A conversation with Emmi Itäranta, author of MEMORY OF WATER
I'm so happy to host guest blogger Dan Bloom's new interview with Finnish novelist Emmi Itäranta! Emmi's climate-themed book Memory of Water has been published in Finnish and English and will soon be available in 12 other countries. In a red-star review, Publisher's Weekly described the book as "a deceptively tranquil examination of a world of dust and ashes where the tenacious weed of hope still survives.”
The novel won the Kalevi Jäntti Literary Prize in 2012 and the Young Aleksis Kivi Prize in 2013. It was also nominated for the Tähtivaeltaja Award in 2013.
Emmi will be doing a special advance signing of Memory of Water at Book Expo America on Saturday, May 31 at 11 a.m., at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Booth (2561), for any conference-goers…
Here's your synopsis: In the far north of the Scandinavian Union, now occupied by the power state of New Qian, 17-year-old Noria Kaitio studies to become a tea master like her father. It is a position that holds great responsibility and a dangerous secret. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, including the natural spring that once provided water for her whole village. When Noria's father dies, the secret of the spring reaches the new military commander . . . and the power of the army is vast indeed. But the precious water reserve is not the only forbidden knowledge Noria possesses, and resistance is a fine line.
Threatened with imprisonment, and with her life at stake, Noria must make an excruciating, dangerous choice between knowledge and freedom.
And without further ado, here's Dan's conversation with Emmi.
When you published Memory of Water, did you think of it as a sci-fi novel or as a novel without any genre label? Or as a ''literary fiction'' novel? Can we call your novel Finnish ''cli-fi''?
Emmi Itäranta: 'When I first began writing, I didn't think of genre labels. A few chapters into the story I realized that it could be categorized as science fiction. Since climate change is a central part of the backstory of Memory of Water, I think it definitely fits within the definition of "cli-fi", so calling it a Finnish "cli-fi" novel would not be out of place.
From your point of view, what is the difference between sci-fi and cli-fi? Can they be the same, or do we need to differentiate between the two genres? Or is it possible that the two genres can be combined in cases where the main theme is climate change or global warming set in the future?
EI: I think of cli-fi as a subgenre of sci-fi, although I question the necessity of genre labels in the first place. Genre labels are often artificial and hard to define—you probably won't find two people who agree entirely on the definition of science fiction. But climate-themed speculative fiction is clearly on the rise, simply because fiction always reflects reality in some way.
What year is your novel set in? Is it the near future or distant future?
EI: I left the year unmentioned in the story on purpose and would prefer to keep it that way. I believe each reader's interpretation of how far in the future the events take place reflects their own stance on how urgent an issue they feel climate change is. It might be thousands of years, or hundreds.
With a readership now in 14 countries, how do you feel about having a global audience?
EI: As for finding an audience, it is early days for that, too, because most translations are only coming out later this year or sometime in 2015. But the potential is of course both exciting and entirely unexpected. Mostly I try to keep my eyes on writing the next sentence. That helps me stay grounded.
What was the genesis of the book?
EI: I first started writing Memory of Water in February 2008 as part of a Creative Writing degree in the UK. I had nothing but fragments, but they contained the essence of the story: a young woman preparing tea in a future world that was running out of fresh water.
Finland has also given the world the novelist Antti Tuomainen who wrote the cli-fi thriller The Healer in Finnish first. It received very positive reviews and was picked up by publishers worldwide and translated into a variety of langauges, including English. Are you familiar with his work?
EI: I haven't read The Healer yet, but I'm intrigued by the premise, and the novel is on my reading list. I think climate themes are on the rise in Finnish novels. A few authors here in Finland (some translated, others hopefully so in the foreseeable future) whose novels have recently addressed climate themes in some shape or form would be Leena Krohn, Risto Isomäki, Tiina Raevaara, Laura Lähteenmäki, Anne Leinonen and Eija Lappalainen, for instance.
Have you always been concerned about the future of humankind and the path we're taking?
EI: I don't think a person needs to have children to care about the future of the planet. I think it's basic humanity to think about those who come after you. I grew up in a family with a deep love of nature, so I believe it is ingrained in my upbringing.
