Ever fair, ever fair my home;
Ever fair land, so sweet,
Ever are you calling home your children;
We hear and answer swiftly as thought, as fleet.
Tyrants and cowards, we fear them no more;
Behold, your power protects us from harm;
We live in freedom by sharing all things equally;
We live in peace within your loving arms.
From many countries we journeyed afar
To find the place where our dreams would come true;
With eyes wide open, we dared to plan a paradise:
a home for all and any, our home in you.
So goes the anthem of Everfair, the little nation in Nisi Shawl's novel of the same name. It is first sung as the Fabian Society’s colonizers, along with the African American missionaries who have joined their cause as natural allies, are making their way towards the parcel of land purchased by the Fabians in order to start their humanitarian project. Jackie Owen, the leader of the Fabians, is trying to make a speech to a group of the colonists, about practical dreaming, about the promise of liberation, and about exciting new projects; he’s a terrible public speaker, and he can’t compete with the church songs coming from his missionary fellows, “invoking primal reactions with pitch and rhythm—how could he fight that? He couldn’t” (p. 62). He takes a moment to realize what the unfamiliar lyrics are, as the poetess Daisy Albin sings them, but is inspired by them to name the Fabians' new settlement “Everfair.”
An anthem is a binder of people: it is a public, communal activity that is meant to move people to particular emotion, within a crowd. The shared feelings created by singing an anthem together create an understanding between the members that is embodied, not through logical or rational speech, but through what is unspoken. Anthems are enshrined in the nation-state's project of creating a unified citizenry—like the Greek theater of antiquity, anthems, and other similar nationalist gestures, are sung to generate a certain kind of feeling, which everyone in the group cleaves to in order to demonstrate their participation. To respond differently is to demonstrate one’s refusal to participate in the national project, and to invite criticism: witness the recent backlash against Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the American anthem, to protest as an African American against ongoing anti-Black violence. Kaepernick kneels to refuse the national project in the American anthem, recognizing that anti-Black violence is part of this national project, that the American nation is built on anti-Black violence. Anthems work on an emotional level; they are supposed to give the citizenry something in common, someplace in common from which to begin: with the principles and history espoused in its lyrics. And so, as we see in Everfair, the nation-building project is compromised from the start, because the promises in an anthem’s lyrics are rarely borne out.
Everfair is built through an unlikely alliance between secular Fabians, African American missionaries, and the native Africans of the region who resist King Leopold II’s rule. King Leopold’s colonization of the Congo Free State, in the novel as in history, is riddled with atrocities. Historical truth is alluded to throughout the novel, “the whippings, the murders committed so casually as if a form of sport, innocents dismembered” (p. 23). Although scholar Margaret Rose argues that part of the pleasure in steampunk lies in the “Easter eggs” of historical truth amid the fiction, that pleasure is refused the reader here. There is no joy in recognizing the historical truths of colonialism’s brutality, truths which are often hidden from the reader in other, more rosy forms of steampunk, mentioned in service of the plot, but never a real background.
Shawl’s project is, like many other steampunk projects, motivated by a desire to improve the history that we were given, to change it so it’s not so bad. Shawl doesn’t pull back history’s punch; she lets it fly, and offers a different solution beyond the white savior methods that many of us in formerly colonized countries are forced to swallow. Her deployment of history is not for gritty torture porn to "show history as it really was"; the pain of its Black subjects is not for consumption by the present-day audience. This is an adventure novel, a meditation on the grand experiment of nation-building, a portrait of human failings; but it is not a spectacle of Black abjection deployed to rouse white sympathies and fill the audience with self-righteous relief that it’s not as bad as it used to be. The historical truth can shock the reader who has no idea the extent of King Leopold’s crimes, but it comes on as a slow-growing suspicion that this actually might be the real history amidst the fantasy.
Steam technology is often used in steampunk to advance the sense of adventure and for spectacle—look at this shiny thing that allows us to achieve more! look at this shiny thing that the oppressed can use to rise up! In Everfair, technology is not a true equalizer; it certainly enables revolution—mechanical hands replace the hands that King Leopold’s men cut from the Congolese (deliver unto King Leopold his baskets of rubber, or deliver unto King Leopold baskets of hands). Airships enable the Everfairers to cross the continent to their landlocked parcel of home without setting foot on enemy ground, and bombs enable them to win the war against the tyrant. Yet technology is no panacea—if the small nation technologically advances, so does the world around it—“the tyrant’s army would have more and more accurate rifles” (p. 186)—and along with the progress comes the further threat of war. The little utopia is thus always precarious.
There isn’t room for self-righteous anti-colonial sentiment: most of the parties participating in the Everfair project are themselves settlers on a land that was stolen and sold back to them. Not even the indigenous characters are allowed an easy, ideologically pure claim to the land: one point-of-view character is in love with a white settler, and she works for Everfair; another point-of-view character is a king, at the top of a hierarchy that the Fabians eschew as feudalist and the missionaries ignore.
Had Shawl chosen a single narrator for the unfolding history of Everfair, it would be easier to establish where the reader’s sympathies should lie. It would also have made Everfair a lesser book, because the novel’s strength lies in its portrait of the conflict painted with all eleven point-of-view characters. In a time when pop culture fiercely holds onto the default White Gaze, because it’s easier, and because it maintains comforting stereotypes for the reader to slip into the story with, the head-hopping of Everfair takes us into vastly different characters, whose goals and ideologies conflict with each other, and whose perspectives demand to be acknowledged for their roles in the unfolding of Everfair’s history. I counted which characters get how many chapters so you don’t have to, and to lay out the scope of Shawl’s vision:
• Lisette Toutournier, the French mulatto writer of fanciful stories, and spy for Everfair, inspired by the writer Colette: 8;
• Daisy Albin, the English poetess who follows her polygamous husband with her (initially co-wife) lover Lisette to found Everfair: 7;
• Thomas Jefferson Wilson, an African American soldier-turned-missionary, who assimilates into Congolese religion, an analog of the real-life George Washington Williams: 6;
• Martha Livia Hunter Albin, African American missionary who compromises to marry young, white, and ardent George Albin: 5;
• King Mwenda, struggling to keep his land free from white colonizers: 7;
• Queen Josina, favourite wife of King Mwenda, trying to find connections and alliance among the Everfairers to help her king: 6;
• Jackie Owen, Fabian founder of Everfair and frustrated by conflict within and without: 4;
• Matty Jamison, playwright whose wealth enables the movement of Everfair’s spies: 4;
• Rima Bailey, Louisiana actress come to Everfair for Lisette and fame: 2;
• Fwendi, rescued from Leopold's rule, whose hands might well be the ones we see on the cover, who becomes Everfair’s greatest spy: 4;
• Tink Ho Lin Huang, former coolie and Everfair loyalist whose engineering skills enable Everfair to develop their fleet of airships: 6.
Reading chapters from specific perspectives doesn’t give a full sense of who they are; they show up in each other’s chapters, narratives inextricable from each other, un-atomizable. Martha Hunter’s decision to marry George Albin is spurred by Tink’s rescue of King Mwenda which ends in a useful tragedy. Fwendi and Matty shyly grow attached to each other across Lisette’s and Rima’s chapters. Lisette and Daisy are present through every chapter, directly or indirectly. Conflicts between characters show up in perspectives that do not always comprehend the problem: when Daisy suggests a national holiday to honour Jackie Owen at a council meeting, Lisette dissuades her and King Mwenda shuts it down, but Daisy is unable to comprehend why, because Daisy is a white woman with all her attendant racist biases. It is up to the reader to remember that Daisy’s perspective is unreliable—all of their perspectives are unreliable—and piece together the problem. (Though Queen Josina’s pronouncement, “You. You are the problem. Sit with me and we’ll figure out how to solve you” [p. 341] at Daisy is very satisfying.)
