Balogun Ojetade, a strong proponent for Black steampunk like no other steampunk I've ever come across. Balogun has a long history centering blackness in other genres of writing, and he burst onto the steampunk scene with Moses: the Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, a steampunk take on the legend herself.
Since publishing The Chronicles of Harriet, Balogun has gone on to host the Mahogany Masquerade, a Black-centric steampunk event, and co-edit SteamFunk!, a Black-centric steampuk anthology. So I poked him recently to see if he'd be down with an interview, and he was.
How did you first hear about steampunk? How did you first get into steampunk? What was your first impression of it?
I first heard about Steampunk in 2010 when I sent the manuscript for Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman to my publisher. She told me that I had written “an excellent Steampunk story”. I thanked her and then immediately researched ‘steampunk’, as I had no clue what it was.
When I discovered what Steampunk is, I told my wife “Well, now I have a name for what I have been into all my life.” I have been into Steampunk long before it was called Steampunk. My mother is a huge fan of the television series, The Wild, Wild West. I would sit at her feet as a little boy and watch it with her. Soon, it became one of my favorite shows, too. My favorite author was Jules Verne and my favorite villain was Krag of the planet Kragmire – from the anime, Prince Planet. Why? Because he wore a Victorian-era suit, a top-hat and wielded a pocket watch with expandable and retractable saw-blades.
When I began my research of Steampunk, I fell in love with the aesthetics, but I became painfully aware of the lack of Black involvement in the movement. I had a strong desire to change that and decided that I would become a Steampunk and inspire other Brothers and Sisters to do so as well.
How do you do steampunk? Or how do you steampunk or how do you participate in steampunk? Or what steampunk media do you do (lit, fashion, events)?
I Steampunk – well, actually, I Steamfunk – by reading and researching it, writing Steamfunk fiction, writing and directing Steamfunk films, writing articles about Steamfunk on my blog, and by cosplaying Steamfunk.
I say I Steamfunk, because I do Steampunk from a Black / African perspective. My Steamfunk persona is even a Yoruba war chief who brought down an invading British airship with his drum, which emits destructive sonic waves. The war chief – Ogunlana is his name – wears the traditional Yoruba clothing befitting his status as Commander-In-Chief of the mighty armies of the Oyo Empire. He also wears the trappings of the defeated British as a warning to any others who would be foolish enough to invade his homeland. Ogunlana is armed only with his wits and his drum.
I attend events that have a strong Steampunk presence, such as Dragon*Con and AnachroCon and I have even developed and hosted a Steampunk event – The Mahogany Masquerade: An Evening of Steamfunk & Film and will host another event I developed – The Steamfunk Mystery Dinner Party – in February.
So tell us your feelings about steampunk in general. What do you think of the existing / canon literature? The fashions? The communities that have sprung up around them? Don't hold back.
I love Steamfunk because it is so damned cool! I view and express Steamfunk as both an enjoyable lifestyle, as well as a political movement. Some may believe that political movements cannot be enjoyed because movements must be serious…morose, even. I disagree. Why on earth would I fight for positive change in a thing, write a well-researched article twice a week on it, do panel discussions on it, participate in interviews and panel discussions about it and spend quite a bit of my day contemplating it if that thing wasn’t something I enjoyed doing?
As far as the literary canon of Steampunk, if Victorian Science Fiction is considered a part of that canon, three of my five favorite Steampunk must-reads are from that era – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Frankenstein; and The Time Machine. The final two are The Anubis Gates and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
In fact, it was reading these very Eurocentric books – and your blogs – that inspired me to build the Chronicles of Harriet website and to develop the Steamfunk Movement. These books, while masterfully written, are wrought with racism, sexism, orientalism and other isms that suck. In the case of some of these writings, the isms are not apparent, however, an ism perpetuated by omission is just as destructive as an ism perpetuated by commission. If your writing writes Black people out of existence, it commits racism by omission in my opinion. I grew tired of reading about the successful exploits of white people and their exploitation of everyone else. I don’t believe in complaining, I believe in bringing about solutions, so I decided to write what I want to see in the literature I love so much.
The WORST thing about steampunk?
The worst thing about Steampunk is the lack of people of color represented in it. It often feels like the world consists of just (white) Europe and the (white) American West, with a few “braves”, “squaws”, “coolies” and “noble savages” thrown in for good measure.
