Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. Her work has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, and several year’s best anthologies. She has been nominated for the Nebula, the Sturgeon, and the Tiptree awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the “Premio Italia” for best international work. Her novel *Flamme und Harfe* (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in January 2009. She occasionally maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com. Author Photo, (c) Derek Henthorn.
“Woman in Abaya with Onion” depicts such a lovely and yet brutal cultural landscape — social and gender conventions, antiquity, hieroglyphics, the Nile. How did you collect such rich descriptions in preparation for this story?
I’ve been to Egypt several times now, and the first time in particular it made a very strong impression on me. A lot of the imagery and details come from my memories. For the “historical” sections, of course, I had to rely on research and imagination, such as the death of Hypatia. But while I was at the temple of Hatshepsut, I was already imagining what the terrorist attack on the tourists must have been like — it had only occured a couple of years before, and we had canceled what would have been our first trip to Egypt as a result. For that scene and a number of others, the imagery is a combination of memory, imagination and research, images that were playing in my mind for some time before I ever wrote the story.
Though the thematic exploration of an onion is not new, your structuring of this exploration is fresh, accented by a “secondary” narrative voice:
The onion in my hand is white, round, smooth, harmless. Underneath, it is strong, sharp; potent enough to bring tears to the eyes.
Can you tell us more about this “secondary narrative voice”?
The story is about cultural misunderstanding and conflict, but I didn’t want the only narrative voice to be that of the rather naive American visitor. That’s how I came up with the title character, who also happens to be the figure where the magic resides. At the same time, I wanted both these characters to be “wrong” in their own way, so that they would reflect on the history of violence against foreign cultures that I was using the history of Egypt to illustrate. Of course, neither of them participates in the violent rejection of cultural difference of Haley’s visions, but at the same time, they too are both incapable of understanding something that is “Other” — and when it comes right down to it, they don’t try very hard either.
The story visits Egyptian paganism, gender and violence, culminating in a rather brutal “Hypatia” scene. Was this a particularly difficult scene to write?
If this were an oral interview, you would hear me laughing now. Actually, once I have decided to do a scene like that and get myself past the first mental block, it’s easy. I do violence to my characters on a pretty regular basis, although there are also a number of my stories that don’t require it.
Do you find gender studies, historical and contemporary, to be a particular focus in your works? What other works of similar theme would you suggest for your readers?
I actually think this particular story is more about cultural insensibility than gender issues, but but those kinds of conflicts are often played out on women. Yes, gender issues are definitely a theme of mine. Some of my stories that touch on gender include “Exit Without Saving,” “The Tiresias Project,” “The Leaving Sweater,” and “Far Side of the Moon.”
Your story, “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” (F&SF, January 2008), was up for a Nebula this year. Could you tell us a little about the story and your experience as a Nebula nominee?
I like to refer to “Mars” as “a story without a protagonist.” The story is told completely through database entries from a help system for Mars tourists. Saying much more, however, might give away too much for those who still want to read the story.
Have you written and/or published a particular work with which you are especially happy — your masterpiece?
I hope I have not yet written my masterpiece: if I had already written the best work I was ever going to do, I might as well quit right now! The works I’m most proud of — that’s another matter. One would have to be the novel that came out in German translation this year, but unfortunately, it has not yet been picked up by an English or American publisher. Another would be my novella “Looking Through Lace.” I put a lot of work into both Yseult (the original title of the novel) and “Looking Through Lace,” and I guess that might also be a reason why I’m so fond of them. Thank you so very much for your time.
And thank you, too, Ruth.