As an African Australian it’s unsurprising that being between worlds is a recurring theme in my stories.
Recently the Sydney Review of Books published my essay “Inhabitation—Genni and I”, where I embrace my once unsayable duality. The text unwraps or layers my journey that is a discovery, “an integral acceptance of the sum of self”.
This theme of hybridity is present in my novel Claiming T-Mo by Meerkat Press, a speculative novel that’s hard to classify in a single genre, with its elements of science fiction, fantasy and magical realism.
As a cross-genre novel influenced in its poeticity by the authors Toni Morrison—who has been a big influence in my writing—Ray Bradbury, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Temple and Anthony Doerr, Claiming T-Mo is a book about engaging with difference, with otherness.
And—despite its name—the women are the true heart of the story in text that scrutinises embodiment, the nature of being, the ‘self’ and ‘other’—being between worlds/in two worlds, dichotomy.
The original title was Outbreeds—a made-up noun to distinguish a breed of others. In the novel you’ll find Salem, the daughter of a pastor in her fragile beauty. Easily flustered and with a stutter, she has a yearning for more, and one day it nudges to defy her father:
There was something magical about a man who walked through doors . . . who traveled between worlds. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. So on a whim, the first daring whim in her life, she presented a man to her father with intention and announced her plan.
“Father, you have met T-Mo,” she said. “I am going to marry him.”
They stood in the space between the back door of the main house and Salem’s servant house. Pastor Ike eyed the male beside his daughter, took in the ripe plum color of his sleeveless t-shirt that carried bold white words on its breast, words that said: Hearts & Beds. Where was the mystery in those words? The intrigue? T-Mo had done bugger all, drummer drummer, to try and impress a possible father-in-law. Pastor Ike looked at Salem without indifference. Then he looked at the way the brazen boy or man stood, reckless, how he held his head, how a strange curiosity spread in his eyes. How the dazzle in his rainbow smile made his looks fetching despite dinosaur skin.
Might have been the hearts or beds, not the sleevelessness of his t-shirt, or was it T-Mo’s unabashed smile? Whatever it was, it immediately squandered any goodwill Pastor Ike might have had. Gator skin or not, that alien buffoon standing with hair as yet uncombed beside his daughter . . . Pastor Ike had one question.
“This T-Mo,” he said, speaking to his daughter. “Does he have a second name?”
Salem stood with tumultuous heart, looking at her father who directed words at her without removing his gaze from T-Mo.
“I am sure he does, Father . . .” —pp.11-12 (Claiming T-Mo)
And Salem finds herself homeless, wrapped in the arms of a man she doesn’t quite know.
Then there’s Myra: half human, half alien—a hybrid of remarkable ability who struggles to find her place and identity in a conformist world. When Vida steals into her life, more than a gruesome secret binds them. The union of a hybrid with powers almost celestial and a man, fully human, begets not a fairy tale.
Enters Tempest: Myra and Vida’s daughter. Titian red locks with tiger eyes. Like her mother, Tempest possesses abilities that alienate her from the human world she inhabits. Tempest is a precocious girl. Such a child, who holds an orb of lightning in her fist, a beast in her belly, plunges her mother Myra into more than bafflement.
Like Myra, Tempest is powerless to shake not only the quest to ‘be’, to ‘belong’ but the phantom of her alien father, T-Mo. She also has an ability to ‘step’ into people, and see what they have seen, heard or experienced. A sole child to a mother with a Grovean past, Tempest is trapped in a gift that exiles her world. Only acquaintance with another such individual (Amber), one who shares her talent, can liberate her from the curse, or is it a blessing?
Stepsister Amber is an off-worlder in familial exile from the land of Xhaust. Now she is, by bloodline, orphaned; by soul-hood enriched with a new ilk of kindred connected to immortality. The appeal of Salem’s simplicity, or Myra’s rareness, or Tempest’s adulation, cannot shield Amber from the rawness of her past.
Each of these characters is not sure of their place. Are they where they belong? Each has their own transformation arc, guided by omniscient Silhouette—the protagonist that haunts the story. She too stands apart, an ‘other’ who—with her point of view—bridges authorial distance. She gives the reader insight into other characters, observing from within, from without. She gives the reader inner access to each world and its characters. Silhouette’s own transformation arc is complete when she resolves the good/evil multiperson that is her son T-Mo/ Odysseus, the Jekyll and Hyde of the novel.
This theme of betwixt rears its head in its strongest occurrence in the African child, Solo, in the story “The One Who Sees”, published in The Road to Woop Woop by Meerkat Press.
Solo has a foot in the city, another in Grandma’s village, where there is the child Keledi and “her warming eyes that weep, her laughter that tinkles”, and she has a special name for him. And who is Keledi? In the African cultural extension of family, she’s the “daughter of a daughter of a cousin’s daughter of a daughter . . .” He cannot say for sure. She just is: Keledi.
The you-story is its own journey of finding for Solo:
This you, the one you are now, stands apart from the children in Grandma’s village with their polyester garments, ankle-grazer trousers and dirt-caked faces. Some urchins navigate the orange dust and savannah grass barefooted, if not bare bottomed. You miss their free loping, their sense of timelessness. You miss the khaki shorts and black sandals made of bicycle tires, the ones you wear when you go to visit Grandma. You take the ferry across the lake to get there. You miss Keledi: her warming eyes that weep, her laughter that tinkles, her special name for you—how she calls you City.
“I’m just from a little town over the lake,” you tried to explain. “It’s nowhere as big as the city where I go to boarding school.”
“It has fences and gates. You sleep there.”
“A bell rings in the morning and you wake up—’
“A bell?” Her laugher tinkled. “Does the bell tell you to go to eat?”
“It rings to plan, so you know it’s time to do something. Or stop.”
“A bell.” She rolled on the grass, wept with laughter. “Are you cows now?”
You did not tell her about the city’s roads like a giant koboko snake with babies slithering near and far, how easy it is to get lost in the suburban heartbeat or the snatch of a stranger.
You are a child betwixt. The village and the town run in your blood. And now the city too. —p.26 (The Road to Woop Woop)
In his quest for meaning, his yearning to reconnect with his father who has created distance, Solo understands that he is on the tip of a world altogether foreign to Keledi:
How could she ever understand the city? Already the town with its offices and flower gardens is a strange animal.—p.32
Like Solo and his search for meaning between worlds, I find answers in contemplation. Each writing of black speculative fiction reminds me more and more who I am, where I came from and what is my earthing now.
And I am fine with it.
Eugen Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She’s the author of Claiming T-Mo (Meerkat Press) and Writing Speculative Fiction (Macmillan). Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans.