Author Q&A:
Anna Hope

The White Rock
(Fig Tree) 

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It’s 2020 and a British writer is travelling with her husband to the White Rock to give thanks for their much longed for child, while their marriage is drawing to an end and a global pandemic is unfolding. In the last months of the 1960s an American rock star runs from the law and towards the White Rock in a final act of self-destruction. In the early 1900s a Yoeme girl is torn from her homeland and taken by force to the coast the White Rock has watched over for millennia. And in 1775, as he prepares to continue the conquest of the Pacific coast, a Spanish naval officer seems to lose his grip on reality. Moving backwards and forwards through the centuries, Anna Hope’s latest novel is about the climate crisis and colonialism and how the two are inextricably linked, but is a deeply personal one too – about love, idealism and the stories we live by.  

Your last novel, Expectation, was about the interior lives of women while this book and others are more historical and research intensive. Why was this book a particularly personal one to write?
From the moment that I conceived of the novel I always knew that I was going to write four narratives centred around the White Rock, but it was only in March 2020 that I realised the story I was living through was probably far more potent than anything I could invent – and so it became my first attempt at auto-fiction. The Writer isn’t exactly me, but she’s pretty close.

Did you have any connection to Mexico before embarking on this novel and where did your research take you?
I’ve travelled to Mexico multiple times since my first trip in 1998. It’s a country I know a little and would love to know more. My connection to it strengthened when I was in the midst of several years of infertility – it’s a long story and one I explore more in the novel, but essentially myself and my ex-husband, a researcher into shamanism and psychology, were invited to take part in a ceremony with shamans from the Wixàrika tribe. We prayed for a child, and the following year our daughter was born. We were told we needed to bring her to Mexico to give thanks for her birth, which we did – it was during that trip that I visited the White Rock and learned of the extraordinary currents of history that circle that place, and the idea for the novel was born.

The Writer questions her right to make the pilgrimage to the White Rock. “To take the raw matter of history, the pain and the trouble and incalculable loss – to shape it into story, the hope of profit.” Are these concerns you wrestled with and how did you resolve them?
Absolutely. I am not sure I resolved them, or if they are resolvable, but to give one example – in the matter of writing about an indigenous girl, which I do in the 1907 sections of the book, I sought help and advice from two mentors: Dr David Shorter in UCLA who had undertaken 20 years of fieldwork with the Yoeme, and Felipe Molina, a leading Yoeme educator and writer. They both read sections of the text and their comments were invaluable. I knocked on a lot of doors before I found them though. I was so grateful for their help.

As the era of hippy idealism comes to an end, the Singer offers himself to the White Rock, saying: “It is rich to give, rich to offer – this is the simplest truth.” Was he wrong, in that the idealism of giving and offering didn’t prevent the world becoming darker?
That’s such a good question. I found writing the Singer sections fascinating – they are loosely based on Jim Morrison, imagining a lost weekend he spent close to the White Rock in 1969. At that time he was the singer of one of the biggest bands in the world, and was also being scapegoated by Nixon and the FBI for being a threat to society. He was facing a jail term for allegedly exposing himself in Miami, and was, I think, genuinely terrified of being disappeared.

It’s hard looking back to understand quite how febrile those last months of the 1960s were, how close things felt to revolution. I think Morrison saw the way rock and roll was going – the way that this potent force was being commodified, how capitalism was getting its hands on it and selling it back to teenagers, defanged and denatured, and he wanted out. Whatever else Morrison was – and he was many things – he was never in it for the money. I don’t think he was a hippy idealist though – I think he was a revolutionary. In the summer of 1969 he was way more interested in the radical theatre group the Living Theatre than he was the Billboard Top 100.

Tell us about the Yoeme people, their beliefs and their persecution that leads to the Girl and her sister’s capture in 1907?
The Yoeme people – also known as the Yaqui – have their ancestral lands mainly alongside the Yaqui river in Sonora in northern Mexico. When the first Spanish arrived and saw the river they compared it to the Nile, it was so long and so wide. The story of the Yoeme since those first Spaniards arrived has been intimately tied to their struggles to maintain their land in the face of ever more insistent and violent attempts to rid them of it.

The decade in which the Yoeme section of the novel is set – the early 1900s, saw an attempt by Porfirio Diaz, the then president of Mexico, to engineer a final solution – deporting Yoeme people in their tens of thousands to the henequen fields in Yucatan where they were enslaved and the vast majority died within a year, while giving over their lands to US corporations and Mexican oligarchs. It’s a terrible period in Mexican history.

In writing about the Yoeme though, it felt incredibly important to write a story of resistance and survival, because, despite all attempts to destroy their people and their culture and their water – today the river has been dammed and has all but dried up in the villages and defenders are being murdered: two men only last year – the Yoeme are still there, still in their villages, still carrying out their traditional ceremonies, still gathering, still resisting. Their strength as a people is phenomenal.

The Lieutenant chooses to ignore his friend’s pleas to repent for his wrongdoings while colonising the Americas. Do you think current reparations are moving in the right direction and how could they go further?
It depends which current reparations you’re referring to. I mean, it’s important that we are speaking of reparations, but it’s a huge conversation, and we are only really at the very start. I think listening is key – learning to listen differently. There’s a quote by the writer Bayo Akomolafe that I love: “The times are urgent, let us slow down.” There’s this huge urge to find top-down approaches to all of these intersecting and urgent questions, to solve them somehow, to solve this world on fire. But until we start to understand the climate and ecological crisis, which affects us all – but not equally – as a crisis created by colonialism and perpetuated by the sort of extractivist mindset we have specialised in in the west for the last half-millennia, then I’m not sure we will find our way out. It’s such a logical fallacy that more industrial civilisation will save us from the depredations of industrial civilisation. We need a radical shift in how we imagine our place on this planet. But it can be a joyous one too! There are so many extraordinary, inspirational people alive right now on the planet. I take heart from that.

James Lovelock, who died in July, saw the Earth as a self-regulating organism, Gaia, of which people were just one part. Do structures like the White Rock harbour verities that precede humans and will outlast them?
I think they probably do, yes.

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