British-Canadian science fiction novelist, prize-winning poet, human rights activist, traveller, and a professional Tarot Card reader Naomi Foyle visited Anglo-American University on April 9th to read from her Gaia Chronicles, sign her books and answer the questions of our students. The Gaia series is a story of growing up in a post-fossil fuel parallel Mesopotamia, a post-apocalyptic eco-dystopian world. The first two volumes of the chronicles, “Astra” (2014) and “Rook Song” (2015) are available to borrow at the AAU library. I met Naomi to talk about the Gaia chronicles, women in sci-fi, inspiration, feminism, and current political and ecological world issues.
Even though the number of female science fiction writers has noticeably increased in the last decades, a woman in science fiction is still pretty unusual and requires certain courage. How did you come to this genre and writing in general?
Mainstream media creates the false impression that science fiction is a male genre and this is something we have to struggle against because from the latest available statistics at least 25% of US and UK SF writers are female. In the UK, however, Waterstones bookshop recently published a pamphlet promoting its science fiction section and of 113 writers mentioned only 9 were women! Looking back, though, I personally didn’t even consider there might be a problem with being an SF writer, because I was aware of giants in the field Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Doris Lessing and Octavia Butler and also had a friend who knew the British SF writer Gwyneth Jones, so I had models before my own eyes. My experience in South Korea contributed to my passion for sci-fi. When I moved to Seoul to teach English in the nineties I felt like I’d leapt ahead of the rest of the world technologically. Everyone had beepers for receiving messages, Korean scientists were working on cloning and it felt quite electric for my imagination. It all fed into my first book, Seoul Survivors. They say “the past is another county” and the future is too; perhaps if you travel to a different place it’s easier to imagine being in a different time.
Travelling has clearly influenced you and your works a lot. Do you have any dream destinations to get inspiration for future novels from?
I would love to go to Russia! I have done a couple of Anna Akhmatova translations which, among other poems, I read at the poetry evening here in Prague – I would love to go and see her statue by the Neva and visit her museum, and explore elsewhere in Russia as well, in particular meeting human rights activists like the Muscovites I met in Lviv last year. I’d like to go through Finland, in part because my home country of Canada is twinned with Scandinavia in terms of climate and social outlook. I’ve been to Sweden once but I’d like to see more Nordic countries and learn more about how their social democracies work. I’d love to go to Africa because I’ve never been there except for Egypt and I feel that we get a very distorted picture of the continent from the news. We hear about disasters and war and corruption but don’t really get a sense of people’s ordinary lives. Obviously a continent is a vast and hugely diverse place, but perhaps I would start with Nigeria, as writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole and Jackie Kay and the SF writer Nnedi Okorafor have given me insight into cultural and political conditions there. If I could also go to South America and Antarctica I’d have been on every continent by the end of my life☺. I have done some co-translations with the Argentinian writer Mori Ponsowy, so perhaps one day I will visit her. But currently I have to focus on the Gaia Chronicles and the theme of the Middle East for a while longer, and also think about another trip home to Canada soon.
In your last post at naomifoyle.com you speak about “the silvery Czech spores that seeded (your) science fiction fate.” What is the connection between your writing and Czech culture?
My best friend in Canada in grade eight was a Czechoslovakian girl Nora. She influenced me literarily with her imagination when we created the world of Zandonia together. I wouldn’t have been aware at the time, but now I think she must have known of the Czech SF tradition because her father was a lively intellectual. As a child I loved fantasy: dragons, Ursula K. Le Guin, magic… But my first memory of engaging in science fiction is of writing with Nora. It was just a speculation but it occurred to me that there is a connection between her and my coming to Prague now.
She was an inspiration for you because you were creating your world together. What else has been an inspiration for your worlds?
Travelling has always inspired me. Seoul Survivors is set in South Korea where I was teaching English. Basically, I’m a curious person and everything new that I experience is an inspiration to know more. In that way, other cultures inspire me. Perhaps, also, because I had a “rootless” childhood it feels as natural for me to get absorbed in a new culture as to dig into my own. I grew up in Canada but before that we lived in London, Hong Kong, and Liverpool, while my parents’ ancestors include Norfolk farmers, an English schoolmaster and Scottish colonials in India, where my mother was born. So apart from my family values, in particular the Quaker religion, I didn’t grow up immersed in one specific indigenous culture. Even my mother moved away from Quakerism and became interested in Tarot and astrology, for example. I learned from her that my great-grandmother was Irish and since being back in the UK I have visited Ireland often. Culturally, I feel like a product of globalisation, so living in a privileged position in a globalised world I try to approach all cultures with respect and engagement. I hope very much that is communicated in my work.
How does the inspiration come to you?
With poems it’s almost a physical feeling – like a little bubble that grows inside you and lifts your feet off the ground. Any experience can bring this inspiration. To write a novel is different – more like a snowball hurtling down a hill.
