Tag Archives: “beyond victoriana”

“Leftist Constructs” Featured in Overland Magazine

Overland Magazine Click to visit their website.

Today I got my contributor’s copy of Overland, Australia’s oldest progressive literary magazine. The editor had asked me to write about the state of politics in the steampunk movement, and I threw in my two bits and thensome. You can read it in their current print issue or on their website online. Here’s a snippet to get those gears turning:

Steampunks tend not to idealise the past, despite being fascinated by this conflicted history. Just as cyberpunk – the sci-fi term that inspired Jeter’s ‘steampunk’ – involved conflict with shady multinational corporations and the authoritative state in a techno-infused future, today’s steampunk community flips the bird at Victorian norms, dismantling history and exposing it as the construct that it is.

“Leftist Constructs: The Radicalism of Steampunk” – Read the whole article here.

Overland’s blog editor Rachel Liebhaber also wanted to ask me some questions about steampunk subculture, why I think it’s gaining popularity, and other tidbits in addition to the article. So I answered them as a website exclusive in “Writing Steampunk.”

Check them both out, and let me know what you think!

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#82 The Birth of Miss Dorothy Winterman: A Personal Essay– Guest Blog by Luisa Ana Fuentes

Story Excerpt:

Dorothy Winterman's "African Amazon" outfit

It is day 15 of our arduous journey through the veldts of Nigeria (or are we in Cameroon yet?). Our tracker Adeola has discovered new tracks and scraps of fibers from obviously foreign cloths. She can find a single iguana track amongst a bevy of crocodiles, this one can. We listen intently that these “men” are probably several hours, if not a day away. We find evidence of them through their encampments, their excrement and their litter. Yes, litter. Can you imagine- these foreigners, these soldiers, these baby snatching, people annihilating, genocidal rapists also throw their unwanted refuse upon our beautiful, sacred ground. Well if you can march hordes of innocent groups of human beings to ships waiting to whisk them away to be enslaved, massacred and destroyed in a whole different place on this globe, throwing down unwanted garbage must not mean much. I guess it truly lies in one’s perspective, does it not?

I think to myself, “Did I travel back in time for this?”

And before I can answer, images of the next few centuries spring forth as vividly as the greens and browns presently ahead of me: slavery, men and boys hanging from trees, Emmett Til in his coffin, the Civil War, ghettos, heroin, crack, Rodney King, Ronald Regan, Flava Flav, the riots in Newark, Chicago and LA, apartheid and AIDS. Internally, the answer is clear. The rest of the women notice my hesitation and far-off look in my eyes and immediately they know where my mind has gone. They wait patiently as I gather my wits about me. It’s all so overwhelming at times. From one existence to another in mere minutes, then from that existence to here-it is all staggering to think I am recreating my past as my future remains uncertain now- the whole butterfly/chaos theory thing. Try to explain that to a group of Amazonian warriors attempting to rid their land of oppressors and see where it takes you.

It took weeks and weeks to convince my group of fighting women I was actually a woman from their future who has returned to the past to go back in an attempt to right the wrongs done to one group of my ancestors by another. Perhaps the laser light pen (bought at a flea market to amuse my cats) and Nintendo DS (note to self: energizers do NOT time travel well) helped to tip the scale of doubt to my side a bit. It took several days for me to even convince them that a person bearing my skin tone could have even come from their same mothers. My complexion, hair texture, shape of my lips and nose were all odd but strangely reminiscent of theirs–albeit, a highly watered down version; or as sister Iruwya said, a highly “whitened” down version of them all. She has a biting wit about her- she is not ever afraid to speak her mind, heart and especially her soul. Once she was convinced of the atrocities to come, she, the non-believer became my staunchest advocate and friend. At night, I think back to the times this whole adventure began. I bounded in the matter of what seemed to be minutes from 21st century woman, to 19th century “lady” and then to here and now, the Africa of my not-so ancient past.