I do not expect this to change unless People of Color change it. White people are not obligated to tell our stories or to paint us in a positive light. That is our responsibility. As more People of Color write books, make gadgets, design clothing and engage in cosplay that glorifies African and Asian and other cultures, more POC will become involved in Steampunk. When we put on The Mahogany Masquerade: An Evening of Steamfunk and Film, we packed the place, people really enjoyed the Steamfunk cosplay and I nearly sold out of Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman.
Tell us about the Mahogany Masquerade! What was it, how did it go?
The Mahogany Masquerade was an event we through that featured science fiction and fantasy short movies by and about Black people. We also featured a panel in which we discussed Steamfunk and Steampunk and a bazaar where vendors sold Black speculative fiction, poetry and films.
The highlight of the evening was the cosplay. We encouraged everyone to wear their Steamfunk clothing and to create Steamfunk personas and were happily surprised that the majority of the packed event brought the (steam)funk! People were elated that they could dress up, be creative and enjoy themselves. We will certainly have another Mahogany Masquerade in 2013 and we plan to come out in droves, dressed in our Steamfunk best, to AnachroCon in February, 2013 to debut the Steamfunk anthology.
The BEST thing about steampunk?
The best thing about Steampunk is that it is malleable and encourages a do-it-yourself attitude. My friend and co-author, Milton Davis, and I have taken the concept of Steamfunk - the philosophy and / or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and ran with it, developing events, films and a soon-to-be-released anthology of Steamfunk short stories. People from all walks of life have been very receptive of Steamfunk and I am most grateful for that.
Did you begin the Chronicles of Harriet Tubman before or after you learned of steampunk? How has knowing about steampunk informed your writing of the Chronicles?
I finished writing Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman before ever hearing of Steampunk and I began writing the book long before ever hearing of the movement. Steampunk has, however, informed my writing since the Chronicles. I enjoy mashing up genres and have combined Steampunk with Sword & Soul – the African expression of Heroic and Epic Fantasy – in The Hand of Sa-Seti and with the 1970s Blaxploitation-style of writing in Nandi: A Steamfunk Tale.
Could you tell us a bit about Sword and Soul? It's more than just Sword and Sorcery + Black people, right? How do you think it fundamentally differentiates itself from Sword and Sorcery? Similarly, in a nutshell, how does SteamFunk differentiate from steampunk?
Sword & Soul is African-inspired “Map Fantasy”. “Map Fantasy” is an umbrella term I use for the Fantasy subgenres of High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy / Sword & Sorcery and Sword and Soul. If you ever see a book whose cover depicts a guy fighting a dragon, or a freakishly muscled warrior staring off into the distance as a buxom woman kneels at his feet, open that book and I bet the first thing you find in there is a map. You have just discovered a book of “Map Fantasy”.
Of course, there are exceptions. My Sword & Soul novel, Once Upon A Time in Afrika, does not have a map.
Sword and Soul is much more than Sword & Sorcery with Black people. Sword & Soul can include elements of both Heroic and High Fantasy and is less confined by the tropes of either of those subgenres. For example, High Fantasy is usually driven by its setting and the world is all-important.
Heroic Fantasy is less magnanimous. The effects are usually personal. If Conan saved the world, it’d be by accident, and he might curse Crom for allowing him to do so, because, in Heroic settings, the world isn’t worth – or is beyond – saving. Heroic Fantasy (aka Sword & Sorcery) is usually character-driven.
In Sword & Soul, the heroes are usually of higher morals than the heroes – or anti-heroes – of Heroic Fantasy. They may – or may not be concerned with saving the world, but whether the characters are on a seafaring safari, wandering a vast continent, or battling for the hand of a princess in a grand tournament, they are, most certainly, character driven.
Steamfunk differs from Steampunk in that Steamfunk does not glorify colonialism and does not gloss over the horrors of the Age of Steam. While Steamfunk stories are still fun reads, we deal with issues and characters that go untouched in Steampunk. In Steampunk, Tesla’s story is told often, however, we never read about George Washington Carver. No panels are done on his brilliant works at the Cons; no one cosplays him. Steamfunk addresses this deficit through creative works – and through cosplay – that tells the untold stories of our heroes of color.
Furthermore, our stories are not limited to a set time period or setting. We have Steamfunk stories set in ancient Africa and in 1970s USA.
In Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, Harriet is set up by John Wilkes Booth in the kidnapping of the daughter of the U.S. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Stanton recruits a group of ruthless and powerful hunters to track down Harriet, kill her and return his daughter. Harriet uses her incredible physical and psychic abilities – and an arsenal of incredible weapons and gadgets – to fight against the forces of evil and to protect the child she has been accused of kidnapping.
