Monday, April 21, 2014

Diversify You SteamPunk Day 6: "Beyond Victoriana" with Diana Pho

Ay-Leen The Peacemaker is to Diana Pho, what Sasha Fierce is to Beyonce. Being one of the most prominent names in the online Steam-punk community, and off, it's a wonder Diana gets any sleep. 

Diana is the creator of "Beyond Victoriana" , a blog that promotes diversity in the science fiction sub genre "Steam-punk." If you're anything like me, you loved steam-punk growing up, but started to outgrow it once you realized no one looked like you on the pages.

Well fear not, because today we sit down with Diana, an innovator for what steam-punk will become. She shows steam-punk does not have to be a homogenous, narrow minded view of speculative fiction.

1. Many probably already know you. It's a bit hard not to, as you have one of the biggest Steam-punk communities online. But for those of us just meeting you, what can we come to know about Diana Pho aka Ay-leen The Peacemaker?

Hello there, and thanks for having me on the blog! Well, I suppose if you want the nutshell edition of what I do, I'm a performer, academic, editor, and all around rabble-rouser in the steampunk and sci-fi communities. Back in 2009, I founded Beyond Victoriana, which is the oldest-running (and award-winning) website on multicultural steampunk. Since then, I've also done talks and run workshops about steampunk and social issues throughout the country at universities, sci-fi, anime, and steampunk conventions, been interviewed and published in several books about steampunk, and even been on TV a handful of times. It's been an interesting ride, and certainly not what I expected when I first became interested in the subculture!

*Photo taken by Fox O Rian*

2. You're blog stands out to us mainly because were a diversity book blog. Steam-punk has a history of excluding anything outside of European culture, and it's awesome that you've created such a huge community for people who wish to expand their Steam-punk taste. But I have to ask, why Steam-punk?

My journey into steampunk has been an exploration, really, about what the subgenre has to offer for people from marginalized backgrounds. I first heard about steampunk through my fiancee, who described steampunk as something she and her friends did, which was that they went to conventions dressed in science fictional neo-Victorian gear and people took pictures to them! 

What immediately came across to me, however, were two thoughts: 1) Steampunk is a performative identity, and not just a sci-fi interest and 2) Anyone can be involved. 

I hesitated being involved in the community, however, because I had some reservations about what it meant to be in steampunk. Would I have to pretend to be British? As someone whose family suffered directly from imperial powers, did I want to romanticize that this time period as one of heedless adventure?  My grandparents and my parents are from Vietnam while it was part of French Indochina, being a citizen of empire isn't as great as steampunk might imagine it to be. I discussed this with someone from the steampunk community at the time that I had a problem with steampunk and colonialism, and they replied, "Oh, you don't have to worry about that-- although we're Americans, for example, we can pretend that America is still part of the colonies!" Which missed the point of my question entirely.

So when creating my steamsona (aka steampunk character), I thought of what I would like to see as a SF character based on my family heritage. One hundred and fifty years ago, I'd like to see a female assassin who shoots French imperialists in the face -- and so Ay-leen the Peacemaker was born.

Moreover, I thought about what makes steampunk such a fascinating subculture/subgenre for people like me. It give people with marginalized backgrounds a voice in history-- it opens up opportunities for them to re-imagine spaces where they are recognized and celebrated.

3. What prompted you to create "Beyond Victoriana?" Is there anyone else involved? Why do you think Steam-punk needs diversity?

Around the same time I become involved in the steampunk community, the big SF/F Racefail 2009 conversations were happening in the sci-fi community, where the issues of representation of minorities was heavily discussed, along with concerns such as cultural appropriation, and minorities having access to the same resources that the dominant culture takes for granted. These discussions really resonated with me and steampunk, so I started Beyond Victoriana as a platform where people can discuss diversity in the genre and how people of color and other marginalized identities can use steampunk as a storytelling vehicle to highlight those histories that were lost, erased, and oppressed by the dominant culture.

I think steampunk needs diversity because the genre has been about challenging and subverting the assumed "norms" of history using speculative fiction. It asks, "What if the computer age happened in the Victorian times?" and "What if Tesla overcame Edison as the prominent inventor of the time?", so why can't it also ask questions like, "What if the Native Americans were able to keep their nations from colonization?" or "What if chattel slavery was replaced by technology?" 

If you look at works that inspired steampunk, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or more modern works like The Difference Engine, Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series, or the Vandermeer's steampunk anthologies, that are full of stories that shed light on how technology impacts societies in ways where the underdog gets a fighting chance. That's part of the "punk" aspect of steampunk. More than glorifying nobles in pith helmets, steampunk enables stories about people of color, queer people, different-abled people, poor people, people of all genders, to talk about their experiences and go on adventures too.   

4.  What are some of the best book titles to come out that promote a diverse Steam-punk world? What is your opinion on traditionally published steampunk works versus self published?

I think that in this present moment, we are seeing more steampunk works than ever that are taking things outside of Europe! So it's hard for me to label what are the "best" works, when I know that there are some exciting books yet to come out (that is the perk of working in publishing). 

For example, Nisi Shawl currently has a book about steampunk during the Belgian Congo that addresses that atrocities that happened there, and that will come out in a couple of years, read about it here!). Already, however, there has been TONS of buzz about this.

