Gizmodo is pleased to announce that Erewhon Books has acquired Womb City, the novel debut of Lambda finalist and Nommo Award-winner Tlotlo Tsamaase, who uses both xe/xem and she/her pronouns. Tsamaase is a Motswana writer currently living in Botswana. Xer novella, The Silence of the Wilting Skin, garnered a massive amount of critical acclaim.
Erewhon Books is truly the little publisher that could. An independent, small-person team, it has published some incredible authors and books since it started publishing in 2020. It came out of the gate swinging with C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain, which immediately garnered nominations across the industry, and Scapegracers, a YA that ended up on the indie bestsellers list.
Womb City is described as “a feminist horror novel set in a futuristic Botswana where citizens’ consciousnesses can be implanted into available, microchipped bodies, in which a woman commits a desperate murder to save herself and her unborn child. She must prevent the victim’s vengeful ghost from killing everyone she loves even as she must outrun a watchful government that would sacrifice her to preserve the secrets she’s unwittingly unearthed.”
Check out our interview with the author and Womb City’s editor, Sarah Guan, below.
Linda Codega, Gizmodo: There’s a complex relationship in this book between the power of technology and the power of the human body. Do you feel like these two things are in competition or in conversation?
Tlotlo Tsamaase, author: With most of my writing, I’m interested in exploring how the power of technology intersects with the power of the human body, particularly in certain contexts: a relationship, a corporation, or the government. It is fascinating to observe at both macro and micro levels how people’s motivations, greed, and desires manipulate and abuse technology. The plot of Womb City comes from wondering what the future might hold by extrapolating our current reality’s issues into an advanced world, examining it through the lenses of gender identity, crime, toxic elements of culture, etc.
I can’t pinpoint the source of that interest, but when it comes to women’s bodies it’s always a display of power to own them in one way or another — and a corrupt motivation to restrict their autonomy, whether through culture or politics — which to me always feels very violent. The power of technology can be used for good — it brings convenience to our lives, allows people from different parts of the world to interact, etc. — so I think technology and the human body can both be in competition and in conversation with each other.
Sarah Guan, editor: What’s fascinating about this dichotomy is that Womb City features both the competition and the conversation, and moves effortlessly between the two. It’s not quite as simple as “technology is bad, the human body is good” — a conservative narrative that we see repeated often in science fiction. Nor is it a straightforward tale of how “technology is the solution to all problems, save for the evils of human nature” — another thesis common to our genre.
In Womb City, technology is a powerful tool that can be used for great good or great evil, in service of some humans and not others, depending on the hand that wields it. For example, reproductive technology augments human capabilities and opens up longed-for possibilities for families like Nelah’s, but patriarchal power structures within her society mean that not only is access to this tool restricted to those who conform to the goals of the state, but the tool itself is used as a means of coercion and social engineering. This moral complexity is one of the many thought-provoking aspects of the book!
Gizmodo: What do you think an extended human life does for the kind of social expectations and familial expectations that people, and especially women, are subjected to?
Tsamaase: Women currently face a lot of pressure and stigma within a family setting and in society, particularly when they don’t conform to their traditional gender role. So, I believe that extended human life would increase this pressure on women, that women would be expected to conform to new expectations. Such societies would use scientific advancements that promote childbearing to police reproductive rights, potentially resulting in the following: exacerbating a strong demand for women to increase their fertility rates since they now live longer; and adversely impacting transgender and nonbinary peoples’ lived experiences, rights, and reproductive decision-making agency.
Guan: One of the more horrifying points Womb City makes is that extended human life doesn’t just afford people the luxury of more time, it also magnifies the existing expectations and inequities within an unjust society. The stakes are higher for everyone involved, because people live with the consequences of their — and others’ — actions for much, much longer. Also, due to one of the primary mechanisms of extended life in this story, those effects are intimately visited upon more people, as individuals move through multiple bodies and the communities associated with those bodies. Reproduction isn’t just regulated within citizens’ own family structures; the government is invested (and meddles) in its people’s fertility as it impacts multiple families over many decades, if not centuries.
Gizmodo: How does the setting of Botswana itself impact Womb City?
Tsamaase: I’ve never seen representation of my home country in English language SFF, so I’ve always featured it in my shorter form works. I was drawn to Botswana’s historical and scenic settings that resonated with the themes of Womb City, so I set certain important scenes in the book in places I’ve visited, which provide a rich backdrop of mythology and history.
For example, I have vivid memories of visiting the Matsieng Footprints, a cultural site just located outside Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone. The Matsieng Footprints was a fitting place for a big reveal of a generations-long dark secret that the protagonist encounters in the book, since Matsieng deals with folklore and creation of people. It’s also surrounded by watering holes, which play a pivotal role in Womb City.
