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13 January 2021updated 27 Jul 2021 10:57am

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

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

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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.

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?”

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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 book in a drawer and turned his attention to other projects. “And then Black Panther happened,” said Newland, who saw the 2018 Marvel film at the Genesis Cinema in east London. The film, which broke box office records, proved there was an audience for science fiction created by and for black people.

[see also: M John Harrison: “A number of novels don’t sit well in their genre of origin”]

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The increased interest in “Afrofuturism” – art that exists at the intersection of African diaspora culture and technology – has helped Newland, he said, but it’s a term he feels “ambivalent” about. It was coined by the American cultural critic Mark Dery in the 1990s, but Newland has been aware of the notion all his life. As a boy, Newland saw Afrofuturism everywhere – in the aesthetic of the dub producer Mad Professor, whose posters he spied on the walls of Hawkeye Records in Harlesden, in Grace Jones, and in Star Wars’s Lando Calrissian.

For Newland the genre is an intrinsically hopeful one because it imagines black people in the future, after white authors left them out of it for so long. He is still unsure whether A River Called Time is a work of Afrofuturism, because the term has more often been used to describe works by African-American artists, while Newland’s remit is very much London-centric. Besides, he prefers the term “African futurism”: “We’re not talking about a hairstyle!”

Newland’s conjured future is complex. Colonisation may never have happened in the world of the novel, but large proportions of this imagined population live in poverty, violence is rife and its leadership is corrupt. “There’s no such thing as a utopian state of humanity. I wasn’t trying to say if slavery hadn’t happened, black people would be perfect; that’s a ridiculous notion. What I’m trying to posit is the idea that we’re human beings. There are some good people, and there are some people who are not so good: that’s the fundamental state of humanity.”

Whether he is writing a novel, or a script for the stage or the small screen, Newland’s work is, at the moment, concerned with the same matter: “What does it mean to be a black man of African heritage, in this society?” This question permeates Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue, two films Newland co-wrote with Steve McQueen as part of the director’s Small Axe series, which was first broadcast on the BBC at the end of 2020.

These different artistic forms may exist in a “separate realm”, Newland said, but they are “in conversation with each other, like parallel worlds”. 

“A River Called Time” is published by Canongate

[see also: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films tell forgotten, hidden or hitherto ignored stories​]

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war