Originally, Finnish author Emmi Itäranta didn’t plan to write her first novel in English and Finnish simultaneously, but at the time, she was doing an MA in creative writing in the U.K. But she also wanted to get feedback from her Finnish writing group.
The result is the dystopian fable Memory of Water, set in a future Finland many years after climate change has rewritten the globe and the competition for resources—in particular, water—is a dire, daily struggle.
“I didn’t set out to write a post-apocalyptic novel,” admits Itäranta. “I started out with the main image of a young woman in a future world, preparing tea with the little water that remained. Because it already contained the main character, it contained the world, and the image just grew. It just sort of came naturally.”
That young woman is 17-year-old Noria Kaitio, tutored by her father in the time-honored rite of the tea ritual, and keeper of a family secret: access to a pure water source key to maintaining the quality of the tea. “I had a personal interest in the Japanese tea culture and the Japanese way of tea,” Itäranta explains. “I’m still interested in it….[I wondered] what if in a future world, the luxury product was not tea but the water.”
But how did a version of the Japanese tea ceremony become traditional in a Finnish village? “It’s not in the book because it would slow down the story,” Itäranta says. “Because the sea levels had risen, the landscape would change. Japan would become virtually uninhabitable and people would have to leave and find a place to live.” So, in that scenario, “a family of Japanese tea masters” would end up in Finland.
There are many other details like these, imagined by the author, but ultimately left out of the book. We never learn the precise details of the past global disaster; nor do we know the details of the conflict that pervades the events of the novel. Itäranta explains that an early version of the novel did contain that information, but she ultimately decided to leave it out. “If I put in too much detail, like years, I think it would become in some ways too much tied to one place or time,” she says. “I wanted to make it more universal. Essentially, conflicts like this, wars and military states, these are things that recur throughout history—we’ve seen lots of examples of this, thousands of years in the past.” As a result of her decision, she has “two kinds of readers: those who…really like the fact that background is not really detailed” and “readers who come to me demanding details.”
I wondered whether Itäranta thought environmental disaster was a foregone conclusion. “I’m not sure it is inevitable,” she responds.
“The damage can be avoided….What we need are people actually willing to change things. It does require urgent action.” What is inevitable, she says, is “change.” This is one of the major messages of the book. “In order to create the future, we can’t remove the past, remove the present.”
In the novel, some physical remnants of the past do remain, and are highly valued. Environmentalists have always warned us about the long life of plastic, but the durability of plastic turns out to be a good thing for these characters. “I was trying to show how everything has at least two sides to it; the same thing can create both good and bad consequences.”
The presence of the secret water source also demonstrates this principle—it has both good and bad consequences, and the end of the novel is quite dark. “To me, that was the only way that I could be true to the story,” Itäranta explains. “I wouldn’t believe it” if the ending were different. “There was no way out. I’m aware that [the ending] may chase some readers away.”
Currently, Itäranta is working on a new novel set in an entirely new milieu: an island whose inhabitants are forbidden to dream. She is also writing simultaneous versions of the book in Finnish and English. However, “I have thought about possibly returning to the world of Memory of Water,” Itäranta says. “When I first finished it, I thought immediately about writing the sequel. For the time being, I was done writing the world and I wasn’t sure that I had anything more to say about it. It may not happen, but I haven’t ruled it out entirely.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor, proofreader and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile magazine.