Friday, February 20, 2015

#SteampunkHands: Steampunk as Unlearning

For those of you who are new to me, my blog, and my work, you should probably be forewarned that I have a reputation for being hyper-critical, rather ornery, impatient with fools, and dissatisfied with the way most steampunk works. 

When I first discovered steampunk, it seemed like a whole new world of thinking about history had been opened to me. I emailed my friend Ay-leen the Peacemaker incessantly. Our emails kept getting longer and longer. My writing had new life, new purpose. 

Around the same time, I discovered postcolonial theory. I didn't know what it was, exactly, only vaguely knew about it from conversations surrounding RaceFail. I was finally coming to terms, years after leaving home, with what the word "identity" meant, and what ignoring it meant for my writing. While visiting a friend at St. Francis Xavier University (the Nova Scotian one), I grabbed a book off a shelf that caught my eye, an introduction to postcolonial theory (because Nova Scotia has a delightsome inter-library loan system that is prompt, timely, and flexible, and I still miss it). 

I fell in love with it, and fell in love with myself in a more full way, neither of which would have been possible without discovering steampunk. 

A lot of people think of steampunk as a subgenre. Some call it an aesthetic (finally!), because it moves between mediums easily. In 2011, I cited Martha Swetzoff, calling steampunk a conversation with the past, a conversation with ghosts who cannot be laid to rest, because they are not addressed. I wrote about the ghosts that relive the violence of the past, and how cultural appropriation is the demand for access to these ghosts, in order to inflict further violence on them under the guise of benign consumption. 

There are other ghosts one must be in conversation with. 

When I began writing steampunk stories, I created a new world in which the British never took over the Malay sultanates, while they certainly have a presence. In this world, the Golden Age of Islam never ended, and has developed all kinds of technologies at a sophisticated level, enough to create an airship that can cross great distances. The Malay peoples have learned how to breed birds that carry messages from depot to depot. The kingdoms of what we now call South Asia too have seen inventors rise despite the boundaries of the caste system. 

Like my fellow writers, I have suffered from anxieties of authenticity. I quietly scream pain at how much of my ancestors I don't know, and how little access I have to them. By dint of colonial history, my primary language is English, and by dint of personal history, I have access only to a language of the majority of my home country, which is not the language of my ancestors either. (Note that I do not lament knowing this language, which I have made bend to my will.) There are stories I will never have, never recover, there are gaps in the alternate history I have written.

It is too easy to say that into that aphoria we write new things, because it is an alternate history, not true history. However, to say that is to ignore whole histories of erasure, of writing over, of having been written over. Those of us who write today know well we write from lenses tinted by the knowledge of the colonizers. (There are those who would defend those anthropologists and explorer for having "preserved" knowledge of these lost peoples and stories; to them I say, why could they not have stopped their own from performing the genocide?)

In writing steampunk, I must carefully consider that which I know, and how I know them. I must think about how I know and speak of the knowledge I have. I must be careful to consider whether I do an injustice to the histories I am writing of. If I craft something new into this empty space, I must think: does this reproduce what I know? Does it push back in such a way that it reinforces colonial structures, rather than move beyond them? Do I reproduce stereotypes? Am I writing characters who are full, complex human beings, with varying intentions and drives in life? Is this a logical way for this history to develop, given the resources, values, and priorities of these particular communities and characters?

Through steampunk, I commit to a process of unlearning a lot of things that have shaped my life, my views of history and of different peoples and cultures, even my own. I commit to listening to other people reprimanding me if I write their people in a way that reinforces prejudicial views of them. I commit to finding new ways of telling stories, of re-discovering, of re-shaping, and commit to the knowledge that to find out what would be truly new, truly transformative, I must know what has passed.

In this workshop and classroom of steampunk, where the mainstream idea is to learn learn learn and absorb as much knowledge as possible, I ask that we carefully consider letting go of certain things we have learned, self-consciously, carefully. In this way, we can say, we are truly re-writing history, in a way that reflects the values and ideals of the present that we wish to adhere to, that upholds a standard of being we aspire to.

Because, especially for those of us with these gaps, we must write, we must fill those gaps with our own visions rather than the ones we have been fed. If we do not do it for ourselves, someone else will, someone with blithe disregard for the history of the gap.

We must unlearn that which continues to shape the present that harms peoples.

