Sunday, May 1, 2016

Transcript: "Claiming Narratives, Re-Telling History: Bringing Southeast Asian Steampunk to the World Stage"

Recently I went to a conference held by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, entitled "Making Southeast Asian Culture: From Region To World." Thanks to Dr. Gui Weihsin, I was on a panel on literary transformations in Southeast Asia.

I wouldn't really say I'm a Southeast Asianist. In my main blog, I describe myself as being involved with UC Riverside's SEATRiP program not by research, but through my creative pursuits. I DO study Southeast Asian history and cultures, but that is because I write stories that are meant for a Southeast Asian audience. So when Dr. Gui invited me to submit an abstract for this conference, I wracked my brain trying to think of a good usable topic (that could, in the interests of an academic career, transform into a publishable paper) and thought of something completely different, but completely untenable, and he said, "why not just talk about your book? You edited it, you know the field, you'd be the only steampunk specialist there, and it's Southeast Asian literature."

I can do that?

And turns out, of course I can, which put me into the position of speaking as an academic about a book I personally edited. I was very uncomfortable because on the one hand, Dr. Gui was right, it IS Southeast Asian Literature (we've got one white woman in the entire Table of Contents; white women are very diverse these days) and I AM an expert on the field and it IS a great opportunity to tell people about the book, but on the other hand, I have been taught, in so many ways, that being proud of my work and what I've done and talking about it is kind of big-headed, arrogant, and kinda rude. But I have the support of many lovely people here at UCR, including my adviser, so I wrote it, and made a very nice Powerpoint (which I'm not actually putting up here). 

So here is the transcript!

Firstly, thank you Dr. Cheah Pheng for letting me into this conference, and to Dr. Gui for inviting me onto this panel. I would like to preface this by noting that my research isn’t Southeast Asianist specifically, but my creative work is, so this paper comes from that position. I’m going to discuss the production of The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, an anthology I co-edited with Singaporean writer Joyce Chng. I would like to begin by first situating this project and identifying the gap that it is designed to fill, a triangulation between three closely related spaces: the hashtag #ownvoices on Twitter, Anglophone Southeast Asian science fiction, and steampunk. Then I'll talk about the theoretical questions that inform the project itself, and I'll finish with the challenges that came up during the creation of the project. 

#OwnVoices is a Twitter hashtag invented by Amsterdam-based science fiction writer, Corinne Duyvis, to start a conversation on authors, particularly those of marginalized groups, writing narratives inspired by their own experiences, without being autobiographical. This addresses the trend for diversity in publishing which often leads to more books written about the Other, rather than by Other'd authors themselves, due to a variety of industry biases. This hashtag comes a few years after a major conversation in science fiction and fantasy publishing and fandom, called RaceFail, in which non-white fans finally spoke out in multitudes about their experiences of alienation and racism within the genre. The fallout from RaceFail led to a heightened awareness of issues of race and racism, the effects of media representation, and industry inequity. 

Within the last few years since RaceFail, science fiction has seen the presence of non-white authors who write racial markers into their speculative works. Southeast Asian writers across the world have become noted for their output: Rochita Loenen-Ruiz in the Netherlands, Aliette de Bodard in France, Zen Cho in the UK, Benjanun Sriduangkaew in Thailand, and Bryan Thao Worra, a Lao-American poet who appropriates Lovecraftian mythology.[1] Local science fiction pulp has also proliferated: Filipino science fiction writers release an annual anthology of Best Philippine Speculative Fiction; Malaysian pulp publishers like Buku Fixi and Alaf 21 have invested in the genre; and LONTAR, a journal of Southeast Asian speculative fiction, operates out of Singapore. 

Credit to Mariam Lam for taking this picture! Click to embiggen.
Also, Alyssa Wong is a finalist for the Campbell!
This of course does not necessarily mean that Southeast Asian writers have a significant presence in publishing overall. Nonetheless, we are slowly but surely building a presence in what has been a predominantly Eurocentric field. Steampunk is part of that field. 

