Soup of the day with Suna Dasi of Steampunk India
Hello! Mrs Albert Baker here, otherwise known as The Last Witch Of Pendle. Obviously there is no Pendle any more, since The Chronic Agronauts utterly destroyed it with treacle and sprats, but I’ve set myself up quite nicely here in Lancaster, running this little soup kitchen for the street urchins. There certainly are a lot of them and I’m always looking for helping hands to cook up and serve something delicious!
Helping me this morning is Suna Dasi of Steampunk India ! Good morning Suna, thank you so much for coming to help me in my soup kitchen today, there is a weapons cache in the bread bin there by door if you’d like to leave your… what do you call that piece of dispachorial equipment, I have never seen anything like it!?
It’s my Aural Induction Oscillator, also known as the Earwig…and I shan’t need it while enjoying the hospitality of your kitchen! I’ll lean my pneumatic crossbow against the wall if that’s alright?
Of course! How was your journey here from your own dimension? I hope you were not waylaid by any skywaymen or land pirates en route?
Well, I was hoping you were receiving my ship’s dispatches, as I very much wished to arrive on time. Unfortunately we had some temporal flux issues – putting us about eight months off-course! – but we made it in the end. As far as pirates and other skyjackers are concerned, I’d like to see them try! My airship The DevaDasi is perfectly well equipped to deal with such situations and my pilot, Captain Gita Rohini is a force to be reckoned with.
Well you don’t look at all ruffled my dear, your outfit is amazing, did you make it yourself?
I wish I were skilled enough with my hands, but no. I’m a Pengineer, so I’m most at home in the inkwell, not the sewing kit….my saree was hand spun in Varanasi, the blouse custom fit to match. Only the embellishments are mine, which reminds me, I should have taken off the bandolier belt that holds my crossbow bolts, my apologies.
That’s quite alright! And have you brought some soup with you today to share with the orphans?
No soup, I had hoped your orphans might be adventurous enough to try some South Indian kitchree? This is the original dish that Scottish kedgeree is a derivation off. So a base of fragrant stock with ginger, galangal, some chilli, turmeric and coriander, thickened with basmati rice, chopped carrots, chickpeas, okra and green beans. My own version; you’ll find many varieties and the ‘right way’ to make it in several regions of India. I have added crumbed eggs and dried caramelised onion flakes on top. I do hope it’s not too outlandish!
Oh what a splendid idea! Thankyou! Now while that is simmering away nicely, why don’t you have a seat here by the fire and tell us what attracted you to Steampunk in the first place?
My passion existed before I discovered the word.
As a child I was fascinated by aspects of history like the Age of Sail, the history of global trade and the Age of Steam. I had a hankering for objects behaving like more than what they were designed for. I’ve always loved classic adventure novels (Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, et al may be problematic to modern sensibilities but their books are also ripping adventure stories!), vintage sci-fi, Victorian poetry, weird fiction, mythology, folklore and pantheism. I’m hugely interested in applied sciences, neuroscience and robotics. I’ve never grown out of preferring costume-type clothing incorporated in daily attire and because of my heritage I was very focused on blending in Indian elements. Corsets combined with tweed trousers, riding boots, a sash and a jacket made of saree material and a turban, or better yet, a traditional Indian saree or salwar kameez suit with Steampunk accessories are so much more enjoyable than modern Western fashion! All these things and many more besides, seemed to suddenly fall into the same category called Steampunk, or aspects of my interests were used in the world-building of Steampunk fiction.
And have you found that your own cultural heritage has influenced your participation in the genre?
Absolutely. I am less active at events and cons, but if I do, my costumes are always based on Indian dress. Mostly, though, it expresses itself in writing and that is because I wasn’t reading characters I wished to see.
When we read, we want an escape and an anchor at the same time. We want to escape into worlds beyond our own and we want a character we can anchor ourselves to, a way of sailing through the narrative.
Aside from a very few dusky damsels in distress or a few crudely drawn male martial sidekicks or stern warrior types, there was a dearth of actual Indian characters with developing stories. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s Nemo is great because we follow him through the second half of his adult life, all the way to the very end; after he dies, his daughter takes the relay baton as the protagonist. It’s almost unheard of for a non-Western character to have such a narrative run in Steampunk.
On the other hand we have the fact that the Victorian Age transformed society and made it what is today; one of the biggest ingredients of that transformation was British rule in India.
It can perhaps be understood why I felt underrepresented within the genre once I started reading the fiction on offer. India during the British occupation is a prominent and influential chapter in history, a chapter that has a deep political and cultural resonance to this day. It is really quite odd to completely ignore it as a part of the Steampunk genre. What makes engaging in Steampunk so wonderful is the re-creation of an era in history in a different mould – an era that has the Empire running roughshod over other cultures. Why not make alternate history truly alternative? Instead of writhing in post-modernist angst about what is ‘correct’, which seems to be the going trend, we should grasp the creative nettle, as it were. It is fiction: the creativity that builds alternate history must be allowed to run unimpeded or the trap of self-censoring is a very real and dangerous one. And humour. Humour is so important!
I confess to very much enjoying your writing, would you mind telling the little urchins here a little about the wonderful Steampunk world you have created?
My India has seen the Mutiny come and go, but the outcome is very different indeed. India has essentially been split into three enormous regions and the British are more or less integrated in society, depending on the region.
For my stories I have taken certain things as read: though there are traditional elements to my alternate India, it is a given that women can study, work any kind of job, have sexual relationships with whomever they please, including other women, and lead independent lives to a reasonable degree. This is not a glorious, golden army of amazing accomplished saints, however; there are thieves, cowards, degenerates and murderers among them… They are people. I have moved certain elements from Victorian Britain to the Indian setting, such as children’s workhouses, though they may not be what they seem at first glance…Mostly, it is important to me to think through of what might be in such a society. The added mythological and slightly supernatural elements, which are sparse but present, are pure fun.
Empowerment of women is a strong theme running through your fiction isn’t it? Is that something you feel particularly passionate about?
It fuels everything. I work in the creative industries, I’ve done some acting for theatre and film and I currently earn my living as a singer. The glass ceiling for women within the creative disciplines is an ever present beast. I wish this wasn’t so and there is a massive sea change occurring as we speak, in the film industry, the music industry. In fiction, I contribute in my own way by writing women (and men) in reversed roles, unexpected situations in which their reactions aren’t restricted to classic, outdated heteronormative expectations of how men and women are. (I’d like to say that I’m pretty politically incorrect in all areas however; I may not satisfy. I am satisfying me.)
At the moment, I’m actually digressing from specifically Steampunk into speculative poetry and harder Sci-Fi, both excellent formats for expanding similar ideas and great vehicles for turning some classic tropes on their head. Similarly, I’m exploring ancient Indian myth and folklore for writing fiction.
You have some wonderful, strong female characters, I particularly fell in love with the idea of the Temple Priestesses with their secret double lives, would you tell us a little more about them and how their creation come about?
It comes from the very popular and often loudly vocalised idea that all sex workers are always downtrodden doormats who had no choice and that there is no woman on the planet who would enjoy doing that kind of work. That no woman would make the autonomous choice to give the gift of sex to paying customers and actively enjoys it.
Yes, there are women who fall under this category, especially in impoverished countries. But nuance is vital. There is a history of sacred sexuality in many cultures, of ecstatic pagan worship involving orgiastic rituals and yes, of sacred prostitution as a lauded, accepted and valid path for a woman to pursue (cadres of historians and feminists serving a certain agenda will loudly naysay this, whatever I say or do) So I am writing about two strong willed, happy, sex positive, kick ass temple dancers, whose patron deity is Vajrayogini (an emanation of Chinnamasta, a left hand path Tantric goddess). They use everything in their considerable arsenal of feminine autonomous strength to solve crimes and political intrigues. The underlying reasons for them being who and what they are sound quite heavy, I know, but it will make for quite the adventure.
No one is black and white in my universe, people are complex creatures, they have flaws and foibles and they make stupid choices when they’re emotional. No one is exempt.
I am working on a short SciFi story that goes deeper into the morals and values that surround this topic, including certain strands of current sex-negative feminism.
Your writing takes the viewpoint of characters who are often looked over in society, those who come and go unnoticed but without whom 19th century society would have ground to a halt, was that a pre-meditated decision?
It was! It seems preposterous to me that worlds are built without those strata of society, especially as, when they are incorporated, it is usually in an antagonistic setting, or a classic ‘frowned upon romance across different societal layers’. Surely there can be more outside of those contexts! It’s a big part of any culture’s struggle away from restrictive caste systems, to this day many cultures only marry into families of their own social milieu and many cultures have class wars that are still ongoing – but there were far more ‘odd couple’ groups and pairings in history than recorded history lets on. In Science, in Music, in Romance….
I must say, we don’t see many Chimney Sweeps or Night Soil Men walking round Steampunk conventions do we? Do you think Steampunk would benefit from more diversity in it’s central characters, settings and themes?
I think Steampunk, like any genre or subculture, would benefit most from accepting that everyone has different ways of expressing their passion for said genre or subculture and make sure there is enough room, without being snotty or judgemental about somebody else’s enthusiasms.
With common sense and some self awareness, everyone should be able to enjoy their favourite genres.
I understand that some Steampunks especially love the etiquette and sense of inherent poshness that goes with Victoriana, but I imagine they may conveniently forget that some of the most retentive politeness in Victorian society covered up some of the most hedonistic behaviour behind closed doors, the Victorian criminal underworld was something to behold and some of the most inventive smut ever written comes from the 1800s. I should know, I’ve read quite a bit of it.
And as Steampunk is about alternate worlds and universes, what a great opportunity to incorporate everything, bloomers out and all – including the peoples and cultures of all those wondrous, far flung continents that made up the Empire.
If I may deviate from Steampunk for a moment, I have just seen Deadpool 2 and straight up loved it. One of my favourite characters is Dopinder, the starry eyed cab driver who wants to be a superhero. I’ve heard from many different directions how he is seen as a problematic character.
I thought he was hilarious and everything relating to his race was pure, unalloyed, wicked irony, especially as (spoiler alert!) he actually pulls through in the end and gets his kill in.
If I listen to most of the indignant people, apparently I should be offended. I am Indian and I wasn’t. I’ve asked fellow Indian, Pakistani and Sikh people what they thought and they all without fail thought he was great.
By the same token, there was a great outcry when the other Avengers ranted at Thor about how his brother attempted to level New York, to which Thor hastily responds: “He’s adopted”.
I was howling with mirth in my seat at that. I am also adopted. I was not offended in the least.
(I’m also very invested in the Marvelverse – I’ve been reading X-Men since I was 14 – so I will stop digressing or we’ll be here forever.)
You describe the Victorians as ‘dodgy’ my dear, which I confess did make me chuckle, do you think that, as Steampunks, we stand, at times, on slightly thin ice and have a duty to make sure that we challenge rather than glorify that ‘dodgyness’?
No, I think we should absolutely glorify the dodgyness! I think a lot of Steampunk is way too politically correct. Be the cads, scoundrels and perverts some of them were, openly and with pride. It’s the glorification of stilted manners and stuffiness that gets on my nerves. You can be a sophisticate and a thorough sexual hedonist, an autodidact scientist, mathematician and musician and a wheeler dealer in the London underground crime scene.
It’s what makes Gordon Dahlquist’s Glass Books of the Dream Eaters such an exquisite symphony of politics, science, intrigue, cultishness and sexual deviance. For me, those books are the perfect Steampunk; quite literary but not eschewing the underbelly of life and it still involves airships, steam-trains and afternoon tea. Just perfect.
And what about challenging prejudice within the genre, that’s not always easy to tackle head-on is it?
The only prejudice that continuously gets my goat is ‘more Steampunk than thou’ attitudes. Everyone is here to have a good time, whether they wear a dress with clockwork print or a full suit of armour with actual working, ticking clockwork. MAKE ROOM. YOU’RE NOT LOSING ANYTHING.
Apologies, I hope I didn’t startle you.
What would you say to those here today who might want to express their own culture and history through their Steampunk writing and costuming?
Do it. Be proud.
And what about those who might want to explore and express aspects of cultures that are not their own?
Do it. Be not an idiot about it.
Now then, I must apologise, the kettle has long been singing at us and I haven’t offered you a cup of tea! What is your poison dear and how do you take it?
Masala chai without sugar, please!
Ah, one of my favourites! There you are. Well thank you so much for coming to help out in the soup kitchen today, it’s been wonderful to chat with you! I know you are very busy at the moment, would you like to point us to where we can find out about your current projects?
Some of my work includes:
A Day in the Life or, What The Tiffin Saw, Steampunk fiction, February 2014, Brown Girl Magazine, USA
Those Dark Satanic Mills, Steampunk Novella for the Tales From the Archives anthologies, edited by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, May 2014
The Steampunk User’s Manual by Jeff VanderMeer & Desirina Boskovich, (nonfiction contribution), October 2014
The Tinku Diaries, Steam/Clockpunk fiction for The Clockwork Watch Transmedia Project & the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, November 2014
UnMade, Steampunk LGBT romance for the Steampunk Writers Around the World anthology, Luna Press, August 2017
Internal Devices, Steampunk LGBT romance for the Steampunk Universe anthology, Alliteration Ink, January 2018
Marvellous! Well now, I must say that kitchree smells delicious. I think it must be about ready and the little urchins are starting to get fidgety so shall we start dishing it up?
Let’s! I have been baking some roti’s and garlic naan to accompany the food and I have brought some jars of my homemade courgette chutney.
Splendid, thankyou so much all of you for joining us in the kitchen today – blessings on your brew my dears!