WRITING WHAT SHE LIKES
Fairlady|November/December 2021
South African author Karen Jennings’ novel An Island has been long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize. Currently living in São Paulo with her Brazilian husband, she tells us about her book and how many naps it takes to conceive a plot.
KYRA TARR

The Booker Prize is awarded to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland, so you could call it a big deal. For Karen Jennings, who is also busy completing her doctorate in English at the University of Johannesburg, writing is how she makes sense of herself and the world she comes from. ‘Every book I write is an experiment, or an attempt to understand my place in the balance of things,’ she says.

‘As a white South African and African, I’m constantly grappling with my place on the continent I call home. There’s no denying that our history is rooted in violence and exploitation, so I’m very much trying, through my writing, to understand the role my ancestors played in creating the South Africa of today and, more importantly, imagining a way forward together.

‘I don’t claim to have the answer. After all, these things can never be absolute.’

An Island follows the story of Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper who leads a solitary life on an island off the coast of Africa. One day the sea delivers Samuel a companion in the form of a refugee who washes up unconscious on his beach. Over the course of four days, Samuel grapples with fear and guilt as the refugee’s arrival triggers memories of his former life on the mainland, his home ravaged by colonial rule and dictatorship, followed by uprisings and xenophobic violence. It is a modern fable interlaced with potent questions: how far woud we go to protect what we consider ours, and how do we paint ‘the other’ on our road to justifying what we believe is right?

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