Nisi Shawl’s ‘Talk Like A Man’ (2020)

This is an image of the front cover of Nisi Shawl's collection of short stories, 'Think Like A Man.' It depicts the author holding a doll, in front of a backdrop of a forest.
Image Source: PM Press

Talk Like A Man contains four short stories and two nonfiction pieces by Nisi Shawl, all of which commemorate the author’s career as an Afrofuturist science fiction writer. 

The title Talk Like A Man creates an expectation of gender play and subversion, but that was not what I experienced in my reading of it. Both the fiction and nonfiction in this collection seem far more invested in representing dominant gender dynamics than in disrupting them, rendering Talk Like A Man a project that mimics a man’s world without overtly suggesting another way of living.

The first short story in the collection, “Walk like a Man,” features a far future world that might be considered post-black (in the sense that blackness no longer functions as a racial signifier and blackness is no longer an axis of oppression). This story also includes provocative considerations of how human bodies would be valued in a hyperdigital world with sentient, lifelike AIs; Shawl imagines that possessing a physical body would be a source of power in this setting, and AI families who could afford to have their children implanted in human bodies could become upwardly mobile. Although I enjoyed the premise of this story, I was often lost in its peppering of neologisms and its absence of exposition. The story dropped me in the middle of an ongoing world without grounding me in its history or quirks — which may partly be owed to the fact that this is one of the collection’s shorter pieces, clocking in at about 12 pages. I wanted more coherence, in plot or in sentiment, from the story that presumably inspired the collection’s title.

A pattern of vague language and over-abstraction continues throughout Talk Like A Man. “Women of the Doll,” the second short story, makes odd connections between sex work, trauma, and objectification. It follows a woman named Josette who belongs to a “hidden” coven called Women of the Doll. The coven appears to recruit women who experienced trauma, groom them into magical, ultra-alluring sex workers, and send them out into the world to seduce rich men, who are so entranced that they give up more money than they otherwise would. The women’s traumatized souls also happened to be placed in dolls so they wouldn’t be retraumatized by the sex work they engaged in, which gave me pause. I wondered why this story wasn’t more critical of the systems that made Josette so vulnerable, and why characters in this world weren’t more suspicious of Women of the Doll, which is apparently a known organization. I was also concerned that sex work was being portrayed as an occupation that only attracts terribly traumatized, exploitable people. The details of “Women of the Doll” weren’t always clear (why the organization exists, if their members’ souls are ever restored to their bodies, etc.), but it is apparent that Josette dreams of building a home, and retiring in it with “all the others”— who are presumably other dollified women. At over 30 pages long, this is one of the collection’s longer stories, but it feels incomplete.

The collection’s third story, “Something More,” takes us to an affluent corner of Britain. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite convinced by the story’s setting. Its English slang was laid on too thick, and portrayals of antiblackness seemed unmoored from British history and culture. Part of the issue with the writing may be that there was too much plot for a less-than-40-page story. Allie, the protagonist, is a rich racist white English woman and musician who appears to be hashing out relationship drama and fleeing an evil wizard who possesses people’s bodies. While fleeing this wizard, Allie also travels to the future through a mirror and realizes, with shock, that her biological descendants will be magical black people. 

There may be some self-insertion from the author when Allie laments, regarding criticisms of her obscure songwriting, that “if the meaning was known, the magic was lost.” (p. 71) I of course think it’s a fallacy that people can only be dazzled if they’re confused, as I often was while reading this collection. I believe the overall sensation of an artwork can be mysterious without all of its meaning being hidden. Accordingly, one element of this story I did appreciate was Shawl’s vision of a future with “white temples, Black poets, strange beasts.” (p. 80) Shawl teased a fantastical far-future where black people know they are powerful and use that power to stay connected to Earth instead of destroying it. I wish “Something More” had had enough room in it to comfortably house that concept.

The final short story in this collection, “An Awfully Big Adventure,” was underwhelming. It’s a two-and-a-half page flash fiction piece about phases of a person’s life, from birth to death, that reads like the result of a timed writing exercise. It moved far too fast for me to feel invested in it.

The two nonfiction pieces that flank this collection were the most rewarding reads. “Ifa: Reverence, Science, and Social Technology” is an essay that was adapted from a talk Shawl gave at Stanford in 2004. It branches out from a definition of science fiction as “‘fiction that believes in science’” (p. 84) and makes the case for spiritual practices (particularly the Afrodiasporic practice of Ifa) as scientific processes. 

“‘The Fly in the Sugar Bowl: Nisi Shawl interviewed by Terry Bisson” is the final piece in this collection, and it showcases Shawl’s wit and eccentricity in addition to providing tidbits about their journey to becoming a science fiction writer. This piece also provides an important definition of Afrofuturism. Per Shawl, it “is not a subgenre of SFFH […] it’s a means of encompassing many different genres and subgenres. It’s an aesthetic movement rather than a set of guidelines for ways to construct or read a story.” (p. 103)

While Talk Like A Man isn’t one of my favorite collections, and it could have benefited from more curation (e.g. a foreword that ties the pieces together), it is a welcome introduction to Shawl’s work and concerns, which I’ll continue to explore. Everfair (2016) is next on my to-read list.