Why 1001 Nights Isn’t Your Best Multicultural Steampunk Reference

This week, I welcome two special guests to the web journal. They are Day Al-Mohamed and Danielle Ackley-McPhail, authors of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn published by Dark Quest Books. Here’s a look at the cover and the back cover text:


    Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined. A tale of wonders, of deeds both great and grievous, of courage that defies description, and above all, Child of Adam, I shall tell you a tale of love.

    The night is for the telling of tales to which the morning may bear Truth. In the oldest of days and ages and times, there was, and there was not, a great evil that reached across the desert and beyond…

    In the Nejd there is nothing at all … except secrets. A band of thieves wish such secrets to remain hidden.

    In England, far from his desert home, Ali bin-Massoud serves as apprentice to the famed Charles Babbage. One night a mysterious box is delivered by a clockwork falcon and Ali’s world is never the same again. Heartache, danger, and thieves mark his journey as Ali is summoned home at the death of his father.

    It will take faith, knowledge, and yes, love to realize his destiny, and more than a little skill with steam-driven technology. Can he unravel the mystery of the puzzle box and the clockwork djinn before it is too late? An ancient legacy and Ali’s very life depend on it.

    Hear you the tale of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.

Without further ado, let me turn this over to Day who discusses Multicultural Steampunk and why 1001 Nights is not your best reference.

First, before I say anything, I want to give a shout out to Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk. No, I don’t know Diana (other than via the ‘Net) but we share similar hopes for the future of our beloved Steampunk. It is a great place to explore the idea of what multicultural steampunk actually means and understand: 1. Why there is a need/desire for greater diversity in the genre, and 2. Why, because of the nature of the time period with its expansionist and colonialist (as well as racist and misogynist) underpinnings should be approached with respect, a healthy caution, and some good research.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is loosely based on “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” for some of the story plot points, and for some of the fairytale aesthetic in how it is written. However, we worked very hard to try and step away from the original tale. Why? Because, in truth, there is no “original” tale and what many of us have grown up with is a translation of a translation. And perhaps most damning of all, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” was a tale that was rewritten through a Victorian lens.

An article in Steampunk Magazine captures this really well with regard to characters. As an example of how easy it is to fall into using the Victorian stereotype rather than exploring cultures directly they highlight the “What Is Your Steampunk Style?” online quiz featured on steamfashion.

    “The results of this quiz emphasize how white, European Victorian types are playful, interesting, and exciting: the Aristocrat, the Scientist, the Officer, the Explorer. On the flip side, representations that do not conform to the Western-European aesthetic are not featured, and the reason why they are omitted is obvious. This is because while Eurocentric Victorian types in steampunk fiction are depicted as positive and enjoyable, non-European Victorian types live on as today’s damaging stereotypes: The Dragon Lady & China Doll/Geisha Girl, The Savage, The Deceptive Mystic, The Manservant, The Ursurer, The Indian Princess.”

To give an example that is more pertinent to “Baba Ali” let me reference one of my “Book Secrets” posts where I talk about the differences in translation.

    Gloss translation of Arabic: ‘When it was in the middle of the night he remembered something he had forgotten in his palace, so he returned and entered his palace finding his wife laying in her bed embracing one of the black slaves, and seeing this, the world became black in his face.’

    Richard Burton (arguably one of the most popular translations): ‘But when the night was half spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet-bed, embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight…’

In the former, the skin color is a description; in Burton’s translation, it burgeons into something completely different. The result was that in our search for realism in how races and genders related, what people wore, elements of their daily life, and even elements of how their stories were told, we had to find other sources – travelogues, arab folktale collections, old maps, and even a personal letter or two from expats living overseas at the time.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing multicultural steampunk, quite the opposite. We need more, lots more! 🙂 I just don’t want writers to be lazy. It is important to be as detailed in research for specific cultures as it is for the historical time period. It is not dismissing or ignoring a culture, it is not stereotyping, and it is not eroticizing. It is doing your homework and looking for what is real and authentic.

