From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Ain’t I A Woman? Tiptree Winner Nisi Shawl

This past year I had the honor of serving on the jury of the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. I and four other jurors were charged with honoring speculative literature that explored and expanded the boundaries of gender. We chose two works this year: The Knife of Never Letting Go, a YA novel by Patrick Ness and Filter House, a short story collection by Nisi Shawl.

The award ceremony took place during WisCon 33 and I had the further honor of presenting the award and its assorted goodies to Nisi along with fellow juror Catherynne M. Valente. I wrote the introductory speech (which I barely got through because I was so emotional) with Catheynne, and I think serves as a great introduction to this interview:

The first time I read Filter House I devoured it in less than two days and that was only because those silly obligations of eating and working for a living. As I turned each page as I completed each story, I had this feeling of YESYESYESYESYESYES. It was the first book that I’d read for the award that I immediately loved and knew it deserved Tiptree recognition of some kind.

The stories in this collection are as entertaining as they are complex, as challenging as they are comforting. But I don’t mean comfortable. In fact, these stories may make some readers very uncomfortable. But to me, personally, as a black woman, it was like coming home. This is fiction that speaks to me. It challenges and pushes and pulls and refuses to allow the reader to assume that the men and women that inhabit these stories will act according to the strictures and assumptions put on them not only because of their gender but because of their race combined with their gender.

Not only are the individual stories small master classes in the craft, but, as a whole, the collection is in conversation with itself and with the long tradition of science fiction and fantasy. These stories are about women coming of age, coming into power and falling out of it, what it means to be a child, a priestess, an acolyte, a wife and, occasionally, an artificial life form. They are extraordinary in their power, the strength of their voice, and the breadth of their vision.

–K. Tempest Bradford


Eileen Gunn: So, Nisi. You’ve won the Tiptree Award. [SNEAKILY] Can I have your chocolate? I know you won’t eat it.

Nisi Shawl: No. I’m not going to be getting chocolate. Chocolate gives me frightful migraines. I asked the Motherboard for pie instead.

Eileen: No chocolate? [AGHAST] But, but — I’m sure they already have it molded. They would just have to throw it out. I’ve heard that it’s very good chocolate. Shouldn’t go to waste. (Just sayin’.)

Nisi: Pie! Pie is the best food on Earth! I once had a Thanksgiving dinner that consisted entirely of pie. My favorites are peach and pecan. I will save you a slice.

Eileen: Thank you, Nisi. I will cease my efforts to swindle you of your chocolate, as your generosity with pie has won my heart.

Where are you at right now, anyway? I have this feeling that you are in a forest of tall, tall trees. Probably no chocolate there. In the woods. No chocolate at all. No need for chocolate, even.

Nisi: Sometimes I am in the woods. Sometimes I am on the beach, with blue and sunny waves washing up at my feet. Sometimes I am in a meadow watching rosy-breasted swallows swooping overhead. Sometimes I am standing by the bath house watching a lark open his beak and pour out this incredibly lyrical song. A bird’s beak hardly moves at all when it sings.

Eileen: What are you doing out there in the wilds?

Nisi: Besides watching birds? I am writing. Well, revising, really. I just finished revising “Something More,” a fantasy novelette about the life and death of Sandy Denny. I’ve been working on that for a couple of years. Nice to have it done. It may need one or two more lines, but it’s basically there. Now I’ve begun revising my novel, The Blazing World. That one’s been in progress for, what, six years? Seven? I got to the end of that story and then had all these continuity problems. Plus, you made me make a bunch of changes to part of it. Of course the changes improved the story greatly, but now I have to carry them over to the rest of the novel, make sure they don’t contradict what’s already in there, and watch out for overlap and repetition. It’s really all your fault, Eileen….I hope you’re happy,

Eileen: I deny any responsibility for your diligence, Nisi, but I am happy that you are wandering in the wilderness and working on your novel.

Nisi: Oh, should I say what the novel is about?

Eileen: By all means.

Nisi: It’s science fiction. There are these two clones made by the same woman. She keeps clones as pets. One of them is much older than the other and had escaped from the original woman long ago, before the book begins. The older clone leads an expedition to rescue the newer one. Set about 300 years in the future.

Eileen: I know that book! I published an excerpt of it on the Infinite Matrix a few years ago. I’m glad you’re finishing it.

