Jay Kristoff has a debut novel, Stormdancer coming out this month, which is the first in a planned trilogy, set in a “Japanese-inspired steampunk dystopia”. Stormdancer is published byThomas Dunne Books/St. Martinâ€™s Press in the US, Tor UK in the United Kingdom and PanMacMillan in Australia.
He was interviewed in the September Book Smugglers Newsletter, which I always enjoy reading.
During the interview, given the obvious, The Book Smugglers responsibly ask:
Why did you decide to set your series in a Japanese-inspired world? Tell us about writing a Japanese-inspired culture – were there any particular challenges, as a non-Japanese author?
And Kristoff replies:
I wanted to write a steampunk book â€“ I find the aesthetic really interesting and I wanted to break the “rose-colored” goggles trope that a lot of SP authors are guilty of, ie looking at the advent of industrialization as something awesome, and ignoring the whole slavery/child exploitation thing it was built around. But I felt like European-based steampunk had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus, so I decided on Japan. Iâ€™ve always had a love of Japanese film and literature and culture, and it seemed an amazing cultural touchstone that no-one had really riffed on yet.
I am totally flabbergasted. It’s great that Kristoff recognises the problems with looking at industrialisation through rose-coloured goggles. But what Japanese film and literature and cultural output is Kristoff actually loving, that he can say no-one’s really riffed on steampunk with Japan as a cultural touchstone? To pick the most obvious example, Studio Ghibli is hardly an easily dismissible presence in the Japanese (and international!) cultural landscape.
He then goes on to say:
I guess the biggest challenge to is avoid the big bad â€œappropriationâ€ or â€œexoticismâ€ labels, but truth is, some people are going to start throwing those regardless. That said, the Shima Imperium is most definitely not Japan – itâ€™s only inspired by it. Iâ€™ve changed facets of language and religion and society â€“ as far as I know, there werenâ€™t many griffins or telepaths running around in feudal Japan. If you can wrap your head around the idea Shima and Japan might look a lot alike, but arenâ€™t the same place, youâ€™ll have fun.
Which I’m just going to leave there.
I’m sorry, I have a lot to do today and unravelling everything I find objectionable in this interview will take a lot of time and energy I don’t have to spare. I’m blogging about it primarily because I think it should get wider attention than perhaps the newsletter format provides – the entire newsletter, including the complete interview, can be found here.
The book itself might be great! I have nothing to say about the book. But I am super wary of Kristoff’s own words about his inspiration and process. I think they propagate and enable attitudes I find dismissive of both cultural output by Othered cultures, and of criticism resulting from Western authors attempting to use those cultures in their own work.