Lauren Beukes is used to living multiple lives. Born in Johannesburg, she’s since worked out of Cape Town, New York, Chicago, and (currently) London. She’s been a journalist, a scriptwriter, a documentarian, and—most famously—an award-winning novelist with a penchant for darkly speculative tales of strange science and distorted cities.
In her latest novel, Beukes is facing the literal implications of multiple lives, each intersecting and colliding. Described in the author’s own words, Bridge is “a psychedelic, psychological thriller about a young woman, reeling in the wake of her mother’s death, and then reeling again at the discovery of this strange artifact—the ‘dreamworm’—that allows her to switch between realities.” The titular Bridge then goes in search of her mother’s secrets, hijacking the bodies of her “otherselves,” all the while hunted by a sinister antagonist.
It’s the kind of bizarre high concept that typifies Beukes’ literature. Whether in the dystopian schism of her debut, Moxyland, in which a near-future Capetown is segregated according to the ownership of a cell phone and SIM card; or the animal familiars of Zoo City; or with the time-traveling serial killer who haunts The Shining Girls, Beukes has never shied away from a conceptual challenge. But Bridge is an even deeper step into the offbeat, an imaginative stew that folds in a rare array of ingredients: neuroscience and parasitology, musical theory and Haitian Voudou.
“The words ‘wild’ and ‘trippy’ have been coming up a lot,” Beukes says.
Hers is an imagination always on the lookout for an eccentric thought, or a novelty to be pocketed away for later use. She speaks of her “cabinet of curiosities,” in which she keeps “the stuff I’ve collected from interviews and weird research over the years.” This includes the “sloth scarf” she wore to the Arthur C. Clarke Awards, as well as the jewelry gifted during her visit to the South African Occult Crimes Unit. During her research for Bridge, she came into ownership of a slice of rat brain: “I call it Pinky. It’s very dead, and not infected, and it looks like a glob of snot.”
Beukes may have enjoyed many lives, but it’s hard to imagine any of them are boring. The day after Bridge’s release, Beukes and I spoke about multiverses, Western condescension toward African fiction, and why she ultimately made the move from South Africa to the U.K.
Bridge contains so many ideas and ingredients. What’s your perspective on how they coalesced into this story?
Well, I found this strange object amongst my mother’s things…
No, I’m kidding. I’ve been fascinated with alternate realities for years, and especially the idea of all the versions of our lives that we haven’t been able to live, because we made bad decisions or maybe really good ones, or because we got overwhelmed and paralyzed and were unable to make one at all. What if there’s another version of you who is already living your best possible life? How would that make you feel, and what would you do if there was a way to experience that?
Plus, we do exist in parallel universes right now. An anti-vaxxer, or a climate-change-denier just lives in a completely different reality to the one I inhabit. That’s scary; all these realities layered on top of each other. We have to interact, but we have no place to connect or find an objective or compassionate truth.
You’re releasing the book into a world already very familiar with multiverses. Everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Everything Everywhere All At Once…
Oh, I loved EEAAO! I saw it when I was waiting for my notes back on final edits, and I thought, Oh my God, the perfect mother-daughter multiverse story has already been told. I felt the same way about Moxyland when Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake came out—that she told that story better than I ever possibly could. But I got over it. There are no patents on ideas; it’s how you tell them, your voice that matters. I think I did something different with the book. I mean, there could have been more sausage fingers and talking rocks.
No dildo fights either. In Bridge, you seem to actively make a point about the banality of these other realities. You’ve certainly proved in the past that you can do wacky—why did you avoid that here?
I wanted to keep it relatable, though I hate that word. I could have made it weirder, with alternate realities where everything is constantly shifting, and there’s a manga romcom version of Bridge for example, or she’s in an Animal Crossing world, or a crystalline spider version so alien as to be incomprehensible, but it would have taken away from the story. Bridge is about a young woman trying to understand who her mother was—and who she could be. I wanted to play with the idea of these other lives that you could have had, so all the universes are compatible with ours, close enough, but subtly different.
There’s a great line in the book: “So much of being young is auditioning for who you think you should be.” To what extent is Bridge you reflecting on your own roads not taken?
I got an ADHD diagnosis six months ago, and all of a sudden everything fell into place and suddenly I understood myself differently: why I jump around so much, why I’m never going to write a sequel, and why I pick up all these shiny ideas like a magpie.
I do relate to Jo [Bridge’s mother] wanting to use the dreamworm to find a better life for herself and her daughter. I emigrated from South Africa to the U.K. with my teenager a year and a half ago. It was a literal change of worlds and a voyage of discovery.