Otherwise, the steampunk we perform is all steam, sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Olivia Ho #SteampunkHands

Olivia Ho hails from Singapore, and writes to us from Scotland (ah, we fine expatriates) a story that rather fits the theme that informs many other stories in this anthology: COMPLETE LADY-FEST. Cranky ladies, angry ladies, confused ladies, curious ladies, smart, smart-mouthed, ladies ladies ladies. Here she gives us an anecdote of explaining steampunk to her father, whose response is 10000x more awesome than my own dad's:

THE SEA IS OURS roundtable: Timothy Dimacali #SteampunkHands

When I first read Timothy Dimacali's story, I said to my co-editor, "Joyce, this thing has got flying whales." I didn't yet link him to the story I had read and adored in Alternative Alamat, "Keeper of My Sky," a retelling of a love story between an earth goddess and a god who holds up the sky. "Flying whales, Joyce," I insisted, to which Joyce replied, "flying whales!" It immediately made me think of the Fantasia 2000 segment, "Pines of Rome." As it turns out, butanding aren't whales, but very large catfish generally. Which I am also all for!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Pear Nuallak #SteampunkHands

Pear Nuallak's story finishes off the anthology, a fine, crisp, clear, queer wine. They write to us from the seat of steampunk, England, and from there deliver this finely-crafted story of chittering clockwork bugs, lady spies, and ambitious village girls caught in the whirl of political upheaval. 

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Robert Liow #SteampunkHands

Robert Liow hails from my own home country, and like me, doesn't live there either. He writes to us from Singapore, with a story featuring a childhood game of FIGHTING SPIDERS. I have never played fighting spiders myself, but it's hard not to be aware that this is a thing. Combining this game with the technofantasy of steampunk, "Spider Here" has got the makings of a dramatic movie! 

Friday, February 6, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Alessa Hinlo #SteampunkHands

Alessa Hinlo is one of those small and fierce women that we Asians should be famed for. I had the joy of meeting her, after a long time being aware of each other through social networks, at WisCon last year.  Her story, "The Last Aswang," feels like a knife cutting in, and twisting. It is also a very strong example of steampunk that moves away from the materials we commonly associate with it to more nature-based materials--an indigenous steampunk form!  

THE SEA IS OURS roundtable: Ivanna Mendels #SteampunkHands

I got really excited over Ivanna's story, which brings to life (well, kind of) an old familiar legend--she calls him Malin Kundang, I call him Si Tenggang, but it is essentially the same story: a rich man passes through his home village, where his mother recognizes him. Ashamed of his past, he refuses to acknowledge her, and she curses him to turn to stone. Ivanna is a lot kinder to Si Tenggang than I am, but I was extremely excited nonetheless! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: L. L. Hill #SteampunkHands

L. L. Hill is a woman of few words. So few, I actually don't know that much about her! We will call her a woman of economical words, since she is also a poetess. Her story in this anthology has that same quiet air about it, as all her emails do:

THE SEA IS OURS roundtable: zm quynh #SteampunkHands

zm quynh I first met at WisCon, tapping away at her laptop during downtimes between panels. She was working on a larger project, she told me. This is her first ever short story sale, and I'm pleased to introduce you to her work. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Paolo Chikiamco #SteampunkHands

I am so so so so pleased to be able to say that I've published Paolo! I first came to know of him through his work at Rocket Kapre, and then at Usok. He told me about his steampunk comic, set in Spanish-era Philippines, High Society (purchasable on Kindle!), and the prequel, "On Wooden Wings," which has since been published in Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution. The story he has written for us, "Between Severed Souls," takes place between these two works. 

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Kate Osias #SteampunkHands

Kate Osias sent in a reprint from one of the famous Philippine Speculative Fiction Annuals, and as soon as I finished it, I was breathless, and did my best impression of King Haggard from The Last Unicorn: "I must have it... I must have it, for my need is very great!" Fortunately, my co-editor, Joyce, agreed heartily. "The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso" infuses mathematics and the arts with a passion!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Marilag Angway #SteampunkHands

Marilag Angway's story, "Chasing Volcanoes," is a high-flying (literally) adventure (we have a few of these) filled with different kinds of women, moral grays, principles, politics, and compassion. She coined a neologism, "malambaso," for this story, which is a combination of two Tagalog words, to name flexible glass!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Steampunk Hands Around the World 2015! Steampunk + Earthworm = ?

Airship Ambassador Kevin Steil has been doing this event for a while, but this is the first year Silver Goggles will be participating! I have posed questions to my writers of The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, and will post their answers as they get to me! 

I, too, will post some thoughts reflecting on this year's theme: "Our Playground, Our Classroom, Our Workshop." It's an interesting theme, considering I have spent the last two years in classrooms of some sort of another. If you are here because of Hands Around The World, be warned that I deal very little in images.

Well, I will give you one, under the cut: