Nisi Shawl Teaching Diversity Through Her Artistry

Becca Anderson (author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers) looks to Nisi Shawl for amazing stories of science fiction and fantasy.

Nisi Shawl is an African American journalist and editor who is best known as the author of several dozen science fiction and fantasy short stories. Both in their own writing and as a creative writing teacher, they communicate how speculative fiction can better mirror real-world diversity of not only gender, race, age, and sexual orientation, but also differing levels of physical ability and other socioeconomic variables. With Cynthia Ward, they coauthored the creative writing handbook Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, a follow-up to the workshops of the same name, which Shawl has taught for the last decade. Strange Horizons reviewer Genevieve Williams said of the handbook, “Much of what Shawl and Ward advocate is, quite simply, good practice: the avoidance of clichés, flat characters, unintended effects, and other hallmarks of lazy writing.”

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1955, as a small child, young Nisi told fantastical stories of their own invention to their sister. Precociously intelligent, they started college at the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts in Ann Arbor at only sixteen, but feeling alienated, they dropped out two weeks before finals. They moved into Cosmic Plateau, an affordable shared household where their rent was only sixty-five dollars per month, and worked part-time at all sorts of jobs while honing their craft as a writer; they even played in a band for a time as well as doing spoken-word performances of their written works at cafes, parks, and museums.

Their first professional short story sale came in 1989; “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer” was published in the literary journal Semiotext(e), alongside works by such authors as Burroughs, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard, and Bruce Sterling. In 1992, in a fateful twist, Shawl went to a cyberpunk symposium in Detroit; because of their story having been published in Semiotext(e), which pioneering cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling thought none of the attendees would have even encountered, they made networking connections with cyberpunk authors Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and John Shirley. Shirley offered to read Shawl’s short fiction; he thought that they possessed talent as a writer and advised them to participate in the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, where he and Cadigan were teaching that year. Nisi Shawl later said of the experience, “At Clarion West, I learned in six weeks what six years at the University could never have taught me.” Discussions with other workshop participants eventually led them to create a Writing the Other essay and class, from which they and Cynthia Ward, whom they met at Clarion West, cocreated the handbook. This, along with positive experiences at another writing program in the Puget Sound area, Cottages at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, provided the impetus for Shawl to relocate to Seattle following a divorce. They are now a member of Clarion West’s board of directors. They have written dozens of reviews for the Seattle Times and Ms. magazine and has lectured at Stanford and Duke universities.

Their short story collection Filter House was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of their best books of 2008, and won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy “which expands or explores our understanding of gender,” sharing the latter prize for 2008 with Patrick Ness. Shawl has also edited a number of speculative fiction collections; their work as an anthologist has encompassed feminist, Afrofuturist, and LGBT speculative fiction, including twice coediting homages to lesbian and gay novelists of color: Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler and Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, both published in 2015. Shawl themself has stated that they identified as bisexual. Since then, they have coedited the 2018 collection Exploring Dark Short Fiction 3 as well as editing People of Color Take Over Fantastic Stories of the Imagination (2017) and New Suns (2019).

Their 2016 novel Everfair broke new ground as well; rather than waxing nostalgic about the colonialist aspects of the Victorian era as many steampunk novels do, it took these issues on, creating an alternate history in which the British Fabian Society decides to create an African sanctuary for those fleeing the tyranny of Belgian King Leopold II, who in the actual nineteenth century brutally enslaved the indigenous people of the Congo in order to profit from the local resource of natural rubber. The new and eponymously named nation of Everfair, like the fictional country of Wakanda, works to develop the technology to protect themselves from rapacious European interests; the novel went on to be nominated for both Hugo and Campbell awards.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

The Book of awesome women writers

Medieval Mystics, Pioneering Poets, Fierce Feminists and First Ladies of Literature (Feminist Book, Gift for Women, Gift for Writers)

This one-of-a-kind tome takes a tour with Sylvia Beach and other booksellers as well as librarians, editors, writers, bibliophiles, and celebrated book clubs. Join women’s studies scholar Anders as she takes you on a ribald ride through the pages of history. Chapter titles include “Prolific Pens” (including Joyce Carol Oates, author of over 100 books), “Mystics, Memoirists and Madwomen”, “Salons and Neosalons”, “Ink in Their Veins” (literary dynasties), and the titillating “Banned, Blacklisted, and Arrested.”

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