Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers, has written a new blog post about the life and career of author Nisi Shawl, take a look!
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 her own writing and as a creative writing teacher, she communicates 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, she 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 her own invention to her sister. Precociously intelligent, she started college at the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts in Ann Arbor at only sixteen, but feeling alienated, she dropped out two weeks before finals. She moved into Cosmic Plateau, an affordable shared household where her rent was only sixty-five dollars per month, and worked part-time at all sorts of jobs while honing her craft as a writer; she even played in a band for a time as well as doing spoken-word performances of her written works at cafes, parks, and museums.
Her 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 her story having been published in Semiotext(e), which pioneering cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling thought none of the attendees would have even encountered, she made networking connections with cyberpunk authors Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and John Shirley. Shirley offered to read Shawl’s short fiction; he thought that she possessed talent as a writer and advised her 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 her to create a Writing the Other essay and class, from which she and Cynthia Ward, whom she 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. She is now a member of Clarion West’s board of directors. She has written dozens of reviews for the Seattle Times and Ms. magazine and has lectured at Stanford and Duke universities.
Her 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; her 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 herself has stated that she identifies as bisexual. Since then, she has 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).
Her 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.
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