Steampunk Month

The Roundtable of DOO- I mean, of Race and Steampunk

Hello, folks, and welcome back to another exciting discussion about race and steampunk! This time around, I will not be shooting my mouth off randomly about how I angst about the issue, but discuss it with my good friend / intellectual companion / partner-in-crime, Ay-Leen the Peacemaker. People from NYC may have seen her around—her steampunk persona is a Tonkinese assassin wearing a modified ao-dai and she carries a big gun—wait, that’s not exactly a good identifying factor, never mind. Ay-Leen is also closely associated with the Penny Dreadfuls, so you may have seen her running with them at cons, too.

Ay-Leen and I have been in contact for several months, a little after RaceFail, during which we spent many long emails hashing out issues of race within steampunk, strategies on how to make it more diverse, how meaningful steampunk is to us, and just plain old ranting about cultural appropriation, Orientalism and other such D:-inducing moments.

Jha: So, how did YOU come to steampunk?

Ay-Leen: Hmmmm, this sounds like a “chicken & egg” question to me, because I’ve been interested in many things associated with steampunk (nineteenth-century Brit lit, fashionable waistcoats, sci-fi, cosplay, etc.) before I first came across steampunk as a genre. I first heard the name from my fiancee a couple of years back—her friends had formed an airship crew, and they all created character personas, were running around taking pictures of old buildings and mills, creating crazy weaponry from junkyard finds, etc. When she explained what steampunk was (or at least, her definition of it—I think it’s become almost standard to assume that people have varying opinions of what steampunk is, including myself), a little bulb went off in my head and I thought, “A-ha! Somehow, this clicks…”

Jha: That sounds a great deal like me—the literature first, of course. Even though science fiction was never my thing, since I prefer fantasy, Victorian science fiction seemed fanciful enough to be fantasy. The clothes were also very fashionable—I’ve always been fond of classical designs that continue to appeal to the senses even after the fad is over. Never got into cosplay though… waaayyy too much work! I had a growing inkling I really liked steampunk, but never allowed myself to “get into it”—I felt I’d be out of place there. Then I read Girl Genius where the authours basically re-wrote history, and I thought, “shit, I can re-write history too. I can re-write it and imagine a world where systematic oppression doesn’t exist, because people were smarter back then and as aware as we are today.”

And there are so many possibilities for minorities in steampunk, too. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach in steampunk and we all participate in different ways.

Ay-Leen: It’s interesting that you mention re-writing steampunk worlds as ones where systematic oppression doesn’t exist. I had a conversation with my aunt about the alternative history aspect of steampunk, and she asked whether the alternative history aspect was ever used by participants to trivialize histories of oppression by writing them out of existence. That was a very interesting question, because it made me consider the philosophies people have regarding steampunk. Is it ideal (or idle) escapism, a form of creative empowerment, or something in-between?

I found steampunk an unusual outlet where I feel comfortable affirming my ethnic heritage as Vietnamese. In any other sci-fi genre, Asian identities are either ignored, stereotyped, or exoticized; in steampunk, I have the power to acknowledge historical struggles, affirm my personal identity, and wear wicked cool clothes—all at the same time! This has helped a lot in creating my steampunk persona Ay-leen the Peacemaker: what she does, what she wears, and (most importantly) the reasons for both. Of course, I also like to dress steampunk for the pure fun of it as well, and enjoy expressing my heritage in what I wear. None of my steampunk gear is “purely” Western or Eastern, but a transcultural blend of both. With a bit of punk thrown into the mix too.

Steampunk has also kept me in touch with my theater roots; I’m an active member of the Penny Dreadfuls of the SS Icarus, a performance troupe that hosts panels, photoshoots, and brings general steampunk mayhem to conventions and social events. Being part of the SS Icarus has been a great opportunity to develop my character on both an imaginative and a physical level—not only does she have a backstory, but she’s got the gun and the outfits to prove it! This has had an effect on my creative writing, too; that makes sense, given steampunk’s literary origins, I won’t be surprised if a story (or a book) eventually comes out of all of this!