But, now I stand, clothed in a strange compilation of Victorian European garb mixed with the bits and pieces of textiles I have found on the dead and dying of White men and African brothers alike-the strangest mosaic of African-American-European aesthetics this time period has probably ever seen; my hair in tight ringlets surround my face, mane-like; no matter what–I am home.

But now is not night and there is no time to reminisce. It is dusk and the heat, still shimmering in waves from the ground below, attacks us. The cross bow (yes, with laser light pen attachment-sold separately) strung across my back grows heavier with each step that I take. Not even the adrenaline brought about by the sight of the fires ahead, the smell of the cooking meat and the unquestionable shouts and laughter of the White men ahead can alleviate the ache in my mid-back. I look around me and see the familiar smiles of my new sisters: once warrior women of their king in Dahomey, they fight alongside of me now to try and thwart the death of our culture, our names, heritage, land and lives. “Come” says Tayari in Yoruba (a language I never knew while living in New York in 2011, but one I can easily understand and speak now). The rest of us nod. Our evening activities have just begun.

The above excerpt taken from “The Strange and Accurate Depiction of the Life and Times of Luisa Fuentes as Miss Dorothy Winterman, Lady of Leisure and Haberdasheress Extraordinaire In Her Journeys Through Time and Oppression: A Memoir”.

Okay, so the above memoir does not exist in either fiction or reality. It is a part of an explanation of the newest and most original Steampunk outfit that debuted at the Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey the weekend of May 20th, 2011. My name, however, really is Luisa Ana Fuentes and I really am of numerous mixed heritages. I’m a steampunk and my character’s name is (you guessed it) Dorothy Winterman, Lady of Leisure and Haberdasheress Extraordinaire.

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#81 Ganvié, the “Venice of Africa,” Haven from Slavery–Guest Blog by Eccentric Yoruba

“The Adriatic has its Venice and its gondolas,
The Atlantic has its Ganvié, so much envied.
I will praise you everywhere, Ganvié,
Venice of my country, you will soon be
The center of the world, and men from all horizons
Will be dying to come and dream on your waters,
Around your magic and haughty huts,
Amid your slender and light canoes”

by Eustache Prudencio

Overhead view of Gavnie. Click for source.

Ganvié is a water town situated on the northern edge of the Lake Nokoué in southern Benin. Marketed as the ‘Venice of Africa’, Ganvié is probably the most well-known and foremost among other lacustrine villages in the same region. Ganvié is a favourite among tourists to Benin with the government policy aimed at transforming the town into a major tourist attraction. As Ganvié is considered a rarity on the African continent, due to the fact that the town was built on a lake, information on socio-economic activities, the physical environment and the modern-day ecological effects of human settlements on the surrounding Lake Nokoué is readily available. Incidentally, I learnt of Ganvié from a magazine article on the impact of climate change on the region. Less information is readily available on Ganvié’s fascinating history; Ganvié was founded by people in an effort to escape captivity and enslavement in the Americas.

According to Elisée Soumonni, “little attention is paid to the ways in which local African populations resisted enslavement, giving the impression that any form of resistance began on board slave ships or in the Americas.” I believe this also fuels erroneous suggestions that all African ethnic groups were comfortable with slavery and enslavement, not knowing what they were heading to in the Americas and only revolting after their enslavement. The existence of Ganvié stands as a testament to resistance to the transatlantic slave trade within African shores.

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#80 Shadi Ghadirian & Muslim Women “Time Travelers”

If nineteenth-century Iranian women discovered time travel, where would they go? What would they bring back?

Photographer Shadi Ghadirian did not have these questions in mind, persay, but she is interested in how the Western world perceives Iranian woman like herself. In her photography series “Qajar,” she brings out the cognitive dissonance that someone unfamiliar with Iran may experience, as well as comments about the position of women in society today.

