Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Author Nisi Shawl, Everfair

It was a real treat to be joined by author Nisi Shawl, who spoke with us about her novel Everfair, which just came out on September 6th. I asked Nisi to tell us about the origins of the novel concept. She told us she was at World Fantasy Convention in 2009 and was placed on a Steampunk panel. She told us she'd always wondered why she didn't like Steampunk because it had many element she enjoyed, and she finally decided that she hated it because of the premise that all Empire is glorious, and colonialism is the way things ought to be. She said, "I wanted to make it better." So at the panel, she proposed to write a Steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo.

Everfair is just that - a Steampunk alternate history set in the Belgian Congo. I said that didn't sound easy to do, and Nisi agreed it wasn't easy, but that was partly why she did it.

One of the challenges she described in researching the book was that because so many millions of people died, there was not a lot of material available on the indigenous experience in this region at that time. Nisi described wanting to be rigorous in her science. She asked questions like why dirigibles float and what is used for propulsion. She described herself as using science as an approach to the world in which you test how things work.

Much of her work is classed as Fantasy or Horror, but to her, there is less of a division with Science Fiction than most people perceive. Everfair includes a person who can project her consciousness into cats, and plays with the properties of gravity, etc. She compared her approach to the Memoirs of Lady Trent, and to Octavia Butler's Fledgling.

She told us that her research combined internet and print resources, with the internet serving as a scout.

She put a lot of emphasis on music and food. She says she likes to work with music playing in the background, in part to set up continuity between her writing sessions, so for this book she set up a Pandora station with music from Kenya, central Africa, and migrants in north Africa. She discovered that much had been carried over to Cuba and other regions.

She composed a national anthem for Everfair, the country in the story. It's a utopian experiment created by African American missionaries and European socialists who buy land from King Leopold of Belgium and set up a refuge. Naturally, there are tensions with indigenous people.

She did grapple with the magnitude of the project, but decided "I was the person who was going to be able to handle it." She says she would be very interested to hear perspectives on her story from people who are descendants of the survivors of this terrible time in history.

We talked about her use of multiple Point of View. She uses eleven viewpoint characters in this book, and says "That's a lot." When I asked her about how she constructed the voices of the characters, she told me that many of them were modeled on actual historical figures of the time, such as Colette, E. Nesbit, and George Bernard Shaw.

She told us about the character of "Tink," a man named Ho Lin Huang who had no precise real-world analog, but was inspired by historical accounts of King Leopold bringing in Chinese people to build a railroad between the coast and the navigable sections of the Congo river. At a certain point they had had enough of the poor treatment they received and struck out for China - and though they never made it there, you can still find Chinese cultural influence in areas of the Congo today.

I asked her how she tracked all of the various points of view and she said "with a legal pad and a pen." She tried to make sure everybody had their turn on the page. Everfair, the country itself, was the core backbone of the story rather than any single character.

We talked about layers of meaning in the story. Nisi said that back when she was a hippie, she was actually the least political. She told us her character Lisette du Tournier says, "If you don't talk about politics, you don't talk about anything." Politics is a viewpoint, one of the lenses through which to view the story. The visceral and the sensual provide another viewpoint, and the emotional still another. Having multiple points of view helps with triangulation on the part of the reader, where the reader can construct their own judgment based on witnessing the events in different ways through the different points of view.

The book covers a thirty-year period. This means sometimes the gap between points of view is a year, but other times it's just a few minutes.

Nisi said when she constructed the voices of each character, she tried to "imitate what their literary voices would have sounded like" in the text of the book (and this is evident from the very first page). Colette, she said, was easy because she could look directly at her writings. King Mwenda and Tink were filtered through European anthropologists' viewpoints and transcriptions of their voices. There were also some mashups, such as the character Rima Bailey, who was a mashup of Zora Neale Hurston and Josephine Baker. She didn't actually sound like Zora Neale Hurston, Nisi said, but like the voice of someone Zora Neale Hurston would have transcribed in her anthropological work.

The voices came to her pretty naturally, and she had help from her critique group to weed out anachronisms and anachronistic effects. The latter can occur when a word was actually used at the time, but is so heavily associated with aspects of our modern world in the head of a reader that it can throw them out of the narrative even though it would be appropriate. Managing reader expectations is a really important task here. There's also the question of culture: some things would be anachronistic for one culture, but not for another. Nisi said, "I have to be convincing" in how the cultures interact, so she also watched out for things that would be "against place" as well as "against time." A lot of cross-cultural interaction happened over prehistory and history.

In one scene, Nisi's character Daisy looks at a "repeater," which is an early Victorian pocket watch that chimed. She had to make sure distinguish it from the antenna of the same name. In another scene, the character Rima Bailey describes "kissing someone's kitchen," and Nisi chose not to explain that meaning of "kitchen," which is the back of the head between the neck and head. She says this is a sexualized area. If you aren't familiar with the term, then it may seem ungrounded, but if you are familiar with the term, the story in that spot will feel even more deeply grounded. On the basis of this, she chose not do explain, but just to support use of the term in context.

Nisi told us she was quite faithful to history in many places. Hives of bees attack invaders in the battle with France, just the way they did in real life. There was an actual British commander who wore women's clothing into battle; she has a character who does this. His choice meant different things to the Brits under his command, who saw it as eccentric, from what it meant to the indigenous people, who revered him for bucking gender norms.

Nisi says she has had many thoughts for a sequel since she finished the book, but because it covers thirty years, she says, "I can't do another thirty years." She's thinking about looking at other places in this world, and starting to write stories to help her explore. She's also looking at things like the struggle between sustainable and non-sustainable energy sources (petroleum vs. palm oil). There was a huge solar collector in the Egyptian desert between 1913 and 1916, but the British scrapped it for planes.

She imagines that a sequel would look at the worldwide struggle against imperialism, and that peoples across the globe would see the philosophy and structures of Everfair and be inspired to get rid of their oppressors.

Nisi mentioned that she had taken inspiration from Fordlandia when she was thinking about how to try to have happy things happen in the Congo. Fordlandia was a capitalist experiment focused on rubber manufacturing in South America, and there is a lot of documentation about it.

Nisi says she reads a lot of Victorian literature and was always attracted to the myths and legends of Africa.

We also spoke briefly about Writing the Other, a book which Nisi Shawl co-wrote with Cynthia Ward about how to write from the perspective of people who are not of your own demographic group. It's a hugely valuable resource that Nisi said also helped her to write characters in Everfair. She and Tempest K. Bradford will be teaching a live version of Writing the Other on November 6.

Thank you so much for joining us, Nisi! (Now I really have to go and buy Everfair!)



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