Is there going to be music coming out of your creative retreat? I heard there was music. Songs. Something to do with your dark and complex rock’n'roll past.

Nisi: Well, when I set up this retreat back in November, the idea was that I would be recording tracks for an EP. But the man I was going to do that with backed out; first he was coming for all fourteen days, then just for four. Now he’s coming for none. We were lovers when the plan was hatched, and now we’re not. To be fair, he says there are financial issues as well.

I have another week set up for September, and he says that sounds good to him. Yep.

My “dark and complex rock’n'roll past…” You’re not talking about that time I kissed Joe Strummer on the mouth, are you? No, I thought not….So, the other stuff. I was in a couple bands. I wrote a lot of songs–three albums worth, at least. I sang lead. This was way back when, in Ann Arbor, Michigan….I mean, in the 80s, like. Punk and New Wave period. The bands were called “The Insex,” and then “Accidental Suitcase.” The songs have titles like “Celestial Washing Machine” and “Reasons to Be Happy” and “Look Out for the Lilies” and “Busiest Window In the World.” I guess the time the rhythm guitarist tore my dress off my back in a fight was dark.

The songs were and are very complex, actually, in a pop-ish way. And maybe no match for a lark’s, but still beautiful. I’d really love to record them.

By the way, if there’s anyone else out there who’s interested in doing something along those lines with me, get in touch. We don’t have to have sex with each other, either.

Eileen: [GRINS] So many people would make that a requirement….You have a certain amount of music mischief in you. I seem to recall singing songs from West Side Story with you and Sheree Thomas in a hallway at WisCon. Really? Am I remembering this right? (I know we did “I Feel Pretty,” but did we really do “Officer Krupke?”)

Nisi: Yes! Andrea Hairston was there, too, and she knows all the lyrics to all the show tunes. We definitely did “Officer Krupke,” and I’m betting we did “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” from “Oklahoma!” too. And a bunch of stuff from “Porgy & Bess.”

And let us not forget last year’s WisCon opening ceremonies, when I dragooned you and some other people into coming up onstage to perform songs in honor of Timmi Duchamp and Maureen McHugh. I have proof– a CD Amy Thomson recorded!

Eileen: Now I’m imagining you out there on the peninsula, singing in the wilderness, like Maria Von Trapp.

Nisi: Oh, yes, Big Bad Mama Maria Von Trapp.

Eileen: Of course, I also want you to talk about your tiptop Tiptree-tipping short-story collection from Aqueduct Press. How did that come about?

Nisi: Timmi Duchamp, who is the editor at Aqueduct, approached me about doing a collection of my short stories. It was her idea. I mean — of course I had wanted to put a book together for a long time. I had a whole list I wrote down of titles for this imaginary collection. But the book wouldn’t exist without her impetus.

She asked me to send her all my stories, and I took her at her word. I sent the first story I’d ever sold, “I Was a Teen Age Genetic Engineer,” and several others simply not suitable for publication. She picked fourteen of the twenty-eight I offered her. When people ask me if there’s an underlying theme to Filter House, I want to tell them: “Stuff Timmi liked.” Of course there’s more to it than that. When I told her about the Tiptree she said, “I knew the stories needed to be in a book for people to see what you were doing with them. And I was right.”

You know how when a cat leaps down from a table top or window ledge and lands not quite as gracefully as one might expect, they give you this look as if to say, “I meant to do that!” I have felt much like that cat for some time now. I have been criticized, for instance, for calling my genetically engineered human workers “maggies” in the story of the same title, because the double gee made their name a cognate for the “n word.” Well, duh!

Eileen: You didn’t mean to do that?

Nisi: Oh, yes I did! I mean to do a lot of what I do. Most of it. Trust me.

Eileen: Well, whether you did or not, I think you should be allowed to take full credit for your subconscious. Every writer should. Sometimes it’s best not to examine too closely where your backbrain is taking you, at least until after you’ve gotten there. A writer has to exert control at some point, of course. When I get to the end of the line, I usually leap out and see if I’ve arrived anywhere I want to be. Sometimes I haven’t, but I can see where I want to get to better than I could before I set out.

