So, Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition, ya’ll. I’m going to start at the beginning, which is way before the actual convention itself. You may not like what you read. In fact, ya’ll might accuse me of negativity. Fair ’nuff.
I’ll state upfront that Nova Albion is the second steampunk con I’ve attended, and the fourth fan convention. I’m not really big on conventions. I think costumes are expensive (fun! but expensive) and unless I feel like I’m actually contributing to something (my presence does not count) I don’t feel like it’s worthwhile subjecting myself to so many strangers. I am a misanthrope like that.
Ay-Leen and I were invited to be guest speakers at Nova Albion, and we were quite flattered.
Until we saw the theme: Wild Wild East. This was my first reaction: “Do these people grasp the potential for Fail with such a theme?”
Neither Dan nor Ariane struck me as anything other than white, and when a white-led group tackles a theme as this, I don’t trust them to handle it well. This would not have been my reaction years ago, before I was involved in anti-racist activism. Just something I have picked up from years of being involved with other PoC who have been failed by white-led groups and events, time and again. Considering my work is on how badly misrepresented and underrepresented Asians and other minorities in white-dominated spheres are in steampunk, my defenses went right up.
But still, Nova Albion is in California! And I heard California is like, land of Asians in the realm of America! We both made suggestions that the organizers look up local organizations to speak at the convention, because, what an opportunity to highlight the local Asian populations! Bring in history that’s rarely discussed in mainstream spaces! Or just lend exposure to local Asians who might not have such a platform otherwise! I was looking forward to meeting some awesome Asian intellectuals and academics and, of course, fellow steampunks!
ISSUES, THERE WERE SOME
The problems started early: the Guests of Honor were Cherie Priest, of the Clockwork Century books, and Paul Guinan and Anina Bennet of Boilerplate fame. I have nothing against these fine folks, and I think very highly of Cherie Priest in general, but neither of them have work that directly pertained to the theme — Wild Wild East.
In the meantime, James Ng’s art was used to promote the convention. Ay-Leen and I were trying to scrape up money to afford to go. The implication that actual Asian folks of the steampunk scene had to fret to attend an Eastern-themed steampunk convention didn’t sit well with me. Fortunately, my university gave me some funding, so I could afford hotel for both Ay-Leen and myself.
Why wasn’t James Ng immediately Guest of Honor of this convention? Perhaps because Cherie, Paul and Anina had been confirmed before the theme was set. Perhaps the organizers didn’t think they had the monies to bring James in from Hong Kong. Whatever the reason, it looked bad, and I was unimpressed, and a little insulted. This was a tiny papercut.
Then we had programming assignments. I immediately started counting the number of identifiably-Asian names I could find and came up with two: myself and Ay-Leen. (So imagine my relief when I found out Jean Martin and Jade Falcon were actual Asians.)
Then, what left me cold: the presentation Ay-Leen and I had pitched had been renamed, and I was suddenly the only person presenting it. I understand that reading comprehension skills deteriorate under stress, it happens to the best of us, but under these circumstances? Renaming “Steam Around the World” to “Steampunk Beyond Victorian England” is deeply insulting: we named our panel what we did for a very specific reason—to communicate that ours was a showcase of international steampunk, with no particular focus. To rename it “Beyond Victorian England” is to center steampunk in Victorian England, which is the anti-thesis of the presentation. (We would later discover that the description we had supplied was changed too. I’m not sure why this was necessary. It probably happened because the organizers lost the email which had our original description, and it’s silly because it creates more work for the sod putting together the program. I will say, though, that the new description was also quite insulting.)
Thirdly, the Wild Wild East, if one were to judge by the panel names, apparently consisted only of China and Japan. There were no panels on India, nor on Arabia, nor Africa.
And speaking of The Wild Wild East Is Only China and Japan, Ay-Leen was slotted in to deliver a lecture on China in the 19th Century. Now, whilst Ay-Leen did cite “Asian Studies” as an interest, that’s not really a reason to immediately assume “China!” especially when she’s Vietnamese-American, and doesn’t even identify as Chinese.
I was slotted onto the Sexual Politics and Suffragettes panel, which was a little awkward because it overlapped with another panel I was slated to be on, Steampunk as a Philosophical Arena. The overlap was less of a concern compared to: a) the fact that out of the four panellists, two were men, and b) “suffragettes” is a particularly UK/US term, which centers us right back in the West, rather than, you know, what the theme signified.
Also, another panel Ay-Leen was on? “The History of Tech: How the less developed West overtook the more sophisticated East”? Not impressed: an assumption that this happened through merely tech, rather than politics and colonialism; a reified dichotomy of East vs West; and the choice of panellist looked pretty… antagonistic? Like Ay-Leen was meant to represent The East, and Roget was meant to represent The West, with Chris Garcia mediating between the two…. (Roget turned out to be fabulous, Chris turned out to be a good guy, but I didn’t know this going in.)
We suggested name changes for the following panels:
- Sexual Politics and Suffragettes