Friday, April 5, 2013

Steampunk POC: Theresa Breaux (Black Canadian/American)

Hello, Canada! This time we're talking to Theresa Breaux, a friend of mine on the Toronto steampunk scene, with whom I have hung out and we have counted POC together. It's fun hanging out with her; we've gone to Dundurn Castle together, and had looooong chats about moving across borders (she's from New Orleans!). She writes paranormal romance as well as urban and high fantasy, and she has several writing samples up on her site, so go check her out! I actually got in touch with her back in January, but I suck and only got to this for April. 

Without further ado, Theresa!!

How did you get into steampunk? What were your first impressions of it?

I've been in to steampunk in fiction a very long time, before it even had a name.  Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, anyone? In media, Metroplis the movie and the Wild Wild West from the '60s It's only recently in the past few years that I have "shown my gears" as it were to show my support of the artform - and my first impressions of it are why.

In the beginning of my love affair with cogs and workings, I saw it something wonderful and magical - and mistakenly thought could not be a part of. The corsets, the elaborate gadgets and gowns were wonderful and far too fanciful for me to come up with something on my own.  

Why did you feel you couldn't be a part of steampunk?

Two reasons. The first? Money. Elaborate costumes, workings and gadgets cost money that I didn't have then and don't have a lot of now. Yes, there is a do it yourself movement within steampunk. However, human beings being what we are, you know that professionally made items or elaborate costumes get the most attention, comments etc. For a woman of size? I was doubly cursed. Nothing "off the rack" would ever fit me. Everything I wanted needed to be custom made. It was far easier for me to admire steampunk from the back of the crowd and wish.

The second reason is exclusion of the rest of the world in portrayal of steampunk. While Her Majesty's era (Queen Victoria  may She rest in peace) did inspire movement, England wasn't the only civilized place in the world.  Thriving cities across the globe were doing their own thing oblivious to whatever Her Empire was doing. Why not include them?  Add in the there were few plus sized men or women around?  I wanted feel like I was a part of the movement, not stand out from it.

For a long time I didn't see anyone who looked like me. I certainly didn't have the cash to buy brand new items.  However now things are getting better, if not slowly.

Recently there was a plus sized gorgeous woman who appeared on the cover of Doc Fantastique's magazine. It was a great! I'm seeing more home made items in costumes as well as people of all sizes and ethnicities. It's all kinds of awesome!  

Tell us about your writing; what do you write, and why did you pick steampunk as part of your writing?

I write paranormal, romance, fantasy and steampunk of course. I picked steampunk as there is a lack of non-white authors and stories  as well as a lack of support for the ones who are writing. I am eager to show and support stories where there are people of color that do no fit the known stereotypes.

What are some stereotypes you're generally sick of and would like to see avoided in steampunk?

Ladies? Ditch the corsets.  I know the guys like them. I know you look fantastic in it!  It's also so clich├ęd that newbie ladies firmly believe that they have to have one. It's not true! Check the history! Higher classed "weaker" women wore the corsets. They also couldn't breathe, fainted, got sunstroke and miscarried a lot often leading to sterility. We don't have to be exact! Find something comfortable classy and makes yiou feel great! I chose  riding pants ( yes I had them made for my size) and peasant shirt. With my top hat and boots? I feel and look great!

Guys, try to tone down the Big Gun/weapon stereotype.  I know it's cool and all... but we've got enough guns in our real lives. No real reason to bring it over into our play lives. 

And everyone, for the love of clocks, please leave the goggles behind.  If you're an airship whatever or some sort of "rocketeer" that's fine.. but we don't need them everywhere!

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?
In general, I love steampunk - the creativity, the possibilities. The existing literature is....good with the potential to get better as time passes. The canon, however, will be a unstable factor. With so much freedom to create and recreate, the definitions of "what is steampunk"  and "what isn't steampunk" are going to cause some tension out there.

Now, there really isn't a need for the tension or any arguments about what we're doing here. Steampunk is retro-futurism based in the Victorian Age. After that? The whole of the world, it's cultures and peoples are there as a foundation. Why impose limitations?

The fashions and the visibility of real world application could use some help. It's no secret that I'm a plus sized woman. However, most visible fashion themes have mostly women in tightly laced corset, etc.  who are a size zero. Where are the people who aren't models? Where are the men? Seriously, someone make me a male pin up calendar! I'll make it myself if I have to! Casting call!!

As for the communities around Steampunk, it's just like people. Some are good, some are bad. Some you just have walk away from.  I've watched a few giant meltdowns and schisms happen from afar.  It's a growing pain that I hope we'll get over soon. Everyone! This is supposed to be fun! If you're arguing about anything - you're doing it wrong!

How have you been working out a style for yourself as a plus-size woman?

YEARS. It's hard to find something that's flattering, comfortable and affordable to buy or get made.  There are more options out there these days with Etsy, EBay as well as those who can alter patterns and make their own clothes ( I am not one of them). I'm still searching for a second outfit so that I can have some variety. I am not falling for the  typical corset and bustle look. There were plus sized women in our history. I am determined to find out what the looked like!

<BTW check the crap out of these listings and this seller. She offers plus sizes AND is raising money to care for her very sick child who has a rare form of blood cancer.>

Are there any vendors or designers you feel people should know about, who really cater to women's sizes like yours?

Here are a few:

Domino Dollhouse: Great prices and the models are actually plus size!

Black Rattle Designs: Don't let the empty Esty shop fool you. If you feel like nothing is in your size, message her with a picture of what you want.