I think many people worry because climate change is no longer an abstract idea, but an increasingly tangible set of unpredictable events that we feel in our everyday lives—extreme weather, increase in food prices, and so on. It would be rather irrational not to wonder what can be done about it.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future of the human species in regard to climate change and overpopulation and the overconsumption of resources and other issues?
EI: I can see it going both ways, because as a species, we possess incredible imaginative and creative resources to overcome problems, but also an astonishing capacity for short-sighted greed and selfishness. We have equal potential to save or destroy ourselves. At the moment, we unfortunately seem to be leaning towards the latter, but I'd like to think we are smarter than that.
The premise of Memory of Water is, to put it plainly, quite amazing: with a lack of drinking water in the future, the novel tells the story of young woman named Noria who is trained to bring water to people. It's an amazing image. The idea of becoming a "tea master" is central to the book. Have you ever been to Japan?
EI: I have never been to Japan, but Zen philosophy and the Japanese Way of Tea were central inspirations for Memory of Water, so I'm hoping to visit Japan within the next couple of years. It is a culture that has interested me for a long time and that I still admittedly know little about. I'm looking forward to learning more.
So what comes next?
I'm not writing a sequel, but an independent novel set in a different world. Water is an important element in that story too, but this time in the form of floods—too much water, rather than too little. Of course, this is also imagery that has strong echoes of climate change. I believe we will see lots of fiction dealing with water shortages, water conflicts and floods in the years to come, because these are some of the central issues of our time. I don't see them going away any time soon.
[The last question was soon threading its way over the internet from my office in Taiwan to Emmi's home in Britain, where she has lived for the last seven years, and it was a burning question I had been waiting all during the interview to ask her]:
Emmi, you told me that you had never heard of the term "cli-fi" before I mentioned it to you in an earlier email when I first made contact with you. So now that you have had some time to think about it, what do you think of this term as a way of attracting readers and bookstores and librarains and novelists to this new genre of fiction? Does it sound promising to you?
[In French, I was told that "cli-fi" would be translated as "roman d'anticipation climatique"—meaning a novel based on climate change, which in French is called "anticipation climatqiue." So how, I wondered, would one say "cli-fi" in Finnish?]
EI: If we accept that such a thing as "climate fiction" exists, and I find the term itself very useful, I think it's important to see it as more than a literary trend to attract readers and writers. It should be seen as a call to action. Climate change calls for more than acknowledgement, and certainly for more than a passing fashion; it calls for responsibility. In Finnish, the direct translation of "cli-fi" would be "ilmastofiktio".
**Dan blogs at Cli Fi Central and he can be found on Twitter @polarcityman
Since Dan Bloom first coined the term cli-fi in 2007, there's been a minor explosion of novels examining the social, economic, psychological and ecological consequences of climate change. Some take place now, others are set in the near or distant future. But all raise a very big question: if we continue burning fossil fuels at the current breakneck pace, what exactly will that future look like? There's plenty of scientific papers describing various unpleasant scenarios, but let's be honest. How many people are reading those?
First, thank you, Dan, for taking the time to talk about cli-fi today! Nathaniel Rich (Odds Against Tomorrow) says that "we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality". But isn't it just the plot - some element of climate change - that defines cli-fi? Is the genre really new or unique?
Dan Bloom: You are right, it's the plot and the theme—some element of climate change or global warming in the present or the near or distant future—that matters. The cli-fi genre is not really "new" or unique, as writers such as JG Ballard in Britain with The Drowned World in 1962 and George Turner in Australia with The Sea and Summer in 1987 have been writing ''cli-fi'' literature for a long time. What's new is the nickname of cli-fi, modelled of course after the sci-fi term, and standing for "climate fiction" instead of "science fiction." And the nickname is unique and I planned it that way, as a way to attract media attention through headlines and news articles. This is a media-driven project I have been working on.
