This week, we have part 1 of 2 of an interview with Ay-leen the Peacemaker, the creator and writer of steampunk blog, Beyond Victoriana. I first came across Beyond Victoriana while writing the Getting Out of London post, and read the guest posting by Michael Redturtle. With each new posting, I learn something new and gain a better, wider and more balanced perspective.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Ay-leen, you’ve been keeping very busy lately with work, blogging and conventions, and I wanted to thank you for taking the time for this interview. Let’s start with basic terms – How do you describe steampunk
Ay-leen the Peacemaker: That’s the big question at the moment, isn’t it? To me, steampunk is being defined on two different levels: how people use it and the relationship it has with other subcultures and pop culture as a whole. Aesthetic-wise, I define it as a “science fantasy” inspired by 19th-century styles (I first heard this word from Whisper Merlot of the SS Icarus and have seen others, like Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon take on a similar definition with his term “technofantasy”). Culturally, steampunk is a nascent post-modern subculture that has been used to question the norms of modernity and the progression of technology in industrializing societies.
Yeah, can’t you tell I’m an ideas sort of gal?
I also view art as a reflection of one’s relationship to society and how society treats people. Thus, I’m very much interested in the political nature of art. I’m quite fond of the Catastrophone Orchestra and Art Collective’s steampunk political definition of “colonizing the past so we can dream a better future.” Essentially, steampunk is about history and its subversion. Not only subversion on a technological level— with steam-powered computers, dirigibles, and shiny brass ray guns—but on a social level too. Steampunk is chance to re-write the typical white, male-oriented, European- dominated past to reflect voices that had been silenced, ignored, or oppressed. Moreover, it is the creative opportunity to question the modern standards created by the legacy of Western cultural hegemony.
AA: With that interest in the art and possibilities of steampunk, how did you get started with Beyond Victoriana?
AtP: Beyond Victoriana was first conceived as a pet project back in during the summer of 2009. I had been emailing my friend Jha (“Jaymee”) Goh for a few months about how cool it would be to have a space for marginalized peoples in the West and from non-Western cultures in the steampunk community. At that point, we were knocking about an idea of starting a Ning community, but I couldn’t make the time commitment of maintaining a social network site (which is why I really think highly of those who do). And it was that point when I really wanted a space where people of color and allies could post content that directly addresses the issues of race, representation, and the challenges surrounding the cultural relationships between West and the non-West in steampunk. There’s steampunkdebate on LJ and the occasional history post by G.D. Falksen on steamfashion, but neither had the right focus I wanted: a space that can be used as a credited resource and platform to investigate these issues.
And then Jha outed my project plans on Tor.com, and so I thought, “Well, now I have to commit to this project!” ^-~
AA: Isn’t it great to have friends who forcibly encourage us to follow up on our potential? LOL. With a guiding idea in place, what became the defined focus of your blog?
AtP: The nutshell explanation on the blog says it best, so I’ll start with that:
“Beyond Victoriana is a blog about multicultural steampunk and retro-futurism–that is, steampunk outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework. All of the steampunkery here focuses on non-Western cultures, underrepresented minorities in Western histories (Asian / Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, First Nation, Hispanic, black / African), and the cultural intersection between the West and the non-West.”
However, I also want to add that Beyond Victoriana also encourages guest contributors and is not just me on my aethernetz soap box. I strongly believe in the power of the mind-meld, and I, personally, have an insatiable curiosity. So, if someone wants to contribute to Beyond Victoriana with an essay, an interview, a review, or whatnot, I’m more than happy to offer Beyond Victoriana as a platform for them to use.
Essentially, by focusing the content on the “fringe aspects” of steampunk, I hope that the blog would give greater credibility to the idea of multiculturalism and recognize the challenges that it faces in fandom and steampunk.
AA: Those are all great goals and personally, I think they are being achieved and certainly give people something to think about. How did ‘Peacemaker’ become part of your moniker?
AtP: Well, I can tell you two different stories to this one. The short answer: it’s actually the name of the gun that I use at conventions. Ta-da!
The longer answer: I first got into steampunk through cosplay and Ay-leen the Peacemaker initially started off as my steampunk character persona (aka steamsona). She is a Buddhist assassin-for-hire from the colony of Tonkin who carries around a huge Chinese steam-powered hand cannon as her signature weapon and is paid to shoot French imperialists (or anyone else for a Large But Reasonable Fee).
A lot of steamsonas you see in the steampunk community are based off of types from Victorian pulp fiction and steampunk literature (and almost all of them based on Eurocentric caricatures): the Airship Pirate, the Edisonade, the Explorer/Adventurer, the Upper-Crust Aristocrat, the various Military types, the Wildean Fop. There aren’t any equivalent “Asian types” (or any type that can be coded as specifically non-white) in steampunk—unless you count the detrimental stereotypes that were created in the Victorian era like The Dragon Lady, the China Doll/Geisha Girl, Fu Manchu. Steampunk is problematic that way, I think—the fact that it revels so much in pulp fiction and in glorification of the Western-European ideal while also overlooking why that Western-European ideal exists in the first place.
So I didn’t want to be a walking Asian stereotype, or become “Eurocentric-inspired” by taking on a typical steampunk type, or be a more “historically accurate character” like a coolie or a railroad worker or a rice farmer.
