First of all, I must say that I am from Spain, and I am in contact with Steampunk from Latin cultures in America; so, I am very interested in Spanish Steampunk and other cultures outside England. Then, it led me to other cultures and countries, such as India, Japan, South Africa…
The first things that we learn in Steampunk are steam and smog (of course), 19th century, London, Jack the Ripper, guns, armours… ok. Rule, Britannia; Britannia rule the waves and all of that; and, that is ok. But, what happened in the 19th century outside the Empire?
There is something that should not be overlooked: Verne’s books are one of the fundamental bases of Steampunk. But, let’s think about some of the most famous novels written by Verne. For example: Around the World in Eighty Days, Five Weeks in a Balloon, The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa, Michael Strogoff, The Steam House…
|From The Steam House, by Léon Benett|
Well, what do that books have in common?
But, is the Steampunk community interested on India, Japan, Russia and Africa…? More important, can we create multicultural Steampunk? Is it really possible? Let’s see!
I talked about this kind of Steampunk with three persons: Suna Dasi, from Steampunk India; Diana M. Pho from Beyond Victoriana and Sarah Hans, from Steampunk World.
Suna, creator of Steampunk India, is a writer and a professional backing vocalist for singer/ songwriter Erin Bennett. She also co-founded Art Attack Films, an Indie movie company, with nine other women. She is of Indo-Dutch heritage and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has always written, but started developing ideas for Steampunk stories about three years ago.
Diana (also known as Ay-leen the Peacemaker) is a scholar, activist, performer, and general rabble-rouser. She is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk, and the oldest-existing blog on this topic. For several years, she has travelled the country as a professional convention speaker about social justice issues and fandom. Diana currently lives and works in New York City for Tor Books & blogs for Tor.com. You can follow her academic work on Academia.edu.
And Sarah Hans hails from the Airship Archon, located in the aether above Columbus, Ohio. Well, and she is best know because of being the co-ordinator of the Steampunk World project.
—Why is steampunk important to you?
DIANA: I am very interested in the impact of art and the public involvement of art in everyday life. I think that steampunk is a community that actively fosters individual creativity on all levels, whether the person previously considered themselves an artist or not. Steampunk subculture enables people to start believing in their capability to doing new artistic ventures that they may not have done before. Additionally, because steampunk is concerned both with science fiction and with history, it is able to talk about both about fantastical concepts but also have them rooted in our historical and current realities. Using steampunk to highlight the lost, oppressed, and erased stories that typically get left out of commonly known historical narratives is what I am especially interested in.
SUNA DASI: It encapsulates everything I am fond of in one convenient genre, such as Victoriana, the history of scientific invention, the history of world trade, vintage adventure fiction etc. It is important to me because the general aesthetic is infinitely pleasing and I am a big believer in the re-imagining of certain aspects of history. Colonial history is relevant to my personal family background, which is why I started the Steampunk India project.
—Why is the steampunk community important to you?
DIANA: The steampunk community had been very important to me in a lot of intellectual, creative, and personal reasons. I love many people who I meet in the community, because they can be very supportive of each other; they also come from many different walks of life, but all share common interests in learning, education, and the importance of the arts and technology combined.
SUNA DASI: We are a social species and part of being an aficionado of a genre, art form or school of thought is the sharing of ideas and the coming together of like minded souls at events and celebrations. In Steampunk the visual creativity expressed in costumes and DIY contraptions adds an extra layer of discovery and enjoyment!
SARAH HANS: About five years ago, I needed a new group of friends, and so I attended my first steampunk event. The people I met that day, and subsequently at later events, changed my life. The officers and crew of the Airship Archon are some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
—Why are you so active in the community, creating what you do?
D: Steampunk has been one of my invested interests for the past seven years or so, and I can't see myself leaving the community any time soon! The people involved are some of the most interesting and passionate I've ever met, and I think steampunk is one of the subjects that are so expansive and diverse that I can continuously explore different aspects of it to fulfil me artistically and intellectually. I'm an academic, on one hand, so I'm interested in studying both the historical inspiration behind steampunk and the current subculture and the things the community produces. I also think that steampunk is one of the many different creative responses to the problems in today's current culture: the downward economy, uncertainly about how our current technological revolution will change daily life, the impact of globalization and the parallels between this coming century and society's ideas during the last turn of the century. I also find the idea of combining the best of the past and the present to create a better future very appealing.
SD: It matters to me that Steampunk can be enjoyed by anyone across the board, whether they're from Kazakhstan, Venezuela, India, Belgium, or Tibet. In order for this to be possible, you need a rich and varied culture around the fiction and events that celebrate the genre in ways that are diverse enough to resonate with everyone. It shouldn't signify that the interpretation of German Steampunk is different from the interpretation of Chilean Steampunk, as long as there are branches of the genre that people of both cultures can immerse themselves in and as long as there are events and celebrations that enable people of all cultures to take part together and enjoy themselves.
