Nisi Shawl (born 1955) is an African-American writer, editor, and journalist. She is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy short stories who writes and teaches about how fantastic fiction might reflect real-world diversity of gender, sexual orientation, race, colonialism, physical ability, age, and other sociocultural factors.
Writing the Other, short stories, and awards/memberships
Shawl is the co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, a creative-writing handbook derived from the authors’ workshop of the same name, in which participants explore techniques to help them write credible characters outside their own cultural experience. Reviewer Genevieve Williams of speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons summed up about this guidebook: “The practices advocated and concepts presented in Writing the Other may seem PC to some, but following them will help to ensure that an author gives more than lip service to diversity and is thoughtful about the creation and development of societies, cultures, and characters (which we all should be anyway). Much of what Shawl and Ward advocate is, quite simply, good practice: the avoidance of cliches, flat characters, unintended effects, and other hallmarks of lazy writing.”
Shawl’s short stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, the Infinite Matrix, Strange Horizons, Semiotext(e) and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Brian Charles Clark of the fiction review site, Curled Up With a Good Book, praised her debut collection, Filter House (2008)–which gathered 11 previously published and three original short fiction pieces—saying that: “Shawl’s keen sense of justice and her adamant anti-colonialism always ride just beneath the surface of her stories. Never didactic, Shawl possesses the gift of a true storyteller: the ability to let the warp and weft of plot and character do her moral work for her.”
Shawl is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a 1992 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She is a board member of Clarion West and one of the founders of the Carl Brandon Society. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award, and Writing the Other received special mention for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. In 2008, she won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for Filter House, which was also shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. In 2009 her novella Good Boy was additionally nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Her 2016 novel Everfair was nominated for a Nebula Award.
Shawl’s first novel, Neo-Victorian, Belgian-Congo-set, steampunk story Everfair, was released in September 2016 by Tor Books, with a cover illustration by award-winning, Hong Kong artist Victo Ngai.
Everfair is an alternate history of the African Congo, Europe, and the United States, during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, where Shawl’s science-fictional turning point is that “the native populations (of the Congo) had learned about steam technology a bit earlier.” Her novel imagines that British Fabian Socialists team up with African-American Christian missionaries to purchase land in the Congo Basin from Leopold II of Belgium, thus creating a speculative new nation in her version of history, where citizens could experiment with the freedoms they had lacked in their original homelands, as well as benefit from this key technology of the industrial revolution, that of steam engines.
“This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated,” summarizes Forge Blog, in a “Sneak Peek” of the novel. Its story presents multiple protagonists’ perspectives, including “Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another,” utilizing Shawl’s lifelong skills in “writing the other,” especially multi-racial characters from marginalized populations.
In an early review for Goodreads, the speculative fiction and fantasy author, Fran Wilde, said of the novel:
“With Everfair, Nisi Shawl not only redraws the steampunk map, she reworks history itself, revealing points at which change is entirely within our grasp. Within this sweeping narrative, Everfair’s characters are beautifully drawn, yet treated with such a level gaze that one expects to find all of them in history books upon finishing the novel. Interlacing subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in hearts, minds, and communities against the background of the rubber trade, WWI, and King Leopold’s reign, Shawl builds a fulcrum for change. In short, Everfair embodies wonder: both technologically, as is familiar to fans of the genre, and in the matters of possibility and hope. Nisi Shawl has breathed new life into the genre.”
Contributions to women’s, multicultural, and global speculative fiction
In 2009, Shawl donated her archive to the department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University.
In 2011, her longtime work in the women’s speculative fiction was recognized, when Shawl was selected as Guest of Honor at WisCon 35. In 2015, recognized as one of the “go to” teachers and mentors within the speculative fiction community on pedagogical issues of diversity, she served as guest speaker both in the “Black to the Future: An Imagination Incubator” (“Ferguson is the Future”) symposium of multicultural speculative fiction artists, academics, and creative writers, at Princeton University (held on September 14, 2015) and in the “Creating Futures Rooted in Wonder” symposium of fairy tale, science fiction, and indigenous storytellers and scholars, at the University of Hawai’i (held from September 16–19, 2015), where she performed in author readings with Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, and other indigenous writers, as well as led creative writing workshops.
Her novel Everfair joins with the growing movement of international speculative-fiction writers of color, including editorial efforts by Jaymee Goh of Malaysia and Joyce Chng of Singapore (author-anthologists behind the 2015 collection of Southeast Asian steampunk published in English, The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia), to repurpose the science fiction trope of alternate history in critical ways that foreground issues of colonialism, globalization, and culture.
Afrofuturist and feminist sf anthologies
Shawl has edited several anthologies of speculative fiction, especially collections of Afrofuturist, feminist/LGBT, and African-American sf/fantasy short stories, including recent homages to pioneering black/queer sf novelists Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler: Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany (2015), co-edited with Bill Campbell, and Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (2015), co-edited by Rebecca J. Holden. Shawl’s anthology work has been part of her longtime participation within both the feminist and the African-American sf writing communities, evidenced in her editing of WisCon Chronicles Vol. 5: Writing and Racial Identity (2011, generated from America’s most venerable feminist sf convention); as well as in her stories’ publication within women sf writers’ literary experiments, such as Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies (2006, by feminist sf publisher Aqueduct Press) and within African-American speculative fiction collections, notably the groundbreaking Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000). Lastest (2019) came the publication of the New Suns Anthology.
