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Eugen Bacon on writing and the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

A portrait of Eugen Bacon.

Eugen Bacon is an African Australian author of several novels and fiction collections.

Her work has won, been shortlisted or commended in numerous awards. Most recently, she was a 2022 World Fantasy Award finalist and was announced in the honour list of the 2022 Otherwise Fellowships for ‘doing exciting work in gender and speculative fiction’.

Eugen’s creative work has appeared worldwide, including in Award Winning Australian Writing, Fantasy Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction.

Her most recent novel, Serengotti (Transit Lounge Publishing, 2023), is already receiving positive reviews and, before this year ends, she’ll release her award-winning collection of stories Danged Black Thing in the US.

Eugen chatted with our Membership Officer Gabriella Munoz about her latest novel Serengotti and how receiving a grant from the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund helped her write the book.

Congratulations on your latest book, Serengotti. What inspired this book?

I wanted to write a different kind of migrant story set in a fictitious place in Australia. The story insisted on a ‘you-narrative’, second person/first person: it directly addresses the protagonist. I was initially drawn to Tasmania as a setting until I visited Wagga Wagga and this quaint country town enchanted me. Our protagonist, Ch’anzu, is bold, enterprising, and curious – perhaps a little of me. One of my favourite parts of the novel, a haunting event that lingers for Ch’anzu, explores what racism might look like, or not. Here’s a snippet where we meet Basket:

Along the drive, you’re in your head. Unwilling, resisting but can’t help it, you find your thoughts vacillating around Basket, that strange woman at the aqua centre in Fitzroy.

You’re not exactly electrified about what happened that night. A full moon was out. Maybe it was a harvest moon, or a blood moon. Whatever it was, it messed your head. You had time to kill and you had bathers. Aunt Maé was meeting you to try out this new restaurant called Deguscape that promised African cuisine, and you were on the verge of telling her about Scarlet – how it wasn’t working.

You received a grant from Round 8 of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund to go to Wagga Wagga in NSW to research Serengotti. Tell us about this experience.

Golly gum, I was chuffed! I applied for the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund on the fly, not expecting to be successful because it can be a numbers game, right? And then bam! Funding.

It helped me revisit Wagga Wagga to capture, more deeply, its essence. I even have cameos in the novel of two beautifully-souled inhabitants named Pam and Di. I recently mailed them complimentary copies of the novel, and wonder if they will read it and write back … If you do pass by the op shop on Baylis St, drop in and say hi to these amazing ladies. Here’s another snippet:

You met good-natured Pam and Di at the op shop near Station Place, and Aviana fingered second-hand jewellery on half-price: an onyx necklace, a turquoise ring, a gold necklace – heavy and shaped in meshed eucalypts – and you let her take the lot. Thirty-five bucks. You visited the regional rail in old brown and cream colours. It had a ‘kiss and ride’ area – you wondered who would kiss you and ride off if you took a train to Sydney or Melbourne. 

Have you seen a change in how you approach place and characters after the first years of COVID-19 and the lockdowns?

I did have a stint of rather sombre and wrenching prose poetry and short stories, alongside themes of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter – coinciding with what happened to George Floyd. You read them and wanted to crawl in a tomb alongside me. But, generally, each of my stories carries its own mood, characters and settings, immersed into its own speculative world.

You are a prolific writer. What is your secret? Any advice for those juggling multiple hats?

I am incredibly focused. A very immersive writer, also an immersive reader. I guess I approach each project … obsessively? [Gollum voice]: ‘Must finish, my precious.’

Who are some speculative fiction authors you recommend our readers to check out?

As we’re targeting Australian readers, I’d say pick a subscription to Aurealis Magazine, our longest running speculative fiction magazine, and discover new writers. The best are the ones who are not household names. A rather different kind of literary speculative story is Paul Dalgarno’s A Country of Eternal Light. It’s the beautifully deceptive kind of novel – you have no time to resist it, as you won’t realise that what you’re reading is speculative. 

What advice would you give to speculative fiction emerging writers?

Edit, edit, edit. Sit on those first drafts, then look at them with new eyes. Pay attention to storytelling. Passion. Nose for a good story – ideas are everywhere!

Listen closely to what people say, how they say it. Observe that cocktail at your mate’s birthday party. Who’s that bum in a long grey coat on the train ride home? Research. Technical aspects might help your worldbuilding, but no one will care if you have no story. Edit, edit, edit.  

We are looking forward to your Online Feedback Clinic in Speculative Fiction. You’ve given this clinic before, what’s the thing you enjoy the most about facilitating this online space and what, without spoiling it, can we expect?

I love the safe space speculative fiction allows – the kind of space you can explore any theme in a most vivid, imaginative way. In this online feedback clinic that runs over five months, I offer feedback on short stories or excerpts of longer works of fiction, enabling participants to hone their work with believable worlds and robust characters in convincing speculative fiction. 

Want to learn more about Eugen’s book the Danged Black Thing (Transit Lounge Publishing, 2021) and Afrofuturism? Read an interview about it here.

Places are still available in Eugen’s Online Feedback Clinic: Speculative Fiction, which starts 18 July 2023.

Members of Writers Victoria receive up to 37% off the full price of all clinics, workshops, seminars and courses. Writers experiencing financial and social barriers to developing their skills are encouraged to apply to The Writers Victoria Fund for subsidised attendance at workshops and clinics.

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