Airship Ambassador: Hi Jaymee, welcome back! It is great to catch up with you again.
Jaymee Goh: Hello again, Kevin! Been quite a while, eh?
AA: Aside from Interview #100, it’s been quite some time since you’ve been here on the blog. At least we get to see each other during the year! You have quite a bit of published work behind you, including your blog Silver Goggles, short stories Between Islands in Expanded Horizons #19, Lunar Year’s End in Crossed Genres #25, and In the Heart of Yellow Mountain in Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories . Your Master’s Major Research Project, Chromatic Chronologies: Using The Steampunk Aesthetic For Postcolonial Purposes is also available for people to read. For those readers who haven’t read the anthology you’ve co-edited, The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk SEAsia, will you share what is the book about?
JG: The SEA Is Ours is exactly what it says in the subtitle: an anthology of short stories, that take on steampunk from a Southeast Asian perspective. The framing of the final noun phrase is very important: Southeast Asian steampunk puts focus on steampunk, making Southeast Asianness an additive to the steampunk. However, it is Steampunk Southeast Asia—Southeast Asia is the focus point, and steampunk, as an aesthetic, is the additive, and because it is rooted in Southeast Asia, the steampunk aesthetic itself is transformed to fit the geography of the region. It is 12 stories set in five different countries—Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia—of varying themes. We even have stories exploring the borderlands between Thailand and Laos, as well as the common refugee narrative—given a steampunk twist, these stories take on new valences even as they look the same.
AA: That’s a wonderfully creative perspective, and really engaging for me to see other cultures and geographical area represented. What got this project started?
JG: Sometime while I was writing my Master’s project, I got very dissatisfied with the discourse on multicultural steampunk. I felt that there was too much justifying the existence of people of color in steampunk by saying that steampunk could be for anyone, in the exact same form everywhere, and there was too much steampunk where non-white cultures were ham-handedly mashed up with the common iterations of steampunk. There was a lot of lauding of “Asian steampunk” which was really just James Ng’s artwork. And don’t get me wrong, James is a wonderful artist, and I would buy his art anytime, but his work cannot encompass what “Asian” steampunk means—Asia’s a big place! It is made of many countries, and in each country, many more discrete cultures who have completely different aesthetic senses and different ways that they would approach technology.
At this time I was also doing two other projects: I ran Steampunk Nusantara, a Dreamwidth community specifically about steampunk in the region that used to be called the Malayan Archipelago, Maritime Southeast Asia (comprising mostly of modern-day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand). The conceit of the community was that members were part of an archaeology project, investigating an archive of items that never existed in our world—their job was to describe and catalog these items. With this catalog we could inspire each other on the types of technology we might see in a steampunk’d Nusantara, and from there have an array of things and tropes we could use in our own work.
I was also writing a series of short stories set in an alternate history Malaya—the series that begins with “Between Islands.” In this series, which I usually call Peranakan Steampunk (because one of the lead characters is a Peranakan Cina—Chinese descendant), I explore the changes in the technological and racial landscape of Malaya if British imperialism had never taken hold, and what world conditions would call for such a change. I realized very quickly that I didn’t want to be the sole creator of a Southeast Asian steampunk canon—a single person cannot possibly represent whole countries, whole genres! So I wanted an anthology where I could invite people to participate in the creation of such a thing as steampunk set in Southeast Asia—this makes the whole category richer, because you have a wider variety of stories as a result besides what comes out of one person’s brain.
AA: A specific vision with broader multiple expressions. Aside from sharing engaging stories by very creative authors, what is the goal for The Sea Is Ours?
JG: A huge part of being Southeast Asian on the world map is that most people don’t really know Southeast Asia is a region. People think there’re only South Asians, or, more often, only East Asians. “Asia” becomes this space where only China, Japan, and Korea exist. Sometimes people remember India is also in Asia. But many people forget that Southeast Asian countries are an actual place—all the more fraught in the USA when one considers how Southeast Asia was a battlefield for Western imperial powers. While The SEA Is Ours doesn’t engage directly with this recent history, the anthology poses a reminder that the region exists, and places us right on the world map of pulp fiction.
AA: Sometimes the best geography lesson is exposure and experience in that place. Stories can take us everywhere and everywhen. Why specifically choose steampunk as the aesthetic for these stories?
JG: Steampunk, as Martha Swetzoff once put it, is “a conversation with history.” Of the many things foreigners do not know about Southeast Asia, it is that we have histories before imperialism, histories before the Vietnam war, before the surrender of the Philippines to America, before the formation of the modern nation states in the so-called ‘decolonial’ period after the British Empire’s sun began to sink.
Steampunk is also about the romance of technology, and its interaction with history. Many people assume that Third World Countries are “developing” countries—i.e. trying to “catch up” with First World Countries. However, we have had our own innovations and developments for generations—it’s just not what we would immediately recognize as technological. Technology is the relationship between humans and their immediate environment, that capacity and methods of changing that environment. Terraced rice fields are evidence of our ability to change our environment. The coconut tree is called the Tree of a Thousand Uses—it is used in our form of technology. We should not privilege brass and iron when there are other methods of producing steam.
AA: That’s a really good point to make about development and ingenuity in the many cultures around the world. No one place or group has done it all, and there are many ways to accomplish the same goal. There are twelve authors contributing to this anthology, what can you share with us about their backgrounds, and what we can expect from them?
JG: Well, we are very pleased to be diverse enough to include one token white woman. Pithyness aside, we have a mixture of writers from the diaspora and from what we might call the sourceland. Some of the writers are studying abroad as international students; some are first, second, third-generation descendants of immigrants.
Some of these writers are veteran writers in their own countries: Paolo Chikiamco and Kate Osias have edited anthologies of their own with a bibliography behind them. Others have never been published outside their country. Quite a few of them have just never been published before, period, though they may have been writing a long time.
We’ll pause here in our chat with Jaymee. Join us for part two when she talks about story ideas, selection, and balance
You can support Jaymee and our community by getting your copy of The Sea Is Ours here.
Also, check out her exhibit page at The Steampunk Museum.