By Jonathan Thornton
January 27th, 2020
Talk Like A Man|
Paperback / Ebook|
Anthology / Science Fiction / Fantasy|
November 15, 2019 (US) November 21, 2019 (UK)|
“She would have to do something. Something else besides living. Something more.”
PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series, edited by Terry Bisson, is part of the radical indie press’s politically engaged mission, in which they publish some of speculative fiction’s most insightful voices. Each volume concentrates on some of the most provocative and politically engaged of a specific author’s short stories or novellas, published together with relevant essays, interviews and bibliographies, all in a conveniently portable slim volume. So far, the series has published volumes by a diverse range of authors including Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson and Marge Piercy. Nisi Shawl makes an excellent candidate for the series.
Shawl’s debut novel Everfair (2016) is a stunningly ambitious work of steampunk alternate history that imagines an uprising against King Leopold II’s genocidal regime in the Congo led by a mixture of displaced African tribes, African-American missionaries and English socialists. Their debut short story collection Filter House (2008) won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. They have edited many anthologies celebrating writers of colour and LGBT authors, and they have written a practical writing guide, Writing the Other, which has spun off into a series of classes.
Talk Like A Man collects together four previous uncollected stories, an academic speech Shawl gave at Duke University, and their interview with Bisson, plus a useful comprehensive bibliography for those wanting to track down all of Shawl’s remaining short fiction not anthologised here or in Filter House. Together they provide a fascinating insight into Shawl’s work, and the collection is essential for fans of Shawl’s writing and those following the Outspoken Authors series alike.
The four stories do a good job of showing both Shawl’s skill as a writer and their range. “Walk Like a Man” is a cyberpunkish story about schoolgirls, online gangs and artificial intelligence. “Women of the Doll” features a hidden society of women who help people through rituals involving dolls. “Something More” follows a singer in a British rock group as she becomes embroiled in the intergenerational battle between her future descendant and a malevolent wizard. “An Awfully Big Adventure” is a beautiful reflection on facing one’s own mortality. All of them demonstrate Shawl’s fascination with the intersection between race, gender and sexuality, the ease with which they blend disparate genre elements to create stories with their own unique flavour, and the depth of her characters.
“Something More” weaves together elements of British folk songs “Tam Lin” and “The Two Magicians”, time travelling visions and slice of life observations into its rich fabric, whilst “Women of the Doll” explores ritual and mystical practices in a vivid modern day setting, and “Walk Like a Man” bursts with effortless future tech inventiveness.
In addition, Shawl is able to write from the perspective of a wide range of characters, and these stories demonstrate their devotion to portraying characters from all backgrounds and perspectives, especially those frequently ignored by genre fiction writers. The protagonist of “Something More” is an overweight singer who suffers from seizures. “Walk Like a Man” explores queer attraction between a black teenage girl and the avatar of amassed artificial intelligence. Josette from “Women of the Doll” is a sex worker who has transferred her soul to her doll Viola so she can protect herself. The stories also demonstrate Shawl’s frank depictions of human sexuality in all its forms.
The essay “Ifa: Reverence, Science and Social Technology” sees Shawl drawing parallels between their practise of the West African religion Ifa and the scientific method of understanding, and how for them religion and science can coexist. This is particularly pertinent with regards to their rejection of colonialist attitudes towards writing and academia, which echoes throughout their work. It also provides insight into their mixing of fantastical and science fictional tropes in their writing.
Shawl’s interview reveals them to be witty and engaging, and again provides fascinating insight into their thinking around genre, history and science. All in all, Talk Like a Man is an excellent addition to Shawl’s already impressive oeuvre and a compelling glimpse into the mind of one of genre fiction’s most exciting voices.