Welcome to the February issue! We hope this month—the start of the Year of the Water Tiger—has been treating you well! 

In addition to Lunar New Year, February also signifies Black History Month (although every month should be an opportunity to celebrate and learn more Black history) and Pal/Gal/Valentine
s Day. Februarys 28 days just seem to fly by—and we're grateful for our recent streak of sunshine in what, often, can be a gloomy season. 

In this issue, Niki talks to speculative fiction writer and editor Nisi Shawl about their work and the emergence of science fiction and fantasy into the mainstream; Nia chats with a professional who
s essential to wedding day celebrations, whether big or small. 
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Magic Words

For writer and editor Nisi Shawl, the alternate realities, worlds, and beings of speculative fiction deprivilege the status quo—and can be far more relatable than our own world.

Image by tomertu.

“When I was little, people would ask me what I wanted to be. And what I would always say is, I wanted to be a magician.” But speculative fiction author Nisi Shawl had no intention of pulling rabbits from a hat on a stage. “I would reply, ‘No, no, no, I want to actually do magic.’ And writing is about as close as you can get to that, really.”

Shawl has been performing their magic, via novel and short stories, in Seattle since the 1990s. “You’re creating worlds, you’re influencing how people see themselves, how they see the world,” says Shawl. “You’re really doing a lot within their minds. Changing their minds changes how they perceive the world, and changing how they perceive the world actually changes the world.”

The worlds Shawl has created have appeared in a variety of formats and places. They span the alternate history fiction of the novel Everfair, set in the Belgian Congo, in which native African people develop steam power ahead of their colonial oppressors, to the recent short story “2043... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” where African Americans finally get reparations—but the land is underwater so they undergo modifications to be able to live there.

The freedom to create such worlds, rewriting the rules of the human one we operate in, draws Shawl to speculative fiction. As an editor, they have also worked particularly to boost marginalized voices in the genre. “Speculative fiction does a lot to deprivilege the status quo and the ways that people are taught to view history. I mean, there’s this whole subgenre of alternate history, where you look at things that could have changed quite plausibly and would have made really different presents and futures,” says Shawl. “When you’re talking about science fiction that’s set in the future, you’re talking about looking at better possibilities than what we’re going through right now.”

Speculative fiction is generally thought of, by Shawl and others, as an umbrella term under which you’ll find science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, magical realism, even horror. Not everyone agrees with that definition: Margaret Atwood famously uses the label on her own work and views it as its own genre.

However you look at these often overlapping genres, speculative fiction, broadly, is in the popular culture spotlight. Some of the most buzzed-about recent television shows and movies, many based on books, fall into this category: Wheel of Time, The Expanse, Foundation, and Snowpiercer are just a few, not to mention the ongoing spin-offs of more familiar universes like Star Wars and repeat adaptations of Dune.

Of course, not all speculative fiction trafficks in optimistic outcomes. Shawl notes, too, that things they had read about as science fiction 20 or 30 years ago exist now—and they’re not good. “I can tell you, as someone who has read science fiction and seen some of the predictions come true—the reality TV shows [for example], those were an element of really horrible dystopic futures when I started reading science fiction—and now they’re real.”

“You’re creating worlds, you’re influencing how people see themselves, how they see the world. You’re really doing a lot within their minds. Changing their minds changes how they perceive the world, and changing how they perceive the world actually changes the world.”

How Shawl, who identifies as genderfluid, sees themselves is influenced by a variety of literature and authors over the years. As a teen living in Michigan they saw themselves in the title character of the book Tatsinda: “That was, you know, the usual loner, outsider story, and the outsider has like a special skill that saves the community and all that kind of stuff.” Science fiction writer Suzy McKee Charnas opened Shawl’s eyes to the possibility of writing in that style: “I realized I could get away with so much by calling it science fiction,” laughs Shawl. They reel off a few others that were part of Shawl’s hippie vibe and crowd: Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, by Ishmael Reed, Be Here Now, by Ram Dass, and Demian by Hermann Hesse.

If science fiction and fantasy stories feel more mainstream right now, Shawl says it’s a positive change from how the genres were perceived in previous eras. “I think it’s a generational thing. I think that there were people my age and older who were, they were told that it was lowbrow, and then gradually, people came of age who had not been taught that lesson—had not been warped that way, I will say, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, these are stories. They’re good! Fine, let’s keep going with them.’”

While speculative fiction is escapism for a lot of people, being immersed in speculative fiction in their work life means that Shawl looks to other kinds of stories for escapism, like British novelist Anthony Trollope or the Downton Abbey series created by Julian Fellowes. “I think I get the same sort of thrill from that, the same specific thrill that people get when they watch or read or consume science fiction. Darko Suvin, the [science fiction] critic, calls it ‘cognitive estrangement.’ Because the worlds of Trollope and Julian Fellowes are completely disconnected from my lived experience. I mean, you know, not completely—I guess there are humans!” Shawl jokes.

