Eugen M. Bacon

A chat with Eugen Bacon

Author Interviews

Eugen Bacon on her latest science-fiction collection, Danged Black Thing that explores Blackness and womanhood in afrofuturistic settings.

1 November 2021

1. The book shows inspirations from a huge range of sources, from sci-fi classics to Norse myth. What are some works or writers who inspire you / who you’ve drawn influence from?

I have always been fascinated with Loki and Norse mythology. But I grew up on African literature and was drawn to Camara Laye’s sensitivity in his novel The African Child, and Chinua Achebe’s tragic hero Okonkwo—colonialism got the better of him—in Things Fall Apart. I was also very drawn to literary fiction and at once fell in love with Toni Morrison and Anthony Doerr, Andrew McGahan.

I talk about Peter Temple in my essay ‘The New Seduction of an Old Literary Crime Classic’ by LitHub, and pay homage to him and Michael Ondaatje in ‘Peaches and Lemons’:

‘Peaches and Lemons’ is an impressionistic piece that seeks to bestow poetic homage to two diverse writers of literary fiction. Authors whose works clasp my palm in a personal and accessible way, who take me gallivanting to poignant places... This piece showcases Divisadero (Ondaatje 2007) and Truth (Temple 2009) as cunning, superbly crafted. Ondaatje and Temple spotlight mood, reorient prose, court characterisation to such extent the reader is seduced, deluded.

I swooned into speculative fiction and found much to gain in Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, among many whose works, respectively, charted new ground.

I love collections, and remember being quite taken with Lisa L Hannett’s Songs for Dark Seasons and Margo Lanagan’s Stray Bats.

2. What drew you to speculative fiction?

Curiosity… always curiosity, what if?

3. There are such complete worlds set up in these stories. Would you consider extending any of them into longer pieces?

I have considered, more than a few times, to continue, rather than expand ‘The Water Runner’. In this climate fiction, Zawadi—in decrepit Old Dodoma—longs for New Dodoma:

It was extraordinary, beautiful that world, a place you got beer with a haircut. There, streets had names like Miriam Makeba Road, Fela Kuti Drive, Kidjo Avenue, Masekela Lane. Towers steepled to the sky, esplanades and water everywhere. (pp. 22-23, Danged Black Thing).

4. The stories in Danged Black Thing travel through time and follow a myriad of identities, could you expand on your fascination with moving through time and identities?

I love experimenting. My writing reflects my hybridity, collisions, transformations, and longings that reimagine unlimited futures for Black people. These reflect in my characters and their quests.

5. One of the things that stood out to me with Danged Black Thing is how the stories take the reader all around the African continent. Is there a reason why you chose to set these peces throughout Africa rather than one or two countries?

I prefer neutral settings that could be anywhere in the speculative world. I never consciously go out of my way on a specific location—each story nudges its own characters and place.

In ‘De Turtle o’ Hades’, a collaboration with E Don Harpe, we sought to write the alternate history of an African dictator—Idi Amin in Uganda fell naturally into the story.

‘The Unfailing Name’ is a collaboration with Seb Doubinsky—a bilingual French dystopian writer. We wanted an Afrofrancophone story, hence Jolainne’s origins in Kinshasa.

‘Still She Visits’ is a raw story I wrote when my sister died of AIDS. I offer a ‘behind the story’ in Hadithi & the State of Black Speculative Fiction, a collaboration with Milton Davis. It’s a cathartic story that was too close, too painful… to set in Tanzania where my sister died—I isolated myself from trauma by locating it in Botswana.

But I was deliberate in my upcoming Mage of Fools, an Afrofuturistic novel in a dystopian world set in a country called Mafinga.

Mafinga is a district in Tanzania’s Iringa region, where I did compulsory national service. On independence, Tanzania became socialist and adopted ‘Ujamaa’—a concept of familyhood and community. For all its good intentions, I believe socialism was an impairment that ultimately failed. Tanzania is one of the poorest 15 nations in the world today.

6. ‘A Taste of Unguja’ is set during the pandemic in Melbourne. Are there any other ways that the current pandemic affected your writing in this book?

I was very prolific during the pandemic, wrote and published books, stories, essays and prose poetry. I talk about it in my essay ‘Saving My Shadows’ in an upcoming nonfiction book titled Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations on Creating Pan-African Speculative Fiction in the Pandemic Period, edited by Oghenechovwe Ekpeki Donald.

In it, I share three things that happened in 2020 that I most cared about: 1) the COVID-19 pandemic, 2) events surrounding Black Lives Matter and 3) the US presidential elections.

7. DID BAPOTO GET THE JOB (‘Rain Doesn’t Fall on One Roof’)?

That would be telling! I’d like to think the best possible outcome for Bapoto in whom I see elements of myself at different points in life.

As a migrant with no family close, you can be cash-strapped and keen to earn an earnest living, but there’s no-one to help you. All you see are walls closing every which way in what is sometimes mostly about ‘fit’. Do you want to change your accent, or the shape of your nose, or the colour of your skin? And even if you could, did… would you ‘fit’?

I want the best for Bapoto with every fibre of my being. But the world—in its unpredictable dystopian self—is a conundrum.

8. In many of the stories, water is a priceless commodity. Why water?

I have a special affinity with water, perhaps because I am a water child. I also want to pay attention to topical themes like climate change, to become the author as an agent of revolution, prophesising with dire warnings what our world might look like if we don’t act now.

9. Do you have any favourite pieces of literature that make you feel represented?

A lot has happened across the years since Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. Anthologies and collections continue to raise the awareness of Black people and their stories.

Two at the top of my mind are Dominion, An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora and The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021).

It was amazing to see Nalo Hopkinson become Grand Master, a recognition of lifetime achievement in science fiction and fantasy literature—this made her the youngest person and the first woman of colour to win this award. And wasn’t it something to see N.K. Jemisin on the 2021 TIME list as one of the 100 most influential people of 2021?

There’s a little more Black representation in publishing today, but we’re not there yet.

10. Finally, I just wanted to say that I love the way you wrote women and Blackness in Danged Black Thing. We’re so excited for it to finally be out and for people to read this wonderful collection that you've put together.

I am truly glad to see how well you got my stories — this is an author’s earnest wish.

Eugen M. Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Foreword Book of the Year, Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Awards for Speculative Fiction by Africans. Her novella Ivory’s Story was shortlisted in the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards. New releases: Danged Black Thing, story collection by Transit Lounge Publishing (2021), Mage of Fools, an Afrofuturistic dystopian novel by Meerkat Press (2022), Chasing Whispers, story collection by Raw Dog Screaming Press (2022). Website: / Twitter: @EugenBacon