A Lighthouse Keeper Faces an Uncertain Choice When A Stranger Washes Up Ashore
Karen Jennings, author of "An Island," on living in isolation and the universal trend towards far-right conservatism
When another body washes ashore, Samuel—the sole resident and lighthouse keeper of an unnamed island—already knows the solemn duty that is required of him: pulling the body clear, before he can bury it beneath a mound of stones. It falls to Samuel every-so-often to receive the drowned refugees that wash up, shattering his already fraught peace. The latest arrival however, if not quite alive, is not yet dead. Samuel must contend with the man—victim or interloper?—as he battles his own legacy and that of his country as he recalls its transition from colonialism to an elusive freedom as an independent nation.
This is the crux of An Island by South African author, Karen Jennings. In her engrossing, yet meditative fourth novel, Jennings examines the ongoing ravages of colonialism on (and off) the African continent. At least, we assume the titular island is just off the African coast. There is much else that is left unsaid in An Island; silences which the author has become adept at offering her readers in her morally complex, always humane, works of literature.
Jennings—who I caught up with in Cape Town, South Africa where she is based—has published an impressive list of six books, while not even 40-years-old, producing one almost every year since 2013. Despite this prolific output, Jennings remains somewhat of an outsider, with her books rarely receiving the sort of attention they deserve, even in her home country of South Africa. That changed in 2021 when An Island was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
I spoke to Jennings, a former editor of mine, about living in isolation, the financial impact of being longlisted, and the universal trend towards far-right conservatism.
C. A. Davids: Congratulations on your newest novel, An Island, and that it was longlisted for the Booker in 2021. How has it felt for your writing to be recognised in this way?
Karen Jennings: It has been an unusual time—mostly good, of course, but there are aspects that have been more challenging. While I am glad for the book to be given attention, it does also mean that I am receiving attention. That isn’t always easy for a hermit such as myself! Moreover, due to circumstances, I spent the last six years in Brazil, living a very isolated life. I didn’t have a job or friends. I didn’t go anywhere other than the supermarket. It was quite jarring suddenly to find myself with a full inbox and with people wanting to call or Zoom or meet.
CAD: Now that you mention that you lived an isolated life in Brazil, it brings to mind Samuel, the main protagonist in An Island, and his solitary existence. Do you think that personal experience influenced the novel or developing the main character?
KJ: It really did. Although I had already imagined or started creating the character before I moved to Brazil, it really helped me to understand him. We lived on the 17th floor of a high rise building and I was advised not to go out except to walk the dogs, or to the supermarket on the corner, because it was supposed to be too dangerous for me to be out by myself. I didn’t have friends or speak the language, and so I didn’t have any kind of life there. For that reason you could say that I really do know what it is like to spend hours—not quite like Samuel who was alone for weeks at a time—but to spend hours alone, with not a word passing my lips.
CAD: I imagine since the Booker news, that sense of feeling left-out has dissipated. Tell me a bit about the impact of the long listing?
KJ: A few things stand out. I am receiving some recognition in South Africa. This is important to me as I consider myself a South African author. Also, I have been incredibly touched by the warmth and support that I have received from writers across Africa (and the diaspora). I am glad that my experiences can bring some joy and hope to others. As I mentioned, I was living in Brazil for 6 years. I was unhappy, and had no prospects and no money of my own. I wanted to return home but didn’t see how it would be possible—coming home includes shipping my belongings and bringing my dogs over too. The financial impact of being longlisted has meant that I have been able to move back to South Africa. This is where I want to be and I am so grateful to be here.
CAD: Damon Galgut, another South African writer recognised by the Booker Prize in 2021 and who went on to win it, commented recently that it was somewhat bemusing (I’m paraphrasing) that the situation still exists where one is given the nod by the establishment (from somewhere up North) and only then are your talents fully acknowledged. For me, such recognition is also practical. What do you think?
KJ: I would agree with Damon. An Island is my fourth novel and sixth book. I was never able to get a South African publisher (Karavan Press, my South African publisher, was only established later and I was so pleased when they agreed to publish as it has always been my dream to be published in my own country). I was lucky if my previous publications received a single review in South Africa. Very few people knew about my books. Since the longlisting, there have been various interviews, reviews and articles.
I must admit to feeling some frustration with the way in which this still happens throughout Africa. We wait for the UK or America to tell us which of our own people are worth reading. In my experience, there is a certain view of Africa and of the stories that can be told and sold that dominates amongst overseas publishers. If those same people are telling us who to read, what to read, what to write, who we are, then we lose authenticity.
Does that mean that recognition from outside is not useful, that it should be eschewed? No, of course not. As you said, it is practical. It offers a valuable step towards getting people from outside of Africa to pay more attention to what is coming from within Africa. The hope is that the more Africa is being seen, the more open publishers and readers will be to reading its authors. This is one of the reasons why my UK publisher, Robert Peett of Holland House Books, and I decided to start The Island Prize. It is a prize for a debut novel by an African author. Its goal is to serve as a platform from which African authors can let themselves be seen and heard. This is the first year— we have just announced the shortlist and hope to announce the winners in early May. You can read more about the prize here.
CAD: Why do you think there hasn’t been much reception for your work in South Africa, this echoes what I have heard other authors saying here, especially those who do have readers in the rest of the world.
KJ: I think part of it is the type of books that I write. I don’t write happy (popular) stories. I always get, even from my own family, this question: when is there going to be a happy ending? We are quite disillusioned in South Africa generally, because of the economy, the failures of the government, and so on. That probably translates into people wanting to spend their spare time doing things that are uplifting, rather than reading books that can be quite uncomfortable and upsetting. I think that is part of it, but I also think it is because I write literary fiction, which is not as popular globally. It’s true that there is quite a lot of snobbery around literary fiction, but it also has the perception of being more elitist: that you have to be educated or thinking and living a certain way. That has never been my intention. I want to tell a story in a simple way so that anyone can read it; I do not mean that I am speaking down to my reader, but rather that I want my writing to be accessible and understandable so that it can resonate with anyone. You don’t have to sit with a dictionary to try and decipher what is being said.
