“The Good, the Bad & the Weird” Nova Albion Con Report by Ay-leen the Peacemaker

Myself with Viceroy Change. Image courtesy of Astra Kim.

Nova Albion didn’t do a screening of this Korean Eastern Western while I was there (though Jaymee and I ended up watching this in our hotel room one night). It did, however, pop in my head as an apropos way to sum up the various aspects of my experiences at the con.

When I was first invited, I was flattered about the fact that people knew me in California. I know, I know, the aethernetz is a big place, but this was the first time I’d been invited by a con that was so far out of my usual East Coast grazing grounds. In fact, I have never been to the West Coast before except for a family trip that supposedly happened when I was four, and don’t recall a thing about it.

Well, after that day or so of elating, the doubts flooded in. There were the practical considerations, of course: could I afford to go? Could I take the time off? I waffled a lot about it in that respect, but also hesitated because, frankly, I wondered whether this would be an opportunity for Beyond Victoriana’s blog outreach or an appeal for the Stamp of Approval. You might think this comes off distrustful, but when I grew up fielding questions from teachers and peers about “Chinese things” (especially when I wasn’t), or looked at for the “Asian opinion” from origami to Lunar New Year, it’s a healthy warning bell I listen to.

Latoya Peterson, the editor over at Racialicious and a more eloquent writer about these things than I can be, came out with a piece in the beginning of March where she talked about the experience in feminist circles as a woman of color that vibed with a lot of feelings I felt going into Nova Albion:

[T]he idea that any one of us can represent the many is inherently flawed. It doesn’t matter who we’re talking about – no one can fully represent the whole of who we are and our varied thoughts and feelings. The trouble is that our current system requires exactly that – certain groups, in order to access a seat at the table, a representative will be assigned. Some folks would call that an attempt at diversity – but it is a nefarious double bind for those of us who get the nod. To refuse to participate may mean that voice is never represented, that the voices are the underrepresented are once again unvoiced, unheard, and perhaps unknown. Unfortunately, absence can be interpreted as a reinforcement of the status quo – if women of color are not present, then the uniformed interpret this to mean we have nothing to say. Or, even worse, it is a reinforcement that critical feminist theorists of color do not exist.

However, to accept the position also means to be pressed into the token spot. To often be the only person versed in issues pertinent to women of color. To have to change what you want to say or do or talk or think about because someone else on the panel just said something so egregious (and something quietly accepted as truth) that you know have to challenge their fucked up worldview.

Nova Albion‘s theme could’ve been a game-changer for steampunk. But what was the purpose behind that? Are they challenging ideas about what steampunk means? Are they interested in engaging with the local Asian-American community and get them involved? Did steampunks just want an excuse to wear corsets over their kimonos? During a year when SteamCon II hosted a theme called The Wild Wild West, did the organizers only desire to put a cheeky spin in reaction to a fellow con?

In other words: would they treat Eastern cultures as the “ethnic twist” that spices up their lives? Or did they want to do something that challenged the status quo in our community?

You can read Jaymee’s report for the convention hoops we jumped through concerning con programming, so I won’t repeat them here. I will add, though, that these experiences gave me the impression that the organizers of Nova Albion weren’t as attentive to the goals of diverse steampunk as much as it appeared to be.

Don’t think that I was completely against the con going in. Honestly, I was excited but I also prepared myself for the worst. I’m not the “PC Police” (I think the term itself is used as a way to silence legitimate criticism, but that’s a another rant for another day). I don’t spend my free time surfing the internet for Racefail or spend hours everyday parsing what is or is not personally offensive with strangers over the Internet. But, as the time for Nova Albion approached, several instances — the problems Jaymee and I had about programming in addition to a couple of encounters at East Coast steampunk events where white people tried to use me as their Stamp of Approval or tried to censor my presence in the community — made me wary about what reaction I’d get.

I wasn’t as apprehensive as Jaymee was, but I expected both good and bad things. I knew that I’d have friends waiting for me on the other side: not only Jaymee, but I was psyched about meeting the Airship Ambassador Kevin Steil after emailing each other for the last year; James Ng, who I knew was a sweetheart because he had donated prints to our Steam Around the World premiere in at Steampunk World’s Fair back in May 2010; my friends Liz Gorinsky, and folks I knew because of the con scene, Cherie Priest, Ekaterina Sedia, and Veronique Chevalier. Not to mention the other West Coast steampunk folk I wanted to meet in person: Kaja Foglio, The League of S.T.E.A.M., Gail Carriger, Paul Guinan & Anina Bennett, Vernian Process and Unwoman, and of course, the much-talked about Christopher J. Garcia, the man so retrofuturistic he walks around steampunk cons wearing a Fred Flintstone shirt.

