Everfair is about an alien and alternative time (1889-1919). The core of the novel is set in Equatorial Africa, and includes stories that extend to other parts of the world. When I read it, I see the people and their environments with an almost photographic gaze. Shawl has the rare gift of creating a fully realized universe. As you’ll see in the review quoted below I thought Nisi’s book Everfair was brilliant and remarkable.
When she asked me to transform a krugerrand that Vonda MacIntyre had left her into an Everfair coin. It was inspiring. It was also difficult and challenging in good ways. It required a precision of work since the coin was only about 1” high. And there were literary specificities as to what was carved on it.
These photos are only OK. The sculpted work is far more beautiful but the images do give a strong sense of the work.
Coin from Nisi Shawl’s Everfair Universe:
The Shongo is an African weapon and the date is 1922
The bird is a white tern that is important in the story.
This link is to a review I wrote when it was published. Quotes are from the review. I liked it even better on rereading. The coin is both for her novel Everfair (that I discuss here) and her forthcoming book from Tor, Kinning
Unlike most stories in western literature that involve both black and white characters, this is a genuine Black African story, with significant non-African characters, black, white, and asian. The novel is an alternative history to the tragic, murderous colonial story of the Belgian Congo and the death of millions; a story that continues to haunt and reverberate in horrific ways in the modern Congo. In today’s publishing world, Shawl’s tale is a neo-Victorian steampunk alternate history. Shawl is entirely successful in these genres, and in transcending them as well.
Shawl has created a complex, tightly woven tapestry that blends history, events and relationships in ways that are difficult to unravel and do justice to in a book review. The novel is a complex human story that blends equatorial African history and religions, Fabian Socialism, African royalty and leadership, colonialism, the Black Diaspora, African ritual magic, Christianity and steampunk science.
One of the goals of science fiction is to present the possibility of alternative values and ways of being. Shawl succeeds both in her alternate history and in her alternative story about how humans behave and can behave. Violence and conflict are integral to her story, but the power of human cooperation and hope are central to the outcome. In a nuanced and real way, Everfair is not only an excellent book, it is also a hopeful one.
Nisi Shawl says: “I like to think that with a nudge or two events might have played out much more happily for the inhabitants of Equatorial Africa. They might have enjoyed a prosperous future filled with all the technology that delights current steampunk fans in stories of western Europe and North America. And more. In Everfair they do.”
Your Fat Friend’s open letter to the writers ofInsatiable is an especially clear-voiced clarion call for people’s right to tell our own stories. The trailer for the show is embedded below; if fat-person stereotypes and/or simplistic conceptions of attractiveness disturb you, you might not want to hit play.
For those of you who chose to skip, Patty is a miserable fat high-school girl who is mocked at school. She also eats too much, can’t really exercise, and gets no dates. Over one summer, she has her jaw wired shut and comes back thin. Thin Patty vamps and poses like the slow-motion scenes in an erotic movie, radiating “I’m a sex object” from every pore. According to the official site linked above, she goes on to enter beauty pageants.
Unsurprisingly, the trailer has received a lot of pushback, including a petition with over 100,000 signatures, and the show may be cancelled based on the intensity of the reaction. The petition reads, in part:
“For so long, the narrative has told women and young impressionable girls that in order to be popular, have friends, to be desirable for the male gaze, and to some extent be a worthy human … that we must be thin,” the petition reads. “This series needs to be cancelled. The damage control of releasing this series will be far worse, insidious, and sinister for teenage girls, than it will be damaging for Netflix in their loss of profit.”
Your Fat Friend finds a moment to feel for the writers of the show:
I know the sting of pouring my whole self into a creative project, only to find that — too late — it has hurt someone else. I have no desire to compound that sting for you, or stand in prejudgment of your work.
