When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what does it mean to you to be a black writer in this society?
I first realized I *could* be a writer in the 1970s, after reading a bunch of feminist SF.  I realized if Suzy McKee Charnas got away with saying what she said, I had a chance to do something similar.  What it means to me to be a black writer in this society is to have built-in “cognitive estrangement,” the quality that critic Darko Suvin thinks is essential to the imaginative genres.
Do you write full time, or do you have another full-time job? What is your educational background?
I’m a college drop-out.  I write and teach writing full time.  I work in a bookstore one day a week.
How do you best meet the challenge of juggling your day job (if applicable) and/or your family, against your writing career?
I have no day job to speak of.  I’m divorced, no children.  My family know not to talk to me–or even talk around me–when I’m writing.
What genre(s) do you write in, is there a favorite and which do you feel have had the most important impact on the black community? Traditionally, in mainstream media, blacks have been vastly marginalized in Speculative Fiction and fiction in general, how do you see that changing and what impact will your work have on making those changes?
I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, and creative nonfiction.  Which is the most influential?  I have two words for you: Black Panther.  In speculative fiction there has been a growing acceptance of the presence of African-descended writers and African-derived content since the 2009 online controversy known as “Racefail.”   Con or Bust, the Carl Brandon Society, and many other factors have supporteded this growth.
Who are some of the major writing influences who most inspired you?
Samuel R. Delany, Gwyneth Jones, Colette, and Raymond Chandler.
Do you listen to music when you’re creating? If so, what type?
I listen to instrumental music for the most part, and the sort of instrumental music depends on the sort of story I’m writing: harp music, ragtime, hard bop, electronica, so on, so forth.
How long does it usually take you to complete work on a book?
Years.  Everfair took six.  I write at a fairly slow pace.
How many books have you written?
Eight.  Now ask me how many I’ve published (five).
As a black author, do you feel a personal responsibility to the black community to create content which not only entertains, but also uplifts and educates?
Nope.  I feel a personal responsibility to my ancestors to create beauty.
Is there any particular book that you’ve written that you’re most passionate about?
I’m most passionate about The Blazing World, which my agent described as “weird.”  It’s unpublished and unsold.  It’s the first novel I ever wrote.
What legacy do you want your work to represent and resonate in the black community and the world?
I want my work to challenge and satisfy readers, to have the undeniable emotional impact of a piece of music.  I want it to set a standard that others enjoy meeting in their own work.
What are some of the upcoming projects you’re working on?
I’m revising a Middle Grade historical fantasy about two young African American girls having adventures in 1962; it’s called Speculation, and it involves a pair of magic glasses.  I’m also drafting a sequel to Everfair, my Nebula-nominated alternate history of a socialist Utopia in the 19th century Congo.
How can the readers learn more about your work and follow your career?
Google me.

Nisi Shawl is an African American writer, editor, and journalist. They are best known for co-authoring Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, which is the go-to guide to representing difference in fiction.  Their debut novel, Everfair, ws a Nebula finalist; their debut story collection, Filter House, is co-winner of the 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award.  Most recently Shawl edited New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color.  Among other books, they co-edited Stories for Chip, a tribute to Samuel R. Delany; and Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler.  They edit reviews for literary quarterly The Cascadia Subduction Zone, and have contributed to Ms. Magazine, The Washington Post,, and other venues.  Shawl has appeared as a guest lecturer at several educational institutions, including Duke University and Spelman College.  They live in Seattle, near a large lake full of enticingly dangerous currents. 



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 @: