“Vulcanization” opens with a gut punch of characterization and only gets darker from there. Can you tell us something of what inspired this story?
I had purposely avoided giving Leopold II any “screentime” in my Belgian Congo steampunk novel, Everfair, but when exploring the intersection of horror and steampunk, I had to make him the focus. He personifies it so well. If anyone during that period deserved to be haunted, it was him.
I loved the rich sensory palette of the story: a gold-embroidered cuff, bright blood that does not stain the rugs; the silver overcast of the sky; an elusive tactile sensation; the unpleasant smell of a crude cleaning solution. Combined with the rich, deliberately baroque prose, these brief sensory impressions capture the reader’s interest and open the hidden doors to the world of this story. How conscious are you of the sensory details you set upon the page?
Sensory details are where I live. I try to include input from two or three senses in every passage I write. Since sensory details are where I live, they’re where my characters live, where my stories live. I want to get you there. Sounds like I did in this case.
This story is sharp and deliberate, refusing to shy away from the issues of racism, slavery, and the brutality of colonialism. There are a number of voices in the SF/F community, and in the modern Western world, who feel matters of race should not be addressed in fiction or popular media, that history is best served by leaving the past in the past and focusing on a new, inclusive, future. When writing, do you consciously address such “the past is past” arguments, or do you find yourself focusing solely on the voice of the story and the portrayal of your characters?
Well, whether or not one consciously addresses an all-involving issue such as race, it’s present in what one writes, because it’s present in the world of the audience one reaches. We’re soaking in it, to paraphrase Madge, the old TV commercials’ manicurist. I’m conscious of race in my work, and it plays a greater or lesser part in most of what I create. I’m not worried about refuting any arguments as to the validity of including it, though. I’m worried about getting it right by my lights.
You are known not only for your fiction, but for your book reviews, nonfiction, and editorial work. Projects such as Writing The Other, Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars, and Stories For Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany are important works that help expand the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Is there anything in particular that appeals to you about writing nonfiction? Do you feel that writing nonfiction makes you a better fiction writer?
All writing makes me better at all writing. Nonfiction and editing in particular help me get a grip on structure and flow, elements I’m not as much in control of when it comes to writing fiction. Maybe that’s because I’m too emotionally attached to my imagination’s darlings? It’s certainly much easier to see the lacks and imbalances in someone else’s work, so yeah, then all I have to do is analogize them and apply those analogies to my own work. Journalism—the reviews and essays I’ve produced—has taught me a lot about keeping to word-counts and pruning away distractions and inessential lines of thought, which I hope has lent vigor to my fiction.
What inspired you to first dip you toes into the world of horror, to create and explore darker worlds one word at a time?
I’ve had an uneasy relationship with this genre, because I think there’s something very racially essentializing about the classification of ghost stories as horror. Dead people are part of my daily life, as they are for many nonwhites practicing traditions of ancestor reverence. So my Asimov’s SF story “The Rainses’” (which was reprinted in Filter House), for instance, never felt all that scary to me. But it was for some readers, because of the ghosts.
However, I’ve gotten lots of invitations to write horror, and have tried to do it by examining stuff that genuinely frightens me. Like Leopold’s obliviousness in “Vulcanization,” or the self-centered smugness of gentrification I attack in “Street Worm.” Creepy evil does exist, and reading and writing horror is a good way to divine its depths.
What’s next for Nisi Shawl? What can readers expect in the coming months?
Mostly I’m working on editing at the moment: The Cascadia Subduction Zone’s reviews, the reprints to be included in Lightspeed’s POC Destroy SF, a special issue of Illinois State’s black arts journal, Obsidian. I have a short story called “The Mighty Phin” coming out in Cyber World, an anthology that will also include a story by Stephen Graham Jones. “Phin” is set in my Amends universe, the one about an interstellar penal colony; the other stories in that universe are “Deep End,” “In Colors Everywhere,” and one I have yet to sell called “Like the Deadly Hands.” I plan to write another four stories and collect all eight into one book titled Making Amends. I’m hoping to do the same with the three Betty the Beagle stories (“Black Betty,” “Red Matty,” and “White Dawn”). And I’ve got three other novels to get published, and a sort of fake self-help book to put out there . . . We’ll see how hot my work is after Tor publishes Everfair this August.
When I sit next to someone on a plane and make the mistake of telling them I’m an author, they offer their ideas to me. “All you have to do is write it,” they say. “We’ll split the profits 50/50.” As you can see, I have ideas.
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