Jha: Oh, the theatre angle! I enjoy the Neo-Victorian aspect of steampunk to be the perfect excuse for high-flown language as well. I think it’s the one space where I don’t get a “zuh?! Can you not use such big words please??” response, at all. Which is great, because it means I can talk more like myself.

I understand your aunt’s concerns about the possibility of erasing history or ignoring the oppression. It’s a very hard ethical choice to make in the writing process. I think that’s what’s given me pause before embarking on an alternate history work (besides the fact that I’m a rotten historian). Unlike you, I don’t roleplay, and my focus has been predominantly on writing and exploring echelons of steampunk society for how other people are injecting racial diversity into steampunk, and yet like you, the effect being wholeheartedly steampunk has had on my writing is enormous.

I find steampunk to be a great vehicle for questioning real-world issues. Part of it because as an alternate history subgenre, it opens itself to many questions of “what it?” and since it’s also a science-fiction subgenre, it’s a fresh playground to explore questions of race. Grounded as it is within a time of turmoil, steampunk is ripe for questioning of the attitudes that would eventually lead to today’s histories of oppression. It’s a lot of fun to write about, not to mention, because steampunk encompasses so many other aspects, there’s not a whole lot to not write about.

As a roleplayer though, you probably get out a lot, don’t you? What is your local steampunk scene like? How involved are you there?

Ay-Leen: Oh, before we got off on another tangent together, (and before all the gamers and LARPers stone me for being a poser), I wanted to clarify on how I use my character persona. There are actual steampunk RPGs out there—Deadlands comes to mind (though the game’s portrayal of First Nation peoples irks me) and the Steam & Cinders LARP group in Massachusetts—and people have created steampunk-related games with roleplaying elements—Steam Century’s mystery games is a great example of that. I haven’t used my character in any LARPing or tabletop roleplaying sense; she is a character I go out as during conventions with the SS Icarus crew and other steampunk events. I don’t usually act as my persona with other steampunks unless I know they’re in-character as well. I do, however, dress in-character and am more than happy to explain who Ay-leen is to fellow steampunks. It’s always geeky-fun to ask each other who our personas are, what they do, where they come from, how the outfit related to their life, etc.

But I guess this goes into what I see in the current steampunk scene in NYC. The community here is so diverse: you have the literature nerds, the history nerds, the re-enactors, the professional fashion designers, the amateur cosplayers, the musicians, the tinkers, the photographers, the nightlife organizers… and put them all together and you can find anything that suits your personal social tastes. You can party at Dances of Vice where everyone goes dressed to impress or have a quiet drink with friends at Lillie’s or indulge in the hilarious camp that’s the Jekyll & Hyde Club. And now there’s a new steampunk hangout opening up soon: The Way Station, which I can’t wait to check out. For your shopping needs, you can check out any of the various antique stores & thrift places for hidden finds, or head down to the Brooklyn Indie Market when it holds their annual Steampunk Day.

And if you’re not a party person at all, you can still bathe in the history around the city that can be so steampunk. Like visiting the transit museum at Grand Central, picnicking in Central Park, strolling through the Green-Wood Cemetery, or visiting the Oscar Wilde collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library. And a million other things that explore aspects of history, literature, fashion, art that intersect with steampunk.

Egads, I swear I’m not being paid to mention any of these people/places, but I do have to say, it’s good being a steampunk in the Big Apple. ^-^

My involvement in the NYC scene is different from my convention involvement in New England, actually. When I’m with my crew, I’m there to entertain and inform. In the city, I go about to socialize, explore, and support the wide variety of action and art that goes on here. Actually, for the Steampunk World’s Fair that is coming up next year, the SS Icarus crew is collaborating with people from the NYC scene. It’s very exciting to see what results come from this.