“But, you know, people who are deciding, like, ‘Well, should I have a bath before I dress for dinner?’ That’s not my life. Reading about someone else living that kind of life, it’s weird. And it gives me that frisson of weirdness. Whereas, you know, the asteroid belt—yeah, whatever. To [paraphrase] Brer Rabbit, ‘I was born and bred in an asteroid belt.’”

“2043… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” is a twist on the title of a Jimi Hendrix song, “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be).” Shawl notes that, in junior high, a classmate was really into Hendrix and turned them onto the musician, adding, “I have to brag and say that I was able to be a fan of Hendrix while he was still alive.” In the story, Shawl works in the themes of climate change and political justice. With the reparations to Black people being undercut by being underwater (and factions of white people unhappy with how they have made it work regardless), Shawl says that it reflects a certain reality, “I would say that 90% of Black culture in the Western Hemisphere comes out of being dealt a raw hand and doing something beautiful and creative with it. So that’s what I was trying to have my protagonists, my Black people in that story, do, is make something truly amazing out of being given this raw deal.”

Having worked all kinds of jobs while writing for years, eventually, in 1992, Shawl came to Seattle to attend Clarion West’s summer residential writers’ workshop, at the suggestion of another writer at a cyberpunk symposium in Detroit. Clarion West, along with a program at Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island, influenced them to come to Seattle to continue their writing work.

“This is a fantastic place for any writer of speculative fiction,” says Shawl. It’s not just the moody weather that draws people inward to read and consume media, though. Clarion West brings through authors every summer just as it did Shawl. “The people who attend often stay on here, come back, live here. So there’s a strong science fiction community.”

They also cite the tech industry, “which brings people who are not averse to technology and change to the area. They’re supporting it with their presence, with showing up for events, with funding workshops. And, you know, some of them are writers; some writers are able to work in tech. So there’s a nice back and forth.”

Shawl’s plate these days is very full; among their current projects is the sequel to Everfair—I didnt start writing it until the pandemic hit, actually, so it owes a lot of the method of creation to that—as well as New Suns 2, a followup anthology of speculative fiction by people of color (see box below). Its detailed, intense work, particularly the research that can go into a single line in a story. They wouldnt have it any other way: Its a delight and, for some of us, its an addiction. By Niki Stojnic

Nisi Shawl has multiple projects in the works, including a novel and an anthology sequel, plus a middle-grade novel due out in the fall. Photo by Caren Ann Corley.
Reading List
If you’re new to speculative fiction and, in particular, new to speculative fiction by underrepresented groups, Shawl has some suggestions (they note that most are from the early 2000s but still among the best collections).
“My recommendations are almost always based on, ‘Well, what did you like in another genre?’ because the field of options is so broad.” But in general, they suggest going with short fiction and anthologies, “because then you can get a taste of someone’s writing.”

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Shawl, includes 17 stories by people of color.

Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and the second in the series, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones are both filled with science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories by people of African descent, edited by Sheree Thomas.

Bending the Landscape is a three-volume series of LGBTQ+-themed work, with each volume devoted to a genre: fantasy, science-fiction, horror.
Want more ideas? Check out Isis Asares online bookshop, Sistah Scifi.

She Made It 

Who's the key person to this happy wedding day? Tap the image to find out!


What we are seeing and doing this week/end

Covid guidelines are changing; be sure to check the latest guidelines for King County, plus those of the event or business youre patronizing. Protect the health and lives of your community and get vaccinated (including a booster). We’ve highlighted some ways to support and engage with the community.

Millennials talk parenting in the Black community on February 25th, at MoPOP’s ninth annual Through the Eyes of Art, a virtual event presented with The Chosen Few. Guests and panelists share about raising the next generation and hope to open up dialogue and reflection among Black parents. Reserve a free spot (and check out the playlist plus other extras created for the event here). 

On theme for this issue, look out for Kim Fu’s debut short story collection, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, which dropped this month. It features 12 speculative fiction stories from Fu, who’s written two novels and a poetry collection previously.

Don’t miss the last day (February 19th) of After the Quiet: On Black Figures and Folds at newly opened Mini Mart City Park. Curated by Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, the exhibition features Black artists with connections, past and present, to Seattle.

Now on view at King Street Station is Carol Rashawnna WilliamsThe 1 Million - Multiple Species Eradication monoprint installation. In collaboration with seven artists, it focuses on bio- and multi-species extinctions. 

Opening March 11th at MadArt Studio, artist Jite Agbro’s P.L.U.A. exhibition recreates the Central District public housing project where she grew up, which is now under plans for demolition. 
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