This is the first of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab that foreground experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature.
The morning sun, shy and warming, unwarming, picks up shade from the brown leaves of a tree on a forlorn street shrouded in a town’s despair. A hesitant breeze turns her eyes to the entwinement of branch and metal. Does the tree need the streetlight more, or is it the pillar that needs the tree’s touch, its unfurling of whispers, little by little, asking if there’s ever a yearning to leave?
I’m back in my apartment after an hour’s walk round the Tan track in Melbourne, having navigated joggers and walkers, masks on faces, kept the right social distance in the permitted exercise quota for stage 4 pandemic restrictions.
In this solitude of self, in a yearning for the other, an affirmation that no woman is an island, I call Genni.
Eugen: What language do you dream?
Genni: I dream in English, but it’s not my first language. I think in English, it’s never a translation. Swearing is another matter! When I’m cross, I curse in Swahili: Ng’ombe mjinga! Mbuzi nyangau!
E: Do you wonder about betwixt?
G: Loh! I’m surprised you ask me this question – you’re a scholar who’s an artist who was once a scientist. You write across forms: short story, poetry, novels, nonfiction. You write across genres: in a spectrum of literary speculative fiction. You’re an African who is now Australian, who once lived in the UK and writes for readers around the world – mostly in the US and the UK. With your dualities and multiplicities, between worlds across the self and other, you ask about betwixt?
E: I think I’m wondering about duality – does it fraction the self?
G: Let me tell you a story. I was born in a town at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro. I inherited something from my African mother – her derrière. Please don’t laugh, I’m going somewhere with this. This bum, you know the kind you put a baby on your back, and it sits, you don’t have to hold it? Growing up, I really loathed my behind. But one day it dawned on me. I realised it wasn’t going to pack its bags, get a post code of its own. I was stuck with it, and it was mine. It’s funny how you change when you grow older, now I choose clothes that bring it out – it’s an asset. What happened is I accepted this appendage that was part of me, and that first acceptance was an integral acceptance of the sum of self.
As with this bum, we don’t get to choose our cultural or other multiplicities. As human beings, we are each individually situated in our unique relationship with the world, a relationship whose distinctive situation is not closed with respect to other cultures we experience.
Like you, as an African Australian migrant, I am a person who is experiencing hybridity, where my sense of ‘otherness’ is a result of immersion in multiple or mixed cultures – you wrote about this, Eugen.
The language I have inherited and matured underpins the meaning I assign to any text. My ‘lived experience’ is that of having roots in multiple cultures. This ‘difference’ that pervades the everyday in urban settings, as cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo makes clear in his discussion of cultural borderlands in modern cities, is integral to multiple identities and voices – the sum of who you are in ‘zones of difference within and between cultures’, never a fraction of the self.
E: But is duality conflicting?
G: It can be, yes. As an African Australian, in those early years, I grappled with matters of identity – I was trying to be African, trying to be Australian. No one came up to me and said, ‘Can’t you be both?’ I had to figure this out for myself.
And I guess this is how I fell into speculative fiction, that is, a fiction of the strange. In exploring my curiosity about myself and the world, in bending genres, subgenres, I found myself creating worlds where I didn’t have to ask the questions: What colour are my characters? What languages do they speak?
In speculative fiction I could write a different kind of story only constrained by imagination. I found pleasure in the resistance to the parameters of traditional genre, which meant destabilisation, crossing boundaries, aligning with what Deleuze and Guattari produced in A Thousand Plateaus (1987).
E: Is this different kind of story what draws you to speculative fiction?
G: Yes. Speculative fiction has over decades granted authors like Octavia Butler the foundations to cultivate inclusive worlds and characters – Eugen, you wrote about this in your book Writing Speculative Fiction (2019).
Speculative fiction is a safe place to explore my dualities, my multiplicities. I can use art with subversive activism, interrogate my curiosity in ‘what if’ stories that look at social justice or injustice: equality (no one is more equal); equity (spotlighting inner and outer biases). I can experiment with Black speculative fiction that focuses on Black protagonists, paying attention to Black stories in all their possibilities.
I’m delighted to see the rise of Black voices in their fiction that may embody Afrofuturism – a term generally applied to speculative fiction that reimagines Black futures, that illuminates a new vision of Africa and the diaspora. Octavia E. Butler is sometimes called the Mother of Afrofuturism. Sharing her Blackness, I identify with Butler, who saw herself as an ‘other’ of her time in the books she read. She finally decided to ‘write herself in’ because those stories did not feature an ‘other’ like her. She wrote speculative fiction of change, sexism, power and politics, with black heroine protagonists as in Fledgling (2005) – a speculative fiction novel that stars a young black vampire girl; and in Parable of the Sower (1993) – a dystopian novel set in an imagined future, Southern California in the 2020s, featuring a black female protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, in a collapsing society affected by inequality and climate change.
