Finnish author Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel, Memory of Water, haunted me to no end. It was my favorite book in 2014, the year it was translated into English, and I later interviewed Emmi (see our interview here).
The novel feels like a dream as it takes us into a future world where water is very scarce. The title, a double entendre, implies that not only would humans have a longing memory of water in such a world but water would have its own memory. In the novel, water (like insects, rocks, and wind) becomes a character as, if not more, involved in the story world as its people – the meaning and memory of this character is precious. Bringing nature into the story as a force, a main character, and a dwindling but necessary resource is done well with Emmi’s soft and beautiful prose.
One of Emmi’s recurring motifs in Memory is the importance of cultural, environmental, and traditional continuity. The main character, Noria, is learning the ancient art of being a tea master, from her father. The family has a secret spring of fresh water that they rely on for making tea. Given the dystopian government in this world, which rations water – and would punish those who break the water rules – life is full of uncertainty. Will Noria and her father get caught? While the tea is important, the ceremony is as well; it is the continued knowledge of how to make and serve tea that provides cohesion with the past. Ritual is important.
I asked Emmi:
Just as when a person dies and water leaves it, so does the tea ceremony end when the water is gone. This is emphasized in the novel and is a simple but powerful way of looking at water. This question is two-fold. One is out of curiosity: have you had experience in hosting or attending a tea ceremony, and do its attendees respect the power of the water? Second: is the tea ceremony a metaphor for life, for everything that holds water? When the water ends, our life’s ceremony is also over.
I have attended a Japanese tea ceremony, and my impression was that every detail is given a lot of thought and attention, water included. The idea that the purity of water is particularly important for tea-making is something I first encountered when reading about the history of tea in China. So it is not my own idea, but I adopted it for the book and amplified it, because it seemed appropriate for a water-deprived future. And yes, the tea ceremony does become a metaphor for life, and possibly also for different belief systems: if the form is kept immaculate but the essence lost and carved hollow, any belief system or ritual intended as meaningful will run as empty as a vessel without water.
The novel focuses on Noria, her tea master education, a good friendship with a neighbor named Sanja, and the dreams of a Shangri-la type of country that might still exist. It also uses water to form metaphors, such as reflections. While one might be able to see their reflection while standing over a body of water, the reflection while standing over a dry riverbed is not possible or physical; it’s psychological and full of regret. What if water did exist there? Wouldn’t it be nice? What could I have done in my life to secure we always have fresh water? Or, more likely, what were my ancestors thinking? These dreams are shattered into shards of regret, with the cultural knowledge that water is no longer in the riverbed because perhaps we did not conserve it or keep it fresh. Emmi does not preach, however; she tells a story. The story is so persistent, a vivid place in an imaginary world that we can see well and know may happen sooner or later. Emmi’s writing puts us there more than most fiction writers have the capability of doing, and her novel has been shortlisted for several awards.
This novel works for its imagery, but when tackling elements of climate change (again, as mentioned earlier in this series, a hyperobject) authors must shape this huge subject into a comprehensible narrative, which involves wise handling of the story. Emmi does this by focusing on a main character and a main task: tea mastery. Yet, it’s as though the novel pans out from the focus often enough for the reader to get the large environmental realities going on. I told Emmi I thought her book would work very well visually, and the film rights have been sold to Bufo.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.