Where Afrofuturism Meets Horror: Catching Up with Nisi Shawl

The 2019 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award-winner for Lifetime Achievement, Nisi co-founded the Carl Brandon Society in 1997 to help give people of color greater visibility in the science fiction and fantasy worlds.  They are also the co-creator of “Writing the Other” workshops and have taught thousands of writers new ways of thinking about diversity and representation within fiction.

BWiH Magazine: Most people know you for your work as an Afrofuturist, but you’ve written some amazing horror and dark fantasy. What can you tell our readers about it?

Nisi Shawl:  I’m not sure that horror and Afrofuturism are mutually exclusive categories.  Is horror a genre?  Maybe?  But I truly don’t believe Afrofuturism is a genre–it’s an aesthetic.  Sure, some of my stories are set in the future, like the Making Amends series.  The latest installment, “Over a Long Time Ago,” has definite horror overtones, though, if you ask me.  It’ll be appearing in Lightspeed Magazine sometime this year, so then readers will get to judge for themselves.  Meanwhile, they can scrutinize the stories collected in Our Fruiting Bodies. 

The three Brit Williams stories (“Street Worm,” “Queen of Dirt,” and “Conversion Therapy,”) are purely what John Jennings calls “ethno gothic,” for instance.  “I Being Young and Foolish” could qualify as dark fantasy, I guess–but dark for whom?  I’m way more interested in what readers can tell me than what I can tell them about this stuff.

BWiH Magazine: SPECULATION is your first middle grade fiction work. What can you tell our readers about writing for younger readers and this work in particular?

Nisi Shawl: There are hordes of gatekeepers involved when you’re writing for younger readers–more even than are involved in most traditional publishing projects.  These gatekeepers will challenge your word choices, your topics, your unintended messages.  Do you want your work included on banned book lists, or do you want it to be found on school library shelves?  Do you want it to be read by flashlights under blankets? 

Think about your goals as you pay attention to the advice of your editor, agent, beta readers, cultural consultants, and so on.

What I can tell you about Speculation in particular is that it’s full to overflowing of love: love for my characters, for the real family members and friends they’re based on, for the stories that live on when the people they’re about are long gone.  Of course I was also writing it to challenge certain things, like the stereotypes equating Black people with cities rather than with the countryside, or the dominant culture’s preference for denying the presence of our ancestors. 

But the main thing about Speculation for me is its deep, powerful connection to sweetness, joy, and love, love, love, love, love.


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