Kicking off a new year with me is author Nina Munteanu. We’re chatting about her new speculative fiction, A Diary in the Age of Water.
Nina is a Canadian ecologist and novelist of eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her book “Water Is…” (Pixl Press)—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, and teacher—was Margaret Atwood’s pick in 2016 in the New York Times ‘The Year in Reading.’ Nina’s most recent novel, “A Diary in the Age of Water” released in 2020 by Inanna Publications, is about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world.
Please tell us about your current release.
The book tells the journey of four generations of women who have a unique relationship with water, through a time of extreme climate change and water shortage. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. During the diarist’s lifetime, all things to do with water are overseen and controlled by the international giant water utility CanadaCorp—with powers to arrest and detain anyone. This is a world in which China owns America and America, in turn, owns Canada. The limnologist witnesses and suffers through severe water taxes and imposed restrictions, dark intrigue through neighbourhood water betrayals, corporate spying and espionage, and repression of her scientific freedoms. Some people die. Others disappear…
Ultimately, the book carries themes of hope and forgiveness—of ourselves and each other—and compassion for all things, starting with water. Each character carries an aspect of that theme, from the diarist’s activist mother, to the diarist’s own cynical protectionism, her spiritual anarchist daughter, and lastly the innocent storm of the last generation.
What inspired you to write this book?
It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada. I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst.
The short story and the novel that came from it explore the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.
Excerpt from A Diary in the Age of Water:
(From Chapter One):
Kyo runs through the dying forest of the north.
The last boreal forest in the world.
The air hangs with the pungent scent of cordaites—once-extinct relatives of the great conifers. These tough woody plants are interlopers, reintroduced from the north. They came with the swamps, along with the giant beaver and horsetail.
Tugged by the wind, Kyo’s hair flows behind her like a dark turbulent river as she leaps over rough ground, skirt flying. Her four dark blue arms stretch out for balance as she plays obstacle course with thick ferns and giant horsetails. The occasional thirty-metre tall scale-covered cycadeoid pushes beyond the hardwood canopy, announcing the future. Kyo spots more spore-bearing calamites rising beneath the cycadeoids, whorls of compound leaves circling ambitious grey trunks. Many of these “interlopers” were here in some form three hundred million years ago, in the coal-age swamps of what used to be Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario. It is a confusing tangle. As though the forest itself is still making up its mind.
Already high in the sky, the sun is a large blushing orb that bathes everything in hues of pink. Nam calls it Gaia’s heart-light, a poem to heaven. Nam told her that the light was very different during the Age of Water when the sun was sharper and shone brashly in a brilliant cerulean blue sky. Kyo imagines her sky the startling blue colour of Nam’s winking eyes. Nam, like Kyo’s other mentors, only has two arms and flesh the colour of the sand—not the electric blue of her own skin. Despite their difference, she thinks of Nam like a mother and secretly wishes she looked like her older mentor.
Kyo stops for a moment to gather her breath and listen to the forest. Cardinals, robins and thrushes warble and flute loudly, as if complaining about destiny. Yet, they are the interlopers. According to Myo, they have taken permanent residence in the north, even as over half of the Water Age bird species have perished. With no farther north to go, northern birds perished as the climate warmed in the Age of Water. Kyo remembers Ho telling her that the Piping plover used to lay its eggs directly on the sand of the northern beaches. The beaches are no more, long gone to sea level rise, erosion and storm surges; the plovers that nested on them are also no more. But other birds are coming…
The bird symphony flows through Kyo, pulsing with the Earth’s heartbeat. She catches the absolute pitch of a starling, tuned to 432 Hz. Green, silver, yellow and russet play a shadow dance in a wild filigree of texture and sound as she aligns herself with Nature’s intimate frequency. Renge taught her that light, sound and matter express at different frequencies, some only heard by the heart. All movement follows its own path, expressing its relationship with the world. Even things that aren’t moving have a potential for rhythm, an internal clock that beats its message.