I have always been a fan of Harriet Tubman and knew that the first novel I ever wrote would have her as the hero. In researching Mrs. Tubman’s life for a poem I wrote a few years ago, I came to realize what an amazing woman she really was and that she seemed to possess uncanny abilities, such as psychic visions, nigh superhuman strength and the ability to change her appearance where no two people gave the same description of her. Even to this day, there are only five photos of Harriet Tubman known to exist and many that were once believed to be photos of her have been proven to be someone else.
Finding out these things incredible about Harriet sparked my already wild-as-hell imagination and the concept for Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2) was born.
Have you encountered any negative pushback against your work for what it represents? In other words, have you encountered any racism from steampunk communities so far?
I have not encountered any overt racism from any steampunk communities. Early on, I was threatened with being removed from a particular website if I dared to be too critical of steampunk and its glorification of colonization, racism and sexism. I was told that if I turned out to be the “Black version of Jaymee Goh”,* I would be removed. They did not have to remove me. I left.
2010 was a pretty big year for steampunk. People keep asking me this and I never know how to answer, but maybe you do: how do you see the steampunk trend developing over the next year or two?
I see Steampunk becoming more academic and much more mainstream. Diana Pho has gotten a Masters’ Degree in Steampunk already and we will soon see aspects of Steampunk taught in colleges and universities. Hell, we already have the Steampunk University online site. In another year or so, some university will offer a Steampunk makers’ class as part of its fashion design and / or engineering department. Mark my words.
A'ight, IMPORTANT question now: How do you think the Will Smith Wild Wild West compares to the 1960s' Wild Wild West?
I think I just collapsed a lung from laughing so hard.
Honestly, I think people’s hatred of Wild, Wild West (the movie) is unwarranted. The movie was okay. Of course, The Wild, Wild West (the television series) is a masterpiece and the show that inspired me to write Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, so, for me, there is no comparison.
I really believe the hatred comes from a Black man playing the role of James West. Look at how people freaked out about Idris Elba playing Heimdall, or discovering that Rue, from The Hunger Games was, indeed, Black. Whitewashing is okay with most people – hell, they have whitewashed Cleopatra for nearly a century – do a bit of Blackwashing, however, and people lose their minds.
In your opinion, what do you think keeps People of Colour away from participating in steampunk?
Lack of awareness and the belief that we don’t “do” Steampunk keeps People of Color away. With the work that you, Diana Pho and a handful of others do, this is changing. In fact, it was your writings that encouraged me to explore Steampunk deeper and to share my thoughts on the movement through my website.
If more People of Color knew that they have places to go where it is okay for them to cosplay as an African or Asian warrior, explorer or scientist; a place where other People of Color can go and engage in intelligent – and even sometimes heated – discussions on the topic of Steampunk and actually fit in and not suffer scorn or ridicule for their stance or for being who and what they are, you would see many more of us participate.
What would you tell POC newcomers to steampunk?
I would tell POC that we have Steampunk is an incredible movement and that it can become even more incredible with our contributions to it. I would tell them to be comfortable telling their stories; to research what great things their cultures did during the Steam Age – how they dressed, spoke, ate, built, fought, made love – and bring that greatness to steampunk.
What are some Black historical figures you'd like to see featured in steampunk in the future?
I would love to see George Washington Carver, of course. I would also love to see Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who worked in the Confederate White House, pretending to be an illiterate and mentally challenged slave. In actuality, she was a Union spy with a genius-level intellect and eidetic memory. I would also like to see the lawman, Bass Reeves and Mary Ellen Pleasant, the Voodoo Queen of California. Both of their stories are amazing.
When and where can we expect to buy the Steamfunk anthology from Milton Davis from?
The Steamfunk anthology will be available in February, 2013, through Milton’s publishing company, MVmedia. Milton and I are Co-Editors. We are going to unveil the anthology at AnachroCon.
There we have it, folks, our first steampunk POC for 2013 from the indomitable Balogun Ojetade! So Atlanta folks, keep an eye out for the next Mahogany Masquerade, and get your copy of Steamfunk! at AnachroCon. Balogun also blogs extensively at The Chronicles of Harriet. He's a lot better at updating than I am. Thank you, Brother Balogun, for this interview!
*I swear I knew nothing about this.