Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl is an American writer who when she was little, I told her middle sister Julie convoluted tales of how she was a mermaid that had come to dwell in the small midwestern town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. This odyssey involved the Saint Lawrence Seaway, several of the Great Lakes, and mysterious underground passages her schoolteacher called aquifers. Her own origin was much simpler, of course; their parents, she explained, had found her in a garbage can.

In 1971, at the age of sixteen, Nisi from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan’s Residential College. She took several French courses, Oral History, Cosmology, and a poetry seminar that taught her ten weeks of nothing. Most classes took place in the dorm, and Nisi got a job in the dorm’s library. One day she was startled to notice an extremely short person walking towards me. They were less than two feet high. It took Nisi several seconds to realize that this was a child.

Anyone under a certain age had become alien to her experience. It wasn’t this isolation that led to Nisi dropping out of school. She had an abortion, became depressed and quit going to classes two weeks from finals. She failed to finish her assignments, and left the University without a degree.

Nisi moved into a house called Cosmic Plateau and lived with people who called themselves Bozoes. She paid $65 a month rent and worked part-time as a janitor, an au pair, a dorm cook, an artists’ model. Nisi wrote and performed her writings publicly, at parks and cafes and museums. She learned a lot.

I read Charnas, Russ, Delany, Colette, Wittig. I sent out a horrible story about fornicating centaurs and got a wonderfully sweet rejection letter. Then our landlady kicked all the Bozoes out of Cosmic Plateau, and I had to live by the sweat of my brow.

Nisi worked at a natural foods warehouse, sold structural steel and aluminum, sold used books, got married and joined a band.

In the midst of all of that she kept writing and got better at it.

Nisi’s first science fiction appearance was in the nude. She modelled for one of Rick Lieber’s illustrations for Bruce Sterling’s Crystal Express (the Arkham House hardcover–I’m the Dark Girl of “Telliamed”).

Her first science fiction publication was in Semiotext(e) (see the bibliography below for dates on this and the rest of her print oeuvre). Nisi shared the table of contents with William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and a bunch of less well-known but quite cool others. She states that she owes her part in this literary conspiracty to Crowbar, publisher of the ‘zine Popular Reality.

In 1992 NIsi attended a cyberpunk “symposium” in Detroit. Sterling, in his inimitable manner, supposed that no one in the audience had heard of Semiotext(e), let alone read it, and she was able to retort from the third row that she was in it. So NIsi got to hang out with him, and with Pat Cadigan and John Shirley, which last professional offered to read her stories! He was of the opinion that she could write. He recommended that Nisi attend the  Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, where he and Cadigan were to teach that summer.

At Clarion West she learned in six weeks what six years at the University could never have taught her.

Because of Clarion West and another writers’ program in the Puget Sound area (Cottages at Hedgebrook, a retreat on Whidbey Island), Nisi put Seattle near the top of her list when considering a move from Michigan. She’d gotten divorced, sold her house and when she asked her ancestors where she ought to live, they said this was the place.

Her apartment is one block off of the #48 bus route. King County Metro takes Nisi all the way to the beach. Grey and wild, or smooth as oil, the water is unfailingly beautiful. By ways as circuitous as those she described to her sister almost four decades ago, this mermaid has returned to the sea.


Please visit Nisi’s website @:


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