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An island by Karen Jennings: an interview

An island is the story of Samuel, an aged man who lives alone on a small island off the southern African coast as the lighthouse keeper. His is a quiet and isolated existence until a young man, in all likelihood a refugee from a neighbouring country, washes up on the shore. Samuel reluctantly takes him in, all the while viewing him as an interloper. Through their interactions, Samuel is confronted with aspects of his own past and what has brought him to the island and made him into the man that he is today.

Joanne Hichens interviews Karen Jennings on Karen’s book:

An island, as bleak as the rocky setting itself, is indeed a terrifying novel. I read it in one sitting, riveted by the intensity. Would you call it a fable for our times?

I didn’t set out to write a fable – or, rather, I did not think about it explicitly in those terms – yet I believe that the description is an apt one, to a certain extent. I wanted to explore certain complexities relating to the history of the African continent and how that history continues to influence the lives of individuals to this day. Because that history is such a multifaceted one that is shared, to varying degrees, by numerous African countries, I wanted to reduce the narrative to a small location, with few characters, and by those means amplify the key concerns.

One of those concerns is examining the life of an ordinary individual. There is nothing special about Samuel. He is not heroic, intelligent, skilled or wealthy. He is very much an everyman – an everyman who has experienced aspects of colonisation, of being made to flee his home, of poverty, of the fight for independence, of torture and imprisonment under a dictatorship, and of trying to find his place in all of that chaos and horror. What does a man like Samuel have? How does he feel? What will he do in order to protect his home?

Is Samuel, now in his seventies, a sort of composite of men who have been ruthlessly exploited by politics in its various forms?

Absolutely. On the island, he is free from politics. He is the ruler there, and he is terrified of losing that power. Samuel is bitter and very much afraid.

The start of the novel is intriguing. We soon learn that life has become so worthless that abandoned bodies float in the sea and are not valued enough to be collected or identified, and Samuel has resorted to burying at least 32 in the walls fortifying the island. Does Samuel do this to fortify the island for himself? Is there any honouring of the bodies?

He wants to keep himself and his home safe, but more than that, he wants to keep others out. There is no honouring of the dead in making them a part of the fortifications. Rather, I suppose, there is a spiritual or mystical element here of his own making. In using the corpses as additions to the walls surrounding the island, he is warning outsiders to stay away. They are not welcome. Yet, the corpses keep coming, and it is, in fact, by the process of including them in the fortifications that Samuel is unwittingly making space for them on the island, making them a part of it.

When the young refugee is beached on the island, at first presumed dead, and then revives himself and lives, Samuel is at first suspicious, then accepting, especially as the refugee helps around the dwelling. However, the paranoia that this man is a threat persists. During the four days that follow, Samuel remembers his life, what has led him to this point in time. Violence comes out strongly as a theme, the word itself used to chilling effect midway through, when we get a sense of how desensitised Samuel has become throughout his life. Humiliation is also a theme. Do violence and humiliation go hand in hand? Which comes first?

Violence begets violence. Samuel has been exposed to it from a young age through the different stages that his country has gone through politically, and through the effects of those changes on him and those around him. His first experience of this violence was when the colonisers chased his family and their many neighbours away from the valley in which they lived, killing those who did not go fast enough. This is the legacy left by the colonisers when they eventually leave the country: a legacy of blood, exploitation, torture and murder. It is difficult to move beyond that.

Furthermore, violence is a way to humiliate, to subjugate others. When Samuel’s father rose up in order to fight for his nation’s independence, he was crippled in the protest. What disgusts Samuel is that his father believes he was part of something great and good, yet the majority of those who rose up continued to live in filth and poverty, begging, scraping by, while the new independent leaders, such as the president, filled their coffers and forgot the everyday citizens who had put them in power and to whom they had promised the world. Humiliation again. It is a relentless cycle.

The novel also brings into the picture a loss of values, an escalating stupidity and a lack of ethics by leaders and, indeed, the “people” themselves. Does this all reflect a current situation, too?

Yes and no. Certainly, we have seen a large number of corrupt leaders in African nations recently. But it is nothing new. That corruption and lack of ethics cannot be put at the feet of African leaders alone. When we were colonies, we were ruled by corrupt and unethical institutions. This is part of that legacy, part of the nightmare that Africa needs to awaken from. (And, of course, the same thing can be seen across the globe – this, sadly, is one of the great failings of democracy and is one of the driving forces behind the increasing support for right wing politics.)

Another word is used to great effect: the culling – a chilling word which conjures the xenophobic purges we’ve seen in South Africa. As a South African writer, are you particularly speaking to our specific xenophobic history? Or is this a conglomerate of the cycles we’ve seen generally in Africa – colonisation, independence, dictatorship, resulting chaos, but also a way of being that is a recycling of the corrupt enslaving the poor?

It is a conglomerate, but was certainly influenced in part by the xenophobic attacks that happened in South Africa. I wanted to understand what might lead people to take part in attacks of that nature. What kind of hatred, resentment, desperation, anger, failure of government or incitement by leaders could provoke a mass attack on neighbours and friends?

