Nisi Shawl: Zeroing in on the Human Condition

by Jaymee Goh

Nisi Shawl

Before I met Nisi Shawl, I knew their nonfiction writing. They are the co-author of Writing the Other, an important book that made me consider writing not the Other, in my own writing, but myself.

They wrote about guests and tourists as metaphors in conversations about cultural appropriation, and I weighed every eloquent word. At the beginning of RaceFail, that large conversation about representations of race and people of color across media and fandom, their voice was a rational one that offered solutions and showed the way to an attitude shift.

Their short stories demonstrate a breadth of concerns worthy of any good science fiction writer, from “Momi Watu,” where the anxieties of motherhood are amplified by dangerous diseases, to “The Pragmatical Princess,” about the burgeoning friendship between a princess and a dragon. Their science is also spiritual, not the cold empirical method of mere observation, but a lived experience, connected intimately with the ancestors. In a series of stories, collectively called the Amends, they explore the prison industrial complex through the science fictional novums of space travel and artificial intelligence. In “Good Boy,” a doctor calls on a trickster spirit to help address a ship-wide problem. Calling on the ancestors and family spirits is always a tricky thing, but across the world, it is a tradition worth keeping alive, because it forces us to think beyond human impulses and capabilities—and thinking beyond the human is the realm of science fiction.

More recently, Shawl has turned to alternate history, writing a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo wherein the Fabian Society purchases land from King Leopold II to start a new nation free from colonization. Yet this process is fraught with clashing ideas: indigenous rulers wishing to re-establish their sovereignty; Fabianists’ desire to establish a socialist state; Black American missionaries preaching to atheist and heathen alike. Everfair is filled with many combinations of political and personal conflicts and unions that could arise from these conditions: interracial families, queer lovers, kings, and tinkerers. All are touched by each other in some way, and their differences make co-existence uneasy because, in many ways, true multiculturalism requires uneasy truces, a fact Shawl does not turn away from. Nor do they flinch from the atrocities of the period: the severed hands that King Leopold II collected in historical reality remain, even as they are replaced with steampunk body parts. In the horror short story, “Vulcanization,” the colonized take their revenge by haunting the butcher king. Just as Nisi Shawl thinks beyond the human, so too do they zero in on the human condition.

This uneasiness in difference has long been an important concern. Their dedication to the issue shows not just in their writing, but in community efforts. Shawl is one of the founding members of the Carl Brandon Society, which promotes racial diversity in speculative fiction. The group was founded in 1992, long before the current wave of diversity discourse in publishing since RaceFail 2009. Diversity was a problem then and remains a problem now. Community members like Shawl have bent their heads to the task of addressing it for many moons.

The first time I met Nisi Shawl, it was at the WisCon Clothing Swap. I caught sight of their nametag and leaned over to my friend and whispered, “oh my God that’s Nisi Shawl,” like I had caught sight of a celebrity, because in my small but broadening world as a baby fan and neophyte writer, Nisi Shawl was practically a Hollywood celebrity. It was all the more important that they were not part of Hollywood, but part of a tradition of science fiction that included people like me: writers from a different culture, with different literary and storytelling traditions, using different cultural markers to signal universal truths in our work.

At lunch the next day I worked up the gumption to approach and invite them to lunch with other young fans of color I had met the day before. They were asking for white gloves at the registration desk, to do a Michael Jackson act for their reading. I never got to the reading, so I never got to see what that was all about, but I did get to see something else magical. We ambled out of the hotel, them with a rolling suitcase I was quickly coming to associate with being the evolution of the handbag, a sign of graduating from Auntie to Auntie Maximum. And we were stopped by a tall white man who wanted to exchange pleasantries, and after he did, he pointed at the bag and asked, “what’s that?”

“Oh, this?” Nisi replied, with a smoothness that implied a zinger was coming, “this is what Audre Lorde would call my black woman’s burden.”

And the man had to take a moment to process this. Because what could you possibly say to that? Ask what would be its constituent parts? Inquire further the contents? “All righty then!” he said, and then went on his way, having taken the hint to never ask such a foolish question again.

Gosh, I thought, I want to grow up to be like Nisi.

Ten years later, I’m still trying. I think we should all try to grow up to be like them. We do not often encounter their type of regal elegance, the gravitas with which they carry their person and their worlds, the humbleness of their words and bearing towards everyone around them. It is hard in today’s hurried world to see the towers of grace and beauty, but stop we must to appreciate them, and so should we stop to savor Nisi Shawl’s kindly beacon upon us when we can.

Jaymee Goh is a speculative fiction writer and editor at Tachyon Publications.