Nisi: You read all the stories in Filter House. You wrote the introduction. Do you see an underlying theme? Or an overarching one? Hey, asking questions is lots of fun! Of course you’re the one conducting this interview, and you don’t have to answer them like I do.

Eileen: I don’t mind you asking questions, Nisi — like I could stop you.

When it comes to themes, Timmi no doubt exerted some selectivity in choosing a subset of your stories, and that may have given the collection a thematic coherence that, while writing, you weren’t aware of. Themes aren’t necessarily something that the writer starts out with as a goal and writes to. Themes are what you’re really interested in, and sometimes it’s easier for an editor or critic to see those things than the writer. I see several themes in Filter House.

Nisi: Well, it’s true I had some things in mind when I was writing various of the collection’s stories. Usually more than one thing. But they’re not just about what I think. (And they’re not just about what I think, either.) I’ve been talking a little bit about this with Ted Chiang and some other people in a book discussion group I’m in, Tom Foster and Evan Cherniavsky. In light of that old “death of the author” idea. Is a story something I create to communicate ideas, or something I participate in with my readers? I’m always thrilled when someone gets out of a story what I was trying to put into it. And I’m also often thrilled when someone gets out of a story a totally other thing I didn’t even know was up in there. What themes are you aware of in Filter House?

Eileen: Off the top of my head? Ms. Nisi, you didn’t tell us this was going to be on the exam!

Your stories return over and over to examine aspects of maternal/familial love, growing up, connecting with the numinous, and figuring out how the world works. You’re interested in how people talk, in the peculiar regional differences of expression, (such as eavestrough versus gutter), and in the differences between people of the same culture and of different cultures. I don’t know that those are themes, particularly, but I would say they are among your concerns.

Tell me a bit about a particular story — you choose it — where it came from, what you were trying to do why you wrote it.

Nisi: “Little Horses” came out of a song, an idea, and a feeling. The feeling came first, then the idea, then the song–all years apart. The song was Odetta’s version of “All the Pretty Little Horses,” which is a lullaby along the lines of “Summertime.” It’s obviously a black woman singing a white, well-to-do child asleep. Once I heard that version of the song I knew how I could address the idea and the feeling. The idea is best summed up in Nnedi Okorafor’s story “The Magical Negro,” which first appeared in Dark Matter 2, edited by Sheree Thomas. Basically, this is a trope found in fantastic literature depicting blacks as magically powerful yet subservient beings. Think of the character Coffey in The Green Mile. The feeling was what I was left with when a white former friend of mine told me that she had always wanted a black baby to play with, ever since she was a little girl. I can’t begin to describe how deeply icky that revelation made me feel. But maybe “Little Horses” can convey some small part of it.

Eileen: Filter House is your second Aqueduct Press book; before that came Writing the Other, which you and Cynthia Ward published with them a couple of years ago. Although it was intended for writers, I was wondering if that might provide some kind of a guidebook for reading stories by people from other cultures as well as writing stories that include multicultural characters. Were you thinking of that when you wrote it?

Nisi: Maybe. Once in a while. The process was a long one and it took several years and iterations. First I wrote an essay called “Transracial Writing for the Sincere.” Then I put together a four-hour workshop based on the essay with my friend Cindy. Then I wrote another essay, “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.” Then Aqueduct published the book, which contains both essays, a section based on the workshop and including writing exercises Cindy and I developed, and a sample of my work in which I do a lot of things the essays encourage.

Eileen: Are you planning any more books in that series?

Nisi: Cindy and I have talked about doing related books. We could do one on class, which is not a topic Writing the Other addresses at all. And certainly reading the Other is related, and we could cover that, too. I think there needs to be something along those lines, something specific. Because, while you’re right, and some of Writing the Other’s material can be used to help readers as well as writers, anyone who is thoughtful enough to see that need and use the book to do that work is more than halfway there. They’d probably arrive at clueful conclusions without the book. We ought to be able to make it easier for those that are less aware of what they need help with. If that makes sense to you.

Eileen: Of course it does: the farther you get from cluefulness, the more crowded it gets.

