And Sometimes The Criticism Is Itself Problematic: Responding to a Criticism About Steampunk Universe

So it turns out that I’d forgotten one (at least) place that I’d posted the guidelines for Steampunk Universe that caused a bit of an uproar a few months ago. Those original guidelines did have some problematic elements, and I got an e-mail from a concerned author about those specific bits. I replied to that e-mail, pointing to the updated guidelines that answered that person’s concerns.

I then went searching to see if there were any other places I’d forgotten that I posted them, and found a post by Dale Cameron Lowry on Tumblr that… well, seems to want to take exception…not to the original guidelines, but to the updated ones.

But first, let me cite the (updated) guidelines:

  • Your story should take place in a non-White and preferably non-Anglophone culture.
  • Your story should contain and have as a focus a character with at
    least one disability. It should be a major element of the story. I want
    to explore how steampunk technology changes the lives of people who are
    aneurotypical or disabled, for better or for worse. I’d love to see
    characters who are also members of other marginalized groups (such as
    LGBTQ characters).

  • I have already committed to stories taking place in North America,
    England, and China. While we may commit to more stories featuring other
    cultures in those regions, we strongly encourage you to explore stories
    that take place in the diverse cultures of Central/South America, Asia,
    and Africa.2

And the footnote says “This wording has been changed to emphasize that we are
looking to maximize diversity from all regions and peoples in the
limited space we have, not minimize or erase any group.”

Mr. Lowry (and he is an author, hence my replying this way) says this:

Seriously? You want to exclude Anglophone cultures and countries from an
anthology which will be published in English, while at the same time
saying you want works “that take place in the diverse cultures of
Central/South America, Asia, and Africa” among “non-White”s … By saying “your story should take place in a
non-White and preferably non-Anglophone culture,” you’re also implying,
“If you’re a Kenyan who uses English as your primary language for
writing, consider that a part of your culture, and want to send us some
Kenyan steampunk, we’d prefer you not.”

Here’s why I’m not responding to this criticism the same way that I did to the criticisms back in February:  He is totally missing the point.

First, “preferably”. We all understand what that means, right?

Now that that’s settled, let’s get to the more serious problems with this critique.

Steampunk is associated with the 19th century – and typically the latter half of it. During the latter half of the 19th century, the people in Kenya who would most likely identify as “anglophones” (or have English as their native language) were colonizing British people. The Gĩkũyũ people in the Agĩkũyũ nation (what is now Kenya) spoke (and still speak) the Bantu Kikuyu language as a mother tongue. Their way of life got “disrupted” when they came into contact with the British around 1888. The British violently colonized Kenya in 1895.

His other examples of “Anglophone countries and cultures where the majority of residents/members are ‘non-White'” include India, Singapore, South Africa, and perhaps most ironically, Hong Kong twice…which specifically WAS INVADED and became a British colony during the middle of the period covered by steampunk. He is confusing “countries” and “cultures” at best, and ignoring the history and native peoples and cultures of these areas at worst.

Because these places that speak English now? That’s because during the 19th century (or just before) the British colonized those areas, frequently subjecting the native people and cultures to suppression or worse.

Both Steampunk World and Steampunk Universe are specifically put together to provide more steampunk stories that are not about colonizing white people. We want stories featuring and about the native cultures of those areas.

So, yeah, we don’t want stories that focus on the colonizing and occupying British people during this period. That’s kind of the point.

In the tags for the post (which are almost a post themselves), Lowry does make one good point:

…when I go to my writer’s boards I don’t see non-Westerners posting about how they’re going to submit
to this antho I see Westerners talking about how they are going to go
research non-Western cultures so they can write a contribution that
qualifies which might not be the most ideal way to do diversity

And he’s right. Ideally, that’s not the most ideal way to do diversity.

But, aside from the facts that this might be sample bias due to which boards he’s on and that I can’t control what other people write or submit, he could also look at the ToC of Steampunk World and see that there’s authors there who hail from all over. Or that I actively assess the diversity of submitting authors when possible.

But his final “tag” is the most ironic:

and am I the only one who thinks that steampunk as a genre is pretty effing western

Originally I was just going to write “that’s what we’re trying to change” here, but while talking about this on Twitter, I was reminded that there’s a lot more non-Western steampunk out there that Mr. Lowry has completely erased from existence.

Quick examples from off the top of my head: The Sea is Ours edited by Jaymee Goh. How about Beyond Victoriana, from Diana M. Pho, if you want a blog. Or Tai Chi Zero if you’re into film. And countless short stories, illustrations, and cosplay.

The submissions period for Steampunk Universe closes soon.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

3 thoughts on “And Sometimes The Criticism Is Itself Problematic: Responding to a Criticism About Steampunk Universe

  1. And then, of course, there are non-white SFF authors who don't want to submit because they can see how steampunk is perceived (quite rightly) as a "Western" project and, quite frankly, just like the Hugos, don't want to get caught between two factions. Many issues, limited time.

    No offence, Steven, but we're really exhausted with this shit: "Wow, fancy that. Another white male writer takes offence? Who would have thunk it?"

    1. You're right, it is tiring. But that wasn't the point of this post. (I didn't identify the author as white; I don't know if he is.) The point here was to illustrate the difference between criticism like the kind that prompted the change in the guidelines and the kind that seems determined to simply take offense for the sake of taking offense, and how I came to that decision.

    2. And on re-reading your comment, let me reiterate that the point of both Steampunk World and Steampunk Universe is to very visibly deconstruct the perception of steampunk as Western only. 😉

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