Thursday, February 2, 2012

Steampunk POC: Stephanie Lai (Australian-Malaysian-Chinese)

I do not actually remember how I got to know Stephanie! We have, however, frequently exchanged words about being Malaysian, and being Malaysian-Chinese. We both vied for a spot in Crossed Genres' Eastern issue (she won with The Last Rickshaw!) and now we both have stories in Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories! She hails from Melbourne's SFF scene, which I know pretty much nothing about, so I will let her talk about it.

Stephanie! How did you get into steampunk?

Jaymee! I just kind of fell into it. I’ve always been into SFF, and I love alternate realities, and science and technology, and steampunk appealed to me as a way of combining all of my favourite things, so I started dabbling in it. Then I think I found your blog and it sucked me all the way in to steampunk.

What is steampunk like over there in Australia? Is it big? Is it small? Growing? Is it a literary trends, are there gatherings for me? Tell us o stranger from an arcane land!

Let me tell you, it is HARD WORK being an antipodean, way distant from everyone else, and needing to get people to proof and say whether my story is too Aussie to be understood. HARD WORK INDEED.

Steampunk is growing in Australia. There are a lot of readers and writers, and as a community we are definitely growing, if the number of panels being run  at cons (and the number of people attending) is
anything to go by. There’s nothing separate happening, mostly it’s just a handful of panels at Swancon and Continuum, but I think we’re moving towards maybe a specialised gathering or two.

I think within the SFF community it’s gaining greater traction, but I’m not super sure it’s growing at all outside the community.

However there is not a lot of Australian steampunk set in Australia, and that’s something I’d like to see change.

The Aussie steampunk scene sounds very literary-based! Is there a cosplay contingent, or a Maker community at all?

Ickle tiny cosplay contingent, mostly made up of literary types. There is a bit of a maker community but it's not very big (it's very pretty though!). Steampunk itself in Australia is still basically nascent!

What was your first impression of steampunk?

The potential! There is so much room for exploration and experimentation in steampunk. I think steampunk that spends all its time focusing on recreating and glamourising Victoriana is frittering away the opportunities for interrogating issues and creating awesome things. Yeah we can do these things with every-day SFF, but the conceits behind steampunk give us the opportunity to make more of it, and to play with different things, and to play with real world history and politics without resorting to blue people.

How do you do steampunk?

The South-East Asian way. Lots of water, lots of makan, Chinese airships coming down the straits and exploring opportunities on the peninsula. I want to use steampunk to interrogate our colonial past at
the same time as creating beautiful visuals.

I also want to start writing about a steampunk Australia. As with writing a steampunk S.E.A., it’s not just Victoriana and bustles. Can you imagine an age of steam in a country like Australia? I want a steampunk Australia to look at the issues of colonization and Terra Nullius, and to take into account the fact that we could never have done steam. I think of it as sand punk. And it’s awesome.

Do you feel the Australian steampunk scene leans towards reproducing the same Eurocentrism that North American steampunk currently does? As in romanticizing the Victorian era, re-imagining some fake time of innocence and exploration, or does the discourse among your literary type point to a different vision of steampunk for Australia's growing scene?

I think it's a little bit of both. I think that Australia's non-SFF literary history (and even our SFF-history) predisposes us towards Eurocentrism anyway, so I don't think it's surprising that there's a
lean there. But there's definitely a growth into a different vision for steampunk, one that landscape-wise and theme-wise, is very clearly Australian.

What are some very "clearly Australian" themes and landscapes?

Australian historical literature (and even modern literature) has a very strong sense of place. It's not only about long expanses of desert, dense bushland and being trapped by the sea (though those are there, and I love them), but about the urban centres and changing landscapes, too. There's definitely a whole lot of urban fantasy, exploring the urban sprawl; and lots of themes around climate change, environmental impacts, and how that modifies our stories. There's also a lot of identity fiction, looking at contemporary and changing identities.

What are your favourite conceits in steampunk that you think give it extra Oompf! as a spec fic genre?

As much as I rail against spending too much time defining steampunk by its aesthetics, I do really love the look of steampunk. Bustles are all fine and dandy but I love the practical aspects of adapting the steampunk aesthetic to qipao and other, non-Victorian-England styles (My favourite is Jeannette Ng).

Genre-writing-wise, I think it stands out as a way of rewriting the past. Especially for those of us grappling Our Colonial Past, it can be a really interesting way of looking at those issues and exploring some of the factors around that stuff.

Do you see the possibility for POC participation on the Australian steampunk scene?