What qualities should a woman have in order to become a writer?
Women must have a strong sense of self-belief. Historically we have been told that we are not capable of being geniuses, or doing science, or writing great epics, that our personal concerns are trivial, and somehow these negative prejudices can affect our sense of self-esteem. What has struck me about the inequality between men and women in the world of literature (VIDA has shown that women’s books don’t get reviewed as much as men’s do; women are not published in leading journals as much as men are…) is that when you dig a little bit you often find that women are not sending their work to publishers at the same rate as men. Unfortunately, it appears that women feel more fragile about rejection because if an editor sends their work back they are likely not to try that magazine again. But you have to be bold and confident. I never gave up and kept sending my manuscripts out. Read as much as possible, get a lot of feedback on your work, send out a lot, try again, be patient, make a commitment to it! Also, working in different areas of literature is beneficial. Work as an editor as well, get yourself in a position to support and publish other people’s work. This is how we can change the whole complexion of the industry, which needs to transform not only for women and transgender authors, but also for black writers and Asian writers, who are even more underrepresented in the West. To men, I would say please read widely – part of the problem, statistics show, is that men tend to read male authors, while women more often do not consider the author’s gender as a factor when choosing a book. These are generalisations, but overall they have a significant effect on the market.
Do you consider yourself a feminist and how is it expressed in your writing?
Yes, I do think of myself as a feminist. Although we have multiple identities, and for some women feminism is not as important as organising around race, ethnicity, class or disability (or even obstructs those campaigns), I do believe women have issues such as reproductive rights, economic equality, and as I said above, historical exclusion from the cultural domain, that must be addressed politically. All my novels have strong female leads even though the cynical point of view says if Harry Potter was Henrietta Potter the series wouldn’t have been an international sensation. But I have to value my own existential condition and although I write male characters as well, so far the driving characters have been female. I write frankly about sex, and sexual violence against women, and how to do that sensitively is a big question for me. I also think that true feminism – which for me is about changing social power dynamics, not simply giving token women access to traditional male power – requires me to care about violence and inequality wherever it appears. I have written extensively about refugees, for example, and currently I am writing about the sexual exploitation of a young man in a gay relationship.
You worked with drama, poetry, and novels. Which form is the closest to you?
Whatever form I’m currently working on has to be my strongest focus. But I feel loyal to all of them, I can’t imagine giving any of them up. I’m looking forward to going back to poetry after I finish the Gaia Chronicles. Lately, as I have become more politically active I’ve become interested in the essay form, too.
You are a social activist and this experience has influenced your writing as well – for example, you’ve written a poem about the demonstrations in Gaza in which you actually participated. But what is more important about you – a writer or a human rights activist?
I think, honestly, being a writer, which is the main way I express my activism. I’ve been a writer since I was a child. I always had strong political views too, but I didn’t seriously begin acting on them in an organised way until 2009. When I started my anti-Zionist activism I wanted to do it from where I was already, so as a writer I work mainly on the cultural and academic boycott campaign, mainly in the form of blogging, letter writing campaigns and debates. The boycott is controversial and often misunderstood as targeting Jews or individual Israelis, which it is definitely not; it is important it’s explained properly, as a means of sanctioning institutions funded by the Israeli government. I am also increasingly interested in Green politics. We need mass action now against climate change and global inequality, and I think it’s important for people to feel one doesn’t have to give up everything to become an activist – you can be one from where you are.
You are also a professional Tarot card reader – how is this connected to your writing?
The Tarot has given me a spiritual sense of a world beyond the material surface (interestingly, there are scientists who hold a non-physicalist view of the universe, and I am reading Rupert Sheldrake now to understand that view better). Reading Tarot also makes me more open to the mysteries at the heart of all religions. Tarot has fed my interest in myth and give me many opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. Even though everyone who gets a Tarot reading comes to me from a different context, I can see that in our desire to be happy and fulfilled through work and relationships we are more alike than different. Being a Tarot reader gives me faith in people’s ability to be open to each other and to the unknown.
Let’s talk about your last books. What are the Gaia chronicles about and what is its future?
When I look around I get a feeling that humanity is playing with fire: the ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, there is a massive refugee crisis, wealthy countries are insulating themselves against the impoverished parts of the world… We need to wake up to the fact that we are all connected. In the Gaia Chronicles I imagine a world after a great collapse of our current global order. The planet is a lot hotter and radically depopulated. People with powerful agendas, competing for power, still exist. But at the same time, many other people have survived because they cooperated during the disaster. Now the planet is no longer dependent on fossil fuels, and the ideas of equality, diversity, and human rights are beginning to be taken seriously by governments. Green technology has become powerful, although some eco-scientists have become possessive of their knowledge and politically canny of how they use it. My character Astra is growing up in what seems an eco-utopia which nevertheless has been bought at the cost of other people’s lives and well-being. Actually, I think my books are about issues that affect us now: dispossession, ethnic cleansing, the need to develop alternative technologies and energy supply. I’ve set them in the remote future because that is what science fiction offers – the chance to envision better futures, and warn us of worse ones. Two books are published already and two more are forthcoming. In the first book we meet Astra as a young girl who growing up realises that her world has a very sinister side; in the second book she meets people who have been dispossessed by her country’s, and in the third book “The Blood of the Hoopoe” which is coming out next year, Astra is going on a road trip to a desert community to meet visionaries who may hold the key to undoing the conflict between all the battling parties in the world. We’ll see where she will get.
