Sci-Fi Writer Nisi Shawl Talks Steampunk

Ofeibea Loveless talks to science fiction short story powerhouse Nisi Shawl, winner of the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, about steampunk, writing, and why representation is important.

Nisi ShawlOfeibea: I loved your story in the Steampunk World anthology. Was that your first steampunk piece? If so, why did you want to dip your toe in this genre?

Nisi: “Promised,” my Steampunk World contribution, is the third piece of steampunk I’ve written. The unpublished novel Everfair came first. “Promised” is actually an excerpt from Everfair; so is my second steampunk short story, “The Return of Cherie,” which appeared in the anthology Steam Powered 2. There’s a third unpublished excerpted story called “Beyond Price,” and a fourth that’s not an excerpt, but is set in the same world and timeline, “Vulcanization.” The editors of Ghost in the Cogs are currently considering “Vulcanization.” And my collaboration with Nalo Hopkinson in Stories for Chip, “Jamaica Ginger,” is sort of steampunk, but more precisely Teslapunk, I suppose.

I went to the 2009 World Fantasy convention because I had two things up for awards: my short story “Good Boy,” and the collection of my stories it appeared in, Filter House. They put me on a panel about steampunk; it was the only one with room. I thought long and hard about my reasons for avoiding that particular subgenre and came to understand that its tacit imperialism and colonialism were the culprits. So I swore publicly, seated on the stage beside Michael Swanwick, Liz Gorinsky, and the VanderMeers, that I would write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo, the site of the Victorian Era’s worst human rights atrocities—and make Swanwick beg to read it!

Ofeibea: Why did you focus specifically on the Belgian Congo?
Nisi: The period is that of most alternate history steampunk, but the tragedy of the Belgian Congo took place in an atmosphere devoid of most of the subgenre’s optimism, and stuffed with everything that literary movement generally tries to ignore: the human costs of industrialization, the racism, the catastrophic resource extraction and grim capitalist exploitation that Victorian Europe based its expansion on. It’s an extreme case of all these issues, but I was confident I could make it work without whitewashing what was going on.

Ofeibea: Are we going to see a full-length version of Everfair some time soon?
Nisi: I turned in the manuscript of the novel Everfair in March 2014. Tor says it will come out next summer.

Do you think it’s possible for white steampunk authors to write more realistically about other cultures during the Victorian period?
Nisi: I sure hope it’s possible! It would be nice to be able to read more steampunk without being enraged or turned off. That said, I also think it’s possible for more nonwhite steampunk authors to get their due in terms of attention.

Nisi Shawl-1What books/stories do you recommend to those who are interested in steampunk from something other than an American Wild West or Victorian Europe/England perspective?
Nisi: N.K. Jemisin’s story “The Effluent Machine” and Steve Barnes’s novel Zulu Heart were the only examples I could find in 2009. Slowly, it’s getting better. Steampunk World is an excellent anthology, of course, for anyone eager to explore non-Euro perspectives. Also check out Steam Powered 1 and 2; they’re billed as lesbian steampunk anthologies, but they also bring readers a multinational array of authors, and it shows in their stories’ settings and characters. Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng have edited a steampunk anthology focused on Southeast Asia. As far as novels, before it comes out with Everfair next year Tor will publish a YA novel called Steeplejack that’s set in a second world strongly resembling a Victorian-era semi-industrialized South Africa. The protagonist is a member of a Southeast Asian immigrant community. There are smoky chimneys, radiant minerals, crumbling colonialist fortresses, and much, much more. I will be blurbing it—positively! Way positively! The author’s new to me, and probably to everybody else: A.J. Hartley. Keep an eye out.

And then there’s the whole steamfunk and rocoacoa crew, the Atlanta, Ga., author collective featuring Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade, with their Freedonia and chronicles of Harriet Tubman creations. People really need to support the presence of those adventures. Fun, fun, fun!

Why did you feel it was necessary to co-author Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction and run a workshop on the same topic?
Shawl: I created the workshop from which the book arose because one of my Clarion West classmates said stuff that forced me to realize she needed it. I knew if she needed it, probably others did, too. The book was written to meet demand the workshop couldn’t satisfy. Now K. Tempest Bradford and I have announced an online version of “Writing the Other.” We’ll teach six classes of two hours each on Thursday evenings starting June 25 (register at

The book and the workshop, though, are one wing of a two-winged bird, and I hope everyone eventually understands this. While it’s totally necessary for writers with any sort of privilege—white privilege, straight privilege, and so on—to learn how to represent those without that privilege, it is also totally necessary for those without particular sorts of privilege to represent themselves. This is hugely important! Writing the Other is only half a fix and is meant to be complemented by programs like Con or Bust, which empowers people of color to participate in the networking taking place at science fiction conventions; and publishers like Rosarium and Aqueduct, who print the work of underrepresented communities; and awards like the Carl Brandon Parallax, which gives $1,000 to the year’s best work by a person of color; and all these other efforts to support the presence of minorities in our genre. Got to have both wings to fly.

Ofeibea: Do you have any advice for new writers?
Nisi: First, the same old: Read. Read a whole lot. Read what you love. Read what you hate. Make notes about what moves you and how and why, and talk to other writers about it. Write. Write a whole lot. Expect to hate and love it. Read what you’ve written to others, and pay attention to what moves them, what doesn’t. Ask them how and why. Finish what you write. Send it out. Pay attention to what any editors kind enough to respond personally say about what moves them.

Next, the practical: get rid of anything in your life that doesn’t help you write. Seriously. TV. Whiny boyfriend. High-maintenance wardrobe items. Invest in anything that *does* help you write. Maid service. Gym visits. Whatever gets you ready to wow the world with your work.

Finally, the psychological: give up being jealous. There will always be someone ahead of you in the writing game, making more money, winning that award you deserve, getting where you haven’t gotten to go yet. Stop caring what other authors are up to. You’ll never win if you play that way. Think about what *you* want to do and how you want to do it. Play that way and you’ll never lose.

Ofeibea Loveless, co-founder of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance, is a writer/editor who focuses on multicultural aspects of steampunk.


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