Q&A With Diana Pho (aka Ay-leen the Peacemaker)

Diana Pho (aka Ay-leen the Peacemaker) of Beyond Victoriana is a fierce proponent of multiculturalism in steampunk and a Guest of Honor at the 2015 International Steampunk Symposium. We caught up with her as she preps for another year of conventions, conversations and critical thinking around diversity and inclusion issues in steampunk.

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Me: How do YOU steampunk?

Diana Pho: I like to call my type of steampunk “bamboopunk,” which is Asian-inspired, and specifically Vietnamese. I like exploring the role of Western imperialism and colonial influences through my style and my ambiguous relationship with it, especially as a Vietnamese-American woman. I don’t want to glorify or romanticize imperialism, but I also recognize that my older family grew up in a colonized country and the cultural effects of that time period still affect me. A big debate throughout Vietnamese history, ever since its on-and-off Chinese occupation up to and including the French and American wars, is the question of “authenticity of the Vietnamese identity.” Through occupation, rebellion, and war, the cultural identity of Vietnam mixed and adapted in order to survive. So steampunk, to me, is a celebration of survival, and an opportunity to see new and better futures.

Me: In what ways does steampunk reflect real life?

ayleenDiana Pho: Steampunk can be the storytelling of the oppressed, particularly how we can use it to refer to historical parallels that reflect current social problems. Yet steampunk can be uplifting, too, in highlighting obscure histories about how people of color and other marginalized identities had kick-ass stories in their own right. I suggest that readers check out Beyond Victoriana’s index for just a sampling of these “unknown” stories.

Me: You started your blog after RACEFail 2009. Have things changed for the better?

Diana Pho: There’s much more active awareness in the steampunk community about issues of representation. I’m really happy so many people of color have come onto the scene with their own wonderful contributions. (Shout-out to Jaymee Goh, my steampunk comrade-in-arms, and others who I’m proud to call friends of the blog: Balogun Ojetade, Milton Davis, P Djeli Clark, Edwardian Promenade, Suna Dasi, Monique Poirier, Fabio Fernandes, the staff of El Investigador and allies such as Steampunk Magazine, Kevin Steil the Airship Ambassador, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.) I really value everyone who has been supportive of my work over the years, no matter how minor.

Me: Why is diversity important in steampunk?

Pho 1Diana Pho: Diversity is especially important because, at least speaking from a U.S. perspective, history has been biased toward the white/straight/male/Christian/able-bodied majority groups for so long that it has led to dehumanizing minorities and saying whatever hurt affecting them is somehow “their fault” because of “their culture” or that only if they “became” more like the majority, they wouldn’t have these problems. Having a good knowledge of history, plus a good dollop of creativity, is important to understand, emphasize with, and actively support people from different walks of life. In today’s world, that is more important than ever.

Me: What can steampunk communities do to be more inviting?

Diana Pho: It’s everyone’s responsibility to create a more welcoming space, but I also think that white steampunks and steampunks of color play distinctly different roles in this. White steampunks can recognize how only the romanticization of painful histories to other people doesn’t send a welcoming message, even if they don’t “intend” to come across that way. Messaging isn’t ever only about intent, but action and results of that action. As for people of color already on the scene – being as visible as you feel comfortable can be a big help. Show off that outfit! Highlight your maker project! Enter a film festival contest! Any way to make your presence known can be very reassuring to other people of color interested but hesitant about dealing with a place that seems all white (and believe me, that is a legit anxiety).

Me: How on earth have you kept this going for five years?

Photo by Rachael Shane

Photo by Rachael Shane

Diana Pho: I have to admit that I have shifted my priorities away from consistent blogging the last couple of years and worked in other areas of diverse advocacy just so I don’t burn myself out! Another project I’m involved in is the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign to help bring more diversity to the publishing industry as a whole. Not to mention that I’m lucky to work at a place where my own projects can have a diverse focus, too.

Me: You will undoubtedly have some who will say all of this is PC drivel. How do you respond to people who are of that mindset?

Diana Pho: I’m not being “politically correct” – I’m being “polite and courteous” to others, especially those who usually don’t get that level of basic respect. If you think otherwise – well, I’m sure there are plenty of people who disagree with you, too, and I’d rather hang with them. 🙂

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