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Southeast Asian Steampunk: An Interview with Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

Jaymee Goh is a writer, editor, and critic of science fiction, also known as the “steampunk postcolonialist.” She has published fiction in Crossed Genres and Strange Horizons, as well as other steampunk anthologies. She has been quoted in Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, as well as The Steampunk Bible, and has written steampunk-related non-fiction in The WisCon Chronicles 5 & 6 and Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution. Her blog, Silver Goggles, tackles postcolonialism and racism in the various forms of steampunk. She is currently a PhD candidate at UC Riverside.

Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction and YA fiction. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF Vol II, Cranky Ladies of History, Accessing The Future, and We See A Different Frontier. Her steampunk novella featuring an airship pilot academy, The Basics of Flight, first appeared on The World SF Blog by Lavie Tidhar. She also writes an urban fantasy set in Singapore under J. Damask. The series is contracted under Fox Spirit Books. Joyce’s posts can be found at A Wolf’s Tale. She tweets too: @jolantru.

Their anthology, The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, came out November 30.

Rachel Cordasco: What inspired you to put together this fantastic and fascinating collection of stories at the intersection of steampunk and Southeast Asia?

JG: Well, we’re both Southeast Asian, so that’s a start. I’ve been kicking this idea around for three years prior, when I had just finished my MA thesis on how steampunk can be used to showcase histories beyond Victorian England and white supremacist America/Canada. I write my own series of steampunk short stories (which I call the Peranakan Steampunk series), exploring an alternate history of Penang island (a starting point for British colonialism in Malaya) that also draws on accelerated technology from China and India, as well as a Golden Age of Islam that has been extended. But one person cannot build a canon, and a single person cannot represent Southeast Asia (or even two, or three). So I wanted to encourage other people to think through technology and history.

JC: As Jaymee has already said, we are both Southeast Asians. Furthermore, I think we also wanted to see more stories in Southeast Asia by Southeast Asians. I hail from Singapore, an island that was under British rule as well. So, our histories and identities as Southeast Asians are indeed at the intersection and crossroads. I would like to see people examine this complex history (or histories) not only via just aesthetics, but through other lens as well. Jaymee has mentioned technology. What has the invention of steam technology brought to Southeast Asia? What kind of possibility can steam technology open up?

RC: How does that intersection enliven and expand “traditional” Western steampunk? What kinds of new tropes or themes will we find?

JG: Re: enlivening and expanding Western steampunk—It doesn’t. We went into this project aggressively uncaring about Western steampunk. There are a lot of things which people will find familiar to steampunk, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are necessarily tied to “Western” steampunk (which is a terribly Eurocentric take). A large part of my dissertation is a semiotics of steampunk, analyzing what is often read onto common motifs we associate with steampunk. But as readers will see, these common motifs don’t have to be married to Western interpretations or history. You must think of steampunk not as a self-contained bubble, but a set of cast-offs clawed together into a vaguely recognizable shape—and thus you can choose what you bring into it.

Our key mission was to find stories that really centered voices local, if not indigenous, to Southeast Asia. This means that what we know about Victorian steampunk has to be very consciously thrown out the window: no white protagonists for no good reason; no boring alternate histories where colonizers take and take with token resistance; no stories where white saviours are disproportionately rewarded for existing. I don’t know what tropes have been generated through this anthology—tropes are created through re-occurance, and I don’t think we’ve seen these stories enough yet to become tropes. But we do have a few recurring themes off the top of my head: family (biological and found), empowerment, anti-colonialism, and strife (of many strains).

JC: And not just about the aesthetics too! Not just cogs, gears and airships. We dug deeper – indeed as Jaymee said – the stories centered voice local and indigenous to Southeast Asia. The voices resonated and I hope, will resonate more. I agree that there are more recurrent themes that are powerful and need to be acknowledged. It’s not Victorian or Western steampunk anymore, but steampunk from the angle and perspective of Southeast Asian protagonists. Steampunk shouldn’t be tied to just Victorian England or the West for that matter.

RC: How did you choose which stories to include in this anthology? Were you looking for a kind of coherence, or a glorious free-for-all? 🙂

JG: We started with a free-for-all, but it became clear after a while that there were some stories that, while good, didn’t fit our vision for a SEA-centric steampunk. There were also stories I really liked but which Joyce veto’d! But overall, as we sifted, we found that there was a particular tone our anthology was gearing towards (*ahem*) and we had to let the anthology take shape by itself.

JC: *laugh* I did veto’d a couple, simply because I found the stories dissonant at the first read. I just didn’t like them and that I felt they couldn’t be a good fit for the anthology. I mean, the writing was solid, but nope, I just didn’t grok the stories. But… in the end, there was coherence and we were both very pleased.

RC: What first drew you to steampunk? The art? Stories? Fashion? Dirigibles?

JG: I was actually attracted by the ideas. The fashion is cool, the art is amazing, but the first time I seriously thought about steampunk as something potentially really super awesome was when I first read Ay-Leen the Peacemaker’s essay “Thoughts about Orientalism, Imperialism and Steampunk Asia” back in 2009. We exchanged several emails, and the more we spoke, the more possibilities grew. The horizons that alternate universes allow in steampunk (which is much more permissible than alternate history as a genre) are so wide.

JC: To be honest, I loved the aesthetics at first. I loved the fashion (so pretty), the art (awesome) and the various things you could do with gears and cogs (nifty). But as I went along deeper in the genre, I found it wanting. I wanted more. Why was it so white? Why was it so Victorian? Couldn’t steampunk fashion include things like the gipao, sarongs or kebayas? Why was it just corsets and hoops and skirts? I had visions of converting/modifying my qipao top into something steampunkish. But again, why was/is steampunk so white? I was also struck by Ay-Leen the Peacemaker’s essay as well. There is a ton of potential in Steampunk Asia, so many stories and ideas to play with and examine. Furthermore, Asia is a region rich with its own stories, myths and legends. We could tell so many more stories instead of sticking to Victoriana.

To add to Jaymee’s comments about the possibilities of alternative universes, steampunk has enough scope for us to push the boundaries and create our own canon(s). I played with that possibility in “A Matter of Possession,” a steampunk/alt. history story I wrote a couple of years. A dreadnought that could turn into a flying warship? Why not? A Chinese female captain? Why not?

So, it’s not just gears and cogs. There is more. We can do much better.

RC: Can you tell us about any future projects? Pleeease? *bats eyelashes*

JG: I have a dissertation to write on whiteness in steampunk. I’m also going to focus on writing my own fiction for a while. I wouldn’t say no to another anthology project—I have ideas for several!

JC: I will be focusing on edits for a YA science fiction novella with dragons. As for steampunk, I might just go back to the world of “The Basics of Flight” or “A Matter of Possession” and play with the themes. As for anthology projects, like Jaymee, I have many ideas!

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