CAD: I’m currently reading a novel that I loved at first because of the style, but now that I am a third of the way, I keep thinking ”how pretentious,” mainly because the author is clearly writing for a middle class that she believes the world has been made by and for. I’m now quite disillusioned by a book that has some beautiful writing.
KJ: Yes, I know what you mean. When I think about writing, I think about words as stones and the end product as being a dry-stone wall or maybe a path made with stones. That is how the word should be; a path or a wall that everyone needs and everyone can use. You’re not picking up diamonds and creating a tiara for a few. This is the basic stuff of life: words and communicating.
CAD: That’s an interesting metaphor.
Your novel feels in part as if it’s dystopian, but in fact, it is rooted in reality, drawing together multiple crisis: refugees fleeing their homes on overcrowded boats, climate change, racism, poverty, dictatorship, state failure. As beautiful as it is as a work, it is a difficult, complex read. And I wondered, given a general sense of hopelessness in the world, especially because of climate change, what is the place of fiction today?
KJ: There are many periods in history which have seen a sense of fear of the end of the world or about the state of things. One thing that we have now is a wider variety of genres in conveying that. Often people tend to dismiss genres like science fiction, or the increasingly popular ecofiction, yet look at award-winning works like Margaret Atwood’s speculative Oryx and Crake and Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road. Perhaps the greatest contributor to ecofiction in recent years has been the subgenre of cli-fi—fiction that engages with real ecological issues and has the purpose and intention of revealing what the world might be like if mankind does not consider the ethical consequences of its destructive ways. This is more than just escapism. Another recent subgenre is First Impact Fiction which, rather than exploring possible outcomes in the future, is engaging with the current and emerging impacts of runaway climate change, such as droughts or extreme heat, or changing migration patterns.
The fact is that we need art to mediate the environmental threats that the world is facing. Art allows us to bridge the gap between knowledge and knowing, where knowledge is depersonalised, abstract science, and knowing is our own subjective understanding.
CAD: A major theme in the story is about liberatory movements turning to dictatorship and betraying initial convictions. This is not a new theme, and yet, it felt also as if there were a warning: portent of things to still come. This feels quite political. Did you intend it to be so?
KJ: Africa has a long history of military coups and dictatorships, but these largely seemed to have ended by the turn of the century. Yet since 2018 there have been something like five military coups. What has caused this resurgence? Part of the problem is the failure of democracy. Those in power call themselves representatives of the people and promise to be working in their best interests. In the meantime, they are filling their own coffers and are involved in state capture where they appropriate resources for themselves and their cronies. Often these people in power have military affiliations. With the country suffering and people unhappy, they say, “We, the military, must take over or the state will collapse. We will bring stability.” People are desperate and think this is a necessary next step—the only thing that will help them. Of course, there is also a universal trend towards far-right conservatism and totalitarianism. I saw something similar in Brazil with the election of pro-military, pro-dictatorship, misogynistic, homophobic Bolsonaro. Let’s not even get started on Trump and Erdogan. In short, people feel disappointed by democracy in various ways. Often this can lead to a more violent and aggressive attitude.
CAD: You lived in Brazil in a fascinating era, fascinating in the worst way with Bolsonaro recreating elements of a fascist society—a terrible reality but also in a sense, a novelist’s dreamscape.
KJ: I lived in Sao Paolo for six months, then four years in Goiania, and then during the pandemic in Sao Paolo again. It was challenging and a little frightening because I didn’t know what to expect. Would there be a military takeover? Goiania is a conservative area and there were many supporters around there who would blast music and wear military outfits. Our neighbors did that, for example. I had one friend in the lead up to the elections and she became obsessed with Bolsonaro: She was pro violence, pro-military, homophobic, misogynistic and believed that they needed to shoot drug dealers or anyone who looked like a foreigner. I said but I am a foreigner and she replied, yes but it’s ok, because you’re white. So, there was no going forward with that friendship. There was too much that separated our values and ways of viewing others.
CAD: That brings to mind the conflict in An Island, actually. Two men are fighting over resources and they revert to these base prejudices, which perhaps are always there, under the skin, but heightened when there isn’t enough to go around. It’s a war of two men.
KJ: I think so. When people feel threatened, like Samuel does; whether it is imagined or a genuine threat, but what is certain is that he feels under threat.
CAD: Tell me about the new book that you’re writing, Crooked Seeds?
KJ: I will be publishing again with Holland House and Karavan Press because they have been loyal and good to me. They saw the value of An Island when no one else did. Crooked Seeds is set in Cape Town in the suburb where I currently live: it is 2028 and it’s a future in which there is a massive drought and people have to queue every morning for their water. It’s speculative, in a way, of course, but not strongly dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel. It’s an ordinary suburban life, with the added frustration of rationed water.
CAD: Were you in Cape Town when we had the massive drought, two years ago, when the city was fast approaching Day Zero, where we would have run out of water entirely?
KJ: I spent some time in Cape Town then, and I was also in Sao Paulo when there was a drought there. So, I did experience drought in both places and I’ve done quite a bit of research into what people were doing here in South Africa to save water. But the drought is really only the backdrop of the novel, not the main focus. One of the key concerns is the way in which certain people in South Africa have felt that they were handicapped by the end of apartheid, by the new South Africa, and the excuse they hold on to that the new South Africa worked against them.