Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Seeing Voices: A Conversation with Nisi Shawl

by Jesse Vernon

Whether drawing upon the protective power of watermelon vines, the healing power of funk, or the pragmatic power of intelligent women, Nisi Shawl's collection of short fiction sparks the imagination. Her synesthetic descriptions elucidate an often psychedelic perception of the worlds therein. The tales in Filter House leap forward and backward through time and space, deftly weaving all-too-real topics like resource depletion, colonization, and racism within fantastical worlds of persuadable dragons, fickle gods, and interstellar travel. In true Seattle fashion, we discussed these stories and their inspiration over the din of an espresso machine.


This collection of stories is entitled Filter House. What exactly is a “filter house”?

I like ocean things, I like marine biology [and] I enjoy anything oceanic. I found this article about appendicularia and was reading about them and then looked at other articles on the web and found out about filter houses. They are so, so gorgeous. They are so beautiful. And I was just really attracted to the idea of something that was so ephemeral and beautiful.

So [a filter house] is sort of like an underwater, 3-D spiderweb that [appendicularia] use to trap food. They are filter feeders but they build these filters outside their body that last for about two or three hours, until the appendicularia outgrows it or they become clogged, useless. Then they release them and they drift down to the lower levels of the ocean. If you’ve read about anything in marine ecology, you’ve heard about “marine snow” – all the lower levels of life subsist on [it]; that’s the basic element of their ecology. So [discarded filter houses are] a large component of marine snow. [I liked] the idea that it was something so basic, too.

I wanted to have the title of the collection not be a story and I wanted it to be the sort of combination of words that would make people think, “Well, what is that?” I also was drawn by this idea that the structure of the short story collection is ephemeral, that it’s made up of other elements that are brought together in this moment – because they are so short, short stories are sort of ephemeral too.

I noticed the theme of water throughout different pieces in this collection, although they were written over a span of eight years. Bodies of water seem to hold significant power in your many of these stories.

[Water has] pretty much always been a passion of mine. I feel very watery – I know we’re all composed of 90% water or something – but I really feel like not just my body is made out of water. When I think about astrology, I’m a Scorpio: a water sign. I practice this West African religion called Ifá and in Ifá, one of the things is that different orishas are said to rule different people’s heads. You’ll be closer to or have an affinity for a particular orisha. And the one that I’m close to is called Olokun, [who] rules the bottom of the ocean.

So all of that benthic stuff really, really excites me…I love it – it’s water.

The stories in Filter House contain a huge breadth of narrative voices – not only within the collection but within each story as well. They range from rural African-American dialects to a philosopher princess in a medieval Muslim community to disembodied prisoners. Will you talk more about it’s like to make these shifts while you’re writing?

I’ve heard that there are people who write visually and people who write aurally. I hear everything – I hear the words. And so I hear those different voices – I hear the healer and I hear the aunt – and if I don’t hear them right, then I know I better not write them. ‘Cause they’ll be fake.

There is a lot of warmth in the relationships between your characters, especially the voices of children when they are narrating the stories. It feels like it captures something really familiar to me, even in stories that have nothing to do with my own history, or tradition, or culture, or spirituality…

I do write about children a lot. I use a child’s point of view quite frequently. Maybe it’s because you remember being a child. Some people forget that right away and I promised myself I would never forget what it was like to be little.

I told myself that too.

I think that some people really do forget. How can they live? [laughing]

In addition to writing stories, novels, and poetry, you also review books for the Seattle Times.

Yeah, I just turned in a review for a book called Incognegro that’s a graphic novel, a mystery. Oh, it’s wonderful. It was the first graphic novel I’ve ever reviewed…I’ve also reviewed some science fact, like Oliver Sacks and stuff like that. And some books from Africa. Sometimes if a science-fiction writer does something that’s not science-fiction, I’ll review it – like I reviewed Molly Gloss’ The Hearts of Horses which is a western and the last two William Gibson books; he’s not writing science fiction anymore.

So you’ve had extra opportunity to be reading lots of different books. Who has influenced you in terms of your writing and who are some of your all-time-favorite authors?

Well, as far as who I want to emulate, for a long time I’ve really been influenced by Colette. She’s a French writer. She was most popular in the 1920s, 1930s, up through 1950 – she had a good long run of a career. It’s very sensual writing; what I love about her writing is that there are no inanimate objects. They’re all characters.


