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    She’s 22, a doctoral student and debut author. Meet Altadena’s Kemi Ashing-Giwa.
    • July 10, 2023

    Science fiction, says 22-year-old author and student Kemi Ashing-Giwa, is what keeps her interested in science “when the going gets tough.” Ashing-Giwa, who grew up in Altadena here in Southern California, is in the early stages of a doctorate in earth and planetary sciences at Stanford University. She’s also debuting her first full-length speculative fiction novel, “The Splinter in the Sky,” out July 11 from Saga Press.

    At the center of “Splinter” is tea specialist Enitan, whose sibling Xiang has been kidnapped from their small lunar province, which has been absorbed into a vast empire. When Enitan goes looking for Xiang, she is unexpectedly conscripted as a spy in the still-simmering conflict between the Empire and those it seeks to dominate. As she finds herself drawn into plots and counterplots, Enitan realizes how the Empire’s quest for dominance has fractured and absorbed traditions, language and art while dividing people into classes based on wealth and status.

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    A space adventure at heart, “Splinter” also examines the aftermath of colonization, when the physical violence is over and the destruction of the culture of the conquered has begun. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Q. When did you start writing and how did your ideas for “The Splinter in the Sky” come about?

    I’ve been writing for as long as I remember. One of my earliest best friends and I would work on a little short story together whenever we had a sleepover, building up a series each time we met up. It was called “Mammoth Land” and everyone was a sentient pachyderm of some sort, and we were the queens of this world. 

    Speculative fiction has always been an escape for me. When I am processing, or working through very complicated things – whether they’re my own emotions, or whether they’re things that are happening in the world around me – I like to examine those things through the lens of science fiction and fantasy. There’s a sense of safety; there’s a sense of distance. 

    The reason I wrote “Splinter in the Sky” is because when I was at home over the pandemic, I really didn’t have any responsibilities besides my classes and research projects. And I do recognize that’s a huge, huge privilege to have during this horrible, global tragedy. I felt I needed to make sure that I had a good understanding of the things that were happening in the world. 

    I would start my day by waking up and reading all the news articles in my inbox, and then I’d go to Zoom University, and then I would watch the news – and then I would do four hours of doomscrolling on Twitter, right before I went to bed. I needed a way to process all the things that I was learning and all the things that I was feeling. “The Splinter in the Sky” was a way for me to do that, that didn’t feel overwhelming.

    Q. What inspired the world-building? Did you use any resources or background books? 

    There are a couple of different things that coalesced into “Splinter in the Sky.” One was that I got really into tea over the pandemic. For the book, I wanted a character that had an interesting job that I hadn’t read about before – so why not have Enitan be a tea specialist and put this useless tea knowledge that I’m accumulating to some use?

    I also got really into reading nonfiction about ancient empires. One of the books I was reading was “The Great Empires of the Ancient World,” by Thomas Harrison; there was also Dominic Lieven’s “In the Shadow of the Gods,” which is about emperors in world history. Those influenced the Vaalbaran Empire in the book. 

    Q. You’re from Altadena and attended school in Pasadena, which is where sci-fi great Octavia Butler is from. Was she someone you read?

    I’m a huge Octavia Butler fan! “Bloodchild” was one of the pieces that inspired me to write short sci-fi horror stories.

    Q. Did you tap into any family history or personal experience while writing this? 

    My family is a group of extremely multicultural immigrants. My mom is from Trinidad and Tobago, her mom was from another island in the Caribbean. Her father is from China. My father is from Nigeria. Nearly all these places have been colonized. My feelings about that, and also watching my parents navigate American society and just figure out how to survive were very much incorporated into the book. Rather than violence, I think the main threat that empire poses, at least to me, feels more cultural, more insidious, more political. That definitely went into how I wanted the story to play out.

    The Vaalbaran Empire is definitely inspired by the British Empire, which has a long, long history of looting and pillaging and stealing stuff – and then telling the cultures that actually produced those works of art, “You can come to our museums.” I also got very interested in the Ottoman Empire when I was doing revisions. I really wanted to dig into what happens after annexation, what happens after the main colonizing event? What are the things that unfold after an empire has dominance? 

    N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season” was the biggest influence on me. I know when I was writing “Splinter,” I was thinking, “Yeah, my goal is to write 5 percent as well as N.K. Jemisin does; if I can do that, then I will be happy for life.” I wish writers of color could kind of admit to rage in their fiction, you know? Most of the time, you typically stick to subtle and gentle and respectable. But “The Fifth Season” just encompasses so much unbridled rage in a way that I found so powerful. 

    Q. How does what you’re studying influence your writing and vice versa?

    I have my degree in evolutionary and organismic biology and an astrophysics minor. Those definitely got tied into the world of “Splinter.” I spent time thinking about what the planets are and were like – for example, Enitan lives on a lunar colony on a moon that orbits a gas giant at the edge of the solar system. Gondwana was an actual ancient supercontinent on Earth, and that appeared in the story as the main planet.  Many of the smaller details didn’t make it into the book, because I’m sure it would have been really boring to read about. 

    Overall, writing has made me a much better communicator than I would have otherwise been in science. When I was a kid, I imagined being a scientist was about mixing chemicals in the lab and writing equations on the board. It is that – and I do love that – but a large part, one of the most important parts, is communicating not just to other researchers and professors, but also just people in general. 

    Q. What do you hope readers will take from this book?

    I had originally intended to write a very straightforward, simple, revenge fantasy. But while writing it, I realized that would make for a fun story, but not necessarily a true story, at the end of the day. So the story is less about revenge and more about family and, at the risk of sounding really trite, hope and the beauty of life despite its trials and tribulations. 

    Kemi Ashing-Giwa with Tananarive Due 

    When: 7 p.m., July 11

    Where: Vroman’s 695 E Colorado Blvd., Pasadena


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    ​ Orange County Register