Yes! The only fandom I know in person is Australian fandom so I don't know how it compares to the fandoms of other countries, but Australian fandom is really cool and welcoming. Too many repeats of the word 'fandom' in that sentence? Anyway I think that there's lots of opportunity for participation and involvement for POC (though 'POC' is not really a term often used on the Australian fannish landscape).

What term does Australia use, then, to describe non-white folk? Or are ya'll very hardworking and actually use the specific names for groups?

We use the specific names for groups, though I would hardly describe us as hard working :oP

It's a point of contention. Certainly within the communities I swing through, some people consider PoC to be a very USA-centric term, others view it as a term specifically for people of African descent. Some people don't like it but use it because it's so commonly used in online communities. At a  government/policy level the term 'CALD' is used (culturally and linguistically diverse), which on one level I like because it reflects that Australia's history included racial discrimination against non-Anglo-saxons, but on another level I cannot bring myself to use because it's so dry and I'm not a fan of the term.

Your two steampunk stories, "The Last Rickshaw" and "One Last Interruption Before We Begin," are both set in Penang. Why lah Penang? Your family from there like mine?

YES my family from there also. I am a big fan of write what you know, and I know Penang, Perth, and Melbourne. So all my stories are set in those places. Though now I'm living in Beijing maybe I'll start exploring steampunk in China.

Writing steampunk set in Penang gives me the chance to write out my issues or my love of Malaysia while taking advantage of the steampunk conceits. "One Last Interruption" is, in its way, a love letter to a certain building in Penang (if you are from Penang or have spent any time there, maybe you can guess it) and "The Last Rickshaw" is an exploration of something that has intrigued me my whole life, being warned away from rickshaws (I've never been allowed to get in one).


The need to stick to gender roles; the insistence on the constant glamourisation of Victoriana and the time period, the overall Eurocentricity of the texts (and the cosplay). We can do so much with steampunk, does it really have to all be the same? The need to be so precisely pendantic – I’ve been in any number of fights with steampunks who claim that it can only be steampunk if it’s Victorian England, anything else is not steampunk.


The opportunities! The development of a wardrobe for me of Chinese steampunk is taking shape, which pleases me (and I hope it pleases you, Jha!). Exploring how a history of steampunk might have changed the world, and the ways in which our world would have stayed the same even with a steampunk reality. SILK PUNK!

What has been your greatest challenge as a(n) Asian, let alone a Southeast Asian, in steampunk?

Walking the line of audience negotiation. As much as I just want to write a story of Malaysian steampunk without putting a non-Malaysian audience first, I know it’s not as simple as that – there are not that many avenues for SEA SFF publication, so I have to go Australian or USAmerican or something else not Malaysian. I really struggle with walking the line between over explaining something that’s super Malaysian, and just letting it sit and making the audience work for it, or at least not putting a non-Malaysian audience first.

Also deciding how much Manglish to put into dialogue. :oD

How do you see writing the Chinese diaspora into a steampunk'd Australia?

The Chinese diaspora has been such a big part of Australia's history in the last 200 years, and there's so much to work with - I see it being AWESOME. There is so much potential there for looking at racial issues and historical relationships (such as during a steampunked Gold Rush, or during a steampunked White Australia Policy-era). A steampunked Chinese New Year celebrated by the diaspora in Victoria (Bendigo has the oldest dragon in the world, who migrated from China in 1870, and imagine a steampunked CNY!).

What would you say to Australian POC wanting to get into steampunk?


I would say push on in. There's a huge potential and a growing community, and it's totally worth it to come and get involved. Australian fandom is very in-person, and it's all very cool and easy to get involved with it. And I will totally (virtually) hold the hand of any POC who needs it to come on into the space.

And that's our steampunk POC for the month: Stephanie Lai, folks, give her a big hand!


  1. Huzzah and applause, Stephanie! Cool to see a fellow Antipodean promoting our Steampunk works, but I think there's more going on down here than is being reported. I've thrown together a response post, if you don't mind:

    An additions question I'd like to ask, how can we non-PoC help to make events more enticing/ welcoming?

  2. I really enjoyed this interview, and would love to see Stephanie's vision for a steampunked Aussie Gold Rush realised!

  3. Colin: Haha, I don't mind, and in fact, I have an interview with another Aussie steampunk POC coming up in the future who'll be giving another perspective on your local scene!

    As for your second question, ya'll need to go out of your way to invite POC to your events. You can't expect to just make an event and just sit back; you need to make it clear that you WANT POC there at your event (not in a desperate token-ish sort of way, but rather, that you're aware of any problems that might come up, and have good policies in place for them). Inviting speakers who're POC such as Stephanie certainly helps ;)