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#78 Fact or Faked: The Travels of Jacob D’Anacona–Guest Blog by Rachel Landau

The City of Light is the journal of the travels of Jacob D’Ancona, a 13th century pious Jewish merchant. Readers follow Jacob on a three-year journey, starting from his hometown of Ancona in present-day Italy, overland through Damascus and Baghdad, and then by sea, stopping at various ports and places until he reaches the city of Zaitun, modern-day Quanzhou, where he stays to buy goods and talk to the scholars of the city. It consists of equal parts travelogue/memoir and a philosophical discussion of medieval Jewish and Chinese ideas.

This was a time when Jews had restricted access to jobs or freedom to run their own lives. In medieval Europe, Jews often had to wear physical signals of their faith: yellow stripes or stars. Jews had restricted job and social opportunities: they were often forbidden from interaction with Christians. In Muslim lands, the restrictions for Jews were somewhat more relaxed, but Jews still paid higher taxes than Muslims did — though not as high as those paid by the non-“People of the Book”.

Jacob himself is an interesting exception to many of the typical rules. He travels with both Jews and Christians, and frequently mentions his young female Gentile servants’ romantic lives. Furthermore, Jacob is a jack-of-all-trades, a Renaissance man in pre-Renaissance times. He’s a traveler, a merchant, a scholar, a physician, an authority who is consulted by Jewish and Chinese communities alike. He speaks and writes in fluent Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Nearly everyone who meets him likes him. He’s a bit too good to be true: in modern terms, he’s a pretty big Mary Sue.

But the most compelling parts of the book are not Jacob, but the world he’s seeing for the first time. The descriptions of Chinese life are vivid and lengthy, and the variety and extensiveness of the Chinese market was stunning and often unbelievable to European eyes. Jacob engages in lengthy discussions (through a translator) with Chinese scholars and even spends several weeks stuck in the sordid underworld, full of gambling, prostitutes, and illicit sex.

There’s also political intrigue, and the threat of very real danger: At this time, northern China was under the rule of Kublai Khan and there was a very real threat of invasion by the “Tartars” — for Europeans and the southern Chinese alike. Meanwhile, the Chinese community of scholars was divided itself between old and new ways of thinking.

Jacob finds many points of contact and connection between himself and several of the Chinese scholars, especially a man named Pitaco, who like Jacob was worried about the lack of respect in the younger generation, the stability of the country’s morals, and the justification of trickle-down economics. Perhaps most fittingly for a book about contact and conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, Jacob’s habit of pontificating ends up rubbing many Chinese scholars the wrong way. As the inhabitants of the city get upset about the amount of influence the foreign Jew has in the city, Jacob concludes his business and leaves in a hurry, fearing for his life.

There’s really just one problem with the narrative: Jacob D’Ancona may have never existed.

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#77 Indian Automaton: Tipu’s Tiger

Among the objects in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the most popular is Tipu’s Tiger, an Indian automaton of a tiger mauling a European soldier.

Tipu’s Tiger. Image copyrighted by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Click for source.

Tipu’s Tiger was created around 1795 for the Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The tiger was the sultan’s emblem and the symbolism here is quite blatant: a sign of the sultan’s power over European forces. The figure was crafted using Indian materials and design, with French mechanics. Inside the tiger is a mechanical organ, cogwheel and worm gear, with 36 brass pipes, leather bellows, button keys. By turning a crankshaft on the left side of the Tiger, air is pumped into the bellows of the Tiger and it emits a wailing shriek from the soldier (and twitching hand) and a mighty roar from the Tiger. The buttons keys on its side allow people to play music on the Tiger.

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When Feminist Fashion Goes Couture: Anne Avantie, Indonesian Designer

“If I walk, I hope my footsteps won’t be erased just like that… I want many other footsteps to follow mine!” – Anne Avantie

Anne Avantie’s signature kebaya designs are growing in popularity as Asian fashion enters the global scene. Born to Chinese parents in Solo, Indonesia, Anne never had any formal training in fashion design, but always had an interest in the fashion world. Her love for fashion design started young, when she created and sold hair ornaments to her friends in elementary school. As she grew older, Avantie began doing costume design for her school events and other local events in Solo, and in 1989, she started her own company with only a rented house and two sewing machines. Her business soon boomed, however, with her specialization in her elaborately beaded costume wear and wedding gowns.

