‘Small Axe’ writer Courttia Newland shares an excerpt from his new novel, ‘A River Called Time‘ (Canongate, 2021), and speaks to Writers Rebel’s James Miller about Afro-Futurism, dystopia and the ecological movement.
A River Called Time: An Excerpt
He sank into the silence, grateful for the life that surrounded him on all sides, an unseen presence pulling at him, leaden weight. Somewhere close, not ahead, over his shoulder from the direction of the Temple doors. He wanted to remain in meditation and ignore it, hoping they might leave. Instead it vibrated faster, heart rate rising, tense as a clenched fist. Watching. Aura probing, questioning. Young, inexperienced, very little control. Lower energy reaching for his. Sexual? He frowned, relaxing deeper.
No. Clear red anger. Markriss drew air into his pelvic floor, exhaling, lips rattling a sigh.
Ah. Renno, son of Io.
He allowed his shoulder muscles to loosen, stretching his back straight. Opened his eyes. The closest shrub, a Coleus Chocolate Covered Cherry planted on the opposite side of the path, had been chosen especially by Chile in honour of his brother. The outer edges of the leaf were green fire, the inner section dark maroon, while on the inside a pink spectral form arose, like arms spread wide. The plant always intrigued Markriss, the energy of its colouring inspired him. It brought to mind his own physical and spiritual essence; green, the ethereal aura swirling about his body; maroon, his material flesh and bone; pink, the eternal soul housed within his physical form, the centre of being. Colours of healing, moving into one’s task, love. In viewing simple leaves, Markriss became aware that he bore witness to the microcosm in emulation of the macro. He was a vessel on behalf of the universe, pondering its larger existence. Aware of the present in acknowledgement of infinite realities. Chakras spun, shifted. His ka rose, pineal awakened.
Connected, Markriss let go. He was ready.
Courttia Newland Q&A
You’ve described “A River Called Time” as your “deepest dive into African Diaspora culture yet”. Can you tell us a little more about how you’ve created the parallel world for the novel?
Well, firstly I did my research. I started off with a book called “The Projection” by Sylvan Muldoon and Hereward Carrington and “Astral Projection: A Record of Out Of Body Experiences” by Oliver Fox. That basically gave me the framework for what Astral Projection is, and does. The Metu Neter offered a comprehensive starting point for Kamitian (Egyptian) cosmology, and its different formulations all over the African continent, but also other world religions and belief systems. Then I began to think about how a world like this had come about – it’s geography, history and class distinctions. I worked on that for awhile, but I didn’t work it all out before I started writing – once I’ve enough to get started, I prefer to let things happen on the page. And throughout that writing process, I read more books, attended workshops and courses, did meditation classes on spirituality – everything I could to get in the space of the world, and live it as normality, just like my characters.
How far does Afro-Futurism intersect with ecological themes? Does Afro-Futurism have something to say to the ecological movement?
I think Afro-Futurism (I use the term African Futurism) constantly intersects with ecology, mainly because it’s the nature of the culture to be connected with land, or make a commentary about our disconnection. The Pan-African flag is composed of three colours – Red for the blood that unites us, Black for our existence as a nation, though not a nation state, and Green for the abundant natural wealth of Africa – the land. In the Rastafarian flag, which borrows from the Ethiopian flag, Gold is also used, though historians aren’t sure why. Land means everything to us due to our fraught history with it in numerous ways, and we speak of the ecological movement, or lack thereof, in a great many works due to this intimate connection.
We’re living in dystopian times. Events that would have been dismissed as outlandish or beyond comprehension are now part of our everyday experience. As a writer, how do your respond to these challenges? Is there still a place for dystopian (or utopian) visions in fiction?
Yes, for me I think it’s almost a given that we respond to what’s going on around us – I see myself as a chronicler of modern times. I think there’s a definite place for dystopian visions of the future although I feel that in our current global position, a conversation between African diaspora writers has begun about creating more utopian, hopeful visions to bolster our spirits.
We know that the global south is most impacted by the climate and ecological emergency – what role can writers play in addressing or spreading awareness of the crisis?
We must speak of our concerns as much as possible, allow space for experts to share what they know, and tell stories that express these realities and place the global south firmly at the centre of new stories.
What frightens you most about the Anthropocene? What gives you hope?
I suppose it’s our inability to alter our ways that’s most frightening. On a whole we’ve become so individual and used to our creature comforts we can’t imagine putting the world first. There is a growing need and concern, and I hope that the promise shown by Europe by their resolve to tackle some of the climate issues that face us, coupled with the new US administration, points to some form of change. But I think the relentless disregard for the obvious dangers is truly alarming, and it worries me a great deal.
We all need to read more – who should we be reading and why?
So many! I highly rate Percival Everett, Roberts Jones Jnr, Lidia Yuknavitch, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Jacqueline Woodson, Sarah Hall. I urge everyone to read Curdella Forbes, who I believe is one of the foremost authors I’ve encountered in years. Preston L. Allen, Derek Owusu, Roy Jacobson. There are tons.
Courttia Newland has published eight works of fiction including his debut, The Scholar. His latest novel, A River Called Time, was published by Canongate in 2021. A forthcoming collection of speculative fiction stories, Cosmogramma, will also be published this year. Newland’s short stories have appeared in many anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and included in Best of British Short Stories 2017. He has been awarded the Tayner Barbers Award for science fiction writing and the Roland Rees Bursary for playwriting. He was previously associate lecturer in creative writing at the University of Westminster and is completing a PhD in creative writing. As a screenwriter he has co-written two feature length films for the Steve McQueen BBC series Small Axe, of which Lovers Rock was jury selected for Cannes, and opened New York Film Fest 2020. Small Axe won the LA Critics Circle award 2020 for Best Picture. Impact, an original feature, and The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be, a science fiction short, are currently in development with Film Four.