Nisi: Okay. It is my actual intent to accomplish things with Writing the Other. Years ago–maybe even decades ago–a priest did divination for me about my writing career. He told me that I would make my mark as an author of nonfiction. His advice was to continue to write stories, but to begin addressing issues I really cared about directly as well. So I started working on a book I’ve never finished: The Heroine’s Journey. It’s on a subject I’m still quite passionate about, though I don’t yet have the authority I now believe I need to speak about it. But the practice helped when it came to turning Writing the Other into a book. Which in my opinion is the piece of nonfiction that bit of divination was describing. It is an important book. I believe this because people have told me it has helped them examine their own writing and try things they wouldn’t have had the heart to try without it. A book that midwifes other books is an important one.

Eileen: What about Filter House? That also seems like an important book for science fiction at this time, both in itself and because it has garnered so much attention.

Nisi: One thing I want to talk about is the fact that I’m the first African American to win the Tiptree Award. Hiromi Goto is the first POC, but I’m the first person of African descent. I think that’s significant. Maybe even highly significant.

Eileen: Nice choice of words: it’s significant in a number of ways, isn’t it? It holds a lot of meaning. Would you elaborate on what it means to you?

Nisi: Well, the Tiptree Award itself is of course hugely significant to me. Just about everyone I try to emulate in my writing has won it. Feminist SF is what gave me the idea that I could write; Russ and Charnas in particular. I distinctly remember thinking, “Wow, you can get away with doing stuff like that – and get paid for it!”

But also significant is my place as the first black Tiptree winner. I was pretty much astounded when I realized that that was what I was. I couldn’t believe it — I got sort of a double helping of astonishment, because I was astonished that I’d won in the first place, and then in the second place that I was the first black to win. I mean, in a way it’s great. It’s like I’m Arthur Ashe or Thurgood Marshall or something. But in another way, come on. Isn’t it kind of late in the recorded history of the world for someone to be the first black anything? Or, no, I guess not. Maybe Barack Obama is a better comparison. First black U.S. President, just this year.

Still, it bothered me that I would be the first black Tiptree recipient. I did a lot of investigation into that. I thought for sure Nalo Hopkinson must have won. Her work explores gender in all sorts of cool ways. But I looked it up, and nope. Her novel Midnight Robber made the Short List in 2000, along with her fabulous short story “The Glass Bottle Trick.” And “Once on the Shores of the Stream Senegambia” by Pamela Mordecai, published in an anthology Nalo edited, made the Short List that same year. Nalo’s first novel, Brown Girl In the Ring, made the Short List in 1998. Which was also the year Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents appeared there.

Other black women’s work has been noticed by Tiptree juries: Nnedi Okorafor’s Shadow Speaker was on the Tiptree Honor List for 2007; Mindscape by Andrea Hairston was on there for 2006; Writing the Other made the Long List for 2005. So, recently there have been many black honorees. But Filter House is the first out-and-out winner.

Eileen: It’s very sad to think that Octavia’s remarkable works on gender issues have been ignored – though it’s a little more understandable when you consider that many of them were published in the Seventies and Eighties, before the Tiptree award was created. Not all, though.

Nisi: Yes, though there are retrospective awards, and Octavia made the short list for these with Wild Seed. The nominations and winners were chosen by previous jurors during the Tiptree Award’s fifth anniversary year.

I really think Octavia’s work deserves special recognition for its gender-exploring qualities. Maybe it’s time to go through that process again and see if she finally wins.

Eileen: Well, yeah. The retrospective Tiptrees were done more than a decade ago. Perhaps you could use your bully pulpit to revisit the concept for the twentieth anniversary. But I wonder about why there are so few black writers on the short lists. You were a Tiptree juror, right? What works by black writers came up that year?

Nisi: I was a judge for the 2003 Tiptree Award. I was a strong advocate for the winner, Matt Ruff’s Set This House In Order. What a fine book — it’s extremely well-written, and it really does explore the idea of gender in novel ways. It’s by a white man, in case you didn’t know.

Eileen: [GRINS] I did.

Nisi: Why didn’t I advocate for another black to win? To tell you the truth, I can’t remember reading any nominated works by blacks that year. And while I could have nominated a book or story myself for consideration, I didn’t. I wasn’t aware of anything that I thought of as qualified. Nor did I go looking for candidates by blacks for nomination.

Eileen: It sounds to me that it’s an issue that jurors need to consciously address every year, as we do at Clarion West with gender balance and the presence of people of color on the instructor roster. [Note: Both Nisi and I serve on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and participate in selecting instructors.]