Personal life and influences
Shawl was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She started attending the Residential College of the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts in 1971 at the age of 16, but did not graduate. She lives in Seattle, Washington, where she reviews books for the Seattle Times as a freelance contributor. She identifies as bisexual.
Among those who have influenced her work, she has named writers Colette, Monique Wittig, and Raymond Chandler; as well as speculative fiction authors Gwyneth Jones, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, Howard Waldrop, and Eileen Gunn.
Recently Guignard published a “primer” to Nisi Shawl´s stories, where many of her stories are analyzed and contextualized, Much recommended. Read more about it in this interview with Guignard
- “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer,” Semiotext(e) SF, New York, NY: Columbia University, April 1989,
- “The Rainses’,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1995 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “The Pragmatical Princess,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, January 1999 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “At the Huts of Ajala,” Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, New York, : Warner Books, July 2000 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Shiomah’s Land,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March 2001 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Vapors,” Wet: More Aqua Erotica, Mary Anne Mohanraj (editor), Three Rivers Press, NY, NY.
- “The Beads of Ku,” Rosebud Magazine, Issue 23, April 2002 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Momi Watsu,” Strange Horizons (website) August 2003 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Deep End,” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, 2004, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, BC, Canada. (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Maggies,” Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, edited by Sheree R. Thomas, 2004, NY: Warner Books. (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Matched,” The Infinite Matrix (excerpt from the novel The Blazing World, co-sponsored by the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs), May 2005.
- “Wallamelon,” Aeon Speculative Fiction #3, May 2005 (website) (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Cruel Sistah,” Asimov’s SF Magazine, October/November 2005; Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror #19, New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, August 2006.
- “But She’s Only a Dream,” Trabuco Road (website) March 2007 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- “Little Horses” Detroit Noir, Akashic Books, November 2007 (appeared in FILTER HOUSE)
- Everfair, Tor, 2016
- Writing the Other: A Practical Guide, with co-author Cynthia Ward, Aqueduct Press, Seattle, WA, December 2005.
- “To Jack Kerouac, to Make Much of Space and Time,” Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies, L. Timmel Duchamp (editor), Aqueduct Press, Seattle, WA, March 2006.
A very comprehensive catalog of writings and influences. We recommend that participants of Fantasticon 2019 read Everfair, the short story collection Filter House, the essays collection Something More and more…, and if you write or review writing, also the important guidebook Writing the Other.
Many of Nisi Shawls short stores are online on different sites, read them here:
- “The Pragmatical Princess” (Asimov’s, January 1999) – http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/new/new-fiction/the-pragmatical-princess/
- “Shiomah’s Land” (Asimov’s, March 2001) – http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/shawl_10_17_reprint/
- “Momi Watu“ (Strange Horizons, August 2003) – http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/momi-watu/
- “Deep End“ (So Long Been Dreaming Anthology, 2004) – http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/deep-end/
- “Cruel Sistah“ (Asimov’s, October 2005) – http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/cruel-sistah/
- “Pataki“ (Strange Horizons, April 2011) – http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/pataki-part-1-of-2/ +
- “Honorary Earthling” at Expanded Horizons, December 2011 – http://expandedhorizons.net/magazine/?page_id=2676
- “Black Betty“ (Crossed Genres #36, December 2011) – http://crossedgenres.com/archives/036-different/black-betty-by-nisi-shawl/
- “Red Matty“ (Strange Horizons, 2013) – http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/red-matty-part-1-of-2/ +
- “Jamaica Ginger“ (with Nalo Hopkinson) (Stories for Chip Anthology, 2015)- http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/jamaica-ginger/
- “Vulcanization“ (Nightmare Magazine #40, January 2016) – http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/vulcanization/
- “Queen of Dirt“ (Apex Magazine #93, February 2017) – https://www.apex-magazine.com/queen-of-dirt/
- “More than Nothing“ (Tor.com, March 2017)- https://www.tor.com/2017/03/08/more-than-nothing-nisi-shawl/
- “The Best Friend We Never Had“ (Apex Magazine #104, January 2018) – https://www.apex-magazine.com/the-best-friend-we-never-had/
- “Luisah’s Church“ (Apex Magazine #108, May 2018) – https://www.apex-magazine.com/lusiahs-church/
- “The Things I Miss the Most“ (Uncanny Magazine #24, September 2018)- https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-things-i-miss-the-most/
A few essays online:
- “Race, Again, Still” at Strange Horizons, April 4, 2011 – http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/columns/race-again-still/
- “I Hear a Different Frontier,” (nonfiction), on The Future Fire’s editors’ blog, edited by Djibril al-Ayad, published on June 11, 2012 – http://press.futurefire.net/2012/06/i-hear-different-frontier-by-nisi-shawl.html?showComment=1339469516536#comment-c3354265050868060868
- “Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing About Architecture,” Strange Horizons, , March 2014 – http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/reviewing-the-other-like-dancing-about-architecture/
There is an extensive list of short stories, essays, and reviews/interviews at Nisi Shawls homepage: www.nisishawl.com