Books + Publishing
15 September 2021
Lyrical, rich, oftentimes dark and sometimes hopeful, Danged Black Thing is a speculative fiction collection that takes the reader on a journey from Africa to Australia. The cities and villages the stories are set in are sometimes familiar, while others are plucked fully formed from author Eugen Bacon’s imagination, providing a vast backdrop to her exploration of the emotional costs of being a woman. In ‘Unlimited Data’ Natukunda is coerced into accepting a microchip implant in her neck that provides unlimited data for her partner: ‘A woman is the queen of the earth. The code needs your fertile body to work properly.’ This chip inevitably kills her and many others. Meanwhile in ‘Phantasms of Existence’ a mother loses a child during birth, while another prays she’s not pregnant. ‘Still She Visits’ explores the familial ghosts that follow us, and the trauma of leaving everything behind in hopes for a better life. These are just a handful of the 17 stories that can be found in Danged Black Thing. Its pages contain vibrant and complex female characters that I have come to love and admire. Their strength and resilience inspire, but Bacon does not shy away from the bleak and devastatingly harsh nature of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Where men rule, there will be women who suffer. With the lyricism of Toni Morrison and the worldbuilding of Ken Liu, Bacon secures herself as an important voice in Australian genre fiction. Danged Black Thing is the feminist science fiction debut that brings women and Blackness to the forefront.
—Jing Xuan Teo, Books+Publishing
Jian Xuan Teo is the co-founder of Amplify Bookstore, Australia’s first BIPOC specialist bookstore.
The Australian—27 November 2021
Dive into the literary deep end
Eugen Bacon’s short fiction collection is marvellous in myriad ways, writes Sam Cooney
Usually a book can be decently unpacked in a piece of criticism, even one this short. A summarising of the key aspects of the text, plus some broader context and exegetical evaluation – that’s typically enough to equip book-readers. However, know now that Eugen Bacon’s short fiction collection Danged Black Thing is a far-flung outlier. It’s so marvellous in such myriad ways – and so different from any other writing being published currently, at least in this country – that all a critic can hope for is to whet your appetite.
Born in a Tanzanian town at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, before her family moved to Kenya, Bacon as an adult has lived in the UK, and now lives in Melbourne. This is reflected in the global feel of this collection, with many cities and countries, real and imagined – even if the undercurrent throughout is defiantly Australian, and also African.
Bacon’s identity powers her work; she’s said: “I love writing across genre because it depicts my own duplicity, my own diversity. I am an African Australian, I am a sum of many; I am a mother, writer, editor, woman, reader, daughter, friend. All those multiplicities come into my writing.”
Danged Black Thing contains seventeen short fictions of varying lengths. A small number fit neatly under the genre of literary fiction – these seem to draw directly from the author’s real life. The rest are less simple to categorise, but we’re fortunate that Bacon herself in an interview has tried, saying that this work is “dark fiction, it is literary-strange, it is black speculative fiction. They’re stories about betwixt; they’re stories about hauntings; they’re stories about unlimited futures.”
The speculative fiction elements are handled terrifically well – there is nothing hamfisted or inconceivable about her “what if” scenarios. The wonderings in the stories are simply starting points, frameworks with which Bacon uses explore her characters and themes, as well as pondering complex philosophical and political ideas.
The alternative futures or worlds are always an extension of the present. In a time of boundless drought, one character visits the recently dead to extract their water, while her lover’s job is to “dry-wash old people”: “Like her, he worked in government. He was a groomer … Took orders on ping like her; biochemicals and a handheld hoover did the rest.”
Even more impressive is Bacon’s formal style as it applies to her speculating. Her sentences demand slow reading – ones in which you lose yourself in the best way; they are like diving into the literary deep end. Yes, they’re a challenge to the contemporary ever-more-splintering haywire mind, but be not hasty: slowness here equals delight.
It’s such a joy to read successful speculative fiction that is this lyrical, this poetic. Not only are Bacon’s various imaginings and her subtle world-building utterly convincing, but she also understands that the words and sentences themselves, the phrasings and cadence, is where the speculation must also do its work. Like a painter using oils or watercolours, Bacon wields her text in unique swirls and slashes; her writing on the page is Edvard Munch on canvas.
Take this description of a dead mongrel in the opening story: “Silence is a dog rooted on the ground, no heart behind it. Smell is a non-event whose jaw is wide open, eyes glassed in shock. It’s the maggots that carry the answer … coiling, uncoiling, negotiating with the corpse, draping around each other in a sepia slime of focus.” Or the opening line of another: “I was passing through an altered line-up of suspects removed from linear time, but none revealed their wind or percussion, not even a state of mind.”
In a more general sense, Bacon keenly understands the short fiction form – its limits, but also what can be done in short that can’t possibly be done long. Some of her stories are full of mystery, never easily comprehended; they’re so beautiful open, so willing to withstand easy interpretation.