Kyo runs on, gathering coherent waves of vibration, intent, and motion into one continuous and harmonious rhythm. She understands that rhythm embraces a fractal continuum from microscopic to cosmic proportions. Cell division aligns with the planet’s circadian rhythms; bees synchronize their flight with the phase of the moon; planets and stars exert gravity and frequency on each other, resonating with the harmonic tones of the music of the spheres. Her world flows in constant oscillation from high to low, particle to wave, dark to light, separating and uniting, creating and destroying, and back again. All through water.
It is then that she feels her sisters the most, the other Kyos—other blue beings like her—
scattered over the world in small enclaves like hers. Each whispers a harmonic tone in a soft symphony of wisdom—frequencies from all over the world, carried in the coherent domain of water vapour to resonate through her interstitial water.
They are waiting for her.
She shares their eagerness for the Exodus, but she also harbours a secret yearning for the past—as though some hidden part of her has lodged there, like a tendril of a vine reaching across time, seeking resolution—redemption, even. What is holding her back in this drowning forest? It isn’t the trees…
…There is always sadness in the end of things; but endings are also beginnings, Kyo in Siberia whispers across the northern atmospheric river.
…We do not feel this Canadian sadness, Kyos from Scandinavia chorus in. Perhaps that part of us still clings to the mundane comfort of familiarity, given that the maple still stands strong in northern Canada.
But Kyo knows that is not true; the sugar maple already shows signs of transition. Many are yellowing at the tips of their leaves. The native legend is realizing itself.
Kyo understands that she is holding them all back with this selfish sentiment and preoccupation with a past and a people she has only dreamed of. How is it that she alone stands apart from the rest? It is not her lack of adventure or faith. She embraces her future. Nam calls her Sprite; an endearment, she knows, but one based on Kyo’s unruly curiosity and yearning for adventure. If her mentor knew of Kyo’s perverse and guilty obsession, she might call her something else. And certainly not with a wink.
Kyo stops at a small flowing creek, crouching to study the tracks in the muddy banks: giant paw marks and a wide-swathed tail track of a three-metre long beaver, relative to the ancient Castoroides ohioensis. If Renge was here she would peep with fear; but Kyo has no fear for the huge rodent—even with its giant incisors. She focuses on the eddies that form around the rocks. Renge shared that water’s vitality relies on its rhythmic movement along surfaces and its shifting phases in a kind of unruly yet self-organizing dance of synchronicity. It does this by embracing paradox.
Kyo involuntarily swallows down the truth. She knows that her reluctance to leave has to do with the villainous Water Twins who destroyed humanity with a hatred for their own kind. She feels an unruly longing—as though some umbilical were tugging her back to them. The Water Twins were the first ones, the only ones from the Water Age who had the power to instruct water—long before the new children of the forest. The Twins unleashed a wrathful Gaia with their alien technology, frequency generators and shamanic potions. Kyo has dreamt most of it. Myo and Ho confirmed her vivid dreams with their historical documents. Why is she being plagued by accurate dreams of a time she has never experienced?
Kyo is convinced that the Water Twins somehow spawned the children of the forest—like her. If not for the Twins, she might be normal, like the others. It is an outrageous supposition, yet she cannot shake it. The Twins destroyed the world, after all. Like Shiva and Kali. The Twins didn’t look like the children of the forest, who came much later, after humanity had been all but extinguished. It is impossible that the Twins would be connected to her.
Yet, that is exactly how Kyo feels. She desperately wants to believe that the Water Twins somehow did the right thing in causing the storms and emasculating humanity on the planet; she keeps dreaming it like she is there with the humans, suffering as they suffered, until only a handful of females remained. Myo, who is far too forgiving, once suggested that the Twins did it to heal both planet and all life, like removing a festering limb to heal the body; but how can you heal with hatred and destruction? And why is it so important to Kyo?