This can be slightly more difficult as many of the materials from that time period are written from the perspective of European nations but in the last few years there has been a significant rise in scholarship that gives us greater views into the world as it was versus how the West saw it. And in truth, isn’t that a much more interesting story?

Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed is author of the novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale, written with Danielle Ackley-McPhail. Day hosts the multi-author blog “Unleaded: Fuel for Writers”, and in addition to speculative fiction, she also writes comics and film scripts.

Her recent publications are available in “Daily Science Fiction,” Crossed Genres anthology Oomph – A Little Super Goes a Long Way, Sword & Laser, and GrayHaven Comics’ anti-bullying issue “You Are Not Alone.” The anthology, Trust & Treachery, for which she served as co-editor, was released May 1st and two more comics are due to be released this year, as well as several short stories. Her two film shorts were recently shown on local Virginia cable television, and two more are in pre-production. She is an active member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, a member of Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

When not working on fiction, Day is Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor focusing on Youth. She has also worked as a lobbyist and political analyst on issues relating to Health care, Education, Employment, Disability, and International Development. She is a proud member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, loves action movies, and drinks far too much tea. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife, N.R. Brown, in a house with too many swords, comic books, and political treatises.

She can be found online at DayAlMohamed.com and @DayAlMohamed


Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for longer than she cares to admit. Currently, she is a project editor and promotions manager for Dark Quest Books.

Her published works include five urban fantasy novels, Yesterday’s Dreams, Tomorrow’s Memories, Today’s Promise, The Halfling’s Court: and The Redcaps’ Queen: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale, and a young adult Steampunk novel, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, written with Day Al-Mohamed. She is also the author of the solo science fiction collection, A Legacy of Stars, the non-fiction writers’ guide, The Literary Handyman, and is the senior editor of the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series, Dragon’s Lure, and In an Iron Cage. Her work is included in numerous other anthologies and collections.

She is a member of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, the New Jersey Authors Network, and Broad Universe, a writer’s organization focusing on promoting the works of women authors in the speculative genres.

Danielle lives in New Jersey with husband and fellow writer, Mike McPhail, mother-in-law Teresa, and three extremely spoiled cats. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail, badassfaeries, darkquestbooks, lit_handyman), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). To learn more about her work, visit www.sidhenadaire.com, www.literaryhandyman.com, or www.badassfaeries.com.

6 comments on “Why 1001 Nights Isn’t Your Best Multicultural Steampunk Reference

  1. Thanks for this post, David. I enjoyed the perspective on cultural sources and some assumptions we may not even be aware we are making.

  2. dayalmohamed says:

    Glad y’all enjoyed it. Obviously, having more steampunk and more diverse steampunk is really important to me. I go into a bit more detail as to how “writing neutral” doesn’t really work in another post that I think offers additional context. (http://anneejohnson.blogspot.com/2014/07/writing-baba-ali-and-clockwork-djinn_17.html) but let me quote:

    “We’re taught to think to the default and that default is white, male, and heterosexual.

    A great example via Valerie Alexander: In the World Cup, commentators regularly referred to Landon Donovan as the “all-time U.S. leading goal scorer.” He has 57 international goals. Abby Wambach has 167. The second highest scorer is Mia Hamm at 158 and Kristine Lilly at 130. Notice something? They’re all women. When we talk and think about the sport, the “neutral” is men’s.”

    Similar things happen when it comes to reading and writing race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ability (to name a few). There is no neutral. So when you don’t mention any of those things, you ARE making a choice.

    And it isn’t always easy to see, or do something about. As a woman of color with a disability, one would assume that I have addressed this or am at least critical of my own work…nope. Looking back recently realized that a lot of my characters and worlds fell into that same trap of writing the default.

    Anyway, glad y;all took the time to read my post and that it was helpful.

  3. […] as many people call it. *sigh*  And while I love those stories, as I mention in “Why 1001 Nights Isn’t Your Best Multicultural Steampunk Reference” it isn’t exactly an unbiased source. Is that why no one references Middle Eastern […]

  4. dm yates says:

    This sounds like a book I’d really enjoy.

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