Foreword This Week
February 11, 2021
Reviewer Tanisha Rule Interviews Eugen Bacon, Author of The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories
It’s not often that we can say, with confidence, that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a career of significance—usually, such realizations only come when we’re looking back! But two years ago, when we received Eugen Bacon’s debut novel, Claiming T-Mo, we had that prickling sensation, that sense of awe that comes with knowing that you’re in the presence of something special. At the time, reviewer Peter Dabbene picked up on it, too, calling Claiming T-Mo “unforgettable” and acknowledging that it had “a unique, often bizarre style” that was all its own. Other review outlets and award nominations confirmed: Eugen Bacon’s was a voice of the future.
Naturally, we’re excited to see everything that Eugen produces; when The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories arrived this fall, covering it was a fast decision. This time, reviewer Tanisha Rule had the lucky job of diving into Eugen Bacon’s surprising, imaginative worlds; she called the book’s cast “refreshing [and] diverse,” and called its stories “smart” and “daring.” And yes, “bizarre” appeared again—a testament to the fact that Eugen’s work is doing something so special and unexpected that you’ll want to get in on the fun.
In a short span of time, Dr. Eugen Bacon—she has a background in science, IT, and literature—has added to her canon with Writing Speculative Fiction (Macmillan) and Speculate: A Collection of Microlit (Meerkat Press), in addition to The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories (also by Meerkat). Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted, or commended for numerous international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards, and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans. And we know, not suspect, that this is just the beginning.
When we pitched the idea of an interview, Tanisha jumped at the chance to engage with Eugen in a discussion about how she became a writer, how her work has been received, and about the astonishment that comes when you’re entering into well-constructed speculative fiction worlds. Tanisha, take it from here.
Dr. Bacon, you describe yourself in your bio as “a computer graduate mentally re-engineered into creative writing.” Will you tell us more about your background?
I started with a Master of Science degree with distinction in distributed computer systems from the University of Greenwich, and worked in various IT roles, including help desk, service delivery, and incident management.
I then discovered a new role in corporate communications and completed a Master of Arts degree in writing and went on to do a PhD in writing. When I’m not writing or editing (I’m a professional editor), my corporate role is as a communications manager, often in IT or technical projects.
How do the sciences influence your writing?
Speculative fiction writers know that nothing is black or white. There are all shades of grey and the colourless: hybrid creatures, parallel universes … Hard science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, or Larry Niven created art that leveraged from science.
In a 2008 study of “geniuses” and creative proclivity, Robert Root-Bernstein et al, determined that arts foster scientific accomplishment. The investigation considered Nobel laureates, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi members and concluded that most geniuses are polymaths—the Greek term for a person whose expertise spans across various subject areas. An inspection of biographies, autobiographies, and obituary notices uncovered notable artistic ability, as in music, painting, or literary creation, in these geniuses, affirming them as “hybrids;” well-adjusted all-rounders’ with ability to be both scientists and artist-humanists.
And perhaps there is no true artist or scientist, but rather inhibited polymaths who could well benefit from exercising both sides of their brain.
As an artist, I learn structure, organised scepticism, curiosity, attention to detail, adaptive persistence, and a solutions focus from science. As a scientist, I learn passion, aesthetics, vision, creativity, inherent meaning, diversity, uniqueness, and the non-linear from art.
Through speculative fiction I can ask fundamental philosophical questions, interrogate the past and learn from it, contemplate a future with paradigm-shifting possibilities.
Is there a particular story in The Road to Woop Woop that highlights a message you find especially urgent at this moment in time?
The core theme in this collection was stories that were dirges—a loss of someone, something. But also a playfulness. Transcendence. I connect strongly with many stories, like “The Animal I Am,” a mischievous dialogue: two black women reminiscing, connecting past, present, future. “The One Who Sees” is a story of belonging that interrogates the city/town/village divide, and a child’s yearning to understand. “Swimming with Daddy” is a migrant story of longing, reaching for knowledge, connecting with tradition, self, and family. “He Refused to Name It” tugs my heart—a man’s pining and disconnect with his child.
