden. Don't know when it will be out, alas. And that's not counting the teaching or the part time marketing job.
JV: And finally, a question I've been particularly curious about, ever since I expected to find a story called "Filter House" in your collection and didn't: what about the image of a filter house attracted you so much that you decided to name your collection for it? It's such an interesting, but not well-known, biological process—in fact, the only references I could find to it online pointed back to your book!
NS: I was the one who came up with the title Filter House, based on surfing through images of appendicularians, the near-microscopic sea creatures who build filter houses. I've always been interested in marine biology, and I feel a strong connection to the sea. And the photos I found were simply gorgeous—delicate, weird, mesmerizing. When I learned about the place of filter houses in marine ecology I felt there was a strong parallel between their ephemeral yet essential nature and that of short stories, when considered in regard to short stories' place in the literary ecology.
The cover photo was taken by Per R. Flood, a Norwegian researcher and marine biologist. I'm very fortunate that he allowed Aqueduct Press [Filter House's publisher] to use it.