By A.E. Santana
Veronica G. Henry’s debut novel, Bacchanal, is a fantasy and historical fiction set in the Depression-era South. Centered on Eliza Meeks, a young Black woman with the power to communicate with animals, the novel takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance as Eliza joins a traveling carnival with a sinister secret. Unbeknownst to Eliza, she is being searched for by an evil spirit, Ahiku, whose goal is to destroy Eliza before she can come into her true power. With a cast of diverse characters, Henry frames a moment in American history with varied and refreshing experiences not often seen in fantasy or historical fiction. Henry also integrates African culture and folklore into the story, creating a unique perspective for readers of speculative fiction.
The Coachella Review is honored to present an excerpt from the novel for our readers. We also caught up with Henry to discuss her creative process and experience writing Bacchanal, released on June 1, 2021.
The Coachella Review: In 2008, you made a trip to Sierra Leone after tracing your ancestry to that region. How does that journey inform your writing today?
Veronica G. Henry: One’s sense of self, or in my case, the lack thereof, cannot be underestimated. My parents instilled a notion in me that drove me to research my ancestry, and that idea was that our story—the African American story—began someplace else.
And what a gift! Embracing both my African heritage and African American histories opened up additional avenues for me to explore the richness of both traditions in my fiction.
TCR: Bacchanal is your debut novel. How do you feel the publishing process changed your writing methods, if at all?
VGH: There’s this tricky space between what you think you know based on what someone’s told you and what you come to understand only when you find yourself in the same situation. I’ve read about authors lamenting deadlines, even had some friends warn me to be ready. But nothing prepares you like jumping feet-first into the fire. The publishing process has made me infinitely grateful that I was always a fairly disciplined writer, but now I’m even more cognizant of my time and guard that writing space fiercely. Meditation helps me manage the angst.
TCR: When did your relationship with fantasy and other speculative fiction genres begin? How has it evolved?
VGH: I’ve been drawn to speculative fiction my entire life. Tales by the Brothers Grimm and The Chronicles of Narnia were early favorites. Through my teens, I plowed through mainstays like Asimov and Bradbury. I devoured and loved those stories. But later on, when I discovered Zora Neale Hurston (who I’d argue wrote speculative fiction), Samuel Delany, and Octavia Butler, my mind was blown completely. Seeing images of myself on the page had a profound impact. Since those early days, my exploration into speculative fiction has expanded. It’s such a great time to read literature from so many different perspectives.
TCR: I love that Bacchanal is a fantasy and a historical fiction. What led you to set it in the 1930s? What fascinated you about that period?
VGH: In a word, everything. The ’30s were such a study in resilience. Both economic and ecologic issues were at play. So, in addition to the devastation wrought by the Great Depression, I also knew early on that the Dust Bowl would feature strongly. Aside from the popular radio shows at the time (for those that could even afford a radio and electricity), entertainment was non-existent, so the traveling carnival presented an opportunity for cheap fun. Carnivals reached near-peak popularity during this time. All those things presented an irresistible backdrop for the novel.
TCR: Speaking of setting, you grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but now live in North Carolina. Why did you choose the Depression-era South as the overall scene?
VGH: Many of my summers were spent with family in South Carolina, so I was very much a part of both worlds. There was so much magic in the South. Sights, sounds, smells, even stories that starkly contrasted my normal experiences. The South is an area of the country that is often overlooked, but there’s a richness there that I wanted to explore.
TCR: What kind of research do you prepare for writing about historical figures, events, places, etc.? How much creative license would you say you take regarding these historical elements?
VGH: Research is almost as much fun as writing. In fact, if you’re not careful, you’ll become so captivated that you won’t write a word. My research for Bacchanal was extensive and took place over a number of years. A shout-out to all the librarians in Las Vegas, Austin, and Raleigh—cities where, in some part or another, I worked on this book. My intent was to be as historically accurate as possible, but as with any work of fiction, particularly speculative, there were spots where I had to take creative license.
TCR: Bacchanal is told through alternating points of view of various characters. Why did you decide this was the best way to tell this story?
VGH: Carnivals, by their very nature, are populated by our society’s fringe. Bacchanal’s distinctive cast of characters was no exception. As each of their backstories developed, it became apparent that each was strong enough to be told without the limitation of seeing it through Eliza’s eyes. In short, they twisted my arm and I was powerless to resist.
TCR: The protagonist, Eliza, and the antagonist, Ahiku, are both female. Was this done purposely? What are your thoughts on two empowered female characters facing off against one another?
VGH: I was very curious about how a woman during the 1930s would navigate the world on her own and what the inner workings of a carnival would look like from that perspective. And in Ahiku I was able to craft an opponent that contrasted Eliza in every way. She’s ancient, sure of herself and her abilities, and has a sense of responsibility toward the carnies.
So often in literature—stories that I still love mind you—we get to see men having all the fun. They can inhabit any space, time, or role, while women are relegated to a much more narrow set of portrayals.
With Eliza and Ahiku, I relished the opportunity to show women being what we are: complex, unpredictable, multifaceted characters.
TCR: There are some dark moments and themes in Bacchanal. Would you say that the novel leans toward dark fantasy/horror? What is it about these genres that drew you to include these darker elements?
VGH: I love the way that writers like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston skated the lines between literary, horror, and speculative fiction. And it was intentional that I emulate those themes in Bacchanal.
My father used to say that he thought Hell, or at least some part of it, was right here on Earth. That always stuck with me and informs my writing. Humanity has always fought the war between good and evil, each winning some rounds at different points in our collective past. Joy and happiness exist right alongside them, though, and it’s that balance that I weave into my fiction.
TCR: In the novel, readers may find good people making bad decisions and demons having human moments. What are your thoughts on the duality of these characters?
VGH: I think we are all a study in contrasts. Characters that don’t delve into that full range of human emotion don’t make it onto the page. They bore me and get cut or reworked. My hope is that, through bringing that duality to the forefront, readers will develop empathy with a character that they may not have previously been able to identify with.
TCR: Your short story, “Sisi Je Kuisha” (“We Have Ended”), previously published in FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, centers on Eloko, who also appears in Bacchanal. Did you always imagine Eloko in Bacchanal, or was it an addition that happened as the story progressed? Are you interested in building a body of work with connections between stories?
VGH: For some authors, the protagonist emerges first. For others, it’s the antagonist. But for me, it’s almost always a secondary character, and that was the case with Bacchanal. I was doing some absolutely fascinating research on mythical African creatures and came across one called an Eloko. Grass-covered, stealthy, mischievous creatures of the forest. Sprinkle in a few elements from my imagination, and Eloko was born. As for a body of work with connections between stories, stay tuned.
A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who grew up in a farming community surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. A lover of horror and fantasy, her works can be found in Latinx Screams, Demonic Carnival III, Weird Ales II, and other horror anthologies. She is the managing editor of Kelp Books and the co-curator of The Coachella Review‘s monthly column, Voice to Books. A.E. Santana is a member of the Horror Writers Association and a founding playwright for East Valley Repertory Theatre in Indio, CA. She has been a moderator for several horror panels, including No Longer the Scream Queen: Women’s Roles in Horror. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Riverside—Palm Desert’s low-residency program. Her perfect day consists of a cup of black tea and her cat, Flynn Kermit.