Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Author Spotlight: Nisi Shawl

In this story, stagnant water seems to be a harbinger of death and self-destruction. Is it a metaphor or commentary on the favoritism and implicit colorism in Dory’s family that drives Calliope to murder and suicide?

As an author, I’m not all that qualified to tell readers what is or isn’t a metaphor. I can tell you that the experience of writing about stagnant water in “Cruel Sistah” drew largely on my fascination with secrets and the forbidden. Also, astrologically, I’m triply connected with the stagnant water archetype. And water is seen as a medium between the spiritual and material realms in countless traditions around the world. That’s all I can tell you; the rest is left as an exercise, I guess.

You compress three distinct points of view—Calliope, Dory’s spirit, Byron—while zooming out from Dory’s murder through each POV shift. How did you decide on this structure?

For me, this compression of viewpoints maps onto the de-coalescing of boundaries that I imagine must be part of what you feel after death. Your body is gone, which is how you keep track of yourself as separate. I wanted to share that same elision of perspective through the story’s structure. It was a very conscious attempt on my part, and I’m glad you picked up on it.

I love the scene where Byron’s handcrafted gimbri gives voice to Dory’s spirit so she can divulge her demise through song. Tell us where this idea came from.

Actually, the singing instrument is the core of the ballad I lifted this plot from, “Cruel Sister.” In the sixteenth-century version, it’s a harp, and the musician and lover are different characters. But yes, totally not an original idea.

What about the ballad drew your attention?

The entire story, not just the song, is inspired by “Cruel Sister.” There are many, many songs on the same theme, by many different titles. What attracted me was the plain, unalloyed, chilling hatefulness of the crime and the equally chilling retribution—though I carried that part a bit further in my story. The song “Cruel Sister” ends with the ghostly accusation, as does most of its ilk, but I wanted to show the aftereffects of the murderer’s horrific action. The song in “Cruel Sistah,” by the way, is loosely based on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”

Asimov’s originally published “Cruel Sistah” in 2005. What meaning does it have for you now in 2016? Has it changed over the years, especially with regard to the results in Fireside Fiction’s #BlackSpecFic report on anti-black racism in SFF publishing?

As you age, objective time slows. To me, the original publication of “Cruel Sistah” seems not that long ago. I can remember when waiting a week for my first ballet lesson seemed intolerable. Now, no—my take on a story I published eleven years ago hasn’t undergone much of a transformation. I have noticed a difference in the reception black authors receive in the field within the span of my professional career. A positive one. But the arc of this change, it is long, and the progress way slower than it needs to be. May I live to see the rate of positive change in the field pick up a bit more velocity.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.