As exhilarating as the NYC steampunk scene is, it’s interesting to witness the evolution of a subculture as it happens. Already, since steampunk encompasses such a wide spectrum of people, I notice different people focusing on certain aspects based on their own interpretation of steampunk. You get the artists, the cosplayers, the former punks… and as a result, you get a lot of different perceptions of what should be important in steampunk. Is it clothing? Is it historical revisionism? Is it writing? Is it modding?

Jha: Definitely. There’s something about steampunk that has an element for anybody interested in the subculture. And whew, do you ever keep busy! We’ve got a small goth-industrial scene here in Halifax, which I’m not a part of, and the only vaguest steampunk-y affair I’ve been to was a steampunk-themed dance!

My steampunking almost exclusively happens online, and even so, my actual involvement is minimal. I do a great deal of writing my observations about our subculture, and part of my writing also involves attempting to demarcate the different aspects of steampunk in order to seek out that elusive unifying theme. So far, though, it seems the only thing I’ve managed to do is inject thoughts about racial diversity into what is predominantly an Euro-centric subculture. I’m hoping to pursue the demarcation of steampunk elements in grad school, though. But you know me, I’m an academic, and I don’t quite go in for the roleplaying or whatnot (it all ends up being the basis for a story!) and I dress bad.

So far, so good though. Since most of my interactions work online, I don’t feel as isolated as I might feel in real-life interactions. Have you had any problems so far regarding being a steampunk of colour out and about?

Ay-Leen: I suspect that I keep myself busier than the typical steampunk—and for those wondering, I do have interests outside of steampunk and a full-time job. ^-~

Do you ever feel at odds about your perspective on steampunk because of your distance from an active real life scene? Not that you have to be a party person (I actually consider myself to be very introverted!) to be involved in the subculture; a person can be a tinkerer in your basement or a bookworm reading a copy of The Time Machine in a library and still consider themselves steampunk. It’s all about the attitude and the genuine interest. Still, I suspect that your online perspective is very different from my real life one, especially when it comes to topics such as inclusiveness and diversity.

In my experience, it’s interesting to see the slow but steady visibility of PoCs (or, if you prefer, SoC—steampunks of color) in the subculture. Online, you don’t usually know who is an SoC unless they post images of them in costume, but I do notice that I see more SoCs online than I do in real life. This could be a geographic thing—I tour in mostly white New England with my crew, and at cons, I’m usually one of the handful of SoCs there and the only non-Westernized one. Sometimes, I wonder whether I “tokenize” myself in choosing to interpret steampunk the way I do. In the end, however, I think it really broadens the audience’s mind about what steampunk can mean and make them pause when I mention the reality of historical problems during the Victorian era and how steampunk subculture subverts them. In that sense, I completely agree with Cherie Priest’s assertion that steampunk encourages the empowerment of “Othered” minorities and encourages their visibility in her essay on why steampiunk will stick around). I’ve had PoCs come up to be after presentations saying how I’ve really inspired them to be non-Eurocentric in their steam, and that’s very gratifying.

On the other hand, I have seen steampunks address diversity in ways that can be problematic: when they refer to non-European cultures and people as sources of inspiration in a tone that plays up the exoticism as opposed to the inclusiveness. I personally dislike it when I see posters use Oriental as a tag in steamfashion posts featuring Asian people and the Gatehouse description of “Vicorientalism.” It’s okay for steampunks to express their appreciation of Asian culture as a source of inspiration, but there’s a fine line between respectful appreciation and cultural appropriation and Orientalism (there, I’ve opened up a can of worms now, haven’t I?).

Jha: Oh dear, have you ever! The exotification! And co-opting of problematic terms! One would learn that by now, referring to something, or worse, someONE, as “Oriental” is problematic since it essentially renders those of Asian descent as foreign. It also sends a message to Asian steampunks too, that if we’re going to not do the Neo-Vic thing, we’ll always be the exotic foreigner.