 So let me name some examples to start, but know that this isn't the end!

First of all, I have to suggest a couple of books that I admittedly been involved in: Steampunk World and the Anatomy of Steampunk. But I also won't suggest them if they didn't have merits on their own outside of my involvement.

Steampunk World is an upcoming anthology edited by Sarah Hans from Alliteration Ink Press. All of the stories talk about steampunk from different parts of the world: from the Philippines to Russia to the American West to Turkey to the Congo and everything in between. The authors involved are established and up and coming writers from the SF/F from all backgrounds, and plus, it will feature a beautiful cover and interior illustrations by steampunk artists James Ng. 

On the non-fiction side, I'd like to suggest The Anatomy of Steampunk by Katherine Gleason, Learn more about it here. This is a fashion book, but also covers a lot of what we are currently seeing in steampunk from around the world and its potential. The styles are more than Euro-centric, and the designers, makers and fashion icons are multicultural and multiracial, from all age ranges, body sizes, and different abilities. The contributors are international, from countries such as France, Japan, Canada, Poland and Italy. It also features a fantastic forward by K.W. Jeter, the author who coined the word "steampunk" over twenty years ago, and DIY projects by Noam Berg and Won Park. I'm extremely proud of being involved in this project and to shed some light about what the subculture is about and how anyone can become involved.

Additional books that I'd recommend for their quality and appeal (especially for newbies to steampunk!) are Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series; zombie post-apoc in a US frontier where the Civil War has lasted ten years too long), Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett's Boilerplate and Adventures of Frank Reade ; coffee table "counterhistory" books that feature the first robotic man Boilerplate and the Frank Reade family, both which were based off of 19th century dime novel figures), Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy ; steampunk during the early WWI years, where the Ally forces uses biology-based armed forces and the Axis powers have diesel-based robots), Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs ; steampunk fantasy world set on the frontier with a Native protagonist), Steamfunk! edited by Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade; first major anthology about the African diaspora and steampunk) and the anthologies by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, SteampunkSteampunk Reloaded and Steampunk Revolution and the Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories Volumes I and II edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft (like it says on the label, but the stories are not all romance and take place all over the world).

5. People can be hard on change, so I'm wondering, as a woman, and a woman of color at that, do you get backlash for promoting sure a positive message? Im sure you get more positive feedback than negative, so what are some of the best things people have said about "Beyond Victoriana?"

I appreciate of all of the support that I've gotten over the years to overlook any haters, actually! What I find more important, however, is to foster of people from marginalized backgrounds to find their own platforms and be able to have confidence to speak out about representation and diversity. I don't want to be seen as the "token" diversity-speaker at any panel, convention, publication, etc, and strongly believe in putting others' in the spotlight for their hard work too!

Some of the best things I've seen, then are becoming friends with people of color and allies in the community and finding solidarity in promoting representation together. So shout-outs have to go to people like Balogun, Jaymee Goh, Monique Poirier, Suna Desi, Magpie Killjoy, Kevin Steil, Evangeline Holland, P Djeli Clark, and many many others for everything that *they* do as well. 

6. I noticed you are up for a few Steam-punk Chronicle "Reader's Choice Award with fellow multicultural steampunk-er Balogun Ojetade. I'm sure the competition is friendly, but do you receive a bunch of run ins with the same people in your Steam-punk community?

First, I should mention that I don't think I've been nominated for Best Multicultural Steampunk this year by SPC, because I was told by the editor-in-chief that I could only win two years in a row! LOL But my congrats go out to Balogun, Suna, and Soren for being nominated! 

I am nominated for "Best Political" for a second year in a row, but I also hve to give props to Balogun and Magpie for the nod as well! As you can probably sense, we're a small community and we get to know each other pretty well. I think this year, Kevin opened up the US community to the international community further with his Steampunk Hands Around the Word event, and I really enjoyed meeting other steampunk communities through there as well!

7. Are there any steam-punk authors you can suggest that highlight diversity? What are some of YOUR favorite steam-punk authors? Are there any suggestions you can give to those wanting to diversify their steam-punk works?

I think I already named a lot of authors already, who I very much admire for their work. A couple of others I'll mention do "Victorian England" steampunk, but stand out in how they address things like race, class and gender in their books: Gail Carriger ; especially with her treatment of LBGTQ characters in her Parasol Protectorate books), Emma Jane Halloway's A Study in Silks, A Study in Darkness, and A Study in Ashes ; marvelous worldbuilding that actually treats class as a very nuanced and complicated social aspect, plus great use of characters of color), and Leanna Renee Hieber's Strangely Beautiful series; the main character has albinism, and her books have a very fun progressive outlook to them, plus EPIC use of magic, ghosts, and gothic things).

8. Finally, where can everyone go to get the latest updates on "Beyond Victoriana?" 

Sure! Readers can follow my spaces at:

My Blog: Beyond Victoriana 
Facebook: Beyond Victoriana on Facebook
And Tumblr: Beyond Victoriana on Tumblr

Thanks again for the interview!
*Photo Credit :Taken by Rachael Shane*


  1. Great interview! I hadn't come across Ayleen before but I'm so glad I found you.

  2. Thanks so much, Andrea! I'm very glad you enjoyed the interview. ^^

    - Diana (aka Ay-leen)


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