I first got the idea that I could actually write science fiction and get other people to read it, besides my English teacher, from Suzy McKee Charnas. In the 1970s she came out with all this feminist science fiction. Particularly Motherlines – there’s a nuclear war and all the head honchos have their little hideaway in the Colorado mountains and then several hundred years later the story starts with the civilization that developed in the aftermath of that. It was a very harsh story but it was really beautiful and courageous – a story of this woman who was one of the slaves of the patriarchy that developed from these war survivors and how she tries to find a mythical land where women were in charge. So I read that and thought, whoa, so you can write this kind of stuff, and get away with it. [laughing] So, that was a big influence.

When I’m not reading for pay (with the Seattle Times), when I’m not reading for the science-fiction book club, which is another reading gig, or for my critique groups, I read Victorian literature. Because it’s so different than, first of all anything that I have to read for pay, and anything that’s going on now. The class consciousness is so different and so unconscious. And the attention to detail and the attitudes – it’s all sensawunda.

Hmm, that explains how you can capture so many different voices – that you're reading something that I don’t think a lot of sci-fi authors are reading.

They’re not reading the Trollope, they’re not reading the George Eliot, no.

Who else? Samuel Delany. I found him early on. And Jack Vance, still very pleasant to read. I’m not gonna just sound cool here, I’ll tell you the truth....

Let’s see. I read a lot of romances at one point. Regency romances. They’re the ones, where if it’s getting really racy, the couple will hold hands. [laughing] Georgette Heyer, in particular was one of those. She has this great, great wit. And again there’s a slang that they use in the Georgette Heyer novels. Those are set in regency period, you know, Jane Austen. She’ll have the slang of the young blades, then she’ll have the language of the older dames that are widows and dowagers and then she’ll often have the language of people who are called Bow Street Runners – this was before police forces, they were freelance detectives. And then criminal slang. So maybe that has some influence on the different voices.

I’ll tell you one more thing about different voices. Have you heard of the term code-switching?


Okay, so from the beginning I was code-switching. I was raised in a house where the people I lived with spoke different voices. You would speak one voice when you were talking to someone at a barbecue and another one when you were at a PTA meeting. So, it’s like second nature, of course. I’ve carried it to such an extreme that one time I was taking orders over the phone at a natural foods warehouse – each person in the office had [their own] accounts and at one point, one of my favorite accounts said to me, about something that was suspicious that was happening with his order, he said, “There’s a nigger in the woodpile.” And I just never spoke to that person again. He had no idea who he was talking to, because I had been so good with the code-switching. So sometimes it’s a little harsh on me.

How do you feel like your personal experiences with or political ideas around power and oppression influence the way you tell your stories? For example, in one story in this collection, “Deep End,” prisoners are punished by being removed from their bodies and, in turn, given the bodies of their oppressors.

Well, that story, actually, was an invitation to write about colonization from a person-of-color’s point of view. So I was drawing on the idea that a lot of times places are settled by prisoners, [like] Australia. And then I thought, corporations only get worse (or better depending on your point of view) at what they do. So what’s one step further from sending you as a prisoner to do their dirty work of settling somewhere? The answer was, well, they don’t really need the body. Just commodify the mind.

My take on politics…a lot of people would consider me really apolitical. When I was very young, like five and six and seven, one of my earliest memories was actually being on a picket line and picketing a drug store because they wouldn’t hire black people. They were in a black neighborhood with all black customers, but they were all white. And I was out there marching on that. But when the World Trade Organization met here, I wasn’t protesting. I didn’t think that it would do any good, except make people that participated in it feel better, because they were doing something. But I didn’t see that it would change anything. So I think that I probably have a pretty cynical view. I think that actually the ways to change things are to do things that are not necessarily considered political. I do them consistently. So, hopefully, people can change things by changing themselves.

I vote all the time. I’ve been told all the time that voting doesn’t make any difference, but I know that people, that were my ancestors probably, fought for the right to vote. So, if someone was trying to keep them from doing it, then I’m going to do it. I think that the fact that I write at all, that I’m literate, is pretty political actually.

Is there anything else that readers should know about Filter House?

I want to say one more thing. This goes back to when I was little. When I was little I heard [the saying], “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and I couldn’t understand that, because, one bird or two birds? Two birds are obviously worth more, plus you get this bush! Maybe it has berries on it and stuff. After someone finally explained it to me, I got the concept that having something in your hand is holding it and controlling it and that that is the boundary of yourself – your hand. But before that, no, the bush was mine too! And so what I want to give people is two birds and a bush.


You can purchase Filter House, which will be officially released in August, through Aqueduct's web site in early May. More information about Nisi Shawl can be found at her homepage.

1 comment:

Lyn said...

Thanks for sharing this interview. I reference it in my review of Filter House now up at The Fix.