Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Nisi Shawl

Timmi: Nisi, you have a new story out “She’s Only A Dream,” <> in the March issue of Trabuco Road. It’s a story told by “an old man named Roscoe,” reminiscing about a mysterious woman who goes by the name of “Laura,” who seems, among other things, to be a sort of shapeshifter more in the way that Jo(e) Sands in Kelley Eskridge’s “And Salome Danced” is a shapeshifter than, say Octavia Butler’s Anyanwu; only instead of altering the body’s sexual appearance as Jo(e) Sands does, she (and I do have the sense that Laura/Annie is fundamentally female, unlike Jo(e) Sands) alters the body’s racial appearance. That’s a very neat conceit. Another wonderful feature of the story is its evocation of a “Darktown” Kansas City jazz club and the flavor of its dialogue.

Because of the narrative structure in which the story is told and the swift transformation of characters’ identities, the reader is left with a lot of questions. Would you talk about that, and about how you got the idea for creating such a character? Andsince she is so enigmaticwill you be writing more about her?

Nisi: Timmi, thanks for the questions. It's lovely to find out that someone so discriminating reads my work.

Story ideas, as you know, come at you from multiple places. Sometimes they seem unrelated; sometimes they accumulate over years.

When I was 11 I read Thomas Pynchon's novel V. I found the paperback in the bookshelf at the head of my parents' bed and figured it must be dirty, i.e. about sex, so I read it cover to cover looking for the good parts. You can imagine what that did to my grasp of the theme, etc. There are a couple of scenes in there about a woman named Laura that I can't recall at all clearly now, of course--got to get my own copy and re-read it. But I'm pretty sure that in one scene she's identified as white and in another as black.

That stuck with me because “passing” is a kind of social magic I'm deeply acquainted with as a light-skinned black woman. As a child, passing was mentioned in the sort of hushed, oblique manner reserved for sex: “She's passing now.” “Wouldn't be surprised if she tried to pass.” People who passed--who assumed a white identity though born black--were like vampires, alive but lost to the living. And in fact my paternal grandfather deserted his wife (my father's mother), moved from small-town Michigan (Vandalia) to Toledo, Ohio, and passed. I saw him once; he visited our suburban home in Kalamazoo wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a cowboy hat and playing a guitar. He sang country and western songs. His name was Vandeleur.

When Vandeleur died my father went to his funeral and shocked his half-sister with his obvious Negritude. Vandeleur had married a white woman, and had sired (as far as they knew) several white kids.

I know other stories like this. That's why I view race as both a very important category and one that's entirely mutable. I think that the power in “But She's Only a Dream” lies in the ability to move from one state to another. That's what I'm interested in, and that's what I focus on.

Listen closely, though, and you will hear me heave a virtual sigh when it comes to the charge of not answering readers' questions. I hear that one all the time! Maybe my childhood involvement with drama caused me to take too seriously the advice to “Always leave ’em wanting more.” I had never considered writing further about Laura or her supplicant. In fact, this version of “But She's Only a Dream” is greatly expanded from the original--it's about three times as long as my earlier attempt.

What I was trying to do in this story is something I think I failed to achieve. I wanted to give an account of an ordinary mortal's encounter with a Muse from the Muse's point of view. Nope. Didn't happen.

But I am glad you like the mood, which I cribbed entirely from jam sessions I sat in on in the basements of affluent white high school kids....How's that for racial shapeshifting?

Timmi: What you say emboldens me to suggest that “But She’s Only a Dream,” like the phenomenon of passing, offers a way into understanding one of the essential aspects of the category of race (whichsince this fact can never be repeated too oftenis cultural rather than biological, as the human genome study definitively proved), viz., its mutability (much more so than many of us have realized is the case for gender).

I also would like to add that it’s a Good Thing that the success and value of a story doesn’t hinge on an evaluation of its author’s intentions. Beyond that, I hope my reading isn’t responsible for your deciding you failed to achieve “an account of an ordinary mortal’s encounter with a Muse from the Muse’s point of view.” I did in fact get that, but my own lack of interest in the whole Muse thing (which I confess I’ve never really gotten) and thus my minimal ability to delight in a feminist subversion of it may be partly responsible for my not mentioning it in my question. It’s perfectly possible other readers will read the story as you intended. Or, indeed, in a completely different way than I read it or you intended it. In any case, I enjoyed the story, both for its aesthetic qualities and for it’s giving me something to think about.

Nisi: Timmi, I had decided long before I even submitted the story to be published that it failed to do what I'd originally wanted it to do. And that this was okay. I'll try again, maybe.

Did I mention how thrilled I am to have you compare it to "And Salome Danced"? Very.

Timmi: Why do you think we call it the grand conversation?


Anonymous said...

In V., the European Paola sets up a second life as "a Negro girl named Ruby" so she can safely have a relationship with a thinly-disguised Ornette Coleman. Pynchon's editor at Viking had urged him to drop the musician, lest he make V. a "protest novel" by including "a Negro." That's what 1963 was like: evidently, the editor did not notice that there was a lot of race in V., from Esther's nose job (another form of passing) to the Herero massacre, which occurs in the novel's longest chapter.

Kelley Eskridge said...

Nisi, I very much enjoyed the ambiguity of the story, the sense of soft ground underfoot. And the mood of the club, the sense of "insider culture" you created, as well as the yearning to break free of that. At least that's what I got from it.

I believe the heart of all good story is yearning. We want, we want -- and what we will do, or say, or suffer in order to get is a huge part of what we tell stories for. I enjoyed your story for that.

And how nice of you both to be so complimentary about "Salome"! I appreciate it.

Kelley Eskridge

Constance Burris said...


Interesting back story for your story. Thanks for sharing.

Nisi Shawl said...

Thanks, josh for clarifying what I actually read in *V.* And kahnee, glad you liked the backstory.

Kelley, good to hear from you but I'm a little puzzled about who (in your reading of the story) is trying to break free from the insider culture. The supplicant wants to go further up and further in--in the version I intended to write, anyway. But now I wanna know what *you* saw.