Got the Ebay bug? Not to worry. Check out Midnight Nova 2011: The shipping is longer. Be prepared to wait and be WOWED.

We've talked a bit about the difficulty of incorporating our non-white cultures into our writing before; could you tell us a bit about this particular challenge and how you deal with it?

<sigh> We go back to stereotypes again - and not just the ones imposed by those who are not of color or  in mainstream of society. There are certain cultural quirks that are expected when writing about characters who are of color.  You see it in movies all the time. If there is one Asian there, they are expected to be either a computer genius or a martial arts expert. If there is an (modern) American, they are expected to be a little slow on the uptake but come in with guns blazing at the last minute to save the day. A First Nations person? Bring in the secret Medicine Man or Woman.  If there is a black man on the cover of my book, there are assumptions of what is going to happen. If Sam Jackson is on the movie poster, we pretty much can tell what's going to happen in at least one scene - the angry black man speech. Now, Sam knows that the speech is there. He knows that's what he is paid to do. And he still does it. The stereotype is perpetuated a little bit longer.

These tropes are rampant in our media. My question is why? Why does it have to be that way? The answer is that it doesn't. As an author, my job is to tell a compelling, riveting ( hah! ) life changing story. That there may be people of colour it in, shouldn't be a big deal. I make sure I get the cultural reference right, break every stereotype I can find and knock your socks off as a reader. 

The Angry Black Man stereotype is definitely a favourite trope in so many movies, which makes no sense considering how Black people are also depicted but no one seems to pay attention. What do you think makes the Angry Black Man figure so popular in mass media today?

Oh too easy - on all levels. The Angry Black Man gets a pass on decent behavior. He's angry, he's black, so  - in the vernacular - "You know he gon' act a fool."  He is expected to be loud, ignorant and hateful. He gets a pass to spew all kinds of vitriol - and the rest of the world just laughs.  In the cultural world we live in now, we're expected to be polite and politically correct at all times. As we laugh and imitate the Angry Black Man, we get a chance to let off some steam as it were.  And the only way it's going to stop is if we stop laughing, stop buying tickets for the movies and above all find other ways to relax.

At Steam on Queen in mid-2012, we were both counting POC in attendance. What was your last count? How do you feel about that number against the rest of the attendees you saw that day?

Oh my last count was about 30, I think? Against the rest of the day's attendees, I'd say that the number is a good starting point.  I am glad that many people came out at all.  Much like me, I suspect that there may be some hesitancy about being accepted by the general steampunk society.  Dear POC Steamies. I am lonely! Come out and join us!

The BEST thing about steampunk?

The best thing about steampunk for me is the possibilities. There are so many that it makes my head spin!

The WORST thing about steampunk?

The worst thing about steampunk, for me, is that there seems to be a need to define it, compartmentalize it and label every bit.  We don't need it! 

What steampunk plans do you have for 2013?

This year will debut the new duds at Steam on Queen ( shameless plug )  and hanging out with my locals in Toronto in surrounding areas when I have time.

What would you tell POC who're interested in doing steampunk but are afraid of the same things you were back then?

Find a group that is accepting of new people. Avoid anyone who tells you that your outfit is "wrong." Get in the spotlight.  If you're really feeling self conscious, get a camera and take pictures of those with outfits you like. Seriously, they won't mind!

Woot, Theresa Breaux, everybody! Thank you for your time, Theresa!!


  1. Great post! Question for you -- what do we call Steampunk written with POC in mind? I've heard the term Cotton-gin punk. I've also heard Steamfunk. What do you prefer? (grins). Do you have any recommended Cotton-gin punk literature? (I imagine its a short list).

    1. I think it depends on what region and what we're going for! Jeannette Ng jokes about ricepunk which I like for its agricultural connotations, Ay-leen and I have talked about bamboopunk since bamboo is quintessentially Asian and a perennial. Ken Liu coined "silkpunk" to refer to the industry that sprung around the Silk Road, and I and my Malaysian friends have joked about "kelapank" which is coconutpunk (kelapa is coconut in Malay).

      I think so far the only story which the author positively identifies it as cotton-ginpunk is yours, Claudia!!

  2. May as well say some more about the difficulty of obtaining vintage clothing. I agree about 'do it yourself' -- its a nice idea, but I gave up my sewing machine long ago, and don't have a lot of spare time for crafts. But -- bingo I'm older now, and have a little money. So I'm using these fine clothiers (grins):
    1. corsets at Dark Garden (darn expensive, but well made & better than you get at a typical con) also La Belle Fairy (Etsy). I have a prosthetic (OK TMI, but just sayin') so getting fitted, and having someone help dealing with that issue was really great. So I'm saying it can be done.
    2. polonaise at Heddles & Treadles (Etsy)
    3. Victorian walking skirt at The Secret Boutique (Etsy)
    4. another fave is No Human Intentions (Etsy) -- see black model among their photos
    5. hat recommendations: Emily Ways Hats (Etsy) ; I also like Black Pin & Award Design

    Back a few years ago, when I started, I got clothes off the shelf at Recollections and also at Lip Service. Not sure I would ever go back to either of them.

    I like the steampunk look so much I'm diving into creating one of a kind things I can wear 'out' with friends and not just steampunk events. Also, I'm writing steampunk, so I want to create an author's look for steampunk; not just a cheesy costume, but a way to portray the content.

    Soooo not sure why I wrote all of that down, but there it is. Now back to my WIP!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Claudia! I learned to sew because I'm still a poor grad student, and I really like having things to wear out in daily life, not just events. When we meet up maybe we can talk about authoring steampunk styles!