Being the insular type I am, and spending more time in the anti-racist / feminist blogosphere than I do in the steampunk side of the internet, I suspect is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing since I don’t often run into clueless types who say careless things and if they do, it takes a gentle nudge, and a conversation. A curse because good grief, do some people ever say the most problematic things, and it’s like a slap in the face everytime it happens. I still don’t know how to deal with people who think making opium jokes at the expense of the Chinese is amusing, and recently had someone tell me they’ve experienced “real racism” (which entailed not getting killed due to their white privilege). It’s difficult deciding which fights are worthwhile and which aren’t.

I have not seen any surge of SoC presences online, and I suspect it’s because at the moment, with steampunk being such a fad and all, steampunk is a lot more appealing when one is out and about than when one is engaging with it online, where the anonymity means people can’t really see you. It would be nice, though, to have real conversations about racialized steampunk and to be able to discuss white-washing or the injection of colour.

My greatest fear, like yours, is the exotification of minorities within the subculture. It’s very difficult to not do, even if we are minorities—some of us grow up learning that this is the proper way to represent ourselves, and it ends up making us the token foreigner, as opposed to really revelling in what should be our stories. I also feel that this “Vicorientalism” is a huge danger, what with our still-poor understanding of how institutional racism works, and in some way, that we engender a form of Occidentalism here in North America, too!

I personally find myself eye-rolling when I come across assertions that steampunk is anti-racist or anti-imperialist. I don’t feel steampunk is inherently either of these, do you?

Ay-Leen: I believe that steampunk has the potential to be anti-racist and anti-imperialist and that a lot of participants have interpreted it to be that way. Cherie Priest’s essay as I mentioned is one example and Steampunk Magazine’s stance had proclaimed itself anti-imperialist from its first issue. In people’s treatment of Victorian-era literature, too, I’ve noticed commentators take a post-colonial/feminist viewpoint, willing to point out and criticize the Orientalist and sexist sentiments in those works. In Jess Nevins’ The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, for instance, Nevins purposefully assesses his entries in this context, not hesitating to point out problematic representations of characters and settings while at the same time celebrating its creativity.

I think to appreciate steampunk is to be highly aware of both the flaws as well as the accomplishments of the Victorian era. This is what prevents participants from indulging in what we’ve been referring to as “Occidentalism”—aka, the unexamined fetishism of Victorian culture.

On that other hand, I know of steampunks who do exactly that—run away with an impersonation of Victorian attitudes without thinking of the consequences of what message they are spreading. And then they play it off as, “Don’t be so serious! This is steampunk—it’s supposed to be fun!” And they don’t realize that there is a difference between having fun and having fun at the expense of other peoples’ dignity.

Jha: Definitely in agreement with you there. Steampunk is freeing precisely because it calls for so much self-reflexivity and self-awareness. I’ve also found the same easy attitude many commentators had have towards critiquing the era. It’s so encouraging!

I think that openness in steampunk to discuss such issues is really up to the participants—the writers and roleplayers, in particular. Without its participants, steampunk is really a toothless beast that has no cultural capital—it’s just… artifacts of the past, a form of retro-futurism that doesn’t really have much to say.

Part of what we, at least, we critical academic types (read: nerdy), do with steampunk is critique the systems of today that support various forms of -isms, and I feel it’s really important that these discussions get some form of visibility in order to encourage people to really consider anti-racist and anti-imperialist slants for their steampunk activities. I can’t read minds, but it does look as though most people run around playing personas that buy into all sorts of harmful stereotypes without examining them first. I’m willing to believe that they just genuinely do not realize how problematic they are, and I’m willing to bet that among them are people who use their persona to espouse less-than-savoury beliefs under the cover of play-pretend.

I do find it ironic when people assert that steampunk is anti-racist / anti-imperialist / anti-some-other-ist even as I see them unable to wrap their minds around how colonialism is still very much in effect today. It’s not steampunk itself—it’s the people who’re key in addressing these issues.