Bacon’s writing is so assured, so deliberate, so interesting – reading it, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this book for one by a best-selling international author with decades of publishing under their belt and a large editorial machine behind them. Kudos to the author for forging her own path and maintaining such high standards, and to Transit Lounge for publishing this work.
Good news for us all is that there’s already more Bacon in the pipeline: she’s recently signed with a US-based small press for another collection of short fiction and a book of essays on Afrofuturism and black writing. In the meantime, I would be very surprised – and profoundly dismayed – if Danged Black Thing doesn’t at least feature on major literary prize shortlists in 2022.
Sam Cooney is an editor, publisher, writer and critic
The Big Issue – November/December 2021
Time and place are distinctly fluid in Eugen Bacon’s collection of stories. The African Australian author’s creative inspirations are just as free flowing, from myth to folklore to speculative fiction and Afrofuturism. Norse gods influence real-life events in ‘A Pod of Mermaids’, while ‘A Visit in Whitechapel’ riffs on Jake the Ripper, and ‘De Turtle O’ Hades’ imagines exiled Ugandan dictator Idi Amin facing divine retribution. Other tales hew more closely to home: ‘Simbiyu and the Nameless’ skips across the young life of an African child turned Australian footy star, and ‘The Water Runner’ foresees a grim economy wrought by climate change. Examinations of race, gender, class and personal identity percolate through these stories—including four written with collaborators—although the fable-like title tale is actually named for a bewitching new gadget that prompts adultery. It’s not always easy to follow Bacon’s fragmentary approach and linguistic flourishes, but this is an impressive feat of scrambling and reconfiguring reality. –Doug Wallen
Transit Lounge Publishing (Nov 1, 2021)
Softcover $29.99 (240pp)
Eugen Bacon’s speculative short story collection Danged Black Thing ignites the dreadful reverberations of sacrifice and the unflinching trajectory of choices set in motion.
By embedding horror into the realm of possibilities, Bacon disarms modern comfort, twisting the mundane into towers of inevitable consequence. Given that what is taken for granted today may have devastating costs to come, the stories illuminate how renewable resources must have their respective time to recover. They weave together culture, variance in vernacular, and lavish settings, drawing a multitude of perspectives with an air of warning about them.
The juxtaposition of being dependent on the earth while also attempting to be timeless and durable recurs throughout the work. This ongoing conflict procures a perturbed, sinking feeling, reminding one of the troubles of modern life. In stories like “Rain Doesn’t Fall on One Roof,” “The Water Runner,” and “When the Water Stops,” pings, posters, and propaganda maintain control over the transformation of limited communal energy, so that it appears that humanity can sustain their dysfunctions. From elemental motifs to epistolary framings, the stories bring up the question of urgency to address where sustainability is directed, and who is exploited as a resource.
There is an innate solace and challenge in these stories, which are devastating and introspective about their abundant positions, collaborations, and mordant senses of subsequent bargaining. The insistent loss of time has a devastating smack and repercussions. Collaborative opportunities, like “Messier 94” with Andrew Hook and “The Falling Name” with Seb Doubinsky, as well as the solo “Unlimited Data,” have eerie undercurrents, from the texture of opening with simple fruit to the flashback of love disintegrating.
The stories within Danged Black Thing build worlds that can transmute to provocative dystopias in a matter of a sentence.
Reviewed by Attorious Renee Augustin
November / December 2021
by Nicolas Brasch
Eugen Bacon is a critical voice in Australian literature, one that probes and prods, questions and enlightens. She is an extraordinary poet, and while Danged Black Thing is a collection of short stories, the poet’s voice shines throughout.
This collection traverses emotional, spiritual and geographical landscapes, providing insights into the author’s mind and background. It reaches back into her life and those of others, from cultures and lands both familiar and unfamiliar, at least to many of us.
But as intriguing and valuable as that is, the real beauty in this work is the language. Every sentence, and I mean every sentence, evokes senses and spirit. As I’ve mentioned, the poet’s dab hand is everywhere, as are influences: African and Persian storytelling, magic realism and contemporary western literature. The result is a cornucopia of ideas from an imagination rich and rare.
A remarkable collection of inventiveness and insight, Danged Black Thing sweeps speculative fiction into new territory.
Spanning remote jungle locations, present day Australia and future worlds, the stories transport readers into places both unknown and unnervingly familiar. All foreground human experience, invoking understanding and, often, awe. Compassion resides in each plot, but there is no shrinking from everyday frailty: as the narrating voice in ‘A Visit to Whitechapel’ reminds us, ‘sometimes love is not enough’.