So Reddit, The LA Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and Popular Science have all made the decision to ban so-called climate change skeptics from their pages, arguing that there simply aren't two equally valid sides to this story - and one is dangerously misleading. Have you run across any cli-fi that takes the skeptical position, and is that getting any traction at all?
DB: Michael Crichton's 2004 novel "State of Fear" is a modern cli-fi novel and he takes the skeptical position on climate change, and that's fine, too. All writers from all countries, writing in any language, are welcome to join the cli-fi community worldwide and there is no specific agenda. But for the most part, most cli-fi novels have been written by people who believe that climate change and global warming are real and are happening, and their books reflect that. Writers like Crichton are welcome at the table, too, but I am sure they will be in the minority as public opinion more and more reflects what our top scientists are telling us.
An April 8 Gallup poll found that only 34% of Americans worry "a great deal" about climate change, perhaps not so surprising since the network news shows tend to ignore it. Do you think fiction can help bridge this gap in public awareness, without being dismissed as preachy?
DB: Yes, I do, and that is why I am working 24/7 on all this. But you bring up a good point. Cli-fi novels, like any genre of novel, should not be preachy or they will threaten to turn off readers, even green activists. A novel is a novel is a novel. The "story" is everything. This is the same for cli-fi novels as well. Leave the preachiness out.
Let's talk YA. In a pretty stark contrast, one poll found that 55 percent of younger voters (18-34) say "climate change is a severe threat that we must start addressing now". Only three percent think it's not really happening. Clearly, young people are worried about what kind of world they'll be living in. What does cli-fi have to offer them?
DB: You bring up a good point, and a recent news article in a college newspaper in Pennsylvania by Elizabeth Furiga at the University of Pittsburgh says it well. Young people are concerned and the future is going to hit them the hardest. So cli-fi novels and movies will offer young people growing up in the world today a good way to learn about the world they and their children and grandchildren will be facing.
Tell us about a couple of your personal favorites.
DB: I am not a literary critic and even a book reviewer, so I really don't want to make a list of my favorite cli-fi novels for fear of leaving out other books that other readers consider important. But I can single out one very good YA cli-fi novel, "Not a Drop to Drink," by Mindy McGinnis, which was published by a major publisher in New York and with a sequel due out soon, too. Her book is very good. And the YA cli-fi community is growing now by leaps and bounds, from the U.S. to Australia to Britain. I'm glad to see this growth spurt.
Anything in particular you'd like to see the genre tackle? Less doom and gloom, more optimism? Technological innovation? Brainstorming about how to shift the global economy beyond fossil fuels?
DB: I like doom and gloom. Because as a famous character in a famous BBC television show "Dad's Army"—I think his name was Sgt. Frazier—used to say: "We're doomed, we're doomed." And if you read the IPCC reports and listen to our top scientists worldwide, we are doomed, doomed. This is going to be the fight of our lives, the biggest fight the human species has ever waged: to somehow stop climate change and global warming from creating major—and perhaps unspeakable—impact events in the future. This is not fun and games. And this is not escapism or entertainment.
So as I see it, cli-fi novels have a moral responsibility to dig deep and face up to where we are as a species, now, here on planet Earth. And also, to try to offer solutions, too. I am an optimist, believe it or not. I wouldn't be working so hard to promote cli-fi worldwide as a genre for novels and movies if I didn't have a sense of hope. So novels that explore ideas of geo-engineering fixes will be important, too. And novels that explore ways to shift the global economy beyond fossil fuels will be vital.
This genre can really make a difference, and I really hope it does, since there is a very important moral element involved in cli-fi. We humans are in the fight of our lives as a species. If we lose, all humans will die off. But sure, the Earth itself will go on, and some animals and insect and fish species will survive. But an Earth without humans, is that what we want? Are we going to give up without a fight? So the climate activist in me—and the literary activist—says no, we cannot give up without a fight. Cli-fi is one way to wage the fight as a wake up alarm. Literature matters. Words matter.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer from Boston based in Taiwan. A 1971 graduate of Tufts University where he majored in French literature, he has been working as a climate activist and a literary activist since 2006. Dan blogs at Cli Fi Central and he can be found on Twitter @polarcityman