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#76 The Life of Malik Ambar, India’s African Ruler–Guest Blog by Eccentric Yoruba

A portrait of Malik Ambar signed by Hashem (C 1624-25); photo courtesy V&A Images, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; A painting showing Jehangir shooting arrows into the severed head of Malik Ambar signed by Abul-Hasan (C 1616), © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (www.cbl.ie).

Earlier this year, my attention was drawn to a discussion on ‘India’s Elite Africans’ held at the University of London:

“The dispersion of Africans is generally associated with slavery and the slave trade. Most Afro-Asians have been written out of history. Within this scenario, how was it possible for Africans to rule parts of Asia, not just for a few years but for three and a half centuries? Three scholars will address this issue and consider the current status of Elite Africans in India today.”

Due to my interest in Afro-Asian history, I know of relations between India and Eastern African states and kingdoms in history; however, I remained largely ignorant of elite Africans in Indian history. Malik Ambar is perhaps one of the most well-known Elite Africans due in part to his important role in Ahmadnagar history and to standing up to the Mughals.

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Convention Extravaganza–Reporting from Nova Albion: The Wild, Wild East

 First stop in this Con Extravaganza series is Nova Albion, based in Santa Clara, California. This con was formerly named Steam Powered, and I first heard about it from Mike Perschon‘s blog years ago. This year’s Nova Albion is the first steampunk convention to address a non-Western theme, and I was intrigued when they had invited me as a speaker back in the fall of 2010.  Obviously, having a theme like this was an opportunity to break a lot of ground in the community…. or it could’ve easily been flooded with cultural objectification (because we all know how much white people love consuming and commodifying Asian stuff & people) without any equally reciprocal interactions with, well, other Asians & Asian-Americans and our history and culture.

To be honest, this con was great in a lot of ways, but its treatment of the theme wasn’t perfect. I had a bunch of fantastic experiences and a bunch of uncomfortable ones. The reports and footage from this event, then, address a lot of different aspects, and our guest reporters and myself definitely walked away with dynamically different impressions of the con.

In addition to my own report, the Airship Ambassador Kevin Steil returns to give an event-by-event account, as does my intellectual comrade-in-arms Jaymee Goh. Krishna Raghunath also did some film reporting about the con for a class project and graciously offered to post her project here.  All images from Nova Albion are provided by myself and Astra Kim, one of the many new friends I had made at the con.

Check all this out after the jump.

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The Industrial Revolution of Today: A Review of FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang

Click to read more on the publisher’s website.

When we take about the impact of the Industrial Revolution, we speak of it in terms as if there had been only One Industrial Revolution, and that had taken place throughout the Western world during the nineteenth century. As I had written about before, the Industrial Revolution didn’t just happen then, and in fact, the current industrial revolution is happening throughout the non-Western world just as the West begins to grow nostalgic about it.

In talking about alternative histories, and how the non-West would develop, it’s interesting to dream up scenes of Imperial splendor (like James Ng does). It is equally valid, however, to note that you don’t have to look toward the Qing dynasty to see a Chinese industrial revolution, for, as James himself has noted, China is changing into a fully developed industrial nation as we speak.

With that in mind, I picked up Leslie T. Chang’s book about her observations about today’s current revolution, specifically of those factory girls in China that the West likes to paint as faceless factory drones (occasionally laced by the feeling of guilt toward those “poor sweatshop workers.”) Chang, however, breaks down that stereotype (though sweatshops are very much alive and well in China) and presents a look into the lives of today’s migrant factory workers.

Compulsively readable and engaging throughout, FACTORY GIRLS: From Village to City in a Changing China highlights the stories of the young people (particularly women), who are changing the face of the global economy today. Instead of the masses teeming in nameless sweatshops that the West envisions, these lives are individually dynamic and driven, full of same sorts of fear and wonderment that the young mill girls in the West may have also felt a hundred and fifty years ago, as they sought to make new lives for themselves.

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