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Ignyte Interview Series: Nisi Shawl

Award-winning Author Nisi Shawl to Speak at Goddard College - Fort WordenThe Ignyte Ember Award celebrates the unsung contributions of people in the speculative fiction community. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, Nisi Shawl is a journalist and writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories. Alongside Cynthia Ward, they are the co-author of WRITING THE OTHER: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Their short stories have appeared in numerous other SFF magazines and anthologies. They are also a board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, one of the Carl Brandon Society’s founders, and a guest speaker at Stanford University and Smith College. We are honored to count them among our finalists and have interviewed them here about their endeavors.

What does it mean to you to be considered for the Ember Award?

This is such a great, great honor! To have my contributions recognized as possibly worthy of an Ember in the award’s inaugural year is a realer and more serious joy than I could ever have dreamed of.

Some great stories have come out of publishing. Is there a particular body of stories you’d like to see told more or a particular perspective or voice you’d like to see more stories from?

I’m really interested in stories that de-center the individual and focus more on community and shared experiences.  I want to see more about and from the perspective of groups to balance what I perceive as a bias toward extreme isolation and exceptionalism.

What was your inspiration for writing Everfair? What was the initial spark that ignited the story?

I’ve told the anecdote several times of being placed on a World Fantasy Convention panel about steampunk and promising to write a novel that struck a countermelody to the prevailing tune legitimizing the Victorian era’s imperialist colonialism.  I often say hatred was the spark–loathing for the normalization of oppression the subgenre of steampunk so often presents to readers.  But of course, also there was love.  I love many of the historical figures whose lives formed a basis for some of Everfair’s characters.  In fact, I love all of them.

Why’d you decide on all the various viewpoints in Everfair instead of only a handful of them? What was the message you wanted to convey to readers with the choice?

In my investigation of techniques for representing characters based on people with traits placing them outside the dominant paradigm, I discovered that it helps a lot when these characters can speak for themselves. So that’s part of why I wanted so many diverse voices: I wanted my characters to tell their own stories, from their own viewpoints.  I also wanted to depict plurality rather than individuality.  Part of what makes a choral group strong is the multiplicity of voices with which it sings.  I wanted to show that.  Because, as one astute reviewer noted, the novel Everfair is not about Lisette, or Jackie, or Daisy, or King Mwenda–it’s about the country Everfair.

When did you decide you wanted to become a writer? Why did you decide it?

 I decided that long, long ago. Probably as soon as I could write. But I first realized it was a viable career path a bit later, back in the mid-1970s, after reading Suzy McKee Charnas’s novel Walk to the End of the World.  At that point I understood that I could get paid for writing the most audacious stuff. And I knew I was good at it, and I knew I could get better.

What’s your all-time favorite speculative story or even trope?

There are so many!  I really do favor audacity above most other story values. Gwyneth Jones’s novel White Queen (in which the interactions between aliens and humans mirrors the interactions between imperialist whites and those they conquer) is a big favorite of mine. So is Samuel Delany’s novella Empire Star, which introduces several sweet philosophical concepts and shows this breathtakingly, horrifically apt integration of slavery with the consequences of interstellar warfare.  As for shorter works, there’s an obscure Clifford Simak story called “Auk House” which lifted me out of my chair, spun me several times in the air, flipped me through 360 degrees, and returned me to my seat with someone looking over my shoulder.  And I heart forever Ted Chiang’s “Division by Zero.”

Can you speak about your work with the Carl Brandon Society that you helped found? What are your current and future goals for the Carl Brandon Society?

Currently, we’re getting our Parallax and Kindred Awards up and running again.  We have a jury, we have nominated works for them to consider, we’ve got a timetable.  In the future we hope to continue distributing the awards and the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship.  We’re also looking to put together another anthology like Bloodchildren, the one we did in 2013.

Why do you think texts like your creative writing handbook, “Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction” are important?

Because if they didn’t exist people would say the work such texts advocate and teach was impossible.  And they wouldn’t do it.  And the world would be missing so many very cool stories.

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