Interview with Rym Kechacha (DARK RIVER)
Rym Kechacha’s debut novel Dark River, one of Fantasy Hive’s 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2020, is out today from Unsung Stories. It follows the stories of two mothers, one in Doggerland in 6200 BC and one in London AD 2156, as they try to escape the devastating effects of changing climates and keep their families safe. Her essay ‘What Colour is a Chameleon?’ was published in Dead Ink Press’s 2017 anthology Know Your Place and her flash fiction has appeared in the anthologies Nature of Cities and Flash Fiction Magazine.
Rym Kechacha was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive via email about her writing.
Your debut novel Dark River is out this February from Unsung Stories. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
Dark River is the story of two women living thousands of years apart who have to leave their homes to protect their families. Shaye lives in Mesolithic Doggerland and is called upon to take part in a ritual to save her family from the rising water. Shante, living in a near future UK, has to leave her home city to face an uncertain future to keep her family safe. It’s about motherhood, forests, and the choices we have to make to survive.
The book is split into two storylines, one of them thousands of years in the past, one just over a hundred years in the future. How did you find the difference between speculating about life in the future versus life in prehistoric times?
It actually felt very similar to me. We don’t know that the ways we exist within our own families and cultures is ‘right’ or ‘natural’, it’s just the way we live and it can change very quickly, as we’ve seen in the social history of the twentieth century. Even the seemingly instinctual bond between mother and child is subject to cultural norms that change all the time. I thought a lot about how we normalise the things that happen in our society and how we accept the messages about what is normal from those in power. The main challenge of thinking about life in prehistory was how my characters would have seen the natural world and their conception of cause and effect in relation to animist beliefs. But the main challenge in thinking about life in the near future was imagining scarcity and how that would impact on everyday life. I didn’t want to write an authoritarian dystopia, but instead a culture which is long past its best and struggling on to its natural end.
The novel deals with climate change refugees, one set of people having to leave the land they live on because of geological changes in the planet, one set because of human-created environmental destruction. Where did the idea to use changes in the earth in prehistory to echo the changes we are seeing now in the Anthropocene come from?
I was a bit worried the novel would be interpreted as denying man-made climate change at first, but it was important to me to show what I became really interested in flood myths from different cultures and the idea that there really might have been apocalyptic floods of the kind Noah built his ark to escape from. I started to think about how that must have felt and what stories a culture might have come up with to explain the end of their world. Humans suffer from very short memories but our stories offer us a little bit of connection with what came before us and what we will leave behind. If we could live even as long as an oak tree we would see that the stability of the ground beneath our feet is an illusion and we would talk more about how to live with that knowledge and still thrive.
What makes speculative fiction a useful tool for imagining the impact of climate change?
Climate change is almost a trope of speculative fiction by now and I think that’s because writers working in this genre are so adept at teasing out the threads of current preoccupations and anxieties in our culture and riffing on them. Also, the effects of climate change used to be firmly in the future to be dealt with at another time, which immediately put them into the realm of speculative fiction. That’s changing. As we’re seeing floods, fire and famine definitively linked to climate change happen in the here and now, we no longer have to use the tools of metaphor and allegory in speculative fiction to make sense of the changing world. We will have to do it with stark realism and that’s a tragedy.
How much research did you need to do for the sections in the past? How much information do we still have about the people who lived on Doggerland eight thousand years ago?
We know very little and I’m completely sure I got a lot wrong in this book! Whatever I’ve got my characters saying or doing or eating is very much my interpretation of how a pre-agricultural society might have lived and survived. The most useful research I did was to walk, wandering on Wimbledon Common and along the Thames river path. The natural world that surrounds us is silent and bare compared to the abundance of Doggerland, but I was able to grasp a little of the sensation of rain pattering through the oaks and the texture of the Thames mud at low tide. I researched what plants and animals might have been present in the British Isles then (although not all the information out there is consistent) and then I tried not to worry about the details. The result is impressionism rather than realism but I’m fine with that.
This is a novel very much about motherhood in difficult times; both Shante and Shaye are put in apocalyptic situations where they have to make sure both they and their child survive. How does Dark River speak to current anxieties around having children in what feels like apocalyptic times?