We see flashes in Samuel’s personality of what he understands as weakness, but to me, to the reader, it is really a clue to his humanity which he does not allow, his inability to murder. His hesitance to kill. Is this what you intended?

Yes, I don’t believe that anyone is born a killer. I wanted to explore what might drive an ordinary human being to violent acts, such as murder. Because of outside influences throughout his life, Samuel, as you say, views his humanity as a weakness. But for the reader, we are holding on to that aspect of him, hoping that he will choose “weakness” over “strength”, and that this choice will be his salvation in the end.

He holds in his mind the memory of cradling his newborn son, Lesi, and we have a sense, if not of love, then at least of an ignition of how precious this small life is, an inkling of how Samuel would like to be a father and to provide for his child, or ensure a future for his child. Is this struggle of a fledgling humanity, simply overwhelmed by poverty and cruelty, by the politics of men who continue to be so corrupt that they are never able to inspire humanity?

Sadly, yes. I will take South Africa as an example, though the situation is by no means limited to our country. We came out of apartheid into a time of freedom and hope for people of all races and classes. It was a new dawn. But where are we now, where are the poor and desperate? Forgotten by the people whom they fought alongside against oppression, forgotten by the leaders who made promises to them about how good their lives would be post-1994. Look at the corruption that has been on display, flagrantly so in the Zuma years. How can anything improve when people like these are the rulers of our country and are protected by their cronies? (I would like to add that I am not at all anti-ANC. I take issue with Zuma and what he was allowed to get away with. I cannot say that there is any political party in South Africa that I support, but I have felt generally satisfied – and certainly hopeful – with Cyril Ramaphosa as president, though it is a crying shame that he has been hamstrung by certain members of his party.)

On the island, Samuel does however manage to bond with a little red hen, protecting her when she comes under attack from other chickens. Do we catch a glimpse of his compassion here?

The little red hen is a simple device. It represents Samuel, old and vulnerable, but also, as you say, shows the type of man he can be: kind, generous, caring. Unfortunately, when the man eventually threatens the hen, Samuel sees this act as an attempt on his own life – he views it as what will happen to him if he allows the man to stay on the island. 

The man – the refugee – remains a shadow figure, not that I expected him to gain fleshy solidity. But I’m interested to know why you did not give him more of a voice?

This was a conscious choice on my part from the moment that I first had the idea for the novel. Firstly, there have been numerous successful narratives told from the point of view of refugees. They are important stories and should continue to be written. However, I was more interested in looking at the other side – the xenophobic side. What is it that makes people embrace that intolerance?

Additionally, I felt that it was crucial to highlight the difficulty that arises from lack of communication and when individuals are viewed as no more than objects. Because Samuel knows nothing about the man – not where he came from, not what his story is – it is much easier to hate him. This is, I believe, a part of what drives xenophobia. You see only the other. They are nothing more, and certainly nothing like you.

Throughout this flooding of memory, interlaced with the four days described on the island, we have this sense of foreboding, that something is going to happen. Is this the mood you intended to create?

Yes. From his very arrival, Samuel works hard to get rid of the smother weed that he found covering the island. Yet, regularly, that weed comes back, invading his perfectly curated space. I can only say that I wanted there to be a sense of relentlessness, so that the reader would feel trapped, wanting to escape, but be guided by an irresistible compulsion to read on and on to the very end. That, I think, is assisted by the book being a short one. It can be read in one sitting.

The effect of the novel is a certain hopelessness, although the flashes of humanity come through in various slivers of Samuel’s memory and his real actions. Is there some hope to hold on to?

I would describe my writing as a type of social realism. I don’t want false happy endings. That is not to say that there are not happy moments in the real world, but in this case, where Samuel represents the effects of the general political history of an entire continent, a continent which has been exploited for generations, then it becomes impossible for me to write a happy ending. My job as a writer is to hold a mirror up to these realities, but it is not within my abilities to suggest solutions.

In general, are these the stories you are drawn to telling? I’m thinking of your other novels, also intensely focused on exposing human frailty.

I am drawn to stories about ordinary, everyday people and how they attempt to navigate a world that can be cruel and rife with injustice. What makes up their days, their relationships, their thoughts and feelings? And, yes, their frailties, too. In my first novel, Finding Soutbek, I explored the challenges faced by individuals in an impoverished fishing village on the west coast of South Africa. In Upturned earth, I looked at the dire conditions in the copper mining town of Springbokfontein in 1886, commenting, too, on the history of commercial mining in South Africa and the exploitation that continues to this day.

Of course, we want to know what’s next on the agenda.

Well, I have a manuscript that I completed towards the end of 2019, but I haven’t got an idea of if or when that will be published. The pandemic has been a crushing blow to the publishing industry. Beyond that, I have no immediate plans. I have a half-written manuscript in a cupboard. I am starting a PhD in history this year. I think that will be my only writing for a while. But let’s see how the year goes.

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