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. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello again, and thank you.

    I discovered your blog at about the same time that I discovered Steampunk, and was gratified to find that there was some serious thinking and writing going on regarding the reification of the Victorian colonial mindset within the Steampunk genre/aesthetic. I even remember the post on Steampunk as a conversation with ghosts, as the idea sparked some thoughts of my own...

    Unfortunately, I didn't write them down very clearly at the time, and wound up putting my foot in my mouth in a comment/reply. It was at that point that I realized just how much shutting up, unlearning, and listening I still needed to do. Thank you again for the opportunity to do so over the last few years. I wanted express this in person at SteamCon IV, but had a bad attack of shyness (I did enjoy the one presentation of yours that I was able to attend - still peeved that you were scheduled opposite several "special ticket" events that I bought tickets for before realizing that programming was also going on at those times...).

    Anyway - still out here listening.