Jay Kristoff on Japan as a steampunk cultural touchstone

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. Martin’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 – 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. I’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.

Emphasis mine.

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 “appropriation” or “exoticism” labels, but truth is, some people are going to start throwing those regardless. That said, the Shima Imperium is most definitely not Japan – it’s only inspired by it. I’ve changed facets of language and religion and society – as far as I know, there weren’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 aren’t the same place, you’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.

  • I read this and its following post over on your Dreamwidth journal, but don’t have an account there, so commenting here.

    The gist of which is “Damn.”

    I thought the book sounded very interesting, but not so much now. Oh well, I guess that’s saved me some money and time.

  • JJ

    I cringe a little bit whenever I see this title. It is one of ours (sort of–Tom Dunne has a different editorial team), and while everyone seems to love this, I do not. Indeed, I cannot. I tried reading the first half or so, but eventually had to give up because of the cognitive dissonance. It has a lot of potential to be amazing–interesting political plot, multiple named female characters, interesting premise–but little linguistic tics and Western-seeming philosophy kept pulling me out of the narrative.

    “I have changed facets of language and religion and society.”

    I’m fine with the setting being inspired by Japan. I’m fine with Shima not being Japan. But if Shima =/= Japan, then why use the Japanese language, Japanese names, and indeed, some Japanese slang? Why not call Yukiko something like Yoorinko (I’m making this up, but I hope you see the gist) or some other name that calls to mind a Japanese-sounding name, but without being Japanese?Â

    And even if he had chosen to go the Shima is straight-up alt-Japan route, it would have been less jarring if the characters had thought and/or acted more like actual Japanese people, instead of Japanese people as filted through anime. It isn’t as though I don’t think a white man can capture a Japanese woman’s voice–I actually thought Memoirs of a Geisha (while it has other problems), was remarkably true when it came to voice and authenticity without feeling OTHER.

    I saw who blurbed this book. With one exception, they are all white men (and the exception is a white woman). I’m glad they loved it. But it makes my heart sink a little because they would not and do not see the problems with it that I do.

  • I think you’re awesome to say this, JJ, and, yeah. I’m okay with alt-Japan, although I do think authors should STILL research and do cultural consultancy, or else it’s just window dressing! But “it’s-Japanese-in-language-only-any-Japanese-speakers-are-going-to-be-distanced-from-the-book’s-linguistic-choices” is not cool.