At the convention, the results were really a mixed bag of both supportive and discomforting experiences, which I shall separate into The Good, The Bad & The Weird:

The Good:

Meeting people, both PoC and awesome allies.

Despite the misgivings we felt about coming, a lot of other Asian and non-Asian steampunks mentioned that seeing our names included as guests gave them incentive to come, especially with the way the theme was inadequately handled. Again, that made me both relieved that we weren’t the only ones who thought this, but also, it made me disappointed that my presence was seen as a positive reinforcement of a convention that hadn’t lived up to our own expectations about the theme.

At Nova Albion. Attendee Astra Kim, artist James Ng, and my intellectual partner-in-crime Jaymee Goh all showing off their buttons with pride.

William Fenton of the St. Clair Aeronauts came to all of my panels, and contributed great insight in a respectful, intelligent manner. I really appreciated having him being one of the white allies there.

Me with my friend Krishna, who did the student film featured in this report, came to the convention with her dad, who was an adorable boom guy.

In addition, it was especially satisfying that other Asian-Americans came because of the theme. During the costume ball on Friday night, I talked to this trio of Japanese-American women who had no idea what steampunk was, but decided to attend on a whim. They were all having the time of their lives:

The woman in the center was making her "warrior face" with her two friends on either side.

The panels.

In addition to my own usually panels “Steam Around the World” and “Envisioning a Better Steam Society”, I was placed on several other panels.

“Creating Your Character for Cons, Stories, and Games” took place on Friday with Thomas Willeford of BruteForce Leather and Thomas Strange. This was an interesting start to the weekend, since it addressed character creation and cosplay; I don’t think many people realize that I had gotten into steampunk through cosplay and that (gasp) Ay-leen is a steamsona, though I rarely play her character in role-playing spaces anymore. The most important part of the discussion was talking about how “cosplaying a jerk” isn’t an excuse to actively act like a jerk at a con, especially since con spaces are different from LARP and reenactment spaces.

With the program descriptions being as they were, I was fully expecting the potential for fail. The upside, to this, however, was being placed on panels where people addressed the failure of the descriptions, and then moved on to talk about more productive things, such as what happened in the “History of Tech Panel: How did the less-developed West overtake the sophisticated East? ” which within the first five minutes was re-directed away from the “East vs West” psuedo-cultural-war-binary of “which side got it right” to an involved discussion about the evolution of technical development, and redefining what technology means, and the role of geography, politics, and local economies had in affecting change. Plus, I have to give props to Chris for being Chris and Roget for being amazing; I had never met Roget until I saw him nonchalantly swagger in ten minutes before the panel, and both he and Chris were supportive speakers and we bounced off each other really well.

Chris Garcia, myself and Roget Ratchford. Image courtesy of Astra Kim.

“Underappreciated Cultures & Mythologies” turned out to be the most packed panel I was in, which was entirely unexpected for me, since it took place on a Sunday. What was also unexpected was the fact that this panel was being recorded — for infamy by Chris, I learned later.  It very much felt like I was a guest at a 1940s radio talk show.

Chris, Gail Carriger and me at the "Underappreciated Mythologies and Cultures" panel. Image by Pat Yulo

Staying up until 4 Am talking with James Bacon Friday night.

James came from across the pond for the con, and Chris Garcia recommended that he talk to Jaymee and I about cultural differences in how race relations played out in the US versus the UK. We started the conversation after watching Vernian Process perform, and instead of going up to drink the night away, we spend the wee hours in the morning in heavy discussion in a way I hadn’t had since my college days.

Girls’ Night Out

On Saturday night, though, Jaymee, Liz and I had plans to go out one night during the con, and soon, we started inviting all of the other female guests to come hang out with us; sadly, Gail had other plans and couldn’t join us. We ended up getting Phở  at this place a few blocks from the hotel:

From left to right: Liz Gorinsky, Jaymee, me, Anina Bennett, Kaja Foglio, Alice Bentley, Cherie Priest, Ekaterina Sedia.

Going Drinking with the League of S.T.E.A.M.

I had a chance to interview them for the Day Job (keep an eye out for the video soon), and so it was a pleasure to get to know them beforehand Saturday night. It was also nice to have some cooler heads in the room when you’re in a packed hotel room full of drunken, grabby people.