Nisi: One of the points I’ve tried to make in Clarion West selection committee meetings is that sometimes, in order to increase the racial diversity of a pool of candidates, you need to go outside the normal boundaries of genre, do a sort of non-skiffy outreach expedition. And I didn’t do that while I was on the Tiptree jury.

So that’s more or less what happened my year, and it may be that the same sort of thing happened in other years during which no works by blacks were included on Tiptree Honors lists.

Eileen: What about the years in which black writers were included? Perhaps some jurors expected a black writer’s focus to be issues of race, with gender as a subordinate concern.

Nisi: I do wonder about that. Part of me sees this as the same sort of disconnect first-wave U.S. feminism had with African-descended women. You know, the sort of attitude that Sojourner Truth was responding to in her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Eileen: I was thinking of the “Ain’t I a Woman,” speech, too.

Nisi: It’s all about the reading. When you read what I write, do you see me dealing with gender issues? Racial issues? Both?

Eileen: Well, what I see in your collection is specific people — your characters, who are not necessarily you — dealing with life, which includes for them issues of gender and race. In the part of your novel that I’ve read, the characters carry more symbolic weight, and the issues seem less personal — they carry the weight of ideas more. Those ideas, if I recall correctly, are ecology, race, and gender, in more or less that order. Since I read only a small part on an unfinished book, that might be very different in the finished book.

Nisi: I’m editing it now. The whole book. Not sure of the order, but the ideas you list are forces to be reckoned with in it. Also, surprisingly to me, some of it seems to be about nonviolence. I don’t think of myself as a pacifist, but apparently many of my novel’s characters do.

There have been some extraordinarily insightful posts on the Carl Brandon Society listserv about how a reader’s background affects reading. Claire Light responded to someone’s message about a negative review the book received by posting some quite intelligent questions about reading, and you had some good things to say, too. And Jed Hartman of Strange Horizons, where my story “Momi Watu” was first published, made some good points about how personal familiarity with an author can lead one to seek familiarity with that author’s culture, and make it easier to read their work knowledgeably.

MJ Hardman, an anthropology and linguistics professor at the University of Florida and a member of the CBS Steering Committee, has written a fantastic article on what she calls the “Russ Categories.” Working with Joanna Russ’s book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, MJ has extended the anti-woman’s-writing categories and methods that Russ analyzes to cover anti-people-of-color’s-writing.

Okay, enough of this intellectual stuff. I’ve got to go find a bird I’ve been hearing a while now. It’s got this really cool call, kind of like a high-pitched warbly gibbering. But oddly beautiful. And then there are the deer butting heads outside my bedroom window. Maybe I can coax them into posing with me for my phone camera.

Eileen: Well, Nisi, I can tell that you’re hearing the call of the wild. Thanks for taking time to talk.

Nisi: Thanks for rambling on with me…

Eileen: Now do I get pie?

Eileen Gunn is the author of the story collection Stable Strategies and Others and the co-editor of The WisCon Chronicles vol. 2. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US the and Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. She is the editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix webzine and for twenty years has been a member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her most recent story is “The Armies of Elfland” with Michael Swanwick, in the April 2009 Asimov’s Magazine.

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9 Responses »

  1. Ah so Nisi likes pie. Maybe next year I’ll have to bring ya some of the Sweet Potatoe pie I’m told I’m good at creating. I’m reading Filter House, it’s the awesomesause!

  2. I believe it’s Eva Cherniavsky, not Evan.

  3. Why do I have to put in my “Two Cents?” Just because I watched Nisi focus,when she was a small child, on people whom she found interesting. It was as if she looked deeply into their souls. I believe she was able to successfully write in the Science Fiction genre because she connected with the Other World at an early age. I hope you win many more well deserved awards, my dear niece!

  4. Wonderful interview! I really enjoyed this one.

  5. Thank you, all of you. And how great to get a comment from you, Aunt Ruth! All I can say is, “Takes one to know one….”

    And yes, Lake Desire, it is Eva.

  6. I loved this interview. So much warmth and genuine love on the page. I’m so glad you won the Tiptree, Nisi Shawl. You are an inspiration.

  7. Look forward to reading the finished version of “Something More”. When is it published, Nisi?

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