What If?

Nisi Shawl
The writer Nisi Shawl is one of the artist faculty for our Water World workshop for 5th and 6th graders in April. One can really get a sense of the common creative spirit that links science and artmaking by looking at Nisi's work and how she encourages young learners.

"Nisi is fascinated by science and relishes taking ordinary phenomena and asking the simplest of questions 'What if?' , says program manager Martha Worthley.

Indeed, that simple question helps students take the world they know, and encourages them to reframe it–to play with the observations and connections that surround them. That small shift in perception is a hallmark of great scientific inquiry as well as bold artmaking.

Nisi's most recent short story collection Filter House (Aqueduct Press) was chosen one the Best Books of 2008 by Publishers Weekly magazine. It contains three previously unpublished stories and eleven reprints, plus an introduction by Nebula Award-winner Eileen Gunn. In an interview with Jesse Vernon, Nisi describes how she came up with the title for the collection, a process that illustrates her own "What if" journey:

I like ocean things, I like marine biology [and] I enjoy anything oceanic. I found this article about appendicularia
and was reading about them and then looked at other articles on the web
and found out about filter houses. They are so, so gorgeous. They are
so beautiful. And I was just really attracted to the idea of something
that was so ephemeral and beautiful.

So [a filter house] is sort
of like an underwater, 3-D spiderweb that [appendicularia] use to trap
food. They are filter feeders but they build these filters outside
their body that last for about two or three hours, until the
appendicularia outgrows it or they become clogged, useless. Then they
release them and they drift down to the lower levels of the ocean. If
you’ve read about anything in marine ecology, you’ve heard about
“marine snow” – all the lower levels of life subsist on [it]; that’s
the basic element of their ecology. So [discarded filter houses are] a
large component of marine snow. [I liked] the idea that it was
something so basic, too.

I wanted to have the title of the
collection not be a story and I wanted it to be the sort of combination
of words that would make people think, “Well, what is that?” I also was
drawn by this idea that the structure of the short story collection is
ephemeral, that it’s made up of other elements that are brought
together in this moment – because they are so short, short stories are
sort of ephemeral too.

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