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On Steampunk and Trolls : A note from Penny

A small but unpleasant thing happened at a con recently which brought to my attention several issues that, in my naivety, reclusiveness and small-scale social paddling pool of carefully vetted beautiful-hearted human beings I had not been aware of.

But before I talk about the little incident and the road forward from there, I need to make it clear that I am speaking and writing and feeling from a situation of immense privilege. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I am half Rromani. Over the generations the parents and grandparents of my family have done all they could to merge with mainstream British culture to the point that all the children of my generation (and now my children’s generation) can live without the stigma associated with being labelled with the racist term ‘gypsy.’

That means they totally (publicly) abandoned their names, culture, religion, traditions, language, dress, beliefs… so that we could have full access to jobs, education, a social life and all the other aspects of life which they had been denied because of their ethnicity. Being Rromani was dangerous, it still is for many, and so my family hid – becoming invisible in plain sight.

Because of their sacrifice, I am able to choose to stand shoulder to shoulder with any other middle class British person, blissfully unaffected by racial issues of disadvantage or prejudice. So when I choose to reclaim, explore or celebrate aspects of my cultural heritage I am exercising that right from a position of safety and privilege ; I am able to choose to opt in or out, to reveal or to hide.

Often I choose to opt in because I feel that, if I don’t, all the beautiful and terrible things that are becoming lost will be lost forever. All the stories will pass away. I feel that the efforts of my elders will have been wasted if I don’t stand in the place their sacrifice has put me and wave their flag for them. Opre Roma? Well, here we are! And although I have endured the odd idiotic remark, that is by no means comparable to the atrocious suffering undergone by many Rromani people, both historically and today.

So when my husband and I Steampunk we always draw inspiration from Rromani history and culture (real Rromani history and culture, not this, frankly insulting, ‘steampunk gypsy’ aesthetic that can be seen wafting around the internet) and, probably because we always Steampunk small-scale with friends and family, this has never been an issue.

But this year we went to something big and I’m sad to say that we received some rather idiotic  remarks from a few other Steampunks about our overtly Rromani costumes not being ‘Proper Steampunk.’ Thankfully our children didn’t hear and obviously we didn’t run off to blub in the toilets but just got on with the day and had a marvellous time.  But it has lead my husband to say that perhaps we shouldn’t dress like that anymore (in case it happens again and the children do hear and get upset), that we should just wear top hats, goggles and lots of high tech gadgetry to try and fit in more rather than stand out as something outside the norm, perhaps we’re ruining it for the mainstream and they don’t want people to stray from the approved aesthetic? Or perhaps they just don’t understand and it’s not worth trying to educate them.

Well I thought about it long and hard – at first I have to say I was shell shocked because I’d always assumed that my small but very diverse circle of educated, enlightened, all-accepting and utterly beautiful friends was reflective of the entire Steampunk Community. I did some snooping, hoping to discover that my first impressions had been correct and that what we experienced was a one off… sadly I found lots of folks had had similar experiences … but happily I also found that lots of folks like us were trying to put their own cultural stamp on Steampunk and THAT I felt was something to dwell on, to pay attention to, to celebrate and to encourage.

Professor Elemental tells us ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and Nimue Brown’s beautiful poem tells us not to give attention to the idiots of the world but to raise high those who are doing good things.

I need to respond to what happened, because it left such a nasty taste in my mouth, and fortunately I am in a position that enables me to choose to respond by ignoring those trolls and instead drawing attention to as many fabulous folks as I can find who are doing good things and helping to make our community diverse, interesting, welcoming, representative, inclusive and fun for everyone who wants to be a part of it – because I think that for the most part it is!

So I stand very awkwardly, very humbly, and very nervously before you all today, in the shadow of those far better and wiser than me, on the shoulders of those far stronger and more deserving, hoping to spend some time celebrating the diversity that already exists within our wonderful Steampunk world by bringing together some fantastic writers, artists, musicians and creators who are actively shaping the genre into a really splendid scene to be a part of. (rather than an exclusive, fusty old gentleman’s club stuck up it’s own rear end).

So that is what will be happening here over the next few months ( I mean, hopefully it sort of inadvertently happens already!)

Nimue Brown spoke recently about creating types of sacred space, the more we all work together to try and create sacred spaces where we can celebrate and explore our own histories and cultures side by side through the medium of punk fiction, the more the trolls will be pushed to the sidelines where they belong.

(Thankyou for humouring me. Apologies for the interruption to the usual schedule of frivolity and mayhem, normal tea service will resume as soon as octopoidly possible…)

😉  – Penny


10 responses

  1. I don’t really know what to say. A lot of nastiness in the world today that people think is okay to voice out loud now.

    Here in America, I know exactly why that is. What I don’t know, is what to do about it.

    I’m sorry you had this experience, and clearly you must do as you see fit going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 5, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    • smithandskarry1

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply Elizabeth – I always find your blog inspiring and thought provoking 🙂 – I suppose I have been sheltered from this aspect, only attending safe, small geek gatherings like picnics and larping around with friends (wimp that I am!) I still don’t believe that there are many folks out there who would act so pathetically but obviously there are some, which is really sad. I’ve done some snooping around and it seems that when confronted / challenged these same folks can get really defensive and aggressive so I don’t think that is the way forward – certainly with my family in tow I was not about to cause a scene, we just moved away from them quickly, they followed us around for a few minutes but soon got bored as we pretended we hadn’t noticed them. It’s strange because most of the Steampunk I’ve read is very diverse and inclusive… maybe these folks are not aware of the vast kettle of fish that constitutes the written limbs of the genre? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      September 6, 2017 at 8:13 am

      • I can tell you it happens in a lot of places. There was something called Gamergate here where a couple of women were harassed and threatened for daring to have something to do with video games. I don’t understand it. I can’t understand it.

