Questions by Gregory Rihn, Steampunk Chronicle Literary Editor, answers by Nisi Shawl, author of Everfair. Exclusive interview!
Warning! Contains spoilers!
Nisi Shawl, Washington Post photo by
Steampunk Chronicle: How did you decide to write Everfair? It is a significant departure in subject from your prior works.
Nisi Shawl: I was thrown onto a panel about steampunk at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention, which led me to interrogate my dislike of the genre as I prepared for the appearance. My conclusion was that steampunk was just too cozy with imperialism. I sprang this on the other panelists and then promised (recklessly) to write a steampunk novel set in Leopold's Congo. Michael Swanwick shuddered and rolled his eyes at me, so I told him I'd make him beg to read it.
SC: How did you come to choose setting the book in the Congo, rather than, say, South Africa or another colonial region?
NS: I chose the Congo as Everfair's setting because as Leopold II's personal fiefdom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was the scene of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history. Millions of people died. I wanted to work with that horror in juxtaposition with the sense of adventure inherent in steampunk.
SC: Except for Thornhill, we don't see any characters representing the "bad guys". Leopold, his ministers, and generals all remain off page. Was this an intentional choice, or did the book work out that way?
NS: Keeping Leopold and the main antagonists off the page was very much intentional on my part. None of them deserve to be commemorated, even as evildoers. I wanted to focus on those who do good.
SC: Why did you choose to give the Africans some actual mystical powers: Thomas Jefferson Wilson's communion with Loango, Fwendi's ability to "ride" cats? (Not that this is a complaint, lots of steampunk books have both the steam-science and magical/occult elements. Just curious as to how this choice was made--.)
NS: Fwendi's ability to ride cats is inherited from others in her family; I based it on legends of Kenyan royal houses having a similar ability in relationship with lions. Late in the book, at her school in Kalemie, she teaches those with this sort of ability how to use it. This specifically includes Princess Mwadi. However, I never limit that ability to Africans, and Fwendi doesn't consider it to be the exclusive purview of Africans.
The close encounter with Loango is not an African's but an African American's. Thomas Jefferson Wilson was born and raised in the US. His interactions with the god leave him with magical abilities, but also with magically enforced rules and stipulations he must follow.
As for why I chose to include "occult" elements in the book, I was trying to make Everfair realistic. These elements are very real to me. They're part of my everyday life.
And the mystical powers most likely are most evident in African and African descended characters because they're the majority of Everfair's cast.
SC: Given that access to the Africans' radioactive material was probably a requirement of the WWI peace treaty (as it was of the wartime alliance treaties), is Europe looking forward to a much more apocalyptic World War II? Or, did other things occur that made WWII less likely? Sequel?
My one particular criticism would be that Everfair the country seems to have gotten off awfully lightly in the peace negotiations--no occupation, "protectorate," or forced concessions-.
NS: I haven't advanced Everfair's timeline to the WWII era, so I'm not sure what's going to happen when we get there. The sequel currently under consideration takes place just after WWI.
Yes, there's not a lot of post-WWI European oversight of Everfair in the novel. This is in part due to Europe being devastated by the flu, while many non-Euro nations aren't, as I try to show in the novel's final chapters. Also, though, I blame it to some extent on denial and negligence on the part of the European powers. This has historical foundation.
And the next battle is a continued struggle versus colonialism.
SC: Thank you! I look forward to your next book.