The Poetry of Prose: A Conversation with Nisi Shawl
Nisi Shawl has been reading since around age six. They have also been crafting entertaining stories since early childhood. A confession, from the autobiography on their website: “When I was little, I told my middle sister Julie convoluted tales of how I, a mermaid, had come to dwell in the small midwestern town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. This odyssey involved the Saint Lawrence Seaway, several of the Great Lakes, and mysterious underground passages my schoolteacher called aquifers. Her own origin was much simpler, of course; our parents, I explained, had found her in a garbage can.”
Shawl studied French, oral history, and more at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. They left college before graduating and “worked part-time as a janitor, an au pair, a dorm cook, an artists’ model.” Importantly, they also spent a lot of time reading and writing. “I performed my writings publicly, at parks and cafes and museums.” This was the beginning of wonderful things for genre; but Shawl’s road to recognition would not be easy. “I worked at a natural foods warehouse. I sold structural steel and aluminum. I sold used books. I got married. I joined a band.”
Shawl’s first genre publication was “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer” in the 1989 anthology Semiotext(e) SF, edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, appearing with William Gibson, J. G. Ballard, and others. In 1992 they attended a cyberpunk symposium in Detroit, where they hung out with Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and John Shirley, who told Shawl that they should attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
Shawl attended Clarion West in 1992, and says of the experience, “At Clarion West I learned in six weeks what six years at the university could never have taught me.” Shortly after, Shawl’s work began appearing fairly regularly in notable venues. The April 1995 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, featured Shawl’s novelette, “The Rainses’”; in 1996 Daughters of Nyx zine published “Down in the Flood”; Shawl returned to Asimov’s in 1999 with short story “The Pragmatical Princess”; and in 2000, Sheree Renée Thomas included Shawl’s “At the Huts of Ajala” in her groundbreaking anthology, Dark Matter. The ’90s also saw the beginnings of Shawl’s robust career in nonfiction, a career which includes publication in venues such as The Seattle Times, Ms. Magazine, The Washington Post, and more.
Following a divorce, Shawl moved to Seattle in 1996, where they joined the Clarion West board. They were one of the founders of the Carl Brandon Society in 1999. In 2005 Aqueduct published Shawl’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, co-authored with Cynthia Ward, which became a series of conversations, lectures, workshops, classes, and ultimately, a more formalized online program with a variety of offerings and guest instructors. Shawl has taught extensively, including the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Viable Paradise Workshop, Centrum’s annual one-week camp for gifted youth—Water World, and co-taught an MFA-level writing course at University of Washington Bothell. Shawl is beginning a new “Yearlong in Science Fiction” course for Hugo House, which will run through May 2023.
Shawl has an impressive number of awards nominations and wins. Early marks were “Shiomah’s Land” from Asimov’s and “The Tawny Bitch” from Nalo Hopkinson’s Mojo: Conjure Stories anthology, both Gaylactic Spectrum Award finalists in the early 2000s. “Wallamelon,” published in Aeon magazine in 2005, was a Carl Brandon Award finalist. Their 2008 collection Filter House, published by Aqueduct, won the Otherwise Award (then called the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award). In 2009 Shawl was a double World Fantasy Award finalist for Filter House and for the novella “Good Boy.” Among the many nods and wins, Shawl was a 2019 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award recipient, and Shawl’s 2019 anthology New Suns, published by Rebellion imprint Solaris, won Locus, British Fantasy, Ignyte, and World Fantasy awards.
Nisi Shawl’s debut novel was Everfair, published by Tor in 2016, which was a Campbell, Otherwise, Locus, and Nebula finalist. Our Fruiting Bodies with Aqueduct Press is Shawl’s fourth collection.
What were the books, stories, or authors that were important to you when you were younger, the ones that influenced your writing or inspired you to write?
Of course, I read the Narnia books as a child—but the Christianity they’re riddled with gave me a low-flying haircut! I’d been raised in such an agnostic atmosphere that their symbology totally escaped me. When I was really younger, like just-learning-to-read younger, there were a few other books that conspired to infect me with the SFFH (science fiction/fantasy/horror) bug: Tatsinda by Elizabeth Enright, the Space Cat series by Ruthven Todd, Eleanor Cameron’s Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and sequels, Mary Norton’s books about the Borrowers. Edward Eager was a major inspiration for my forthcoming middle grade novel, Speculation. E. Nesbit, whom Eager recommended, turns up a couple of times as a character in my work: once as “Daisy” in Everfair, and once as a sentient airship in my unpublished novel The Blazing World. A high school friend introduced me to George MacDonald, a Scottish Victorian fantasist beloved of C. S. Lewis. It was due to MacDonald that I investigated Lilith, then wrote “Looking for Lilith,” a story about seeking her out.
Then there’s the feminist SF of the 1970s: Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and Suzy McKee Charnas, among others. It was actually a book by Charnas, Walk to the End of the World, which gave me the idea I could get away with making a career of writing. That was in college and the years immediately afterward, which was also the time when I was introduced to the work of Ishmael Reed and Colette, also wonderful authors to emulate. Three others I discovered during that period of my life, Samuel R. Delany, Lord Dunsany, and Richard Brautigan, taught me to respect the poetry of prose. I like to think that their influence in that regard is clear.
You’ve been publishing short fiction since the late eighties. Looking at your body of work, what has changed about your short fiction, in terms of craft, content, or approach?
Well, I’m less avoidant of repetition. I’ll repeat a word or phrase now for effect, whereas before I deemed that sort of thing an error. But in fact, it’s a great rhetorical technique, as I’ve learned from speaking publicly. It can emphasize and shed light on important points.
I’ve also noticed that in earlier work there was always a little girl present in the text. Sometimes she was the protagonist; sometimes she was just, to put it in filmmaking terminology, an extra. She’s much less present these days. Now the common thread seems to be music.
Finally, my first drafts were all done by hand when I began writing. Now I head straight to the keyboard.
You’ve also done quite a bit of editing work. In fact, you have the anthology New Suns 2 planned for 2023, the follow-up to your award-winning 2019 anthology, New Suns. Has editing changed or influenced the way you write in any way? Has being a writer given you a perspective on editing which editors who don’t write might not have?
Yes, to both questions. I hope. There’s a lot of back and forth, for me, at least, when it comes to the interplay between editing and writing. Mary Ann Gwinn, my editor at The Seattle Times, strengthened my ability to recognize what readers really got out of my words, as opposed to what I thought they should. Gwinn taught me a great deal about editing and how it works, and that, in turn, made me a better writer. Her example gave me the courage to edit, too.
Then the experience of editing reinforced what she’d taught me on the topic, including how to pay attention to the space between the minds of authors and readers—the space where stories take place. Writing helps me understand some authors’ rejections of my suggested edits, and gives me the perspective to approach what I do as a collaborative process rather than a hierarchical one. Ursula K. Le Guin once told me that I was “not only a good editor, but a nice one.”
You’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. What does it take to stay in the game for so long and sustain a career?
As the I Ching says, when you’re on the right path, “Perseverance furthers.” Or as Octavia used to opine, the quality that guarantees a successful writing career is persistence. Plus, I have a weird sense of time—is it truly passing? Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes not knowing is a good thing.
Thinking on the stories in this collection, do you see an underlying theme? Or an overarching one?
I was going for horror. So more a mood, a genre even, than a theme.
What are some of the major differences between this collection and 2019’s Talk Like a Man, in terms of overall composition, selection process, or perhaps vibe or even goals?
To start with, this one is all fiction; no interview, no essay, no bibliography. To go on, Talk Like a Man’s texts were basically selected by the PM Press Outspoken Voices series editor, Terry Bisson, but I put together the table of contents for Our Fruiting Bodies when I pitched the book to Aqueduct Press’s senior editor Timmi Duchamp. The finished book’s stories are the stories I selected, in the order I wanted. Timmi dropped only two of the stories I pitched as part of the collection: one because it’s a collaboration, which confuses the rights picture, and one because she just didn’t think it was good enough. To conclude, the vibe and/or goal of Talk Like a Man is troublemaking; the vibe and/or goal of Our Fruiting Bodies is conveying a sense of fulfilled dread—in the audience or in the audience’s implied audience.
One of the things about collections (as well as reprint anthologies) is when they bring out stories which readers might have missed. Are there a few stories in here you’re particularly glad to see brought back to readers, and why?
There are a couple of things from earlier in my career that those currently interested in my work have probably missed. You mentioned “The Tawny Bitch,” but that’s been reprinted enough that it’s still widely available, even twenty years after it first appeared. My pregnant-vampire-as-aesthete story, “To the Moment,” on the other hand, is harder to chase down. Likewise, “Looking for Lilith.” Two more: “She Tore,” which came out in an anthology of woman-centered sword-and-sorcery tales (probably the wrong venue for it), and “Big Mama Yaga’s,” which debuted as an audio track at a museum display and has since made a print appearance in a low-circulation literary magazine. Our Fruiting Bodies gives readers a new chance to embed within themselves these lovely specimens of weirdness. (At least, I think they’re lovely.)
Are there one or two stories in this book that you thought would make more of a splash when they came out, that really excited you or meant a great deal to you, but that didn’t get noticed the way other pieces did?