But most urgent in its message for today is “A Maji Maji Chronicle”—the good and evil in us all, and what happens when one starts acting upon their perceived superiority.
In “A Maji Maji Chronicle” without spoiling it for those who haven’t yet read it, an opportunity arises to change the past in a way that puts the colonized in the shoes of colonizers. The formerly oppressed ultimately reacts in distaste to their changed role in history. Will you talk a bit about that story as in how and why the new role became an affront to their character?
The African culture—perhaps my culture, as Africa is not a country or culturally unified—gives weight to ancestry, community, memory (as in storytelling), and the perpetuation of name through descendants. Chief Ngosi’s early words speak to this:
I am a leader and a warrior. The bones and blood inside my body cannot stay silent. If I sat like a stone and did nothing for my people, I’d be alive but dead. No one would sing of my creation, my story, my journey. There’d be no fire, wind, or kingfish song. Not even a frog song. No one would tell stories to my children and their children’s children.
When he becomes the tyrant Emperor Ngosi, he loses himself and everything integral to his core—personally, culturally, societally.
You said to the World Fantasy Convention in 2020 that some of your writing is like coming out of the closet and that you are writing about others who are like yourself. Can you explain for us the importance of representation in books as you see it?
I was a panelist in an event where one panel member shared that she’d never imagined she was bisexual until she wrote a bisexual story. Suddenly, it was right there in her face. It had been there all along, just a little dormant.
I related with her experience—not that my Blackness was dormant. But having lived in the UK and then Australia, mostly white, I was trying to blend in, to deflect from being different. My desire to belong was at the expense of my intrinsic self. Looking back to the characters in my stories early on, they were ivory-skinned, platinum-haired, hazel-eyed. I was submitting these stories to white editors and publishers, mostly for white readers.
Something happened, an inner stirring, a calling from the self. I wanted to be more. To accept myself more. And the validation to write myself in stories, to see characters I could relate to, came when I became more established as a writer. Perhaps doing the PhD also emboldened me, and I was open to experiment in different kinds of writing.
(I began to understand and appreciate myself as an African Australian. The one is not exclusive from the other. I interrogate the solitude of self, a yearning for the other, in my article: “Inhabitation - Genni and I.”)
The world is diverse. It’s important, now more than ever, to represent this diversity in literature. Speculative fiction can help us safely explore our place in the universe.
My Black writing is not an exclusion: it’s an invitation. Come, see my world.
What one thing do you hope readers take away from reading The Road to Woop Woop?
I hope this collection speaks to people in their own way. Each review astonishes me in what the reader sees. The Road to Woop Woop is an invitation and a promise. It highlights the power of story, how special the short story in its immediacy.
Featured Reviews of the Week
Children’s Picture Books
The Greatest Showpenguin, by Lucy Freegard (Pavilion): “Poppy the penguin comes from a long line of performers, but, try as she might, she just can’t fit in with her family’s loud, high-flying acts. Opening up to her family about her feelings allows her to realize a way to be true to both herself and her family legacy.” Review by Danielle Ballantyne.
The City of Good Death, by Priyanka Champaneri (Restless Books): “A breathtaking, unforgettable novel about how remembering the past is just as important as moving on.” Starred review by Eileen Gonzalez.
Children’s Picture Books
Where’s Rodney?, by Carmen Bogen; Floyd Cooper, illustrator (Yosemite Conservancy): “A city boy unused to the great outdoors, Rodney is awed and enchanted when a field trip takes him to a majestic park where he can finally be free to explore the wonders of nature.” Review by Pallas Gates McCorquodale.
The Hare, by Melanie Finn (Two Dollar Radio): “A bold and authentic novel concerned with the time-consuming, socially defiant, and brutal work of women’s self-actualization.” Review by Michelle Anne Schingler.