SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, it’s is our pleasure to host Nisi Shawl writing about Everfair
Before and during the writing of Everfair I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what I wanted to do. Publicly promising over 200 people that I would write a steampunk novel set in King Leopold II’s hellish personal Congo fiefdom felt like I’d given the concept plenty of lip service.
Michael Swanwick, one of my co-panelists at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention when I made my rash vow, represented, in my mind at least, a major audience to be wooed and satisfied. I kept him in mind, kept testing things out on my mental image of him as I moved my novel forward. But there were others walking with me on this journey. Many of them, like Swanwick, are living people. Adam Hochschild, author of the monumental history book King Leopold’s Ghost, for instance.
The dead have also been with me. I know some of their names. I know Edmund Dene Morel and George Washington Williams from Hochschild’s book. Though they’d breathed their last breaths decades before my birth, their presence inspired two of Everfair’s characters: Roger Morel and Thomas Jefferson Wilson.
Many others died without leaving a trace. That makes their accurate inclusion far from easy, but the exclusion of POC from our visions of the past, present, and future must end now. I’ve done my best to repair this erasure in my own work. My best may not be good enough to represent these people fully; it’s all I’ve got, though.
Daisy Albin, one of Everfair’s viewpoint characters, is modeled in part on E. Nesbit, a well-loved author of Victorian children’s literature. In one of my favorite Nesbit books, The Enchanted Castle, the young protagonists create an audience for a play they’re putting on. They construct it over the course of one afternoon, making it out of pillows, brooms, umbrellas, and hockey sticks. Then the Ugly-Wuglies, as these manufactured audience members are called, come alarmingly to life, and their speech and movements are inflected by the fairly haphazard materials they’re made of, with very weird results. I sometimes feel as if that—the enchantment of inauthentic simulacra—is what has happened with many of my African characters. Mkoi, Old Kanna, Nenzima, Fwendi, Yoka, and the others I’ve written about are alive–but are they real? I hope to learn.
Coping with the issue of depicting vanished peoples was only one of the difficulties to be faced in writing steampunk set in Everfair’s historical context, what’s now known as “The Scramble for Africa.” It was an important one, no doubt; representing silenced voices is a serious responsibility. Please don’t ever attempt to evade it.
But I also wanted to accurately address the presence of the struggle’s victors. I wanted to depict white people in Everfair in a way that showed them to be fully human subjects rather than tools or two-dimensional villains. Without anachronistic storylines or asides.
So all the whites I wrote about are basically of good heart (Leopold’s offstage the entire time). They are also, however well-intentioned, complicit in the oppression they fight. Justice is and has always been a complex good. Privilege blinds those it is bestowed upon. This is why Daisy wounds her mixed-race dearest one without a clue as to what she’s done.
Fortunately, love. Love teaches. Love is transformative. In Everfair love triumphs over hate, as I hope and pray and believe it does in the world outside the one I’ve written.
What I’ve tried to do in writing Everfair is what Stevie Wonder advises in the lyrics of his 1976 song “As”: “Change your words into truth and then change that truth into love.”
Now that it’s finally done, I’m talking now about what I did. Mostly, here’s what I want to say: Read my words. Take them as truth. Take them as love. Teach. Grow. Learn.
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Her story collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2009 and her stories have been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award. To learn more about Nisi Shawl, visit www.nisishawl.com