Karen Jennings is a South African author, based at LEAP, Stellenbosch University. Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek, was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. In 2014 her short story collection, Away from the Dead, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International short story competition. Her memoir, Travels with my Father, was published in 2016, and in 2018, she released her debut poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes. Her historical mining novel, Upturned Earth, was published in 2019, followed in 2020 by An Island, which was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Her new novel, Crooked Seeds, will be published worldwide in early 2024.
From writing books, to winning awards, and now to running writing prizes, yours has definitely been a well-rounded career. How do these achievements make you feel?
This is difficult to answer, because I don’t really see any of these as achievements, and yet to say that makes me sound like I am being falsely modest, or worse, that I am belittling the achievements of others. I simply go about my business – that’s all I do and all I have ever done. It isn’t very glamorous or exciting.
When did writing start for you? Had you always wanted to be a writer?
I have always wanted to write, always, and I remember “writing” even before I learnt to write, so there would be pages of scribbles when I was 3 or 4, but not anything legible. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a writer.
2021 was a year of mixed blessings. The world was grappling with the pandemic. But then, your novel, An Island, was also longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and then won the K. Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award. How has the journey and reception of this book been since then?
It was all rather other-worldly, to be honest. I was in Brazil and no one around me knew or cared about the Booker longlisting, so it was almost like it hadn’t happened at all, or like it had happened very far away and I had no real part in it. At the start of 2022, I moved back to South Africa and I attended a few literary festivals. It was only then, when people came to talk to me about the book, that I began to realise that it was being read and having an impact on people. In fact, at one of the festivals, I even started crying (embarrassing!) because I was so overwhelmed with emotion at being seen and accepted as a writer, especially in my own country.
An Island centres on the 70-year-old protagonist and light house keeper, Samuel. You capture the world of the work and your characters in an at once simple but also complex, intricate prose. I once noted in a review that the novel works around, “a subtle motif of mirroring, of her protagonist Samuel as well as with the refugee.” Your book is phenomenal, and reading it will always be a healthy exercise in renegotiating the complexities of humanity, notably that of the African in Africa. Tell us, what inspired you to write this book?
I am not a good sleeper – I never have been – so I tend to need a nap every afternoon to help me get through the day. While at a writer’s residency in Denmark in 2015, I was having my usual afternoon nap when I had a vision of an old black man on an island with a lighthouse. He was staring out at a grey sea and sky and looking very angry, very serious. When I woke up, I wondered what threat he saw out there.
This vision was further influenced by the Syrian refugee crisis that was happening at the time. I watched the news and saw how Syrian refugees were being portrayed and treated compared with African refugees. It made me think about xenophobia, both on a global scale and within the continent of Africa. This thinking then led me down the rabbit hole of considering Africa’s past in general: colonialism, the fight for independence, the failure of democracy, the rise of dictators, corruption, etc.
How was the writing process for this novel like?
The same as anything I write – it is hell. Hell, hell, hell. It is predominantly a process of pain and suffering, and, always, in the end, a sense of having failed to achieve what I had set out to do. I would like to tell you something more beautiful and optimistic, but I am afraid this is my reality as a writer.
You said in a Guardian interview that, “South Africa has a very strong history of violence and anger.” Can you throw more light on this in relation to An island?
Going back to the seventeenth century, there were violent interactions between Dutch colonisers and those who lived at the Cape, despite the mandate of the Dutch East India Company to live peaceably with the locals. (It is, by the way, worth noting that those locals had fled from the violence of other indigenous tribes in other parts of the country, so the violence was not solely associated with the colonisers.)
Move forward a few hundred years, through oppression and suppression, and you get to the start of apartheid in 1948. The separation of people into different races was a violent act, enforced violently. Then we have the great fanfare of 1994, and a promise of peace and love and freedom, but of course that has not been the case. Since 1994, we have seen regular service delivery protests, many of them turning violent – for example, Andries Tatane was shot dead by police during such a (peaceful!) protest. Look, too, at Marikana (again a peaceful protest), at the miners shot down by police. But violence is not always official. There have been xenophobic riots, terrible acts of looting and destruction. There is vigilante justice. In short, there is violence from all corners, arising out of suppression, from frustration, anger, desperation, misinformation, etc.
You started The Island Prize in 2021, shortly after your Booker nomination. It is an enviable feat. What was your vision when building on the idea for this prize? What problems did you immediately wish to solve?
No South African publisher ever wanted to publish me (until Karavan Press was founded in 2019 and was only too happy to publish An Island), and so I have always had to go overseas to find a publisher. But then one contends with being too African at the same time as not being African enough. What does this mean? It means that Africa doesn’t sell overseas, unless it is a certain version of Africa. Or, at least, that is what the big players in the industry will tell you. So as African writers we are doubly cursed: publishers in our own countries struggle financially and can’t take risks on what isn’t definitely going to sell, but we can’t get published overseas unless we look and act a certain version of African that is expected.
I can’t solve the problems of the literary industry – what hubris to imagine I could! But I want to be able to help African writers, as far as I can, to navigate the industry. This is not a prize about money and prestige, and it never will be. This is about coming together and giving advice and support. No one can get far on their own. We all need to help one another.
You have become one of the very few African writers who have taken advantage of the wave around their work, and their influence, to push the boundary of the continent’s literature. The prize is timely, too. We do need a lot of amplification of the voices of African writers. Has The Island Prize always been an idea you wanted to push, even before the Booker nomination?
To be honest, I am a very shy person. I spend most of my time hiding away from the world, so anything that brings attention my way is off-putting to me. I would never have started The Island Prize if it weren’t for my UK publisher, Robert Peett of Holland House Books. He gave me the kick I needed. I always wanted to do something quieter, like have a publishing house that published only one book a year. I wanted to work with an unpublished writer on their manuscript, for months and months, in fine detail, and then produce a beautiful edition. Maybe one day.
The Island Prize is two years in action. You’ve become a more involved participant in the conversation on how the African literary industry can work better. What do you consider as the major setback for projects like these in Africa?
I think it is always going to be hard to make inroads in isolation. What I would love is for more people to be involved. More agents, more publishers, more industry professionals, and more people with any experience at all. I would like it to be more of a community, where the burden doesn’t fall on a few, but rather can be shared by many. For example, take Hamza Koudri who was joint third in the inaugural The Island Prize. He donated back his prize money, and this year, that money is being offered to the best manuscript from the Maghreb region. Often we tend to think of North Africa as separate from the rest of the continent, but here is a hand being offered saying, “Please, come and join us.”
Of course, money is also an issue. Holland House is currently putting up all the money, and while it isn’t a vast amount, it still is a lot for a small press. It would be wonderful to find some sponsors.
Many from your work, including Finding Soutbek, and Upturned Earth, centre on South Africa. There’s the obvious loyalty, in a sense, to the place. How would you describe the publishing and reading space there in South Africa? How is it coming of age? Is it healthy enough for writers?
It depends what you mean by healthy. If healthy is a euphemism for making a living, then no. But who can really make a living as a writer in any part of the world? The fact is that the publishing industry struggles in South Africa, and it has taken an even bigger hit since the pandemic. I am also fully aware that there isn’t much interest in my books here. They are serious comments on the world around us, and are not light, pleasurable reads. Books are expensive – are people going to pay a lot of money to be depressed?
As a child born by an Afrikaans mother and a British father in apartheid South Africa, how was growing up in South Africa like for you? Were there any difficulties straddling between cultures?
This can be a bit confusing, I think. You see, my father was not British, but of British descent. When I have said he was English, I meant he was English-speaking, while my mother is Afrikaans-speaking. I grew up bilingual. I think there were times, especially in the mid-90s, when I was ashamed of being half-Afrikaans. Because Afrikaans is the language associated with apartheid, I felt that it marked me as being racist. But, as we all know, one can be racist regardless of the language one speaks. Still, there is a lot to grapple with in terms of language, culture and ancestry when it comes to South Africa.
Let’s talk about influences now. What writers across the world, generally, inspire your work?
Right now I am re-encountering a South African writer from the 50s and 60s, named Can Themba. Most South Africans will have studied his short story, “The Suit,” at school. I remember this with shame: we did not read South African authors at school and, I, therefore, thought they were not worth much. When we read “The Suit,” I was skeptical, to say the least. But then it turned out to me a remarkable story that has haunted me ever since. No, it isn’t the most perfect writing, but there is some genius, some powerful gift of story-telling that made its mark on me and which I have carried with me always, as something memorable and important. Recently, while at the airport, I bought Siphiwo Mahala’s biography of Can Themba to read on a flight. Parts of it were fascinating and it ignited a desire to read Can Themba again – to experience, through his writing, a mix of despair and joy, and the fierceness of living.
The motif of home features predominantly in your work. It claps close to Baldwin. But the subtlety of your rendering makes your portrayal more wholesome. What does home mean to you?
I follow Edward Casey’s theory that “To be is to be in place” – that is, that place and identity are inextricably linked. It is through place that we are, and know, ourselves. Does home always have to be Cape Town or South Africa? No, but wherever I go, they will be part of me and therefore part of where I am.
There are many problems currently facing the African literary industry. Many will argue there is no such industry at all. The bottom line, still, is that there are problems that need to be solved for the African literary system in Africa to reach the heights Africans want. Fortunately, The Island Prize is bridging the gap. But there would always be more needed. What do you think are those things holding the African literary industry from thriving? What primary form of support does this industry need?
I don’t have enough experience or knowledge to say it is this or that precisely. I can say, as I did above, that what would work is collaboration. We need networks – large and small – and we need enthusiasm and willingness, from people within Africa and without.
What new experience of the contemporary African writer has owning and running a prize opened you up to?
There is such a hunger for it – for writing, for feedback, for being heard and seen! We are here, that’s for sure. It is not the case that African writers do not exist.
What would you say should be the “mission,” as it were, of African writers? Is there any such thing at all?
For any writer, whatever their origin and whatever their subject matter or genre, I would say the most important thing is to write with purpose, and to know that purpose. It doesn’t have to be a noble purpose – is your purpose to make money? Fine. Is your purpose to make your ex jealous? Okay. Is your purpose to bring people a place to escape to? No problem. But the point is that you must be honest with yourself about what that purpose is, and then make sure that every single word you write is devoted to that purpose.
What does African literature today mean to you, and how is it evolving?
I don’t think African literature is any single thing. I see things that are good. I see enthusiasm. I see a desire to learn and to share. I see an unwillingness to sit back and to be silent. We are here and we are ready to be heard!
When An Island was longlisted, it felt like the whole continent was celebrating. It wasn’t about me or about the book. It was about all of us. It was a wonderful feeling. We need more of that — to embrace our own and support them, without waiting for outsiders to tell us which of our own people matter.
Hypothetically speaking, if you could give any living African writer the Nobel Prize today, who would it be, and why?
Do we need a Nobel? How about something else where we recognise our own? And even then, I don’t know that I can speak in a properly informed way about this. Africa is vast and there are many writers to read.
What book are you currently reading?
As mentioned above, I am currently re-exploring Can Themba’s writing. I am reading his short story collection, published posthumously: The Will to Die. I am also re-reading Ferdinand Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal. It is one of my favourite novels, and I read it every few years – this time I am reading it with a friend of mine so that we can discuss it.