Speculative fiction offers a place for me to feel safe even when interrogating complex and unsettling themes. My exploratory text draws balance and energy from theorists like Roland Barthes, who found pleasure in the text, for whom the text is a multi-dimensional space where ‘things are made and unmade’, where ‘language is infinite’ and literature is a ‘deepening and extension of language’. My experimental writing is an interaction of the work and its characters, the self and the world, a bridge to inside out.
E: What would you say to ‘purists’ who find speculative fiction an adulteration of traditional genre fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy and horror?
G: Pfft. I’d say, ‘Get over it.’ The world is not black and white.
Genre labelling is increasingly no more than a device of commercialisation – where to put a book on a shelf for the reader to find. Just think: you never go to a bookstore and say I’m looking for the latest science fiction, or the latest fantasy, or the latest horror. You say, I’m looking for the latest King, Atwood, Jemisin. And King is clever – he’s writing across genres. The Shining (1977) is an example: there’s science fiction in the time and space travel; fantasy (including magical realism) in the concept of the shining; you know what horror’s in it.
A good writer will stay curious, exploratory, immersed in a creative space that is ever redefining itself. A good reader will find affection in deviants, to the wonderment of speculative fiction that offers liberation from the pedantic approach: Is it science fiction? Or fantasy? Or horror?
E: Give me an example of some black speculative fiction you write.
G: Black speculative fiction is for me a longing, a memory. Here’s an excerpt of a story I wrote this year called ‘When the Water Stops’:
As the climate turned, it hurled at them bushfires that razed huts to the ground, dust storms that swept away families, drought – all the cattle and sheep gone, reduced to skin, then skeletons. At first, the villagers took turns on the bleed, sharing dreams and fears, understanding that as a people they were the same.
But a typical grown male has a blood volume of just five litres – a forty percent loss is deadly. The threshold thirty-nine percent has only ninety-two percent water in it, the rest is washed away in glucose, hormones, proteins, fats, vitamins, mineral salts and carbon dioxide – what good is it? C02 may induce dizziness, tiredness, restlessness, convulsions or coma. So, with all minuses, how much water in a bleed could go around a village?
They sifted the question on their minds, as volunteers sucked on cactus leaves and sap, figs and desert ants four to eight weeks, having bled for the clan, but still they were not strong enough to take another turn when it arrived.
The story is about what happens when water is so scarce, people must extract it from blood – but whose? It’s about inequality, who hurts.
I have a few new works coming up. My novel Mage of Fools is a climate fiction set in an Afrofuturistic society, a socialist country named Mafinga, with a black female protagonist. It’s a story about the spirit of humanity in the face of atrocity.
A new short story, ‘A Pod of Mermaids’, is about a Norse goddess who sends unlimited futures to little black boys but must find a way to defeat Loki’s meddling.
Or maybe I can share with you an excerpt from The Road to Woop Woop & Other Stories. It’s a story called ‘The Animal I Am’ and it’s about two Black women reminiscing, connecting past, present, future:
‘Thank you, Nisa. Mmmhh – sweet water from the gods. Makes everything else taste like hyena piss.’
‘I told you about champagne and all that, Freya. You and the high life.’
‘When in Rome . . . ?’
‘Stupid saying, and it’s Melbourne we’re in.’
‘It’s the concept, Nisa. It’s how we enter stories.’
‘Concept or not, how is that daughter of yours? She and the white man she married.’
‘K and C? They are separated.’
‘Ayah? It was raining goals at the stadium, the day they married. Though the good team was winning, I knew it wasn’t a good sign when K tore out of the house in that ivory gown of hers and started digging holes in the backyard. Do you remember what she said?’
‘She said, How do you last years with a lunatic in your face? She cried inside her veil as she clawed. He will Peter Pan me to death! she said. But you and I both knew C was no Peter Pan. But that didn’t make him a no-good husband, Nisa.’
‘Do you remember what you said to your daughter as she cried and dug with her nails?’
‘I said, Bend your f***ing knees when you dig. It’s called tough love. The astrocenter assured compatibility. There they were: Aries and Gemini. A great match, right?’
‘Mmhhh – this millet brew is something else. Why don’t you pour some more? Stop squeezing it from that calabash like it will kill you to serve it.’
‘Freya. You tell me where to get fresh millet in Hawthorn, then maybe I’ll get more generous.’
E: Why do you write?
G: There’s a power in narrative. Remember, Eugen, you wrote an essay about how narrative works to help us explore trauma? The essay is about personal narrative reflexivity, an autoethnographic research in which you draw from your own personal feeling of discontinuity and mirror awareness of being between worlds as an African migrant in Australia. You wrote it when your sister Flora died, coupled the writing that offered self-knowledge in the wake of grief with yourself as data.
So you know that narratives and narrative strategies are crucial to exploring and facilitating the nature of being human? Dominique Hecq looks at the usefulness of psychoanalysis for the creative writer, and at writing in particular. She suggests that she writes to answer incipient questions troubling her mind, or to relieve some form of anxiety where cause may not yet be symbolised. In her words, ‘I write because I must do so, exhilarating, detestable or painful though this might be’.
Like Hecq, my writing is a search, a question, a curiosity. My approach to the compositional space is with urgency, with a knowing that writing is an active speaking that emerges from a neutral position of unknowing, or a subjective position of knowing. I write… to find.
E: Where’s your writing space?
G: Mostly in my head, where I construct fragments and skeletons of an idea, sketch them on scraps of paper, anytime, anywhere.
E: What are your writing habits or idiosyncrasies?
G: I am so focused, it’s not funny. You understand this, Eugen – you finished a PhD in two-and-a-half years. That’s the kind of focus I’m talking about. A project keeps me awake – I must finish it.
E: Writing ritual?
G: I write to white noise – something in the background, mostly news, sport or music, but it’s not crucial to the writing.
E: Are you a pantser, a plotter, or somewhere in between?
G: I’m so panster, but novels and non-fiction draw out the outliner. I’m a bit random, sometimes I relook at stories, wonder about rewriting them across forms, genres… I tend to write on a trigger: a sentiment, an idea, a memory.
E: What would you like to improve about your writing?
G: I’d like to be less impatient to get things out – I’m very prolific, and don’t know how to sit on things. Nothing niggles me like a deadline.
E: Writerly crush?
G: I’m truly, madly deeply in love with Toni Morrison. Ray Bradbury too. But I recently discovered Andrew Hook – he’s a European slipstream fiction writer. I read Frequencies of Existence (2020) by NewCon Press and bought his collections: The Forest of Dead Children (2019), Human Maps (2016), Nitrospective (2011) and Beyond Each Blue Horizon (2005).
E: Reading right now…
G: Did I tell you about Andrew Hook?
E: You do know me, intimately…
G: But, of course.
E: One last question – who do you say you are, really?
G: I am a mother, an artist, a writer, a reader. I am a sum of parts. I am many, betwixt, a fusion of cultures. I am the self and other, a story of inhabitation, a multiple embodiment.
I am you.
My conversation with Genni brought a certain reassurance, right there in the apartment off a forlorn street shrouded in the town’s despair, Melbourne’s strictest lockdown. I found solace in my other. In our symbiotic relationship sometimes painted in shadows, who needed the other more?
But one thing was certain: there was never a yearning to leave.
Powerful and Moving is a collaboration between the SRB and non/fictionLab. We’ve joined forced to commission new essays by writers and academics interested in experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature.
Writers and literary organisations have become adept at talking about the value of their work in the terms dictated by funding agencies: outputs, impacts, reach. We’ve had to learn how to apply the tools of cultural measurement to our own work and practice at a time when the arts and literature is being devalued by governments. Arts funding is in decline, literature has a low profile in broader arts policy discussions, and writers have been ignored in the various COVID-19 emergency packages. What are we worth? How do we value our own work? What is valuable about literature?
In the coming months you’ll read a series of essays that address these questions by RMIT writer-researchers and leading writers from Australia and our region. Most of the essays have been commissioned in pairs, and we’ll be presenting live in-conversation events to supplement the program in 2021.
Bacon, Eugen 2016, ‘Narrative and Narrative Strategies to Explore Trauma:
‘Up Close from Afar’ – An African Migrant’s Story’, in Australasian Review of African Studies, 2016, 37(2), 129-146.
Bacon, Eugen 2019, Writing Speculative Fiction, Red Globe Press: London
Bacon, Eugen 2019, ‘Writing and Reading Speculative Fiction’ in Aurealis #120
Bacon, Eugen 2020, ‘Afrofuturism: A WorldCon Recap, and Some Thoughts’, Vector Magazine – British Science Fiction Association, viewed 20 September 2020.
Bacon, Eugen 2020, ‘The One Who Sees’ in The Road to Woop Woop & Other Stories, Meerkat Press: Atlanta
Barthes, Roland 1977, ‘The death of the author’, trans. Stephen Heath in Image, Music, Text, Fontana, London, pp. 142–148.
Conquergood, Dwight 1991, Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics. Communication Monographs, 58 June.
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix 1987, A thousand plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Gandolfo, Enza (2014, ‘Take a walk in their shoes: Empathy and emotion in the writing process. TEXT, 18 (1).
Hecq, Dominique 2008, ‘Writing the unconscious: psychoanalysis for the creative writer’, TEXT.
Rosaldo, Renato 1993, Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis: With a New Introduction, Beacon Press: Boston