Representing My Equals

Everfair by Nisi ShawlWritten by Nisi Shawl

The voices of Everfair are many. I wrote it from eleven characters’ viewpoints, so the novel showcases many different spiritualities. Fabian socialist Jackie Owen is an atheist and proud of it. USian “Negro” missionaries Martha Livia Hunter and Thomas Jefferson Wilson are of course Christians–at the book’s start. King Mwenda relies on his bond with his “spirit father” and thus on his practice of local indigenous traditions, while his more cosmopolitan favorite wife, Queen Josina, has adopted some of the ways of the Yoruba nation. When Josina shares her esoteric learning with European Lisette Toutournier, it transpires that Lisette’s relationship to spirituality is more distant than that of her tutor. Tink, aka Ho Lin-Huang, also relates less than fervently to his religious practice, choosing a path matter-of-fact acceptance of the propitiousness of certain moments, numbers, and so on. And for the rest of Everfair’s main characters, spirituality plays roles of even less significance.

How did I dare to hope I’d do justice to all this variety of focus and intensity with my writing?

I began with the knowledge that I couldn’t.

My exploration of ways of “Writing the Other” (both as an author and a teacher) has shown me that it’s best to accept the likelihood of failure from the get-go. And then to endeavor to win anyway.

I have friends who are atheists, and I’ve read atheist essays and treatises, so I used those influences to model Jackie’s atheism. I’ve participated in Yoruba-derived ceremonies for decades, and, again, I’ve read about Yoruban and other animistic religions. That experience, those books and articles, contributed to my depiction of Josina’s spirituality–and to my depiction of East Congo and Central African belief systems as well.

Because while I loathe the sort of lazy writing that equates, say, Angolan and Ethiopian cultures when those two countries lie approximately 2000 miles apart, I do think that congruencies (as opposed to exact equivalencies) exist between different African cultures. They undoubtedly exist between different non-African cultures; why should this one continent be exempt from that sort of interlinkedness? True, when formulating these congruencies you have to take additional factors into account such as climate, terrain, and neighbors. You have to avoid assumptions and question what your sources accept as obvious. But as difficult as doing such things may seem, you should persist in developing these congruencies–especially in cases where millions of people have died, silencing the majority of firsthand witnesses by rendering entire stretches of the countryside you want to describe into skeleton-filled graveyards. As occurred in the Congo under the watch of Leopold II of Belgium.

While writing Everfair, I drew connections between what I knew about, what I extrapolated from that knowledge, what had been recorded, and what was lost. I imagined. I dreamed. I prayed to the orisha. I received their answers. I listened to them.

Here’s one example of what resulted: a scene in the book’s first half in which a prisoner is being interrogated. His interrogators pay more attention to the divinatory scratchings of a hen eating grain than to his lying answers. I based the scene’s action on a chapter in a book by English anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard. But I changed it in several respects, since foreign anthropologists’ informants often deliberately misrepresent their own culture to outsiders–not to mention the fact that these outsiders often misunderstand informants’ statements due to their own prejudices.

Another story element, disabled orphan Fwendi’s “cat-riding,” owes its existence to my growing familiarity with the “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” As I researched my novel’s setting, I learned that in the late 1890s a pair of unusually large lions hunted and consumed workers on the Kenya-Uganda railway. Local speculation about the Man-Eaters’ supernatural provenance noted their supposed ties with indigenous royal family members and the legendary ability of certain individuals to control and direct lions. I imagined that ability and those ties to be a bit more widespread, and adjusted the nature of Fwendi’s mounts to match her milieu.

When I found primary sources, I used them. Maps, photos, news stories, music, and more contributed to my understanding of the philosophies underpinning my characters’ diverse worlds.

Though decimated, the peoples of the area where I set Everfair weren’t totally wiped out. Descendants of the historical figures who inspired many of my characters exist to this day. They can–and probably will–critique my attempts at creating a vivid, moving, and above all, plausible fictional version of their ancestors’ lives. Expecting that, I’ve done my best to create this fictional version with real respect. I’ve been told that the gaze I turn on my characters is “level.” Your gaze is always level when turned on an equal. All these characters and the people they represent are my spiritual equals.

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6 thoughts on “Representing My Equals

  1. Interesting. From the limited sample it looks like you’ve employed Third Person Limited for each POV, apparently giving each character a chapter, which underscores that they only have a partial awareness of the big picture. Most uses of 3rd Limited tends to jump between characters so that the reader gets an effective version of 3rd Omniscient while allowing the author plausible deniability when it comes to twists and reveals.

    Was that what you were going for or is it more about staying on one character because that’s more comfortable from a short story writer’s perspective?

  2. I was probably less conscious of the effects of multiple close-third viewpoints as opposed to omniscient third than you’re giving me credit for. The way the novel’s structured does allow me submersion in each successive viewpoint; I tried, in fact, to vary narrative voices between chapters. I hope that helps you think about Everfair and what I did.

  3. i Liked the effort and ingenuity you used to structure your story and the amount of reading you must have done to extrapolate those scenes which you say you have introduced in the story … Did you have an idea of what you were looking for while reading those articles or did they come to you in hindsight….. How did you locate your reading matter was it gathered over a period of time and saved for future use if required……????

  4. Lionel, sometimes I wanted to find out something specific, and sometimes I just wanted to know more. There was also information I searched for that I simply never found. My research took place over several years. I used what I found, what was given to me, what I could afford to access. So I probably missed some good resources either because of accident or finances. As I said, I await criticism.

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