Ask ten people to explain steampunk, get ten answers, because it is a culmination of three different groups who have connected through the Internet: Do-It-Yourself artists inspired by the Victorian science fiction movies of the 50s; costume players, or cosplayers who enjoy anachronistic dress; and writers using pseudo-Victorian settings. Steampunk is often criticized for its reliance on comforting re-imaginaries of the 19th century, re-visiting the Industrial Revolution in order to have the exciting changes in technology without truly confronting the historical consequences. This is one factor in its appeal—steampunk doesn’t necessarily challenge us in our assumptions of history, but relies on them. The generally accepted elements of steampunk, articulated by Mike Perschon, are neo-Victorianism, technofantasy, and alternate history. The major conceit of steampunk is to inject today’s technology into historical settings just to see what would have happened: how would people of the past have taken up this accelerated technology? What does it look like? It presents a way to think about the present through the past. This description allows us to talk of steampunk as an aesthetic that can be applied to a variety of visual and narrative media. As a result, steampunk has also been called a creative arts movement, and a subculture. Combined with a performative aspect, we have people running around dressed in 19th century-inspired costumes, because dressing up is a lot of fun. 

[Imagine here, a slide of steampunks of color, from various conventions over the period of 2010 to 2012. I don't take many pictures of white people at steampunk conventions, because that's too many.] Here we are, steampunks of colourful glory, dressed in both neo-Victorian fashion, and a more defamiliarized form of cosplay that reinvents “ethnic” costuming. Now, Neo-Victorianism has its own set of Eurocentric connotations, and alternate history is a genre unto itself. So we must revise Perschon’s articulation of steampunk, to something a bit more widely encompassing: technofantasy gets to stay; alternate history must extend to become alternate world history, in order to draw attention to the wider complexities of geo-political concerns that come with changing power relations; and neo-Victorian we can just do away with altogether for neo-retrofuturism—our modern, or postmodern, imaginings of what the future could have looked like, from the perspective of what we think our ancestors might have thought.  

So what does Southeast Asian steampunk look like? This was the goal of The Sea Is Ours: to see what it could generate out of a subgenre that thrives on re-iterations of historical events and re-conceptualizations of technology, as well as visual aesthetics that are associated with the past. It argues that steampunk can be de-territorialized from the geography of Victorian England, and demands attention to a region underrepresented in genre publishing. Prior to this there had been a few iterations of such: here’s a brief bibliography

      "On Wooden Wings," by Paolo Chikiamco. Philippine Speculative Fiction 6. Ed. Nikki Alfar and Kate Aton-Osias. Kestrel DDM, 2011.
      "The Terracotta Bride," by Zen Cho. Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft. Torquere Press, 2011.
      "Between Islands," by Jaymee Goh, Expanded Horizons #19. June 2010.
      "Lunar Year's End," by Jaymee Goh, Crossed Genres #25: Celebration. December 2010
      "Hidden Strength," by Jaymee Goh. Steampunk World, ed. Sarah Hans. Alliteration Ink, 2014.
      "One Last Interruption Before We Begin," by Stephanie Lai. Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft. Torquere Press, 2011.
      "The Last Rickshaw," by Stephanie Lai, Crossed Genres #18: Eastern. Dec 2010.
      "The Construct Also Dreams of Flight," by Rochita Leonen-Ruiz. Steampunk World, ed. Sarah Hans. Alliteration Ink, 2014.
      "The Governess and We," by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Steampunk World, ed. Sarah Hans. Alliteration Ink, 2014.

This is an ongoing compilation. The LitCritters of Manila had a steampunk short fiction challenge, which would go on to populate the pages of the Philippine Spec Fic Annuals. I wrote, and continue to write, a series of short stories set in an alternate-history Penang uncolonized by Captain Francis Light. Stephanie Lai also re-imagines Penang, but uses the more modern image of the KOMTAR building, as a port for airships. Paolo Chikiamco released a comic in which anito trapped in trees are carved into movable forms and participate in anticolonial struggle. In 2010, I also ran a collaborative world-building project with a few Malaysian friends, with the intention of creating a meta-setting, or a toolkit from which role-playing games could be generated. In this project, called Steampunk Nusantara, fictional “translators, cryptologists, cataloguers, illustrators, archival photographers, data entry clerks, engineers, archaeologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, linguists, X-Ray technicians, wonderful volunteers, and suckered low-wage workers of Sharekat Perkapalan Samudera Sdn. Bhd.” worked tirelessly to create a catalog of a warehouse full of mysterious artifacts from events that never happened. (This project fell by the wayside because nobody was getting paid to work on it, and since we were also not game developers, we couldn't think of a way to monetize the idea.) There is a Singaporean steampunk anthology, although it does not specifically center on Singapore. 