Guan: When I first read Womb City, I was struck by its simultaneous universality and specificity. The broad premise seems like one that could be translated into any culture or setting without losing its emotional and intellectual core — I’d expect it to horrify readers everywhere — but Tlotlo’s use of Botswana’s folklore and geography adds entirely new layers of meaning to the story. Its exploration of key themes of the interconnection of life, community, and the divine feel unique to its setting, which provides a unique perspective and contributes to the dialogue around these topics within and beyond speculative fiction.
Gizmodo: What books, movies, or even video games do you think would be good comparisons?
Tsamaase: I’m a huge film fanatic, particularly foreign language films, so I wrote this book as an ode to thriller and psychological suspense movies and books. In the query letter that got me my agent, I pitched Womb City as Black Mirror meets the feminism of Revenge, a French film, interlaced with the horror of Blood Cruise by Mats Strandberg. A friend also pointed out that it reminded them of Altered Carbon.
Guan: I’d recommend Womb City to anyone who loves or is moved by The Handmaid’s Tale — either the book or the television series. I’d also compare it to Severance by Ling Ma, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, and Red Clocks by Leni Zumas.
Gizmodo: What is this book saying about femininity and violence? What is it exploring about institutional violence?
Tlotlo: Gender-based violence continues to be a pandemic that impacts both women and nonbinary people, and falling into the latter gender identity offers no immunity from this violence. It’s pervasive and indifferent to human rights. I wanted to explore this dynamic in various ways: in a romantic relationship, a work environment, a family setting, and additionally how this system can be enforced by women, too. Everything about gender nonconforming people’s and women’s personae is policed, and if they rightfully respond with anger or refusal to adhere to oppression, it results in violence against them. I wondered how far that would go with the power of technology.
So, in Womb City, I was keen on investigating a scenario where the government installs surveillance technology in female bodies, how it would be used to control behaviour and restrict autonomy under the cover of curtailing crime rates, and to what lengths both parties — the oppressed and the oppressor — would go to achieve their motives. I wanted to explore the effects this would have on the characters’ identities.
When I was writing this novel, I learned that in Botswana, every three hours a woman was raped; for a small country with a population of just two million, Botswana ranks shockingly high in rape statistics in the worldwide. Crimes against women and non-binary people seem to be the reality — and happens even in safe places. I wanted to explore these issues in the female characters of Womb City, by allowing their multifarious expression of anger and use of violence against injustice or sexism.
Guan: Femininity and violence are often seen as incompatible; cultures around the world consider violence a masculine pursuit, which men, and those entities coded masculine, visit upon each other and upon women and femmes. Violent women who defend their own interests (as opposed to selflessly protecting others, such as children) are coded as unnatural, insane, or deliberately and dangerously transgressive.
Only recently have we seen in mainstream culture even-handed depictions of female violence, or sympathetic portrayals of female violence in response to a misogynistic sociopolitical environment. Institutions too often condone or compel violence at scale against anyone with a uterus, as has been painfully clear in the United States these past weeks.
Womb City brings all of this cultural baggage to a sharp point, as Nelah — in many respects a “normal” woman surviving in a stiflingly sexist society — commits a self-serving act of violence that is not easily justifiable. Men commit similar acts of violence against women all the time for even slimmer reasons, as Tlotlo notes, with such regularity that their victims are mere horrifying statistics, but Nelah’s crime seems particularly grotesque because we are unused to seeing women act with the same selfishness. Womb City asks us to sit with and interrogate the misogynistic context of our discomfort.
Gizmodo: Do you have any specific subgenres you would use to describe Womb City?
Tsamaase: When I wrote the novel, it was meant to follow the template of a domestic thriller, but the story took on a life of its own. During that time I found myself playing with the following genres: slow-burn science fiction, horror, and speculative fiction.
Guan: I definitely agree with all of those genre labels, and would add Womb City also contains elements of dystopian fiction and crime fiction. However, one of the most intellectually satisfying aspects of the book is the way it subverts and defies conventional categorization!
Gizmodo: Tlotlo, will we see some kind of trans narrative or commentary in this book?
Tlotlo: Yes, and the intention of the gender exploration in the narrative varies across each of my works. In writing this particular book, I was exploring and deconstructing the poisonous and insidious binary system that the protagonist and others manoeuvre whilst exploring my own gender identity. I do see the main character’s arc evolving out of that binary system (and I can’t say much more as it would be a spoiler).
Gizmodo: Sarah, what grabbed you about this book?
Guan: There were a number of elements that I was immediately captivated by: one was the completely innovative way Tlotlo uses the well-trodden trope of body-swapping and uploading human consciousness to make frighteningly relevant points about bodily autonomy, surveillance, and community ties. Another was how the book plays with moral ambiguity, asking readers to weigh lesser and greater evils against each other, especially in a case where the price of survival in an unjust system might mean getting blood on one’s hands. I’m thrilled to be able to help Tlotlo hone and deepen these uncomfortable but necessary questions through the editorial process. I think Womb City gives readers plenty to think (and argue) about, which is the goal of all great speculative fiction!
Womb City will be published in spring 2023.
Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.