Whiteness undergirds and undermines the Everfair project: Jackie Owen doesn’t have the charisma to build a meaningful connection between the white and black factions of the people he brings to Everfair, and he is well aware that European support for Everfair will not manifest unless white lives are sacrificed. He is willing to sacrifice them, and blackmail allies if necessary. Daisy is open-minded enough to accept her husband’s extramarital affairs and welcome his mistresses into her home, even calling the children by his second wife her own, but she disapproves of the interracial relationships that her children develop as they grow up in Everfair. Lisette chafes at the racially charged thoughtlessness dealt her by Jackie and Daisy. King Mwenda would like to ban white people from his land, but he knows it creates more problems than it solves, given that white settlers have made his land their home, and helped him defeat Leopold. Everfair is not impervious to the politics of the world surrounding it, causing Daisy chagrin when the Grand Mote—the governing council of Everfair—chooses to take part in a war against Belgium, simply out of antipathy towards King Leopold’s crimes. We are made aware of the shadowy European agents in the background from the very start when Thomas Jefferson Wilson is warned to leave the Congo “Free” State earlier than planned, because the stakeholders of Leopold’s colonizing project are watching him. These agents reappear throughout the book: as assassins, in documents stolen from embassies, in whispered conversations.
Whiteness is not the only source of antipathy between Everfairers; ideology has more forms than race, after all. Daisy’s marriage to Laurie Albin disintegrates as he prefers his second wife, who insists on monogamy. Reverend Wilson begins as a staunch Christian, and he begins to assimilate into the local religion. Atheist Daisy and religious Martha Albin butt heads over whether Everfair’s funds should be used to bring in Bibles and other religious material. Martha Albin is openly homophobic; Jackie Owens expresses his unease with Daisy and Lisette’s relationship by projecting his antagonism. Queen Josina has to spy on her husband and her father for each other, and negotiate with the Everfairers besides. Expectations forged during the founding of Everfair are disappointed: Tink’s hope to bring his family over is dashed as Everfair slips further away from his ideals of peace.
This is a steampunk novel, so what about the mad science? There is plenty: Shawl’s Lisette loves machines, is easily distracted by them. Tink Ho makes prosthetics for the survivors of Leopold’s cruelty, replacing flesh hands with weaponized brass ones. Queen Josina’s mission to make a connection with Everfair introduces her to men wearing melted rubber—“tears” of the “vines-who-weep”—to transport to Everfair’s foundries. That is the recognizable, concrete technology. Science is present also in the medicine that Lisette and Martha deploy in their hospitals, and also in the traditions Queen Josina has inherited: upon administering a cure to a malaria victim, “the small animals inside the ants had begun their work after just one application; the ritual called for five” (p. 152). In the same chapter, Queen Josina teaches Lisette “The Five Yellow Scarves,” a charm to render ambassadors agreeable to the two women.
The scientific and the fantastic in this novel require the same rigor of understanding. Fwendi rides cats, but this is an inherited skill that she must practice, with its protocols for use and troubleshooting procedures. Thomas Jefferson Wilson may not understand the demands of his new god, but he knows that if he doesn’t heed his spiritual advisers as he would a Western doctor, the consequence will be ill health. Even Tink’s work, creating heaters to lift up airships, relies on Bah-Sangah cosmology and the cooperation of their priesthood. King Mwenda is guided by his spirit father, who, as Queen Josina has to remind him, is “the chief of machines” (p. 230). The difference between these methods of getting things done lies not in the art of using these technologies, but in the epistemological approach to them: “Superstition’s nothing to laugh at in Africa,” a British colonial officer warns his colleague (p. 270).
These all sprawl across chapters which do not have titles, but locations and dates. Also a handy map is provided in case the reader gets lost in the local geography. The dates seem to be random: the spread is wider in the earlier chapters as Shawl introduces us to the characters whose journey we shall follow, but one can move from one place to another within the same month, and then suddenly it is three months later, or even six. One can always infer that a lot has happened in the pages that she has not told us about, and each moment is charged with some significance. After all, Nisi Shawl is a master short story writer, a form she has not completely abandoned in this novel—prior to publication, select chapters were published as short stories in anthologies—and thus each chapter has the same feel as a short story of hers would have.
For a book idea inspired by antipathy and alienation, Everfair is balanced by the audacity of making something that sounds strange and un-possible work. (Every retelling of her anecdote about how the book was born has about it a note of “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED” even though she never actually said it.) Everfair the nation must change and cleave to the demands of its circumstances and conflicts between its peoples; Everfair the book rises to the challenge of encapsulating the grand experiment of nation-building.