Southeast Asian Writers Storm Steampunk in New Anthology

The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, an anthology of stories that reimagine Southeast Asia through a steampunk lens, hits bookshelves on Nov. 1st. Writers from all over the world contributed stories set in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam for this collective work that will turn your understanding of the use of Southeast Asian countries in steampunk on its ear. Ofeibea Loveless spoke with the anthology’s co-editors Joyce Chng and Jaymee Goh about the project and its impact on the steampunk community at large.

The SEA Is Ours

Tell me about your steampunk background.

Chng: I am mostly a writer when it comes to steampunk. Steampunk aspects are woven into my fiction, especially A Matter Of Possession (steampunk/alt. history Qing China) and The Basics of Flight (a YA novella set in Victorian England).

Goh: I am predominantly a writer and a critic, although I’ve definitely been on the convention circuit, presenting on multicultural steampunk and moderating panels on various topics that deal with community support, business, and philosophy. I write a blog, Silver Goggles, that is about postcoloniality in steampunk, which is updated rarely these days as I feel I’ve done everything I can to call out racism in steampunk. Right now, I am writing a PhD dissertation on whiteness in steampunk. I also write short stories. I have a series of short stories which I call the Peranakan Steampunk or Steampunk Nusantara, depending on how I’m feeling at the time, where the British don’t colonize Penang (the Malaysian state where my parents are from) and how history splits from there.

How has your interest in steampunk changed over the years? 
Joyce Chng

Joyce Chng

Chng: I always like the costuming/aesthetic aspect of steampunk, but I often wonder about the deeper implications of steampunk, say, for countries that are not Anglophone, Ethnocentric or English-speaking.

Goh: My MA and PhD projects can be summed up in a single sentence: “People of color can do steampunk, too [MA], so why is steampunk still so white? [PhD]” I’m still very gung ho and excited to see PoC in steampunk, but maintain a low-key disappointment at how little the aesthetic has evolved in response to calls for diversity, except on rare happy occasion or in the most hellacious racist ways. I’ve never been interested in the “mainstreaming” of steampunk, although I’m indifferent to complaints about it (dude, what did you expect? Steampunk has always been built on commercialism and consumerism).

How did this project come about? 

Chng: I think Jaymee and I have often talked about having an anthology about Southeast Asian science fiction/fantasy by Southeast Asian science fiction/fantasy writers. We talked about the steampunk anthology over tea, cake melts and fish nibbling at our feet.  Jaymee? 🙂

Goh: Representation has always been a big deal for us. We would make loud sighs on Twitter about wanting an anthology, and I’d written up guidelines for this dream anthology. Steampunk, of course, because I think steampunk is so cool as a form of historical (mis)representation that forces people to think about history. Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing saw us playing in our small Twitter sandbox, got in touch with us, and offered to publish us, then it was off to the races.

Why do you feel it’s important? 
Jaymee Goh

Jaymee Goh

Chng: It is important because I feel that the anthology addresses steampunk that is non Anglo/Ethnocentric. Most of all, the anthology addresses issues that are part of colonization’s legacy in Southeast Asia. Also, steampunk is not just Victorian England, but something that is experienced by other countries in the the world.

Goh: In what way? It’s important to me personally, because I’ve always wanted to look for iterations of Southeast Asian history that really centers our experiences while still telling a ripping good SF/F story. Folks seem to believe that you can have one but not both at the same time, which is patently untrue. On a larger scale, this anthology takes on steampunk as a critical, intellectual project, not just a fun aesthetic, while centering Southeast Asians.

What kind of response have you gotten so far – from potential readers and financial supporters? 

Chng: The response has been positive! I think people are eager for an anthology like ours.

Goh: Overwhelming. When we first started the buzz about it last year, we had a lot of eager people. Then this year when we released the cover, people got really excited. Our IndieGoGo Campaign hit 50% within three days! Granted, we have a very modest goal, but still, I think there’s something to be said about the hunger out there for something different. Then we got that starred review from Publishers Weekly, which I totally did not expect.

We’re living in a time in which diversity (racial, ethnic, sexual) is on an “upswing” for mainstream consumption. Who do you think benefits most from increased representation? White people or people of color? (Or both?)

SEASteamRcover_crop-357x275Chng: Firstly, I want to stress that diversity should not just be a trend or a theme. It should be  and is part and parcel of our lives. Why is it an “upswing”? Because people have been crying out for it. Increased representation helps all. But bear in mind, that even then, diversity can also be intersectional.

Goh: I think, honestly, it is “swinging back.” I grew up during the ’90s when mainstream U.S. television was filled with a lot of people of color and touched on all sorts of issues. Not only that, but I also grew up in Malaysia, where non-white people appear in media everywhere. We are, however, more vocal about our demands for representation these days.

As for who benefits more…that rather depends what aspect of the process we’re talking about. It definitely benefits us all to see diversity in representation, because it’s a truer representation of how the world is actually like. If you grow up thinking that only one kind of person gets access to certain stories, then you are necessarily going to be limited in your imagination. But break that boundary and you have a much wider variety of human experience to read about. But we need diversity in creation and production as well. It’s difficult for me to see books about Southeast Asia (or SEAsian characters) which are critically lauded but not written by Southeast Asians, nor even having any SEAsians be part of the process. Who benefits then?

What are your favorite stories in the anthology? 

Chng: You mean I have to choose? Gosh. They are all awesome in their own way! If you insist . . . “The Insects and Women Sing Together” by Pearl Nuallak. “On The Consequence of Sound” by Timothy Dimacali.

Goh: Oh no, I ain’t playing that game! Nuh-uh.

Anything else you want to tell our readers? 

Chng: Enjoy the anthology! 🙂

Goh: You can get it as an IndieGoGo perk (plus some other awesome ebook perks!) if you’d like a copy directly from the publisher and can wait until after the November release. To give you sneak peeks of the quality you are likely to see, our contributors, Timothy James Dimacali and Paolo Chikiamco are making their previous works, “Skygypsies” and “High Society” respectively, available, free, for the month of the campaign. We’ll also have some cool upcoming perks from scifi author Nisi Shawl and romance novelist Jeannie Lin. And thanks for all the love!

 Ofeibea Loveless, co-founder of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance, is a writer/editor who focuses on multicultural aspects of steampunk.

Black Sci Fi Book Club
Join the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance on October 21st, 2015 with writer Dani McClain who will be reading an excerpt from her story “Homing Instinct,” which appears in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. To learn more and RSVP, please visit the Facebook event page.

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