At his UEA Live event, Courttia Newland discusses his newest book, A River Called Time, and the parallel universes hidden within that world. He takes us on a journey of creative and intellectual imagination, of migration history, and of finding oneself whilst stumbling in fear.
Newland normalises spiritualism and mysticism in the novel. His cultural heritage and his parents’ migration experience inspired him to present African and Egyptian beliefs in the story. Marcus, the protagonist, is a 28-year-old cult spiritual leader in a parallel universe, and a journalist in another. As readers, we look through his point of view when he encounters The Ark: the remaining safe bits of this world that are not exposed to radiation. Newland narrates several pages in a calm and soothing tone, yet its context is far from the peace his voice provides. The poorest part of The Ark is where “warzone and bandits” gather; it is a land of “corpse and uprising” rather than a spiritual place for comfort.
Drawing from his imagination, Newland tries to present his intellectual version of the world which is recognisable to a certain extent, yet foreign and unfamiliar. He wanted people to notice the “stark differences” between our reality and the different parallel universes he created in the story. One of the differences was the idea of racism, where money and wealth were the talk of town rather than race and skin colour. For example, the Ark was supposed to be a safe place for refugees yet it was turned into a capitalist revenue.
18 years in the making, Newland also shared his excitement in starting this novel back in 1997. He described it as “a massive adventure” to him – from educating himself about Egyptian cosmology, African religion and philosophy, voodoo, and Quantum Physics from various authors; he familiarised himself with these ideas and identified with the truths they offered. Therefore he wrote about The Ark and the truth behind this place, and how it failed to serve humanity.
There were certainly hardships whilst he was writing this book, including difficulties in finding a publishing house and getting rejections due to mentioning that Black people eat spaghetti bolognese – “Everyone knows that is not true,” he chuckled.
He also talked about writer’s block and procrastination. When his editor encouraged him to finish the second part of the book, his “heart plummeted because [he] gotta do it now.” He found writing “daunting, and he was constantly doubting and criticising his own work. However, writing has become a journey of growth for him. Now, he advises others in overcoming anxiety by knowing you “can fix it, [because] writing is rewriting. The important thing is you need to get to the end, you gotta finish it. Just do it. You’ll get into it.”
Towards the end of the talk, Newland highlighted how the novel reflects one’s life in finding oneself. He identifies with Marcus’ journey from being lost to realising the need to fight for systematic justice. Marcus becomes autobiographical, mirroring who Newland was in his 20s— “We are always writing about ourselves, [the book] covers spiritually and mentally about where I was.”