—Sarah, let’s talk about Steampunk World, too. Tell us, please…
SH: Steampunk World is our attempt to tell steampunk stories from a multicultural perspective. We wanted to view steampunk through the lens of cultures that usually aren’t mentioned in steampunk fiction.
—But, a lot of new Steampunks think that there’s no Steampunk literature outside western or European culture. But, this book will be focused on other kind of Steampunk, questioning the typical definition of Steampunk. Why is it so important?
SH: One of the best things about the steampunk community is its inclusiveness. We’re rewriting history, so everyone is welcome, everyone is celebrated. I wanted to bring that sense of inclusivity to fiction, and hopefully in the process help people of color feel more welcome in steampunk spaces. If we can expand the horizons of steampunk and science fiction readers, too, then hey, that’s awesome.
—Let’s talk about Beyond Victoriana. Why is it so important to you, too?
D: I think it's important because one of the most intriguing themes that steampunk explores, essentially, are the social changes in light of early industrialization and other forms of technological change. When we look at the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, it is easy to see how it has changed the Western world, because the Western world has dictated what stories were important to tell for the last 500 years. But the Industrial Revolution had affected the non-Western world as well, in ways that have been both productive and severely damaging. The effects of the imperialism, warfare, and racism, had left scars in entire regions of the world that are still seen today, and I think the subversive quality of steampunk makes it an ideal creative medium to expose the historical wrongs that have occurred. At the same time, I think steampunk is also capable of acknowledging the hope and empowerment of imagination that marginalized groups can use to help express them.
Additionally, today we are entering the Information Age and a post-industrial revolution. The Internet makes our world smaller and more interconnected. Now, more than ever, it is increasingly important for different peoples and communities to understand each other. I think that it is one of the greatest challenges in today's world to learn how to adapt to new ideas and relationships with those different from us, but that cannot be possible unless we all understand our pasts. I think is very important to know and understand the historical narratives that have happened to us are vital for us to fully function in today's world without repeating historical mistakes. Of course, as a woman of color, the daughter of immigrants and a person who also identifies as being queer, I have grown up with an understanding about the existence of hidden histories, what the dominant culture refuses to speak about. And I want those stories to be told. I want, desperately, for the underdogs to be heard and for them to howl.
—And, what about Steampunk India?
SD: Well, I am by no means the first, nor the only one who felt underrepresented, or misrepresented within some fiction and other forms of expression in the Steampunk genre. While I, too enjoy rip roaring yarns of intrepid Englishmen -and women traversing the globe in their suits and bustles, it is also lovely to be able to have affinity for characters that one can see oneself mirrored in.
I started wishing for more well-rounded characters, not stereotypical ciphers. (Gordon Dahlquist is a lovely exception to the rule with the creation of his protagonist Celeste Temple in his exquisite novels The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. They should be much more widely read and enjoyed!)
I am not interested in overbalancing the other way either: when I built the world in which my characters live and breathe everyone is three dimensional. They have failings, foibles, strong qualities, weak qualities. They have hopes, doubts and fears. They are people and like any tapestry that makes up a world, the colours should blend. But neither is re-imagining things more equally or highlighting an historical imbalance something I shy away from. There are many others besides myself who are doing this in their own way. Balogun Ojetade and Diana Pho being two of the more prominent examples that spring to mind.
—These things that you said made me think about those problems that are still present in our century. Your viewpoint of Steampunk is very useful to think about it, right?
SH: Many of the stories in Steampunk World touch on issues that are very salient to our modern lives, like technology encroaching on traditional values. What does it mean to be human if parts of you are not? Can superstition and science live side-by-side? What doors will technology open for marginalized people—and what are the repercussions of that?
D: I believe so, and hope others agree! The worse thing that could happen to steampunk is an attempt to defang it, to make the subculture and the art toothless and ready for mindless consumption.
SD: I like to think so!
I consider myself aware and I'd like everyone else to be.
Everyone should have a place in which to carve out the existence that suits them best and be able to express this freely, within the obvious confines of actual logic and common sense.
And here we are just talking about interpreting a genre in a more diverse and inclusive way.
But the world could do with some of that, too.
I simply refuse to be an apple-crate orater, but would much rather pinpoint socio-political sticking points as part of my fiction, in the same way a certain type of hard science fiction has done for many years now and, more recently, the new weird genre.
The history of India is so rife with stunning inventions, trailblazing science, admirable individuals in all walks of life, its relationship with other countries through the aeons is brimming with possibilities for fiction. Just think of the golden age of the Silk Road trading and one could dine out on taking inspiration from that for years.
I just think it's a great pity to compartmentalise whole countries, peoples and cultures and only concentrate on one aspect. So much more interesting things happen when spice enters the cooking pot...
—As a Steampunk, what do you think about the actual situation of the community? How do you feel it?
