Saturday, October 22, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl is one of my fucking favourite people, and I am so honoured to share a TOC with her! She wrote a very useful book on Writing the Other, and has a short story collection or two. She's part of the Science Fiction Writers Association, has a LiveJournal, and recently got Twitter and Facebook, even.  In Steam-Powered II, she writes us a story called “The Return of Cherie.”

A two-sentence summary: 
Twenty years after she helped found a socialist Utopia in the Belgian Congo, Lisette Toutournier returns to the nation of Everfair with urgent advice about its role in Europe’s fast-approaching “Great War.”  And despite their ages, Lisette also hopes to rekindle the love she once shared with another co-founder still living there, Daisy Albin.

How did your characters come to be? 
Three of “The Return of Cherie’s” five characters are loosely based on historical figures: Matty on Peter Pan's creator, J.M. Barrie; Lisette on Colette; and Daisy on children's author E.M. Nesbit.  Rima is a sort of mash-up of Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston.  Fwendi evolved from photos and anecdotes of several sub-Saharan children and women; the histories of indigenous peoples in that area are pretty much eradicated, so I have to use lots of references as her armature.  Her name is a phoneticization of the nickname a young playmate gave to Barrie, which he eventually elided into Wendy.

Why this setting? 
I chose this setting because it’s where most of Everfair, my novel-in-progress takes place, and the story is a fragment of said novel.  And I chose this setting for Everfair because King Leopold’s devastation of Equatorial Africa is one of the most extreme examples anywhere of the costs of Victorian technology, which is the fetish and domain of most current steampunk. 

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
In emerging pan-African culture at this time, in this world, I’m positing grudging acceptance.  Lesbianism is okay, but it’s not great.  Like burned toast—scrape it a little and it’s edible, with lots of jam.  Everfair is of much the same opinion on “inverts,” with a thin layer of liberalistic tolerance sprinkled on top. In Europe (which Lisette just left) lesbianism is simply shameful.  Think “Well of Loneliness.”

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece?  
What has been the most fun about writing “The Return of Cherie”?  It's hard to choose between the research and the characters.  And then there’s researching the characters.  I’ve wanted for years to write about Colette and E. Nesbit and J.M. Barrie.  I love them so much!  Lisette’s voice is an emulation of Colette’s, in this story and in Everfair.  She’s so sense-oriented, and that makes her scenes are tremendously engaging for me—and, I hope, for our readers.  Thinking of the project as a whole, research has in some ways been a nightmare, because much of the material I’d like to draw on for indigenous viewpoints is gone.  Millions of people died during King Leopold’s reign of terror.  History is told by the unslaughtered, so there are huge gaps in our recorded knowledge of this time and place.  However, there are material traces of Kongolese culture, museums full of looted goods.  I have a book on these museum collections (African Reflections, edited by Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim) that has helped me immensely.  Of course I want more—I could spend thousands on an Everfair library.  I’ve already spent over a hundred, even though I’m also using lots of the supplementary information available on the internet.

A random ramble? 
“The Return of Cherie” is a reference to two of Colette’s best known novels, Cheri and The Last of Cheri.  Colette’s Cheri is a young man in love with an older courtesan.  I’m 55, and I think about age and love a lot.  In my story, Daisy’s 55 and Lisette is 41, and there’s some concern that the advancing years may be putting an end to their amours.  Race is also a factor.  As for the technological aspect of steampunk in this story, there are gears, and gleaming brass, and dirigibles, and rubber fittings, just like in most current genre works—but it’s what people do with these icons that matters most.  It matters to me and it matters to them.  I hope it matters to you. 

And this concludes this round of author interviews! By this time you should have enough information to make a decision whether or not to pre-order, so I shan't ask again. Thanks to all the authors for answering these questions, and thanks everybody else for reading!

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