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