Maya C. James Reviews An Earnest Blackness by Eugen Bacon

An Earnest Blackness, Eugen Bacon (Anti-Oe­dipus Press 978-0-99-915358-1, $18.95, 124pp, hc) August 2022. Cover by D. Harlan Wilson.

In An Earnest Blackness, computer scientist, critic, and speculative fiction author Eugen Bacon offers 12 critical essays on “blackness, Afrofuturism, colonialism, historicity, and (mis)recognition,” among other topics. Bacon’s sweeping lived and academic experiences are evident not only in her knowledge of the genre, but in her intimate experiences with some of the essays and novels of the expansive Afrofutur­ist genre.

An Earnest Blackness is straightforward yet detailed reading. This level of detail is perhaps most evident in “I Went Looking for Black AfroSF”, where she catalogues a massive list of subgenres from the African diaspora (and beyond) by organizing the various arguments authors/critics have employed to defend or subvert certain categories. As she explains in this essay, there are a plethora of subgenres and positions regarding what one may call this form of speculative fiction. From Nnedi Okorafor’s Africanfuturism, to the Afrofoturism of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and the term Afrofu­turism itself (as coined by white author Mark Dery in the 1990s), Bacon does not assert which definitions are proper, or correct, but certainly calls into question why these categories exist, and asks what purposes they might serve for readers and authors alike. Bacon does not cen­ter critics as her audience, however. Rather, by naming and elevating certain texts and authors (e.g. Nisi Shawl, Chinelo Onwualu, etc.), Bacon creates a wonderfully expansive canon for read­ers to draw upon and critique for themselves.

An Earnest Blackness soon transitions into more of the personal essays promised by the back cover description, with Bacon reflecting upon her experiences as an African-Australian woman through prose, interviews, and cultural criticisms of Black speculative fiction. Or, at least what some may refer to as Black specula­tive fiction. For example, Bacon’s interview with her dear friend, Genni, in “Inhabitation: Genni and I” and the personal essay “Black is not Blak” offer not only a glimpse into her writing process, but how she has had to assert her epistemology in both writing and advocating for herself and her family. Introduced through the lens of Australia’s COVID-19 lockdowns, this interview/essay offers a glimpse into some of her more personalized experiences receiving criticism for what some people alleged was an appropriation of Australian Indigenous culture in her novella Ivory’s Story. As someone unfamiliar with the situation, it was a vulnerable and infor­mative essay. Bacon explains her positionality by affirming where she drew inspiration for her characters, making it clear that it was from the African continent and not the Indigenous First Nations cultures which she was accused of appropriating. In addition to an analysis of Australia’s failures to properly support In­digenous communities, and pit “Black/Blak” communities against one another, she strikingly writes “My black as a migrant was not a black that Australia understood.” The misunderstand­ing, she explains, can largely be attributed to a history of misunderstanding between African migrants and First Nations people. She ends with an impassioned call to repair relations be­tween the groups. Considering this conversation was difficult to find online, it was a bold and welcomed choice to revive it into a published format. This essay was perhaps my favorite of them all, for its vulnerability and the care with which it was written.

I enjoyed Bacon’s writing the most when she connected it to various Afrofuturist works of fiction, but especially when she connected her critiques of the genre to her own novels and short fiction, as she made me curious about the ethical questions and the cultures she draws on to inform and inspire her storytelling. In the more dense aspects of her analysis, Bacon’s essays read like a lecture you’d encounter in a university setting, only with riveting eye-catching statements that break up the monotony of fact and purely informative writing. Perhaps the most striking of all examples I (mentally) highlighted, from “The Benefit of Our Human­ity”: “Black and white people smell the same when they die.” Some humor follows about how living people stink anyways, yet we still distin­guish between one another based on skin color.

I was pleasantly surprised to find her directly address this use of tension between academic and accessible language in “Making Claiming T-Mo: A Black Speculative Fiction”. “At times, the dual roles of being an artist and a scholar made it difficult for me to balance technical and accessible language” (106). While this was in direct reference to her novel Claiming T-Mo, I suspect her musings were present in the creation of this collection as well. Some essays are far more personal than others, and some feel like pure academic writings, but her honesty is what produces the intimacy of the reading. She may not profess to have answers to Australia’s race-relations issues, but she’s certainly being upfront about her experiences and expertise navigating this system.

A slim yet powerful text, An Earnest Blackness intersects not just with genres of Afrofuturism, but her experiences navigating Australia, and the publishing industry at large, as an African Australian.

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.

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