Recent years have seen the rise of multicultural steampunk; most examples are variations of Victorian steampunk with ethnic accouterments, or assumptions that without colonialism, technologies in non-European countries would develop the exact same way the Industrial Revolution in Europe did, just with different aesthetic flourishes. Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, therefore, would have to interrogate this trend. My co-editor and I began with the position that a successful non-Eurocentric steampunk project would first see Victorian steampunk as, essentially, a regional project, made popular by the supremacy of Eurocentric history. Therefore, a non-Eurocentric steampunk moves away from the Victorian as the frame of reference, historically, geographically, and culturally. It takes up the question of geographical materialism in Chen Kuan-Hsing’s Asia as Method

"To spatialize historical materialism is not only to remove Eurocentrism, but also to launch another round of spatializing (after historicizing) epistemology. For instance, the analysis of the Asiatic mode of production can no longer take the European mode of production as the ideal model or point of comparison. It is no longer a question of explaining why a Chinese mode of production cannot develop into a real (European) capitalist mode of production. Instead the question becomes: within the imminent historical-geographical formation, how does a geographical space historically generate its own mode of production?"
- Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia As Method: Towards Deimperialization, pg 106

In science fiction fantasy parlance, this is what we call “worldbuilding,” which is a nice start, but where many genre stories fall short, because bad writers tend to regurgitate what they have consumed without examining the logic behind those choices. We also made further demands: they should offer what Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement,” to refer to how science fiction re-casts the world we know into something a little different, something that challenges how we understand our world and the possibilities available to us. This should be two-fold: since it doesn’t take place in a geography familiar to most readers of steampunk, it should ensure a similar dissonance for the foreign reader through a refusal of the exoticism associated with the region. It should say something about the region that the reader cannot take for granted based on superficial, tourist-oriented knowledge. 

Speaking into the aether of social media, we sought considerations of indigeneity in the development of technology: what does a locale need, and what technologies come out of that? We wanted technology that might not be recognized as such elsewhere. Perhaps, too, machines that never had the chance to be invented, superseded by the monopoly of colonial capitalism. Perhaps, too, 21st century machines placed in the hands of the colonized, to change the historical trajectories of the region. We did end up with stories containing anti-colonial themes, exploring how colonial technology is appropriated and subverted against the colonizers, or how a local technology is grown in response to colonialism, for example, a story in which a puppet maker works out British punch cards used in a Frankenstein figure built out samsui women

Our wishlist also included: syncretism in the development of local technology, stories that dealt with the interaction of different groups and the conflicts that arose, and stories rooted in the local geography. This is how one ends up with a multi-ethnic group of children creating armor for their fighting spiders, a floating fleet of ships that serves as an academy for young engineers, and airships that use energy siphoned from the volcanoes across the Philippines.

Therefore, we looked for particular strategies in the submissions, taking our cue from thinkers like Franz Fanon and Syed Hussein Alatas. We wanted narratives that examined historical events through the lens of the colonized, rather than a colonizer, however sympathetic. This could take the form of creating an alternative historical trajectory that changes the outcomes of colonialism and exploring the consequences thereof, or referencing some historical event that is under-referenced. We didn’t receive very many of these, but we did end up with a story featuring the Vietnamese Boat People, and a story taking on the conflict between Thailand and Laos.

Regarding the question of indigenous technologies, we requested stories that refused the binary of tradition versus modern, in which "traditional" means resistance to change and new forms of technologies, while the modern is necessarily the progressive, and better option. This also opened stories to tackling the fantastical side of the speculative, re-examining folktales and supernatural aspects in tandem with questions of science, rather than in opposition to science. So monks build dragonfly-shaped machines deep in the forest as a meditative exercise, researchers scour mountain ranges for flora and fauna to exhibit at a Saigon Exposition biome, and duende demonstrate their genius through extreme botany.

Right out the gate, we had problems. In science fiction publishing, the diversity in Tables of Contents is often an issue—most Tables of Contents skew white, as a result of the sheer number of white writers looking for a new market (because science fiction pays!) and the sheer number of non-white writers not submitting (even though science fiction pays!). Speculative poetry editor Rose Lemberg addressed this issue in a thoughtful essay on the work that editors must perform in order to reach the constituents they hope will submit. It is not simply a matter of putting out a call for submissions and stating that we want more diversity in authors who submit. 

Our first problem was that steampunk hadn't, and still hasn't, really, been picked up in Southeast Asia or by Southeast Asians as a form of exploring locality. Although the submissions were open to anyone, we wanted Southeast Asian writers first and foremost, and that a table of contents populated by non-Southeast Asians would diminish the mission of the project, and defeat the purpose of it. So, if there's no one writing the thing you want to see, you have to ask for it. While the name of the anthology alone encouraged submissions, we spent a lot of time asking our various contacts within and without the region for help in amplifying the call for submissions. This bumps up against the next major problem anthologies that seek a diversity of writers have: self-rejection. Self-rejection is the term used for usually new writers, especially minority writers, who consider their work to be not good enough for submission. As a result, they may either sabotage themselves by missing deadlines since they keep working on their submission, or they just don't try at all. 

Among other problems we had were: Southeast Asians writing us to ask if they could still submit even though their first language was not English, diasporan Southeast Asian writers dithering about submitting since they didn't feel authentically Southeast Asian enough, and writers asking if we would consider stories from the Pacific Islands that were not on our list of Southeast Asian countries. The submissions stage, far from being a period of sitting back and waiting, is a stage of emotional labour. This must have paid off, because we ended up with 40 submissions out of 75 from Asian writers, if we eyeball the names.

A few problematic trends emerged from the slush pile of submissions. Many submissions lacked an alternate history aspect in their re-formulation of steampunk; either their work attempted to bypass the problem of engaging with history by using a secondary world that just so happened to be populated with brown people names, or they attempted to situate their steampunk using recent problems without engaging with their historical bases. Several stories demonstrated a reliance on Eurocentric tropes and/or folklore, or vague impressions of local culture that allow the story to take place anywhere vaguely Asian. A few people thought Japan and China counted, because they can’t read submission guidelines or maps. 

A huge part of these trends stem from the lack of general knowledge about the countries in the region—access to old manuscripts is limited, anthropological data is plentiful but we don't always know where to get it and once we do, we don’t always know what to do with it, and most of us work with impressions of the past, not direct knowledge of, because there is no direct knowledge to be had of the past. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we are in diaspora or not, in my conversations with fellow writers, there is an air of being cut off from history as a result of the race to be modern. 

Nonetheless, the final results were an anthology of 12 stories: 5 set in the Philippines; 2 set in Singapore, 2 in Thailand, 2 in Vietnam, and 1 in Indonesia, with illustrations. Admittedly, this is hardly representative of the region. Stories set in these countries, especially steampunk stories, are rare enough on the North American market that trading on this was a viable marketing move in order to raise funds for publication, which also functioned as a pre-ordering system. The anthology has found wide appeal, beyond the initial niche markets of Southeast Asian interest and steampunk. A story has been translated into French, we have sold the rights of publishing and distributing the collection in Southeast Asia to Gerak Budaya, and May will see the release of the Czech translation of the anthology, because the Czech Republic's current ambassador to the Philippines is a huge fan of Filipino science fiction.  

The final challenge, then, is the feeling that this was not, in the larger picture, enough; that the anthology somehow shortchanges its intended audience with meager representation, and participates in the very framework that it is intended to push back against, because as editors, we don’t know very much about other countries, a common problem that Dr. Melani Budianta pointed out in her keynote speech. Since the final analysis is probably not mine to make, there’s reason to be optimistic about its longevity on the capitalist market. Given how many reviewers felt the need to say how often they consulted Wikipedia in their reading, we’re also optimistic that steampunk can be recuperated from accusations of glorifying empire, into a literature that engages meaningfully with history while offering uplifting alternate histories away from postcolonial melancholia. I end with this brief note that the anthologies released by my publisher, The Sea Is Ours included, are doing so well, that he has been forced to embark on a larger, more ambitious fundraiser, in order to move from print-on-demand, which is cheaper for small print runs, to off-set printing in order to accommodate the ongoing orders. If he doesn’t fold from the unexpected success, maybe we’ll even have a second volume. 

[1] As luck would have had it, Bryan is also acquainted with one of my co-panelists, Ma Vang, who also cited him in her paper, and my adviser, Mariam Lam, who has also published and cited him in the past. Both Ma Vang and I were very pleased to be able to POINT AT HIM sitting in the audience because he came to support us, despite the busy-ness of Songkran (Lao New Year). 

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