“A Beautiful Stream” is my homage to the long, winding life of Colette. I’ve admired Colette as a writer and a kickass human being ever since I learned about her. (She’s the basis of the character Lisette in Everfair.) Reviewers haven’t seemed to care for “A Beautiful Stream” as deeply as I expected them to—maybe because they don’t care about Colette? Or maybe I haven’t adequately conveyed the tension and delight that I feel is threaded through her existence? Or maybe people are looking for a different kind of story? A hero’s journey, not a heroine’s? You tell me.
Which stories in this book do you think may challenge readers more in some ways, and how so?
“Vulcanization” got rejected from the venue which commissioned it because it uses the “N-word” in the first paragraph, and repeats it a few times afterward. Understandably, that’s going to put some of us off of reading it. I thought quite hard about possible workarounds: could I use dashes? Another, less opprobrious slur? Another language—say French (the story’s written in Leopold II’s viewpoint)? Ultimately, I decided that for authenticity’s sake I had to stick with the ghastly language that would have been as mindlessly employed at that time and place, by that person. But not everyone’s going to be able to take it.
“Big Mama Yaga’s” is a first-person flash piece in a very particular Black vernacular, and that one will also be a challenge for some readers. It’s just not the standard speech pattern for most people.
If readers looked at three stories in this book, what would you want them to be, and why?
Ha! Only three? I guess I’d have to go with the second, third, and fourth stories in the book. The first story is short enough that most will read it anyway. The second story, “Women of the Doll,” is much longer—a novelette, in fact. For much of my career, “Women of the Doll” was my favorite thing I’d ever written. Then comes “The Tawny Bitch,” a sort of mash-up of Louisa May Alcott’s blood-and-thunder thrillers and “The Yellow Wallpaper”—and other stuff. Thirdly there’s “Luisah’s Church,” which draws on experience I won via years of marginalization for my religion (Ifa) and my disabilities (myriad), with references to singer Laura Nyro and Ukrainian-American sculptor Louise Nevelson.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Our Fruiting Bodies?
It contains all three Brit Williams stories! Originally Brit came to me as a supporting character in my still-unpublished YA novel La Verde. My pitch for La Verde is: “a tender, touching, mother-daughter tale of body image, racial identity, and soul-maggots.” Brit’s special power is that she’s a “visioner”: she envisions non-physical entities as physical things so that they can be fought and vanquished.
In terms of writing short fiction, what is important for you when you write—what are you focused on the most? And does this change when you are working on longer projects?
Whether I’m writing short or long form fiction, I’m focused on immersing readers in the stories’ flow and feeling. With longer projects I also worry about remembering everything that’s going on.
As you mentioned, you also have middle grade historical fantasy Speculation due in January from Lee & Low, featuring Winna Cole. Winna discovers spectacles which “reveal both the friendly ghosts of her African American ancestors and a dangerous family curse.” What are your favorite things about Winna?
I love how Winna’s so stubborn. She feels completely responsible for saving her mom, her little sister, everyone. She’s smart and determined and brave.
What were the biggest challenges for you in writing this book?
The challenges I faced all came from without rather than within. I felt totally immersed in Winna’s world. No surprise there, since it’s largely modeled on the southwest Michigan of my childhood. Relatives will recognize “bootnose,” Grampa Carl’s term of endearment for Winna, Benny, and Tupelo; they’ll be familiar with the village of Vandalia, and the park where the family holds its reunion.
External challenges were the thing. My editors and beta readers wanted more Grampa Carl, so I added more of his storytelling interludes. They wanted Winna to do things to overcome her obstacles. They pointed out discrepancies in the manuscript’s settings and timings and actions, and got me to resolve them. They challenged me to make Speculation a bigger and better book.
This is very different from your 2016 novel, Everfair. Are there also important similarities? Or aspects which resonate with some of your shorter fiction?
There are more resonances between Speculation and certain of my short stories than between Speculation and Everfair. Anniette in “The Rainses’” and Oneida in “Wallamelon” are pretty much inspired by the same kid on which I based Winna, and Lily, daughter of the protagonist of “Momi Watu,” is an earlier iteration of her. I tend to favor plucky young heroes overcoming the odds against themselves with intelligence and determination.
Those three stories are in my earlier Aqueduct Press collection, Filter House.
What is important or special about this book for you, what do you want readers to know about it?
I say it best in the afterword I wrote on some of the liberties taken with the book’s geography: “Here’s what I want this book to do: I want it to make you feel like you’re in this imaginary world that I’ve created based on how the friends and relatives I grew up with thought and talked and acted, on where they slept and worked and fought and played. If it’s doing that, good. Don’t worry about matching its locations up mile-for-mile with real ones with the same names. Just be glad that you’ve redeemed my dear old dreams and found a beautiful new home for your own.”
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like folks to know about?
I can’t tell you! Wait and see!
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.