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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Nisi Shawl! Her short fiction includes the story “Cruel Sistah,” which was selected for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006: 19th Annual Collection; the novella “Good Boy,” a World Fantasy Award finalist; and the short story collection Filter House, a Tiptree Award winner and a World Fantasy Award finalist. Her first novel, Everfair, was published last year and is one of this year’s Nebula Award nominees!

Everfair by Nisi Shawl Filter House by Nisi Shawl

Golden Ages

By the time my debut novel Everfair appeared I was 60 years old.  I’m working on a sequel; if the first publisher I’m shopping it to buys it, I could well be 65 when that sequel—Kinning, I call it—appears.

I never thought I’d get this old.  Getting old is not something women are encouraged to anticipate.  It’s a losing battle, evading age, but one every woman in the world’s dominant culture is expected to fight.  Though often we’re given examples of what it’s like to be old: Lolling about on our laurel wreaths, basking in the glory of our grands and great-grands, clasping the tender hands of our lifelong lovers or gazing in satisfaction upon our monumental artistic or scientific accomplishments.  Or, daringly, all of the above.  But old age in these visions is a resting state, not an active one.

If you haven’t gotten around to it by 40, the saying goes, you never will.

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 46, I became First Runner-Up for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Imaginative Fiction with my story “The Beads of Ku.”  After several months spent puzzling over the question of why I hadn’t won outright I homed in on a passage in my text that seemed to provide an answer:

As the woman Dosi grew older, she began more and more to stay at home and to leave all the business to Fulla Fulla.  At last she became ill, and though Fulla Fulla nursed her mother diligently, she died.

Dosi’s death and her disappearance from the rest of the story must have annoyed Le Guin, who had probably long since tired of authors demonstrating how disposable old women were.  She was over 70 herself at that point, yet by no means over and done with her days of derring-do, as anyone privileged to watch her speech at the National Book Awards twelve years later can attest.

So I’ve learned not to simply discount and discard the middle aged and older women I write about.  In her 40s, Everfair’s Lisette is an international spy and the author of subversive political commentaries, and her lover Daisy, 55, loads and unloads freight-hauling dirigibles and holds the powerful government post of Poet.  My fictitious older women are writers and fighters and merchants and movers and shakers of every sort.  They go places and have adventures.  Fantasy and horror and science fiction adventures.

Like Octavia E. Butler, like many other black authors of imaginative fiction, I’ve been asked why I write it.  Why not stick to the “realistic” genres such as “street lit” and depict knife fights, crack addiction, teen pregnancy, and so on?  I usually answer those sorts of questions by saying that science fiction, fantasy, and horror deprivilege the status quo; an alternate history’s events may transpire less tragically, SF’s futures can reverse oppression, as can horror’s presents, and fantasy can heal us of it.  Also, SFFH can be used to bring marginalized characters to the story’s center by shifting your readers’ focus away from those who fall into the default.  This is as true for age as for race: prepare to dump your assumptions when encountering Le Guin’s Yoss, the stubborn, retired science teacher heroine of “Betrayals”; or menopausal Calamity, islander heroine of Nalo Hopkinson’s novel The New Moon’s Arms.  These women love and lose, change and challenge the world on their own terms.

Write what you know, we’re told; a wise instructor once pointed out to me that this is truest on an emotional level.  On an intellectual level knowledge is easy to fake and quick to obtain.  You can do a bit of research to learn how much fodder a horse eats daily.  You can extrapolate from current data to figure out how many years of travel it would take a spaceship powered by solar wind to reach a particular planet.  But the wonder of finding a mermaid unconscious on a deserted beach?  That you need to have felt in order to properly convey it.  That or something similar.

I feel the bravery and independence of old women not just because I’ve been one myself for the last decade or so, but because of my mother’s example.  At 81, June Rosilee Jackson Rickman Cotton is a self-described “tough old bird.”  She flirts, she fusses, and she does not give in.  She does not give up.  She does not give any sort of fuck.

Most old women have had taken away from us just about everything life taught us to care for: friends, youth, beliefs, belongings…in some cases health and mobility.  Memories.  Lovers.  Parents.  Children.  Divested of these, we become less and less tightly chained to maintaining the current state of affairs.

At the same time as our losses are occurring, though, we receive extraordinary gifts.  Such as freedom.  Such as broadened and deepened perspectives.  Gifts that can render us especially fond of ringing changes on hegemonic constructions of inevitability.  In other words, especially fond of speculative fiction.

We read it.  I average 50 books a year.  I have no stats from a wider sample for you, only these shots of my overfull shelves and the growing to-be-read pile beside my mother’s bed.  At the moment June is working on Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season; she’s already gotten through Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the Delany tribute anthology I co-edited, Stories for Chip.

We write it.  No, we’re not the only ones writing speculative fiction, but since there’s no compulsory retirement rule for authors, we’re plenty.  Keep learning, keep improving, and you can keep writing as long as you want.  Off the top of my head, without even opening a search tab, I can list eleven living Grandes Dames of SFFH: Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Eileen Gunn, Jewelle Gomez, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Pat Cadigan, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Kathleen Alcalá, C.J. Cherryh, and the inimitable Ursula.  Death has robbed us of a few others, such as Octavia, who died at the tender age of 58.  Younger than me.

We are it.  This, more than anything else, is the connection I want everyone to make between old women and speculative fiction: equivalence.  Identity.  Like all humans we face the unknown every day; unlike most humans, we know that.  Death has touched us intimately.

Also, the future is where we old women live: we’re time travelers who more than once have witnessed our world unravel and respin itself.  We have the emotional dissonance, the cognitive estrangement necessary for understanding SFFH and conveying its meaning to others.  We notice the gaps between what is and what might be, what was and what might have been.  Between what we’re promised—or threatened with—and what might actually come about.  We are rich in insights; our minds mint brilliance, our hearts shine with the burnished glow of our stories, our sagas.  The long, long years ring with our epics’ chimes.  Hear them, share them.  Act them out.  Make them your own.  They are what await all you literate women reading this: ages of gold.  Spend them well.

Nisi Shawl’s alternate history/steampunk novel Everfair is a 2016 Tor publication and a Nebula finalist.  Her 2008 collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.  She’s a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, a nonprofit supporting the presence of people of color in the fantastic genres, and serves on Clarion West’s Board of Directors.  Shawl was selected as Guest of Honor for WisCon in 2011, the Science Fiction Research Association’s convention in 2014, and Austin’s upcoming Armadillocon in 2017.