“What does it mean to be a black man in Britain?”: Courttia Newland on his latest novel and the struggle to get published

The novelist and screenwriter discusses science fiction, the human soul and working with Steve McQueen on the BBC’s Small Axe series.

Courttia Newland was in his mid-twenties when he had his first out-of-body experience. Following the publication of his debut novel, The Scholar (1997), he lived in a shared flat in Ladbroke Grove, west London. One night, “I had this panic attack where I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, and for some reason, instead of fighting, I decided to just relax,” he said. Calmly, he had the sense that he had left his body and was looking down at it as it lay on his bed.

Night terrors were not new to Newland – he had experienced them as a teenager. But previously he had always made sure he woke up; never before had he allowed himself to be carried along by the event.

“I didn’t know anything about astral projection at the time,” said Newland, now 47, when we spoke over Zoom in January. “My first thought was: this would be a cool thing to write about.” The novelist, playwright and screenwriter wore a black zip-up hoodie over a London 2012 Paralympic Games T-shirt as he spoke from his living room in Forest Gate, east London, where he lives with his family.

The novel that Newland’s out-of-body experience propelled him to write was published this month, 19 years after he first received Arts Council funding to work on it. A River Called Time is a rich and expansive work of speculative fiction that follows protagonist Markriss Denny across not just one alternate reality, but four. In each of these parallel worlds, colonisation and slavery never happened. Instead, white Europeans travelled to the African continent to exchange cultural, scientific and philosophical ideas, treating “Africa as the ancient Greeks once treated ancient Egypt, coming not to pillage, rape and murder, but to learn”, as Newland writes in the book’s afterword. The dominant world religion is African cosmology, and astral projection – the esoteric term for the out-of-body experience Newland had, which assumes the existence of a soul separate from the physical body – is understood worldwide.

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In the Noughties Newland couldn’t find a publisher for the book. Publishers “felt troubled” by African cosmology, he said, a concept they couldn’t mesh with their pre-existing understanding of science fiction. Plus, “They felt a bit of discomfort with me as a writer. I was known for writing urban fiction set on council estates. They were just like: how do we market you, this guy who does realism, as doing mysticism?”

This was undoubtedly a race issue. Newland has Jamaican and Bajan heritage and considers himself a black British writer working within the tradition of British science fiction, citing John Wyndham, Daphne du Maurier and George Orwell among his inspirations. Black British sci-fi existed – Newland was an early fan of Pete Kalu’s 1998 novel Black Star Rising – but without a substantial number of such authors visible in the mainstream, no publisher was willing to take on A River Called Time.

He put the …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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