The collection is certain to pique interest and provide satisfaction. Author Eugen Bacon has a distinctive style, where lyrical prose cracks memorably into vivid images. ‘Simbuyu and the Nameless’ deploys second-person voice to catch the story under the reader’s skin in a tale of magic realism, as does ‘Still She Visits’, exploring the ubiquitous, unconfinable nature of grief.
In the titular story ‘Danged Black Thing’ (co-written with E Don Harpe), the storyteller vies for her partner’s attention, desperate to regain him from her friend-turned-enemy—a laptop that embodies all feminine wiles, plus a superhuman capacity for spite and revenge. The resulting conflict between people and machines brings new vigour to the untrustworthy-robot trope. ‘Forgetting Toolern’ interrogates dating apps, while ‘When the Water Stops’ lays out the injustice of climate change politics.
Political corruption, misogyny, the pathos of childhood: all these and more unfurl between these pages, under the suspicious, attentive gaze of the characters.
For readers who enjoy inspecting the underlayers layers of flamboyant life, Danged Black Thing proves a rich mine of storytelling prowess. Things are what they are— until they are not. The reader wonders how their understanding could ever have been so literal and unquestioning.
—Clare E Rhoden, Aurealis
TEXT Journal – October 2021
Equal parts fecund earth and fine-cut jewels
Since the publication of her first book, Claiming T-MO (2019), a collection of linked short stories set in intergalactic spheres, Eugen Bacon has reasserted her origins. She now defines herself as an African Australian author and computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. Since Claiming T-MO, which, incidentally, came out of her PhD, her work has roamed in space, time and style. It has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards. Unsurprisingly, the writing in her latest book, Danged Black Thing, has been described ‘equal parts fecund earth and fine-cut jewels’ (Lanagan 2021).
This is a bold collection of genre-bending stories told from manifold points of views and multiple voices in a gripping combination of literary fiction, fantasy, noir and thriller. There are tales of coming of age, longing, encounter, coexistence, survival, dislocation and grief. These strike a balance of exuberance and restraint, depth and refinement, ranging from mythologies to gaming in razor sharp prose prone to lyrical flights. Here, Bacon ranges across unexpected premises, stylistic strategies and cultural references with a deft hand and inventive mind. Danged Black Thing is off-beat and experimental, yet firmly anchored in daily life, whether set in Africa, Paris, London, Melbourne, or fictitious nations. The juxtaposition of scenes sets the pace of the narratives—there is a vital and dynamic feel to then.
Lush colouring adds liveliness to each composition. In ‘Simbiyu and the nameless’, the collection’s opening story’s the first word, colour brilliantly harks back to its titles and sets up the dominant theme in self-reflexive fashion, drawing attention to Bacon’s touchstone technique of calling upon the five senses to set the scene, or flag changes in narrative direction:
The colour is full of shade and smells like crusts of fruit. crushed guavas, warm wet clay—that’s the sweetness and mushiness about the forest. A tepidness too. And then there’s a whiff of soured yam, unwashed body. Something old sniffling in the shadows.
Eyes pore over your hollow within, ticking, tickling with your heartbeat. But the hollow is dead cassava dry—all surface and dust. What sound will fall when you press you ear to its longing? Perhaps nuances of self-reflection beckoning the moon’s return. (p. 1)
In this story as elsewhere, the playful tone and clear-eyed point of view bely dark undercurrents. The reflections on racism and ostracism are humorous, yet poignant.
The stories in Danged Black Thing, some written in collaboration with other writers, including Andrew Hook, Seb Doubinsky and E Don Harpe, are solid constructions built from concrete details that are imbued with myth and magic. They create a credible world in vivid prose enlivened by linguistic playfulness—the use of speech idiosyncrasies, dialects, other languages, and plain made-up words, for instance.
One of the distinct features of this collection is the way that several stories expand the notions of selfhood and identity, rejecting racial stereotypes and social hierarchies, thereby also challenging how we read. A striking example of this is ‘Messier 94’, co-written with Andrew Hook. Consider this excerpt from the point at which the protagonist wakes up in a strange room after what may or may not have been a wild night:
At first I thought the skin on the person in the mirror was black, actually a chocolate velvet. Then it went white, speckled with freckles. No, a hue of caramel. Differences, nondifferences, appearing from nowhere. The hickey on my neck was rosy, now dark truffles. The lips stayed soft and full, whichever gender, just one set lightly painted in pillow talk, then bronze, sometimes peach. The eyes vacillated between crisp emerald and deep charcoal. The hair… there was no hair. Now fragments of a man, now a woman, looked back at me, comparing notes, confusing me with someone, something. (pp. 83-84)
Here the choice of detail and breakdown of binaries conspire with grammar to blur the distinction between self and other. Am I or not? Am I black or white? Am I woman or man? Am I or something else?
