by Sumiko Saulson
Award-winning Afrofuturist Nisi Shawl has knocked it out of the park with “Speculation,” a work of mid grade fiction (for 8- to 12-year-olds) about Winna, a young girl with magical glasses that allow her to travel through time, learning about her family history and uncovering the mystery of a missing ancestor. Like many African Americans, her family tree has survived its fair share of rough weather, and Winna helps young readers learn about the ills of slavery, family trauma and more in the context of this often whimsical fantasy for young readers.
The 2019 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award-winner for Lifetime Achievement, Nisi co-founded the Carl Brandon Society in 1997 to help give people of color greater visibility in the science fiction and fantasy worlds. They are also the co-creator of “Writing the Other” workshops and have taught thousands of writers new ways of thinking about diversity and representation within fiction.
Sumiko Saulson: First of all, congratulations on your new mid grade paranormal fantasy, “Speculation.” In the story, after Winna’s little sister breaks her glasses, she receives a pair of glasses that sound very familiar to me. They sound a lot like the glasses you wear. Is that a coincidence, or is there a metaphor there somewhere?
Nisi Shawl: It’s not a coincidence! As a teen I wore “granny glasses,” which resembled the pair in “Speculation.” My first pair, which I was given when I was 7 years old, were pale blue with sparkles – a very different look. But seeing clearly was a magical experience that left a deep impression on me as a child, so the connection between magic and glasses is a natural one for me to make. The frames I wear currently are golden and very round, like the ones Winna receives. Alas, these don’t have tiny stars cut out of the nosepiece, and as far as I can tell, they don’t respond to my wishes.
Sumiko Saulson: “Speculation” is also a work of historical fiction, taking on some of the same kinds of heady subjects you’d expect to see in works of speculative fiction for adults, like Alex Haley’s “Roots,” or Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.” But these subjects are so important for children, especially Black children. What inspired you to speak on these subjects?
NS: I clearly remember pondering these subjects as a kid. Kids think more deeply than you might suppose, and about more things. Adults often fail to give kids proper credit for the power of their imaginations. And sometimes, horribly, adults lie to kids about the wonders and terrors of living in this world. Not Grampa Carl, and not any of the people he was modeled on. And not me, and not this book. Dreams, questions, research, games, stories – there are so many ways to explore serious historical subjects like these, and I think we can and should use them all!
Sumiko Saulson: What particular challenges did you come across in addressing topics such as slavery, family curses, and the ways in which these things impact both individual African Americans and the Black family in a way that is accessible for children?
NS: Much of what I wrote is directly based on conversations children have had with me, or on memories of my own musings on these topics. I recall an afternoon when the 9-year-old son of a white friend I was visiting tried to explain slavery to me; he was obviously shocked at how wrong it was, and how stupid anyone must have been to support it.
Winna’s ideas about the way family curses work would have come from reading about them in fiction, or encountering them in movies or TV series. I’ve never found I needed to spell the mechanics of curses out in my real life discussions of them with kids. Actually, an adult was the one who challenged my treatment of the concept.
She told me that self-hexing – one of the central premises of the particular family curse Winna discovers, the Burden of the Coles – puts the blame and responsibility for their misfortunes on those misfortunes’ victims. Whereas to me it’s more a way of understanding the tendency many of us have to internalize evils such as racism.
Sumiko Saulson: With the recent press over the posthumous editing of Roald Dahl’s “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and so many commenters once again saying it would be better for publishers to pick up works by and for marginalized people, “Speculation” feels right on time. Are books by Black authors for Black children hard to find, or are they all around? And what made you decide to toss your hat into the ring when it comes to mid grade fiction?
NS: I believe there’s still some difficulty finding Black-centric children’s literature by Black authors, but this difficulty is diminishing with time. By the way, I don’t characterize “Speculation” as “for Black children,” because I believe children of all racial make-ups will enjoy its focus on the Black experience. Certainly the demand for kids’ books with that focus is large and growing. And though in the past there’s been a dearth of that sort of book, lately this has been changing. New authors, new ventures into middle grade territory by established authors used to working in other genres – our particular corner of the field is expanding!
Regarding my decision to join in this expansion, it wasn’t that I thought I’d better jump on the middle grade bandwagon. I just had a story to tell that seemed to fit the format. And I’m glad “Speculation’s” appearance strikes you as timely, but that timeliness wasn’t calculated. This book took so many years to write! My mother’s death in 2018 stopped it hard for quite a while. But that’s not the only reason it came together slowly – I probably couldn’t tell you everything that contributed to that. My nephew Daniel, who was a beta reader for me when he was only 8, is now in his second year of law school. It has been a long, long journey, and I could never have predicted when it would end, or what the world it came into would look like.
Sumiko Saulson: Both as a mid grade author yourself and being one of the authors of “Writing the Other,” would you care to weigh in on the subject of posthumous sensitivity edits on children’s works such as what we’ve seen with Roald Dahl and previously with books such as “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” by Hugh Lofting to remove language that has been identified as offensive in modern times? Some are calling it censorship, but at what point does it become more important to protect young readers and particularly those such as Black children who are already marginalized and at-risk from reading bigoted content?
NS: I’m not sure which way we should go with this choice. On the one hand, my great preference is for honesty when it comes to introducing children to the world we live in. I don’t think we’re doing them any favors when we lie to them, even by way of roundabout-ation and revision. But on the other hand, where can they find peace and glory, joy, adventure, fun – if not in books? And don’t these poisonous slurs and repetitious stereotypes get in the way of all that goodness?
E. Nesbit is one of my favorite authors. I mention her in “Speculation” as someone recommended by another favorite author, Edward Eager. And the Nesbit book that I love above all others is “The Enchanted Castle.” But when I reread it for the first time as an adult, I found one of the characters casually using the n-word in a joking description of another character (both were white). What happened there? Why didn’t I remember the offensiveness of what I’d read? Did the version I loved as a child omit the racial slur? Or had I been so desensitized to abuse by the point I came across it that it made no impression on me?
In an early draft of “Speculation,” there were two instances of the n-word. It appeared once when the bullies taunted Winna with it and once when Cousin Benny chanted it as part of a defiant challenge I heard in my Black neighborhood in the 1950s.
I was persuaded to change what I wrote in both these cases. But in another story of mine, one intended for adults, the n-word remains as a sign of the villain’s revolting attitude toward race.
You mention Roald Dahl’s work. My understanding is that his publisher plans to release two editions of each of his books: one using a revised text, one the original. That’s certainly a helpful approach, though I don’t know if it would be the best solution for every book that we need to examine in this matter. Another possible solution: content warnings. Kids could decide for themselves whether they were ready to encounter problematic material if authors and editors let them know where they were going to find it.
I hope we figure this thing out. Soon.
Sumiko Saulson: Is there anything you wish I had asked you but I didn’t?
NS: Isn’t that cover art fantastic? Hillary D. Wilson did such an amazing job of conveying Winna’s essence. Depending on how you look at her, her expression is hopeful, worried, questioning, satisfied, happy, regretful – It’s everything. And those perfect stars on the spectacles’ nose piece … and the shimmery ancestor silhouettes misting the spectacles’ lenses. I really and truly love it!
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror whose latest novel, “Happiness and Other Diseases,” is available on Mocha Memoirs Press. She is the winner of the HWA Scholarship from Hell (2016), BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest (2017), Mixy Award (2017), Afrosurrealist Writer Award (2018), HWA Diversity Grant (2020), HWA Richard Laymon Presidents Award (2021) and the Ladies of Horror Fiction Readers Choice Award (2021).