        I honestly don’t know what to do about it.

        Liked by 1 person

        September 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm

      • smithandskarry1

        That is dreadful! I’m constantly shocked by all this – at school (going back a bit!) we geeks tended to stick together,not bully eachother. I don’t really understand the mentality of some people. The only way I can personally think to respond is by ignoring the idiotic minority and drawing attention to the splendid folks instead but perhaps if bullying at conventions is a ‘thing’ then some mechanic (lol) ought to be put in place to deal with it. You’d think that as we’re all adults our behavious wouldn’t need playground-esq policing but on the other hand people ought to feel safe attending cons and be able to enjoy themselves without being harassed. I mean workplaces have structures to protect their workers from harassment don’t they? Hm…


        September 11, 2017 at 8:11 am

      • I read an interesting article about Travellers in the US that are still maintaining their culture and often meet with the same kind of reactions when they arrive in smaller towns. I know he does a lot of research, though I’m not a judge for the accuracy, but you might enjoy David Bridger’s books. The title that comes to mind as one that has key elements is Gifted, but he has another series which is a neat (at least to me) fantastical spin on Travellers in the UK.

        Liked by 1 person

        September 11, 2017 at 7:37 pm

      • smithandskarry1

        He sounds interesting, will definitely check him out! 🙂 x

        Liked by 1 person

        September 12, 2017 at 6:41 am

  2. I’m sorry you had to experience that first hand, but there’s a lot of the “proper” steampunk going around. Luckily, I’ve found there are as many who want to celebrate the innovation and imagination as well as draw on a broader cultural view than the frankly stereotypical and highly inaccurate view of Victorian England.

    If you’d be willing to share (and I’ll check for posts I missed), I’d love to see pictures of your garb (being one of those to celebrate not scorn). The images of the Romani I’ve seen have been like the nomadic people I met when in Iran (I can pronounce their name but it has some non-English sounds in in and I refuse to mangle it :)), so it may also be a case of lumping people together because of a slight commonality (nomadic, in this case) rather than complete inaccuracy. Still, there’s nothing more frustrating than having someone from the outside tell you how you’re supposed to be, think, or feel.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 5, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    • smithandskarry1

      Thanks Margaret – you’re right, there is so much cultural celebration , diversity and inclusive-vibe around which is what made the thing so shocking. You also raise an interesting point about the ‘lumping people together’ and I realise that it probably doesn’t help that a lot of Victorian ‘Gypsy’ photos and paintings were of non-Romani people dressed up or of Romani women who were paid (having their poverty and lack of power exploited just as any other poor girl of those times) to dress up and pose in ways that went expressly against their culture, so anyone wanting to explore our culture and history probably has their work cut out. That being said, we should probably only portray cultures we have researched thoroughly and check our sources carefully especially when portraying groups who are still being persecuted today. I’ve invited some other Rromani writers to the soup kitchen to talk about this as well 🙂 Thanks so much for asking about photos – I’m going to do a post in a couple of weeks about portraying Rromani accurately and Rromani 19th century history and there will be photos I promise! 🙂 x

      Liked by 1 person

      September 6, 2017 at 8:43 am

      • I look forward to seeing it. The history of the Romani has always attracted me because it hits on misunderstanding and poor judgment related to difference themes I explore in my books though I ducked it with Bell for exactly the reason you state above: I have read some things, but there’s both the question on their accuracy and knowing I don’t know enough to accurately portray it even in an alt history. I did want to make mention of it though, and Bell made for a perfect chance, because of how people think of travelers. I’m more familiar with the Irish tinker, but the treatment has many similarities.

        Liked by 1 person

        September 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      • smithandskarry1

        Thanks Margaret 🙂 I love your books and the way that you highlight the issues that exist between the powerful and the powerless in societies and the way those perceived as ‘different’ are treated with mistrust and misunderstanding. I have an enormous amount of respect for writers like yourself who realise the need for Rromani culture to be represented with the same sensitivity and authenticity as any other culture. There is sadly a lot of literature both online and in print that gives false and prejudiced information but there is also a lot put out by our own scholars and (contrary to popular belief) we have a good body of written fiction and poetry as well. I’m going to give a list of some good sources along with the costume pics and other info so hopefully that will be of interest 🙂 In Britain there has always been both friendship and tension between our people and the other Travellers (Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh) we are completely different in our ways and beliefs but are often lumped together in legislation and social commentary, Obviously with the Rromani who have been unable to settle and forced to live in tents and, much later, in Vardos, there has been some mixing but, certainly in the settled community (and most Rromani people do live in houses) there is a strong desire to distance ourselves from them, if only to retain our own cultural identity – a thing we have always had to fight for and even today in Britain are still fighting for as a new ruling is attempting to enforce that we can only call ourselves Rromani if we are travelling for a certain amount of time each year (insanity!) Sorry, I digress! 😉 But yes you are right, the prejudice against all those who travel or are ‘homeless’ is the same no matter what your culture.

        Liked by 1 person

        September 11, 2017 at 8:04 am

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