One other distinct feature of this collection is the versatility of voice, tone and style, which reminds us of what a shape-shifter the short story can be as a genre: there are auto fictional, allegorical or fable-like tales in this collection and some fragmented texts, but all spring from a distinctive approach to voice.
Consider, for example, how two voices tango in ‘Messier 94’ between Bacon and Hook as they do too, in ‘The failing name’, between Bacon and Seb Doubinsky in a tantalising bilingual story. But voices merge in the title story ‘Danged black thing’ and ‘De turtle o’ hades’ two stories co-written with E Don Harpe from America’s deep South. Compare this ventriloquist phenomenon with ‘A taste of Unguja’, a moving story about womanhood, motherhood and grief told in a mother’s anguished voice. Here, the mother whose life is turned upside-down and her sanity at risk is the conduit for a blurring of narrative registers: the immediacy of realism and the dreamscape of surrealism as the telling mingles with sweet taarab music. Grief seeps through this real unreal tale; yet how different in tone it is from ‘Still she visits’, another grief-fuelled narrative. Set these fictions against ‘Unlimited data’ where a woman gives everything away for her family in Old Kampala, her voice clashing with that of mock legalese.
At the heart of the collection is a concern with belonging, love and loyalty, themes that run through Eugen Bacon’s long and short fiction from Claiming T-MO onwards. This is fiction that falls out of generic habits. At a time in global history when many assumptions about who we are, how we live and how societies function are being questioned, it will appeal to readers avid on realities, virtual realities, augmented realities and alternative realities conveyed in inimitable style whose urgency resonates with #metoo, the village child or woman, immigrants and black lives matter. Bacon now and then tackles sombre subjects with levity, making them more relatable, less threatening, but memorable to the reader.
Danged Black Thing is a tour de force of fictions within fictions and a rare treat—poetic, fantastical and pungent with characters of many pasts, presents and futures. In it, Bacon displays her boundless imagination and magical use of language. Her prose sometimes has the sharpness of imagist poetry but its purposefulness, with and without humour preclude mere dazzlement; the exuberance of the five senses is untarnished by self-consciousness.—Dominique Hecq
Reviewer: Linda Hepworth
Publisher: Transit Lounge Publishing 1st November 2021
ASIN : B09LH9PTX1 (Kindle)
ISBN: 978-1925760842 PB
The seventeen delightfully eclectic short stories in this collection explore themes which include love, motherhood, childhood, domestic violence, loss, grief, longing, abandonment, migration, alienation, displacement, gender, class, patriarchy, abuse of power, injustice, inequality, climate change, the influence of modern technology … and more! They move between continents and different cultures and between past, present and future; some are set in immediately recognisable worlds, others in worlds which are speculatively dystopian but which are, nevertheless, disturbingly familiar. They embrace mythology and ancestral traditions, science fiction, the supernatural, horror and tragedy. Some are chilling, some disturbing, some poignant, some erotic, some sensuous, some delightfully playful and humorous, with many of the stories interweaving a number of these elements. Four were written collaboratively with other authors (one with Seb Doubinsky, one with Andrew Hook and two with E. Don Harpe) and for me, the fact that each of those stories felt entirely congruent with the others in the collection, reflected the success of those collaborations. I can only imagine the level of trust and respect which must be necessary to achieve this level of harmony but I feel in awe of the generosity of spirit it must involve.
I first became aware of Eugen Bacon’s enthralling and thought-provoking writing when I read Claiming T-Mo (her debut novel) a couple of years ago. Since that memorable story I’ve always eagerly anticipated reading anything new from her, confident that the power of her storytelling will immerse me in the vibrant, imaginative characters and worlds that, with her eloquent and passionate use of language, she is so supremely skilled at creating. This latest collection of her stories has more than fulfilled my expectations because, from first to last, I found myself totally immersed in each one, savouring how, even in the shortest, the distinctive voices and narratives combined to offer multi-layered perspectives. Such is the power of the evocative richness of her character portrayals and scene-setting that when I reached the end of each story I experienced a sense of dislocation, a momentary difficulty in emerging to the reality of the world of my sitting room!
These stories may be short but I found each one so keenly observed and vividly portrayed that I needed not only to linger with the characters, but also to allow myself time to reflect on my thoughts and feelings about the questions raised by some of the challenging themes contained in the stories. I think the extent to which I felt so completely engaged is a tribute to the combination of passion and empathetic understanding which underpins the author’s writing, whether she’s telling a tender story about love, shining a spotlight on prejudice, inequality and marginalisation, or using her stories to explore the impact of climate change or political corruption. This is a remarkable collection of truly memorable stories which I recommend without reservation … but with a suggestion that you should take your time when reading them!
“With poetic prose, an eclectic range of subgenres, and affecting observations on Blackness and womanhood, this collection showcases Bacon at the top of her game.”