I would very much like to promote discourse within the larger steampunk community that actively address these issues. What do you think?

Ay-Leen: Hey, since you bring up the subject of less-than-savory roleplay characters, let me add something here for a moment: if you want to represent a villainous or amoral character, you can. My persona is a hypocritical, self-righteous assassin, and so I state here, that, in real life I do not endorse the taking of lives for Large But Reasonable Fees. ^-~ Part of steampunk is being outrageous, being over-the-top. You can be a greedy sky pirate or a mad scientist bent on world-domination or a brutish thug-for-hire.

BUT I think a line is crossed when a steampunk acts racist, sexist, or classist and chalks it up to being “in-character” for two reasons:

1) Because, unlike murder and stealing, which are generally accepted to be wrong and hurtful, there are still sexist, racist, and classist beliefs and attitudes that are still widely held by a good portion of society and are NOT seen as wrong or hurtful. Because there is so much ignorance and mistaken beliefs surrounding these topics, pretending to act an “-ism” isn’t sending an ironic or playful message to the outside world. The general audience doesn’t know whether you mean what you say, and, gods forbid, may actually believe and/or support you. That is the line that steampunks must be aware of if they choose to create personas and act them out in the public sphere.

2) Because, in my opinion, to imitate historical prejudices is not steampunk at all. Steampunk should subvert and question the systems of the past, not seek to clone them.

But yes, I agree that problematic subjects that steampunk brings up for SoCs need to have a space where they can be addressed. On my part, that’s the perspective I contribute to panels at cons. I’m also working on a space for representation of non-Eurocentric steampunk and other steampunk-relevant topics: right now, I’m starting up a weekly blog series called “Beyond Victoriana,” which will be an opportunity for me to blog about stuff like that. I’m always looking for suggestions for topics, so, if anyone is interested, drop me a line!

Jha: Gah, inorite? It’s not as though these attitudes are so passé that they’re edgy. To adopt personas without thinking about the ramifications of unintentionally perpetuating problematic attitudes is bad enough. What really gets to me are the people who adopt personas and then defend them, with such excuses as “it’s just a joke”. It really only tells me that the person is more interested in being clever at the expense of other people than they are in ensuring they don’t play into these systems.

Or even the “it’s satirical!” excuse. Satire mocks the powerful. If people have to mock the powerless in order to mock the powerful, then it’s either not satire, or a shit job at satire.

As yet, no one has pulled the “if you notice racism, then you’re the racist here” nonsense on me. I predict becoming highly unpopular in steampunk spaces because I am willing to flip my gourd at anybody who deserves it. So much damned work, though. Good thing I don’t have to do it often.

Aside from that, I am hoping to pursue a masters degree in applying postcolonial theory to steampunk, in order to find ways to express alternate narratives in steampunk literature and roleplaying.

And of course, we have our New Colonialists Ning project, a space specifically for steampunks of colour to address various issues—whether to exchange ideas on how to incorporate our heritages into our steampunking, or as a space to find others facing similar issues of feeling marginalized or wrestling with race issues. It would be a space for us to discuss positive solutions for encouraging diversity within steampunk on our own terms, as well as center our experiences. I’m looking forward to working with you on this, as well as on the salon discussion we will hopefully be hosting at the Steampunk World’s Fair.

Thanks for having this roundtable discussion with me, Ay-Leen. RaceFail was horribly full of fail, but it did a lot to bring these issues out so we can start positively addressing them.


And thanks, everybody else, for reading and sticking with us! I know it’s not easy to read things that are critical of what one does, but I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as we did. Do follow Ay-Leen’s Beyond Victoriana project. And of course, anybody wanting to know more about the New Colonialists project is free to get in touch!

Jaymee Goh is a Malaysian-Chinese living in Canada. She is a minor blogger with plenty of opinions.


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