Bridge focuses heavily on a mother-daughter relationship, as do several of your more recent novels. Are you writing more as a mother or as a daughter?
Both, though generally I associate more with the daughters. I have an aging mum and a teenage daughter, and I’m keenly aware of being caught between the generations, and of how much we don’t understand our parents. I don’t know my mother on that very deep level, and I’m aware that my daughter doesn’t really know me in that way or understand the choices I’ve made necessarily, or why I’m so very annoying. But the point is, she isn’t supposed to know me; she’s supposed to know herself.
There is a loss there as well, though, that this person whom I love so much and whom I think is the best person in the world, she doesn’t really know me. Maybe she will one day—or, at least, [know me] better, but right now that’s the process. She’s becoming.
You write so very well from a Gen Z perspective. That’s another alternate reality, right? Did you rely on your daughter for that?
Oh God, no. She wouldn’t tolerate me interrogating her, far too cringe, though I love her perspective and her understanding of the world and who she is. She has taught me a lot, and what a tremendous gift that is.
I’m lucky to have a wide range of friends, including twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, and I try to be rooted in and engaged with the world. I aim to be intersectional as much as possible, and I’m very political and aware of social issues we’re living with—from how trans rights are under threat to systemic racism, xenophobia, the rise of fascism. I feel like that awareness helps, and sure, my teen will also keep me in check.
Considering your political interests, would you ever go back to writing fiction set in South Africa?
I’m sure I will. I have an idea for a different take on an apartheid novel, but it might be better as a comic. I’m always writing from that perspective of growing up under what was a utopia for me, and a repressive violent state that destroyed lives and futures for Black people when the racist government wasn’t actively murdering them. I’m keenly aware of the responsibility of history and how social issues play out now, which comes through in my work. The reality is that books set in the U.S. and the U.K. are more commercially viable, because that’s the market. Some people may say “Oh, you’ve sold out,” but I’m writing exactly the books I want to write, set in the places that make sense for the story and what I’m trying to say.
Is it not jarring, to be told that your homeland is not commercial enough?
Of course, the Western world wants to highlight its citizens and its stories, but no one tells David Mitchell that he can’t write about Japan. I’ve lived an international life, so I don’t personally feel that I’m being suppressed, but I think there is definitely an aspect of racism against Black African voices. The idea that “Oh. it’s too strange;” that it’s ok to write about samurai in ancient feudal Japan, or alien spider matriarchs, but Africa—as a whole damn continent—is too complex, too difficult to understand. Black Panther is terrific, but we don’t need to imagine a country with bright shining cities and monorails and a tech boom. We have Nairobi and Johannesburg and Lagos. And of course we have deep social issues across class and race and gender—but so does the U.K. and the U.S.
We seem happy with Western writers setting their fictions elsewhere, but is there more resistance to African writers bringing their stories with them?
I hope it’s changing. Certainly there are amazing new voices including Tanya Junghans and Alistair Mackay and Wole Talabi, and established writers like Mohale Mashigo, Tade Thompson, Nnedi Okorafor, Masande Ntshanga, and T.L Huchu, writing amazing speculative fiction. I do think having an outsider’s perspective can be incredibly useful.
Why did you end up moving to the U.K.?
My career is here and in the U.S. I’m suddenly able to accept invitations to go to a Spanish literary festival on a whim, or go and support my novel in the U.S. I can work in TV writers’ rooms and connect with peers and go to cool book launches and BAFTA screenings. But it’s also the possibility of a better life for me and my daughter.
South Africa is facing such debilitating social issues. We have some of the highest gender-based violence in the world, the biggest divide between rich and poor, rolling blackouts practically daily for hours and hours at a time, a cruelly corrupt government and woefully ineffective policing. It’s still one of the best places on earth, with one of the most progressive constitutions, and some of the most wonderful, resilient, hard-working and funny people. I love South Africa with everything in me, but it’s a very hard place to live. Of course, being able to swan away on a Global Talent Visa, I feel a lot of survivor’s guilt. It’s not fair and it sucks and it breaks my heart.
Your fiction seems to follow you around the world. Can we expect a British-set novel from you anytime soon?
I was thinking about the next one being British, but I think I’m probably heading back to America. That’s because I’m interested in a very specific time period that I’m not going to talk about today. It’s going to be a sort of historical noir. There’ll probably be a weird, high concept twist to it, too. Let’s be real.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.