D: I think that a majority of the community is very interested in the aesthetic and the sense of creative freedom. These are an important set of feelings, but I also think that as a result, sometimes it is difficult to have important conversations about the ramifications of one's artistic messages, because the artist becomes defensive. I am not saying that there should be rules about steampunk, oh no! But what I AM saying that that all artists should have a strong sense of ethical responsibility toward their art and be mindful of what artistic messages they want to send to others.
I also believe that many people in steampunk are inherently curious people willing to learn, however, and work towards improving the type of messages they want to communicate in their art.
SD: I think the urge to rigidly stick to the compartmentalisation I mentioned could be detrimental to what can be a truly great global movement, with a terrific overall sense of community.
Of course, use what you know, express your culture and be proud. But being proud of the genre or art form you are into can exist without the, frankly, incredibly grating need to put a negative slant on the whole 'us and them' concept.
I think any subculture, group, club or genre is in danger of this trap: to use a proud sense of 'how it should be done and given shape' as a means to look down upon other ways as 'wrong, bad, not as good as ours'.
The reason I am involved in Steampunk Hands Around the World is because I think a bit more openness wouldn't hurt and to celebrate something you enjoy in a positive, enthusiastic manner is more productive than the opposite.
—And, what benefits do you see others and yourself gaining from being part of the community? How has steampunk affected, changed, enhanced your view of the world, the people in it, and your place in all of that?
D: Besides all the reasons I have mentioned before about why I like steampunk as a subject and the community of people involved, I also have very personal reasons why I appreciate the steampunk community. In the past, my partner and I have hit upon very difficult financial and family homelife situations, and our friends from the steampunk community had stepped forward and supported us when we needed it the most. I can't express how many times I've asked my closest friends for help and they have offered their homes, their resources, and their hearts to us. So to me, steampunk is more than an art style or a subculture, but a group of people who can be immensely warm and generous that I can count as friends. So, when I say that I think steampunk has the capability of changing the world, this comes from more than a sense of optimism, but also a feeling of deep love and respect to the people who have supported me in so many ways over the years, and the need I feel to support them in turn.
SD: I have made some fantastic friends I would certainly never have met otherwise! Some of them are into Steampunk because they like the fashion, some of them are into Steampunk because they find it a good platform for their social, political or ecological causes. All are splendid.
Steampunk has enhanced my view of the world in many ways... A more whimsical one is that I believe there could be an actual trend for aesthetically pleasing architecture, art forms and couture that might brighten up our surroundings! I know some folk who, through trying their hand at tinkering, have discovered they get great pleasure out of building things.
I am just adding my fiction and vision to the mix. With a little dash of subversion on the side.
SH: Being involved in steampunk gave me a supportive, wonderful group of friends who gave me the confidence to start submitting my writing to paying markets and, eventually, start editing my own anthologies. Without the steampunk community, I wouldn’t be a published author a dozen times over and this anthology would never have happened. And that would be a real shame—I’ve read the stories in Steampunk World several times, and they’re really good!
—If you could package it as a gift and give it to others, what is your personal best, happiest, favourite moment in your involvement in steampunk?
D: The sense of possibility and wonder—that would make a great package to give to anyone as an introduction to steampunk!
My specific moment based on my involvement in steampunk, though, was when I proposed to my partner—it was on-stage after a steampunk fashion show at a convention. Seeing her face at that moment is a memory that I will always cherish, and I thank the steampunk community for helping me create that.
It is this: a while ago I experienced a disappointment on my route to becoming a published writer. It is something I am working hard on and rejections are part of the package. What was brilliant was that every single writer in the community who knew me had not only a kind word, but stellar advice and encouragement and I actually got another writing commission out of it in the end.
I have seen this type of empathy and charis in many other branches of Steampunk. I know a maker who had his entire stock of materials stolen and whose livelihood depended on commissions. He received donations and materials from fellow Steampunks to tide him over.
And I love watching projects come together and seeing Steampunk used in other art forms.
A few examples: one of my favourites is still the mecha-elephant at Les Machines de l’île in Nantes, I really enjoyed the online series of Dirigible Days and Steamworks and Shadows, they are so passionately made. The Steampunk elements incorporated by Sidharta Aryan in his runway show for India's Lakme Fashion Week were also lovely. Someone in America is building a wooden Nautilus and so on and so forth.
I suppose you could say that the things I love most about Steampunk and would gladly gift wrap for others, are the endless possibilities.
SH: It’s really hard to pick just one moment. I can think of so many… so many convention parties, so many road trips, so many picnics, and so many gatherings where we sit around working on our projects. Seeing my first steampunk story in print in The Crimson Pact, Volume 1. Asking Jay Lake to submit a story to Steampunk World and getting a “yes.” If I must pick just one memorable moment, however, I’d probably pick seeing Steampunk World appear on Boing Boing and io9. I never expected so much mainstream support. I never expected so many people to be behind this project that was my little brainchild. I’ll be dipping into the well of that memory for years to keep me going through dark times. And it’s all because of steampunk!
Next day: Running spanish events...