The novel-length debut of prolific short-story writer Nisi Shawl, Everfair is a complex steampunk alternate history of Belgium’s disastrous colony known as the Congo Free State. Shawl weaves together many diverse voices to invent a steampunk alternate history that honors those who died during King Leopold II’s reign.
We recently talked to Shawl about history, racism, writing the other, and the ethics of technology.
In the historical note at the beginning of the novel, you explain that the work is derived from the atrocities that occurred in the Congo Free State during King Leopold II’s reign. What was it about this that inspired you to write a novel?
Here’s what inspired me: the juxtaposition of two intensely contrasting worldviews in one period. The nineteenth century was steeped in the joys of mechanical technology, the beauties of well-engineered tools, and that’s what steampunk typically glories in. At the same time there were widespread experiences of degradation and death, suffering, pain, sorrow, loss–especially in the Congo. That grimness is what steampunk tends to ignore. For me, the undeniable connection between these two aspects of life at that time exercises a deep fascination.
You mention in that same note that with a little bit of steampunk technology, the inhabitants of the Congo Free State might have had a better fate than history gave them. It’s as if you’re giving the dead a chance to speak their own stories. How does this play into the work you do teaching aspiring writers about writing the other?
Certainly I was “writing the other” for every viewpoint character in Everfair. None of them were 60-year-old light-skinned black women living in North American cities in the 21st century. And I explain how I tried to do this when I talk to my students. But the idea of giving the dead a chance to speak–to me that’s a very explicitly religious concept, one that’s part of specific rituals enacted by my community. I practice a West African tradition known as Ifa, and we do, literally, ask our ancestors to talk to us through the mouths of our co-celebrants. I can’t take that thought metaphorically or lightly, and I don’t associate it with what I do with my students.
Also, I’m rereading the note you’ve referred to in these two initial questions. Please help me set the record straight on what I meant there: the nudges I envisioned changing the course of Equatorial Africa’s history involve innovations in the use of steam, yes, but also fortunate happenstances in medical biology, and timely advances in weaponry.
Given how steampunk technology is used mainly for good in Everfair, it seems that you have a positive view of technology in general. Do you see the technology in our time evolving positively or negatively?
Greg Bear used to lecture aspiring writers about how the two World Wars ruined Western Civilization’s optimistic view of technology—he cited publishing timelines and glossed plots and pretty much proved his point, because he’s brilliant. For me, though, growing up in the African-American community, it was obvious technology was going to keep us from picking cotton and sharecropping and succumbing to a whole host of pre-industrial horrors. So I guess the milieu of ’50s and ’60s black culture is what first gave rise to my contra-Bearian optimism in that regard.
Later, as a teenaged hippy, I read Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” and realized that the supposed dichotomy between nature and artifice was itself artificial. I still believe that.
There are awful and scary things going on in conjunction with technology. Yet I don’t blame technology for the awfulness and scariness developing in its wake. That’s on us. However, I also don’t believe that technology in and of itself is neutral. Some technologies carry their potential for good and evil in their basic forms. Do we use them? Do we leave them alone? As I said, that’s on us.
Finally, let’s not forget that not all technologies are physical. Some are social. Banks are technologies. Schools are technologies. So are languages.
All a technology is, is a tool. It’s on us as humans to pick the tools we want.
Speaking of writing the other, do you feel that the SFF genres are doing enough to promote diversity in writers and in publishing? What else can the genres be doing along these lines?
No. I’m sorry, but I really do not feel—or think, or figure, to use a couple of less [emotionally loaded] words—that people in positions of power in SFF are doing enough to promote diversity in our field. And I don’t even like the word “diversity.” I prefer “inclusivity.” Because what’s going on is that people are being excluded from representation in the genre. This isn’t necessarily conscious or deliberate. Recovering from it will have to be both. If SFF is to become more inclusive, it’s going to take actual work, and it’s not going to be an easy or comfortable process.
A market was recently recommended to me as a venue to which I should submit my short stories. I looked over the names on the masthead. Hmm. I inquired of those who’d recommended it, and who’d dealt with it before, whether the editorial staff was all white folks. Yes, they were, I was told, but that shouldn’t matter, since they read all their submissions blind. Well, blind reading actually does very little to overcome the cultural barriers in place between say, an author raised as an African-American and an editor who wasn’t. All sorts of textual clues and variances remain to be misconstrued; they may even be more liable to misconstruction when stripped of ethnic markers.
One helpful move would be to establish an independent auditing entity to measure industry-wide inclusivity on a regular basis.
Another would be to hire—I said “hire,” as in “pay money for the services of”—inclusivity consultants to advise publishers, periodicals, distributors, and so on individually.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers who want to write outside of their own voices?
My one piece of advice would be to listen. Listen to those writing from inside that “other” voice. Listen to their audiences. Listen to those trying to promote them. Listen to those who read you. Listen to those who refuse to.
If I could give a second piece of advice to those who want to write the other it would be not to shrink from criticism.
Everfair is ultimately a novel about human rights and race. What lessons from the Congo Free State can we apply to race relations as they are happening today?
Other people have come to different conclusions as to what Everfair is ultimately about. One academic I truly respect says it’s about love. Another early reader claims it’s all about optimism.
To me Everfair is about longing for perfection and living with the impossibility of achieving it.
YMMV, as they say.
The lesson I’d like to see people to apply to contemporary race relations is that “others” are human beings. Did those living in the Congo Free State learn this? I’m not certain that, historically, they did. Those in my novel? Yes. Yes. And thus the love, the optimism, the happiness of trying.
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Her story collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2009 and her stories have been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award.