Kyo stands up with a shrug. No matter; today is the day she has been both dreading and anticipating for so long —the day she will finally learn some ecological history and make her personal atonement to Gaia who prepares for a new age while she—Kyo—transcends a new existence to make the Exodus.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m currently researching and working on the sequel to A Diary in the Age of Water—a thriller about four lost and homeless people who find their way when a phenomenon brings them together through a common goal to free the Earth from the manacles of human greed. The story takes place throughout Canada—from Halifax to Vancouver and the Arctic. It takes place mostly during the 2050s, and features a few ghosts, the Halifax 1917 Explosion, experimentation on humans, espionage, murder, and—of course—a plague. I’m calling it my COVID19 novel…
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve considered myself a storyteller since I was a child when I wrote and directed plays that my older brother and sister played in and drew cartoon adventure stories. My dream was to be a paperback writer (like the Beatles tune). But I didn’t think of myself seriously as an author until my first short story was published in 2002. It was called “Arc of Time” and appeared in a small magazine with a circulation of about 200. That story went on to be reprinted several times in larger magazines and led to a career of award-winning short stories—the latest appearing in the literary magazine subTerrain in 2020.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
While I don’t write full-time, my career is all about writing. Every day I write and research my next novel; I also write commissioned articles and short stories for magazines and for my several writing and science blogs. When I’m not writing, I teach writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. I also coach writers online to publication. Finding time to write has not generally been a challenge. I’ve embraced an opportunistic process in my writing and research that allows me to write considerably. The process recognizes that there are many ways to “write” from observations and note-taking, to reading and research, to writing short vs long and fiction vs non-fiction. For instance, I can fill a short break time with meaningful research, editing, or the start of a short article; this saves longer break times for my current novel, which requires a greater stretch of uninterrupted time.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
That I am both a pantser and an outliner—with the same book. My writing process has always been a tandem kind of ‘fish and cut bait’ scene / sequel scenario with research following a premise followed by vigorous writing, which in turn engenders more research, which often reveals another plot or sub-theme that needs inclusion. It may seem a haphazard way to write, but I find it very fulfilling, fun and revealing—especially when the Universe provides with serendipitous discoveries (just when I need them).
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
After astronaut, actress and a drummer in a rock and roll band—seriously—it was paperback writer. That’s been my dream since I was ten. I told stories long before I wrote them and long before any of them was published. I told stories in the form of cartoons. Since I was a small child, I wanted to be a cartoonist and write graphic novels (back then I knew them as comics). I created several strips with crazy characters that I drew, blending my love for drawing with my love for storytelling. My sister and I used to make up amazing adventure stories in the universe, peopled with aliens and crazy worlds. I wrote my first complete novel when I was fifteen (“Caged-In World”—which later served as a very rough draft for my first published novel, “Darwin’s Paradox” in 2007). My first published work was a non-fiction article “Environmental Citizenship” which appeared in Shared Vision Magazine in 1995. My first fiction work was a short story entitled “Arc of Time”, which was published in Armchair Aesthete in 2002.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
On why I write what I write: I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I hid myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read comics: Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Magnus Robot Fighter and Green Lantern. I was obviously enamoured with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read things other than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, Heinlein, Clarke, Silverberg, LeGuin and Asimov to name a few. Bradbury moved me and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write science fiction like him and move readers like he’d done with me. But I also loved the classics like George Elliot and Thomas Hardy. So, like most beginner writers, I started by imitating my favourites. Imagine the genre-confused chimeric stuff I was writing: Thomas Hardy crossed with Ray Bradbury?
It wasn’t until I found my unique voice, which blended these with my passion for the environment, that my own voice emerged. Ecological aspects that slid in unannounced like a shadow character helped define my unique voice. It made sense: the environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a kid. When the eco-fiction sub-genre became more known, I realised that this was the kind of science fiction I was writing.
Thanks for joining me today, Nina!