It’s a Steampunk Universe … Unless You’re an Indigenous American

EDIT 2/29/2016: Publisher Steven Saus has responded to my and other criticisms (particularly regarding use of the term “exceptionalities”) about the Steampunk Universe call to submissions. Happily, changes have been made. The updated call is here: http://steampunkuniverse.alliterationink.com

My faith in the project has been restored, and I encourage diverse writers to submit their stories. If you have further concerns, please don’t be afraid to speak. You and your voice are important; based on my experience today, I feel that the publisher and editor of Steampunk Universe respect that.

Please bear in mind that the views in this post are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for all Lipan Apache people; I certainly don’t speak for all indigenous Americans.

First things first …

This post was painful. Here’s why: I loved Steampunk World, the predecessor to Steampunk Universe. Like all anthologies published by Alliteration Ink, it featured excellent stories by diverse writers. I’m afraid to hurt – even in a minor way – one of my favorite sources of speculative fiction.

That’s not what I want. Honestly, I encourage every person who reads this blog post to visit Alliteration Ink immediately and purchase one or many of their books (such as  Streets of Shadows – at https://alliterationink.com/anthology/streetsofshadows – for fellow horror lovers).

That said, the indigenous people of North America are relentlessly silenced and erased in every form of popular media. The most recent call for submissions for Steampunk Universe – and the editor’s subsequent responses to reader questions – illustrates how even the most well-meaning projects can contribute to silent cultural genocide.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In summer 2015, a call for submissions to Steampunk Universe was released by Alliteration Ink and editor Sarah Hans. The following quotes are from Hans’s blog post, taken 2/27/2016, and do not reflect any changes that might be made in the future. I have preserved a screenshot for confirmation purposes.

The call begins:

“Much like the award-winning anthology Steampunk World, Steampunk Universe will be a multicultural anthology of steampunk stories. But this time, the anthology will focus on characters with exceptionalities.*

This call for submissions is aimed particularly at marginalized writers, especially those who are identify as members of a minority, LGBTQ, or living with exceptionality. Whether or not you qualify and feel this call for submission is appropriate for your work is at your discretion.”

My note: Multicultural is good. I won’t be commenting on the use of “exceptionalities” in this call for submissions – I don’t have the experiences necessary for that discussion.

“What I’m looking for:

Your story should take place in a non-Western culture. I’d love to have a variety of stories that take place in the diverse cultures of Central/South America, Asia, and Africa.”

My note: once again, the indigenous people of Canada/US/Mexico are lumped with “western” culture. Not a good sign, but at least this part of the call doesn’t discourage anyone from submitting.

“I’m unlikely to buy stories that:

-Take place in North America, England or China (or feature characters from those cultures)**

**I’m unlikely to buy this type of story because I have already committed to purchase stories that fit this description.”

My note: Wait. Yikes. First, what does Hans mean by North American culture? There are hundreds of indigenous groups across North America. Is she referring to Pueblo culture? Aztec culture? Apache culture? Well, each of these cultural groups has cultural subgroups. And, heck, what about the many Métis people from northern North America?

During my first reading, I assumed that Hans actually meant “white colonial culture” or something similar. Indigenous people are often overlooked, after all.

Well, the comments section disappointed me.

July 27, 2015, a visitor to the page asked:

“You stated that the story should not be set in north america, or contain north american characters, but are first nations and native american characters in a pre-columbian setting also out?”

To which, on July 28, 2015, Hans replied:

“I stated I would be unlikely to buy a story set in North America because I already have a couple of stories under consideration that take place in North America (including a story with Native American characters). However, that doesn’t mean there’s zero chance I won’t buy another story set in North America. I will consider anything you send me and there’s always a possibility I’ll make an exception if the story’s really amazing. I encourage you to write about the characters and setting that most speak to you and that you feel passionately about. That will come through.”

Let’s unpack this reply sentence by sentence. The first is the most problematic.

“I stated I would be unlikely to buy a story set in North America because I already have a couple of stories under consideration that take place in North America (including a story with Native American characters).” OK. She is considering one story with “Native American characters” – what does that mean? Are all the characters Native American? What part of North America? It’s a huge landmass. Do these characters belong to a tribe? What, specifically, is their cultural background? Like I said, North American indigenous people are *not* monolithic (except in popular fiction, nine times out of ten, which heavily draws upon a missmatch of plains tribe stereotypes). Aztec steampunk would be completely different from Navajo steampunk, for example. I’d read em both.

“However, that doesn’t mean there’s zero chance I won’t buy another story set in North America. I will consider anything you send me and there’s always a possibility I’ll make an exception if the story’s really amazing.” If you’re rejected, Indigenous Writer, I guess your story just wasn’t exceptional enough. There’s not a zero percent chance that Hans will accept another North American story. Great. But it’s still characterized as a hard sell. Not ok. Especially because indigenous people are such a severely disadvantaged group in speculative fiction.

“I encourage you to write about the characters and setting that most speak to you and that you feel passionately about. That will come through.” Oh, indigenous writers are passionate. We need to be passionate, lest the weight of continuous, unrelenting erasure crush our creativity, our souls.

Erasure -Native Americans are all the same, right? There aren’t myriad voices, all clamoring to be heard! – is prevalent. Even unintentional, it’s harmful.

Again, we “Native Americans” are not monolithic. Never have been. Never will be. The cultures of this continent are so wonderfully diverse, you could fill a series of multicultural steampunk anthologies with our voices and never, never run out of material.

So why haven’t you?

Why, instead, are marginalized voices discouraged by a project that should elevate them?

Between July and today, how many indigenous writers were dissuaded by the Steampunk Universe call to submissions? How many stories have not been told? Will never be told?

Will there ever be an science fiction/fantasy/horror/speculative fiction anthology that features three or four or *five* stories by and about indigenous Americans?

Please – that’s the future we need to aspire to.

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2 thoughts on “It’s a Steampunk Universe … Unless You’re an Indigenous American

  1. Friday Links (March Forth on March Fourth) | Font Folly

  2. link round up 10 – galhalla podcast

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