Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"London Waka" by Robert Sullivan

I have just finished reading Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace Dillon, and Dr. Dillon ended the anthology with a superb poem by Robert Sullivan, a Maori poet (Ngā Puhi). In her introduction to Sullivan's piece, Dillon shares the gist of another of his poems, called "London Waka" which briefly lays out an alternate history in which Maori warriors take over England, ransack its museums returning the loot stored in them, and free the British colonies, thereby creating alliances with basically a quarter of the whole world. 

"London Waka" is in an anthology called Voice Carried My Family (available on Amazon or you could support the Auckland University Press store). Fortunately for us, the poem itself is available online, with a wonderful reading by the poet.

I am sharing this with you because I firmly believe that this poem really demonstrates the great visions that steampunking can offer to us. What strikes me the most about Sullivan's piece is not merely that it posits an alternate history for the Maori, but also considers the alternate global politics that would have resulted with their resultant actions of returning stolen museum items. In too much of steampunk we assume that the colonizing forces of Britannica retain the technological upper hand (mostly because we like the corsets and the rayguns and stuff) and even if non-white peoples were to take it up, it's always back to "glue a gear on it" or "put a corset on this outfit" as if those are the only things which signify steampunk. There is very little consideration of the material impacts that technological revolution would create outside of Britain. 

While Sullivan's poem offers no visual aesthetics, it does point to a few powerful things that steampunk is capable of doing once we get past the shiny. Firstly, it offers a means of resistance to what we know to be a marginalized group. Secondly, it escalates this resistance into empowerment and equality, on a military and political level. Thirdly, it plays with our contemporaneous knowledge of how things have worked out for indigenous peoples and turns those consequences around onto who to us are colonizers. It plays with what we know has happened in history, brings that contemporary knowledge into an imagined historical setting and allowed that knowledge to play out to create a different history. 

(But Stirling's Peshawar Lancers kinda sorta did that, I hear you cry, and I say you are wrong: Stirling really only moved the colonizers to their colony. There is no real empowerment of the colonized.)

It's not really postcolonial as a result, but points to a decolonizing process and what that would really mean. I've been reading some very interesting texts on postcolonialism, which point out that postcolonialism is limited in that it really only deals with the effects of colonialism; it doesn't actively imagine decolonization because we're too steeped in the ongoing problems of colonialism: global capitalism, postmodern and unequal cultural "exchange", class stratification established by "former" colonizers, economic exploitation and resource hoarding. "London Waka" points to a world where all of this is halted before it can happen, which in turn opens the floor for different political relationships between nations. It also addresses what reparations might look like if the oppressed could actually demand it (the return of stolen artifacts and potatoes sent to Ireland, for instance). 

I actually have a lot more I would like to say about this poem but I'll save those for another day. I hope you enjoy "London Waka" as much as I have.


  1. As a person of Irish ancestry who had fore bearers who fought the British in Irish Legions across the face of the world I found the poem London Waka very appealing. Thanks Jha.

  2. As a person of Irish ancestry who had fore bearers who fought the British in Irish Legions across the World I found London Waka rather appealing. Thanks Jha