I wanted to invent a steamsona that I wished actually existed in Victorian pulp fiction that had relevance to my life. Someone tough and kickass, but still larger than life and ridiculous. I admit my love of anime played a big part in why Ay-leen is an assassin who carries a huge gun and dressed in awesome clothes other than the utilitarian black a real assassin would don.
AA: That is a great way to think about creating a new character, or characterization – a well established archetype reimagined in a more personalized environment based on your own experiences and background. And for steampunk, I love that your steamsona is a formidable force in fabulous outfits! Back to the writing, how did previous experiences prepare you for blogging?
AtP: I’ve edited for college newspapers and literary magazines and I currently work in publishing, so I have quite a bit of writing and editorial experience. And, like any child who grew up during the Internet Age, I’ve already been blogging since I was a teenager. But Beyond Victoriana is the first blog I’ve maintained that had a “serious” focus with an intended audience outside of friends and family. I admit I was intimidated by this blogging process but am slowly getting more comfortable in the role. I only hope that this is also reflected in the work that gets out there!
AA: With that writing and editing background, what do you think are the qualities a person needs to be successful in this type of position?
AtP: Wow, you make it sound like I actually get paid to do what I do! ^_~
Anyone can blog, of course, but to do it well and to do it in a way that captures an audience I think you need four things: organization skills, perseverance, community engagement, and passion.
Organization is key, because you want to be sure you have a consistent flow of quality material for your audience or else you’ll lose their attention. Perseverance is important because building an audience takes time. By community engagement, I mean constant interaction both with your audience and, in my particular case, with people you want as contributors. You don’t expect to post something and have people come running to read it automatically, after all. You have to go out and read other people’s work too and share with them so they will share with you. That’s the key to a successful blog: one that can form a community around itself.
Most important, though, is passion. I started Beyond Victoriana because I was interested in experimenting with and expanding the current conception of steampunk. I’m really surprised and grateful all of the attention the blog has gotten and I’m glad to have gotten to know some wonderful people because of it.
AA: I think your passion really shows in your writing and dedication to having new content. What are some challenges of maintaining your own schedule and standards for the blog?
AtP: Being disciplined. I really admire bloggers like Mike Perschon, Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade, Cory Gross of Voyages Extraordinaire, and Matt Delman of Free the Princess for being able to come out with great intelligent stuff at a set schedule. And I know it’s because they are super disciplined and focused writers.
Because the intent of Beyond Victoriana is to serve as a community platform as well as a personal one, I do plan posts in advance, but I also want to maintain the blog’s flexibility for outside contributors.
Time management is also another challenge. As I mentioned before, I make no money off of any of my work for Beyond Victoriana, but dedicate a lot of time to blogging. At the same time, however, I’m also balancing a real life job, a social life, and my other writing (which I hope to make money off of someday…) Plus, I know as much as I love to blog, that it is only an interesting side hobby so I try not to let that encompass my entire life (though that can be hard!)
AA: To balance things out, what are the rewards of publishing Beyond Victoriana, what do you look forward to?
AtP: My rewards so far are entirely self-motivated: I feel proud when people respond to the blog in a positive way. And I also get a lot of pleasure being able to interact with people—interviewing authors, working with contributors, brainstorming about a certain topic at midnight.
AA: With the wide variety of topics and guest blogs, how do you prepare for a post? Where do the ideas come from?
AtP: Beyond Victoriana is very open, conceptual-wise. I mostly write posts inspired by things I read or see in the media or the current steampunk community. I also try to keep a record of historical content that people can use as a resource.
But the best moments are when I’d be walking through the library or reading about something totally outside of the steampunk community and find something that hits me as being absolutely relevant to Beyond Victoriana and worth blogging about. I adore serendipity.
AA: Aside from guest writers, do you talk with other bloggers or authors to trade ideas?
AtP: I certainly do! Jha Goh has been a close intellectual comrade-in-arms in the steampunk community, actually, (I laugh when people think we’re the same person!) I personally keep in touch with the folks at Steampunk Magazine, Steampunk Workshop and Mike Perschon (and keep track of several steampunk blogs/websites too). Lucretia Dearfour of The Wandering Legion is also someone I constantly bounce ideas off. I’m not too fond of forums, but work much better with email and G-chat when talking with fellow steampunks. I’ve also gotten in touch with several professional sci-fi authors and editors through steampunk, which has been very exciting too.
There are also blogs that I follow that aren’t steampunk but inspire me a lot in my blogging work.
Racialicious – A site dedicated to the examination of race in pop culture
Threadbared – A blog run by two fabulous clotheshorse academics Minh-ha Pham and Mimi Thi Nguyen, who discuss fashion and politics
Tor.com – The online magazine & sci-fi blog site.
SF Signal – Another standard when it comes to sci-fi websites.
Bibliophile Stalker – Charles Tan, Filipino writer, editor & blogger keeps tabs on the SF/F world and conducts great interviews with the best in the business.
World SF News Blog – Run by author Lavie Tidhar, this is another great resource about the international state of sci-fi.
AA: With all the great content you’ve published so far, what are some of your favorite pieces and people on Beyond Victoriana?
AtP: I like learning, and so the best contributions I’ve gotten or requested are about topics I know very little about. Then later on, when I’m working on editing the piece with a contributor, it’s a very exciting and interesting journey for the both of us.
I feel the same way about interviews, because I love hearing people’s stories.
End of Part 1 (A cookie from Ay-leen to everyone for getting through all of it.)
Join us next week for Part 2.
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!