Our continuous references to the lack of Mike Perschon.

The best moment was having Champagne Toasts in the con suite in Mike’s name. On someone’s camera phone we took it on (Gail’s) there is a shot of us all toasting Mike, and I’m holding a giant whiskey jug that I grabbed from the counter.

The interviews.

For the Day Job, I got to interview James Ng and The League of ST.E.A.M. for The Steampunk Bible with the fanciest looking film crew I’ve worked with so far for the job. I also did a contributor’s round table for The Steampunk Bible too.

Filming with the League of S.T.E.A.M. on Sunday. You can see Chante, the producer to the left, and top of Frank the sound guy's head on the right. Image courtesy of Astra Kim

At the roundtable interview: James Ng, (he got to sit & watch, but I had a spotlight interview with him earlier that day), Jaymee, Cherie, Anina, me, Gail, and Paul. Image courtesy of James.

Theme-relevant costuming that was pretty cool.

Pat Yulo also wore an ao dai in a very classy way. we got into a great conversation about it and about her coming from a Spanish family and growing up in the Philippines.

A nice asymmetrical Eastern-inspired jacket design

Jean Martin looking fabulous.

Wings!

I think this can be described as "Mongolian road warrior steampunk"

The Bad:

Theme-relevant costuming that was actually… hmmm.

I won’t include pictures here, namely because I didn’t want to take any of people that I was going to publicly lambaste (because causing a petty flame war by using someone’s photo when critiquing something that is symptomatic of a greater system of oppression is not worth my time right now). Jaymee called some things outright embarrassing, but what I noticed a lot was:

– “geisha-face” aka the awkward use of geisha makeup

– how many non-Asians vs Asians who wore the “slutty kimono outfits” (my personal observation was that not a lot of Asian women went for slutty kimonos as much… I wonder why…)

– The stark contrast with the mostly-white con attendees with the mostly non-white hotel staff.  The discomforting parallel when watch white people dressed like sahibs being waited on by South Asian waiters and… yeah…..Imperialistic implications, much? There was moments where I felt like I was in the middle of Victorian London’s Egyptian Exploration Fund  and that was one of them. It also highlighted to me the role that class privilege is still influenced by race.

But ultimately, if you are treating another culture like costume, then yes, it is offensive, and plays into the long history of  the dominant culture trivializing and erasing the voices of marginalized people.

The Weird:

There was a someone in a full-body leopard furry suit walking around the con. What was seen cannot be unseen, but I refrained from taking a photo in case its spirit would’ve been captured into my camera and contaminated it forever and ever.

Conclusion

I did enjoy myself in California very, very much, and Nova Albion was a fantastic place to reaffirm friendships and make new ones. Although the theme was far from perfect, what I would love to see at future cons (at Nova Albion and elsewhere) is more outreach to people outside the steampunk community when talking about the non-West. During one discussion, William Fenton mentioned a couple of Chinese-American history professors that he was surprised were not presenting there, especially since Santa Clara is located near their academic haunts. I also heard several people noting the major oversight of not including any panels about India or the Middle East, especially since both areas were important sources of Eastern fascination (and Orientalism) during the era. A theme that was promoted as a new innovative way at looking at steampunk was, in the end, not very innovative at all when compared to how US culture usually treats Asian representation: that is, superficially. There were a lot of pretty clothes, but not enough substance: it’s a criticism that’s been lobbied at the steampunk community by people outside of it often enough, and it’s a bit disappointing for me to use that same remark here.

In “Underappreciated Mythologies & Cultures” I ended the panel with a comment that as steampunk addresses more multicultural aspects, the big question would be how much of it will be mutually respectful engagement and how much of it will blatant exotification, but that I thought it’d probably be a little of both. This convention was no exception.

2 responses to ““The Good, the Bad & the Weird” Nova Albion Con Report by Ay-leen the Peacemaker

  1. Pingback: Convention Extravaganza–Reporting from Nova Albion: The Wild, Wild East | Beyond Victoriana

  2. Josh

    Hey Ay-leen,

    It was great to meet you and Jaymee. I’m glad you mentioned the Good, the Bad, and Weird, because that is one of my most favorite movies of the past several years. I regularly work the soundtrack of that into my DJ sets too. =)

    Hope to run into you again, and maybe then we can actually sit down and chat. That was a little hard given how much concentration I was putting into getting ready for our show.

    Cheers,
    Josh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s