In conversation with Courttia Newland, Writer-In-Residence

This month we welcomed Courttia Newland as Writer-In-Residence to West Dean College. 

Courttia is the author of nine books, including his debut, The Scholar (2001), and recently, A River Called Time (2022). He is co-editor of The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, and has short stories featured in many anthologies. His career has encompassed both screen and playwriting, and is known for the scripts he wrote for Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe.  

We sat down with him to find out more about his residency, work, and much more.

What have you been working on during your residency? 

I’ve been working on an essay; I generally write all the time, I write a lot of screenplays at home and I was going to take a break and not do anything just because I’ve been working so hard. Then I realised this was going to be the only opportunity to write an essay that I’ve had in my head for years and I haven’t actually managed to do. So I said ‘ok, I’ll take this time out and do it’ and it was really good because it actually came out very well.  I ended up spending most of my time on it… I was planning on going on walks and stuff like that, but I ended up spending most of my time working on that.  

What’s the essay about? 

It is called ‘The Ancestral Origins of Mumbo Jumbo’. It’s to do with the fact that when my last book was published, I was dealing with a lot of African cosmology and African spirituality and some of the reviews in print or online were talking about how I shouldn’t be talking about that stuff. But that had been a big feature of the book since I started writing it; and agents and editors were asking me to take that out; because it was dealing with spirituality, they were saying stuff like, ‘You should replace it with quantum physics’… but that was the main feature of the book. Then even when it was published and reviewed, that was some of the feedback I was getting. One guy basically said, ‘I couldn’t get on with this book at all, there was lots of spiritual mumbo jumbo’, and I thought, everyone’s entitled to their point of view, and not everyone is going to like the book. But when it’s couched in a phrase which actually I found quite racist, I think that’s a bit strange. I’m sure the person who said it didn’t think they were being racist and for all intents and purposes, the phrase isn’t, so I decided to look into the ancestral origins of the phrase and find out where it comes from. I was thinking, this phrase, why does it make me feel weird, and why did it make me feel a little bit itchy when I read it?  

So when I looked into the etymology of it, it definitely does come from mispronunciation of African religious practice in Ghana. They managed to trace it right back; how the word somehow became changed by people mispronouncing it and using it in different contexts, so it ended up meaning ‘something that is deliberately used to confuse’. I just thought that was interesting. I used the essay to talk about how culture is actually a language in a lot of ways, and if you don’t understand the language that is being spoken, sometimes you can misinterpret things as not having any meaning or relevance to you, when they do actually have meaning and relevance to other people. I was trying to talk about that sometimes the way Black art is misinterpreted in that way, and even the ‘mumbo jumbo’ guy (that wasn’t actually his name – it’s the Mandinka word Maamajomboo). He was a masked male dancer who performed religious rites, and what he was doing originally was misinterpreted by the watcher because of prejudices and views. So, I link that to my novel and what happened with it critically, and Black art in a wider context, and the way other artists are being misrepresented via criticism. That is quite a problem for us, particularly those who inhabit the West. We have to face this constantly, so I just wanted to talk about that. 

Can you tell us a little about your work to-date? 

So, just recently I’ve had my novel out, the one I was talking about in the essay, called A River Called Time. That’s been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, for Best Science Fiction book of 2022. Also, I’ve had a short story collection called Cosmogramma published, so I’ve been promoting that recently. I’ve been working on a TV series The Woman in the Wall created by Joe Murtagh, starring Ruth Wilson and directed by Harry Wootliff…. I’m part of a group of writers who wrote the series.  

I am also working on a couple of features including an adaptation of a novel called Augustown by the Jamaican Writer, Kei Miller. I’ve got my own feature with Film Four, called Impact, about a shop-to-shop pyramid scheme salesman trying to own his own office, and have people working under him, and then he finds something in the merchandise he is selling - a letter from a man in a sweatshop in China, that says ‘Please help me. Go to the authorities.’ He has a crisis of faith about what he’s going to do about this letter. 

Who are your main influences? 

That’s such a hard one as there’s so many. At the minute I’m heavily influenced by a guy who has now been shortlisted for the Booker [Prize] called Percival Everett; he’s one of my most inspirational writers of the minute; he’s written over 30 books, all really different, and it’s the way I want to go with my writing.  

My favourite film at the minute is a film called This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection. It’s a South African film.  

How did you become a writer?  

I’ve written all my life, in the sense I was always writing stories and was also doing music. I really didn’t want to do writing at school, by then I wanted to buy music equipment. I wanted to make money and I decided in order to do that, I would write a book, do a film, and then I was going to get the money and I’d never have to write a book again, and go back into music. But then three months into writing I thought, I actually don’t think I’m going to go back to music. 

What advice would you give to our creative writing students hoping to get published? 

I would give the same advice I’ve been giving for the last 20 years. Just keep writing, keep practicing, work hard, it will happen. Put in that work and eventually you will get something from it. 

Residencies at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

The College has been running residencies for the past 10 years, offering professional artists, writers and makers the opportunity to work on site for a period of one to three weeks. In 2020 we announced a new partnership with New Writing South to ensure that a minimum of 50% of our on-going Writers-in Residence (WiR) programme will support writers of colour. Writers-in-Residence also engage with students studying on our MA in Creative Writing and Publishing, this includes a talk, tutorials and/or a seminar, workshop or group critique.