Do you believe there might be some events in real life to lead us to a world similar to the one you’ve created?
I really hope not. With significant changes made quite rapidly (switching to electric or hydrogen cars, for instance) I’d like to think we can halt, even reverse climate change. I also believe that poverty and hunger are not a problem of overpopulation but of the way governments and corporations distribute resources, systems that can be changed if there is sufficient political will to do so. But I also worry that wealthy and empowered people don’t seem to have a sense of an ecological crisis. Look at me, flying here! Although I do pay my carbon credits, and am prepared to change my lifestyle more radically. I love travelling by train, but the expense that deters me more than the time it takes. The new fossil fuel divestment movement gives me hope that limits will be placed on our consumption, and investments made in cheaper alternatives to flying.
What are other topics you were interested in except for environmental problems?
In book two of The Gaia Chronicles, “Rook Song”, there are a lot of disabled characters. They live in a toxic land and many people are born with physical or intellectual impairments. Due to living in a refugee camp, without adequate education, medical assistance or social care, they have many reasons to fight for their rights. I did research into such activism, and my writing was inspired by what I discovered, in general the dedication, organisation and creativity it takes to make the world acknowledge disabled people and their needs. Since doing the research I feel less anxious for myself about any possible disability because now I look at such conditions simply as another way of living. Perhaps I also have a ‘hidden disability’ in that (like many writers) I can be depressive and anxious. Talking about that in my blog has been an experiment, and makes me admire even more people who go public about their vulnerabilities. Changing the world is not just about saving the environment, but also about changing civilization so that we all feel at home in it.
Your character Astra, you said, is more of a daughter of yours than you yourself. What does this mother-daughter relationship between you look like?
I’m a pretty harsh mother because I’ve sent her out to the world on her own in a miserable state ☺. But I believe she can make it! She’s been traumatized, but heroes and heroines need to have a strong inner conflict, challenge and question about Astra has to deal with her anger, to understand if she wants revenge, if she wants to forgive or to be forgiven… I would like her to get to a place of wisdom. For now, she seems to be too young for that but we’ll see how the books go. May be she’ll have children herself which will take me to a whole new direction… Who knows! I based Astra’s character on Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of the morning and evening star. She’s a forerunner of Venus but not simply a goddess of love, also of war. Her profound legend concerns growing up, taking control over her sexuality, her queendom and ultimately her own dark side. Inanna marries a shepherd and raises him to the level of king because she loves him. She also tricks her father into giving her his political authority. Later she goes on a trip to the underworld where she transforms, dies and is reborn. When she returns she finds her husband has usurped her throne and she’s furious with him … Inanna is an autonomous independent figure and all of that is in the background of Astra. Astra is very passionate, loving, emotionally vulnerable but at the same time increasingly thrust into a role of political leadership. That’s where she might differ from me because even though I am a part-time activist I don’t feel I crave the political limelight. I even find social networking a challenge, and would much rather just teach and write books. But I’m interested in the need for women leaders. Maybe power is as corrupting for women as it is for men, but unless there are female politicians we’re not going to see women’s needs represented as they ought to be. That applies all underrepresented groups. Politics is about all of us, and we need to see people from all sectors of society involved in the political process. If that becomes the case, and we move away from the two horse race and more toward coalitions, hopefully we’ll see power shared more often than power fought over.
What do you hope your readers will take out of your books?
Interest in the world, interest in Middle Eastern politics … The sense that anyone at any stage can stand up and join with other people and not lose anything of themselves. In the West we live in highly individualistic societies and I hope that people would see from my books that it is both possible and exciting to unite and stand up for human rights together. Also, I hope my readers will simply enjoy my effort to present an epic, rich and complex story!
Do you think you are born as a writer or you become a writer?
I suspect that we do, as people, have innate talents and drives – singing, for example, or athleticism, or a passion for books – but nurture is hugely important. Education and opportunity can either support or obstruct our dreams. Some female writers flower much later on because they first do what is expected from them: have children, bring them up, and then once they are free they turn to writing.
Do you have a life credo you live by?
I try to take risks, explore and open myself. I always try to engage with people even though I have an introspective personality. But in order to grow the main thing is to be open to other people.
Finally, now you are a Creative Writing lecturer at Chichester University. Would you like to teach at AAU in the future?
If I get invited, I’d love to come!
By Anastasiya Shishkina