This moment of what I read as absolutely authentic kindness comes after she tracks the history of the fat suit in her life:
Tyra Banks was one of many to wear a fat suit around the turn of the millennium. I was in my late teens and early twenties, struggling mightily against the body that had always been hopelessly mine, stubbornly resistant to the many changes I tried to force upon it. From The Nutty Professor to Friends, fat suits were everywhere. Often, the only fat people in movies or on TV were those caricatured by thin actors in meticulously crafted fat suits.
… Some were hopeless, pitiful befores who couldn’t get a date, couldn’t make friends, couldn’t connect to anyone. … Only becoming thin made their stories worth telling.
Others were the gluttonous punchlines of Norbit and Austin Powers, blissfully unaware of how disgusting they were in their two piece swimsuits, repulsive in their voracious appetites for food and sex. Shallow Hal, which seemed to fancy itself the most high-minded of fat suit portrayals, asserted that only a man under hypnosis could find a fat woman attractive, provided he couldn’t see her actual body. His attraction to her was played for laughs, a stick-thin woman throwing plus sized panties to an eager man in her bed to peals of audience laughter. Who could want that?
Whoever these fat suit characters were, the message to me as a young fat woman was clear. If I stayed fat, I was destined to be the butt of every joke, categorically undesirable and unlovable, a social pariah who was lucky to have any friends at all. I learned that I was repulsive, no matter how I dressed, what I accomplished, or who I was. I learned that my personhood would always be overshadowed by my body. I learned that my only redemption could come from getting thin. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get thin.
By the turn of the millennium, I had stopped watching anything that made fun of fat people, so none of these shows are really in my orbit (I think I saw one Austin Powers movie, and hated it). I didn’t realize the widespread use of fat suits, which I associate with the genre of stories where the “disabled” person has to be played by an able-bodied actor so she can “be redeemed” and walk (!) at the end of the story.
Where Your Fat Friend goes from personal narrative to trenchant political insight is right here:
These weren’t stories of the failures of fat people. They were stories about the supremacy of thinness.
These thin fantasies held up ghoulish faux-realities of life as a fat person, grounded in little more than their own imaginations. And there was no counterbalance, no alternative narrative, nowhere to turn from the desperation, isolation, and bleakness of fat lives as invented by thin people.
Your Fat Friend has nailed the key point, not just about thin people telling fat people’s stories, but about anyone telling another group’s stories, especially a marginalized group’s stories: unless we put an immense amount of effort and intentionality into listening, and into creating a full and rich portrayal, the stories we tell about someone else will always be our projections on what it is like to be that person, and live that life.
Even the most miserable fat person knows that being fat is not the only thing they are. Even the most self-comfortable fat person knows that being fat is one of the things they are. But the imaginary fat person in a thin writer’s head is no more and no less than a fat person. And if the writer is, as there are inescapable reasons to be, afraid of being fat, that fear will color and oversimplify the character. A writer who chooses to write outside their own experience has an enormous obligation to do it well*, to live into the reality of the people they are writing. Here’s more from Your Fat Friend’s letter:
At every turn, thin people control the stories about fatness that are told on the biggest stages, amplified with the biggest speakers, broadcast with the strongest antennae. And often, they tell the stories that make them feel best: stories that lift thinness up not as one of many natural body types, but as a badge of honor, earned only by those strong and smart enough to tame the wilds of their bodies.
I do not expect painstaking detail, documentary-style slice-of-life stories of real fat people told with clinical precision. I just long for a story — any story — other than the one narrative offered up by the limited thin imaginations of fat lives.
What seems clear from the Insatiable trailer is that the writers, whoever they are and whatever they have lived through, did not spend anything like enough time and effort to provide Your Fat Friend, and me, and the 118,000 people who have signed the petition, with a true story. They were not, in fact, insatiable when it came to learning the truth.
So I hope the show is cancelled, or at the very least taken back to the drawing board. And if I were Netflix, I would hire Your Fat Friend as one of the people to write the replacement.
* If you happen to be a writer who wants to do this work better, I recommend Writing the Other: A Practical Approachby Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. The book, and many superb workshops and other spin-offs can be found at the link.