I had my first baby in January and I think this novel would be different if I started to write it now. The knowledge that my daughter will grow old in a radically different world to my own exists in a completely different part of me to the part that plans for her future as if it might resemble a life that’s familiar. I can’t square the circle, my heart almost refuses to accept what my head knows. Still, there is so much beauty in the world that’s worth showing up for and I hope Dark River shows that. There is love, there is kindness, there is the feeling of the sun on the face on the first soft days of spring. Would I want to deny my daughter the chance to experience those joys, even if she might suffer too?
The future we see in the book deals directly with the collapse of society in the UK, with visas needed to leave London and all social order broken down in the edgelands. How much is the book a reflection of the current political situation in the UK?
I feel that there’s a tension between our intensely globalised world and the understandable desire to be strongly rooted in our local communities. After the referendum to leave the EU, there were so many strange speculations swirling around the national discourse about nationhood and citizenship, and one that gripped me was the idea that London might become independent from the UK. It seems bizarre but history shows us that borders – even the ones that seem so permanent like the shoreline of an island or a mountain range – are anything but fixed on our unquiet Earth. If London were to secede, why not build walls around Bristol and Manchester and Newcastle too? The land might then resemble Renaissance Italy with city states forming alliances and enmities. I have no idea if that’s the next step for the previously United Kingdom but I don’t think it’s too unlikely. I wanted to steer clear of making predictions about the direction of the country and just take one ‘what if’ to its natural conclusion.
Your essay ‘What Colour is a Chameleon?’ was included in Dead Ink Books’ 2017 anthology about class in modern Britain. Would you tell us a little bit about it and how you came to write it?
That essay came from feelings I had had of in between-ness, of feeling that the different parts of me didn’t quite fit together to form a coherent whole. I wrote about the intersection of accent and class and the way we’re pegged to a certain place in society as soon as we open our mouths, and we do this so quickly, so unconsciously that it’s hard to even notice the assumptions we make about our fellow beings in the meantime. The collection as a whole is exuberant, uncompromising and fascinating, discussing all kinds of aspects of class and caste. When I received my copy I sat down to read it straight away, there was so much in there to ponder and chew over.
You’ve worked with Dead Ink Books and Unsung Stories, two important presences in the UK indie publishing scene. How has your experience of working with them been?
Anyone who works with books does so because of a passion for literature and stories and everything they give us, but I feel that one of the reasons the indie publishers are so important is that they lean so heavily into their passion for books that it leaks into the rest of the publishing scene and makes everything else more vibrant. Both Dead Ink and Unsung are firm in publishing the work they want to see in the world, the work no one else is making, and the risks they take is changing the conversation in the wider publishing world so I feel very lucky to have worked with them.
You also have a couple of pieces of flash fiction published in different anthologies. What is it that attracts you to this form of story writing, and how is it different from novel writing?
I really enjoy the way the flash fiction form flows around a single, lucid moment. Novels meander around an image to see it from all angles, flash fiction dives right into its heart. I’m not a very good short story writer, I try to write them when I think I have a short story sized idea but there’s often some juice missing that I can’t quite figure out. But flash fiction seems to work more often for me, although I find it hard to explain what I mean when I say a piece of writing ‘works’, maybe just an instinct that the story is taking its destined shape or a sense that it is starting to step off the page and take a life of its own.
On your website, you talk about having been a professional ballet dancer for a number of years. Has your training and experience of ballet dancing influenced your writing?
The rigour of ballet training causes something steely and obstinate to grow in your bones and this is immensely helpful for developing a writing practice. Ballet is an art form in which the artist is seen and not heard and so writing has been about inverting that, gently flexing my voice and listening to the growing whispers of my instinct rather than polishing the instrument of my body. In many ways the proscenium arch of a theatre is the same as the cover of a book, they both provide a physical and conceptual frame for experiencing a story. I’m obsessed with structure and shape in my work and I think it’s because of my early experience in theatres.
What’s next for Rym Kechacha?
I’m completing a fantasy novel based on the paintings of Remedios Varo, a Spanish surrealist artist who lived and worked in Mexico after escaping from Europe during the Second World War. I also have lots of different ideas for other novels swirling through my imagination and I think about them when I’m feeding my baby in the dead of night, hoping her snuffles will magically translate themselves into the typed words of a coherent story. I’ll let you know if I find the spell that manages that!
Thank you Rym Kechacha for talking with us, and good luck with your debut!