It took the Booker to introduce South Africans to their own Karen Jennings

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Photo of Karen Jennings: Karavan Press

An island
Karen Jennings
Karavan Press

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This year’s discovery, though, is Jennings (born 1982), who, in spite of having produced several excellent earlier books, has not been afforded the acclaim in South Africa that she deserves. The truth of the hoary adage that a prophet is rarely hallowed in her own land rings especially true, it would seem, of South Africans who write literary fiction in English.

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Tomorrow, 14 September 2021, at 4 pm London time, the Booker Prize’s longlist of 13 will be whittled down to a shortlist of five, or possibly six, titles.

The longlist was announced in July. It was composed from 158 novels that had been published in the United Kingdom or Ireland in the period 1 October 2020 to 30 September 2021.

Locally, it caused an instant frisson.

While writing should hardly be construed through the prism of the jingoism that is common in sport, the results of the adjudication process remain interesting and even telling. They suggest how South African novels are construed by a non-South African audience, in this case an erudite and widely read panel of literary judges.

This is not least so since in recent years Nigeria, among other African nations, and India have emerged as the story-telling powerhouses in the global south. This year, interestingly, those two nations are absent.

Indeed, there are only three voices from the south on the longlist. One of them is Anuk Arudpragasam, a Sri Lankan, with his second novel, A passage north, penned in English. (His debut novel was written in Tamil.)

The other two are novels by South Africans: The promise by Damon Galgut and An island by Karen Jennings. Yet those who in July hotfooted it to local bookshops to obtain a copy of the latter did so in vain – it had seen an initial print run of only 500. Those who placed an order at a bookshop in Cape Town or Johannesburg would have received the dark red book only a couple of weeks ago. 

The inclusion of Galgut on the longlist came as no surprise. He has been shortlisted twice before: in 2003 for The good doctor and again in 2010, for In a strange room. It bears remembering that in 2003 rumours leaked out of the jury room that the judges’ views were very evenly balanced between Galgut’s novel and Vernon God Little, the Australian DBC Pierre’s satire on American gun culture, which was awarded the trophy.

Many bookies consider The promise to be the frontrunner in this year’s field – even before the shortlist is announced. Were he to take the prize, he would be the third South African to do so, after Nadine Gordimer (The conservationist, co-winner in 1974) and JM Coetzee (The life and times of Michael K, 1983; Disgrace, 1999).

This year’s discovery, though, is Jennings (born 1982), who, in spite of having produced several excellent earlier books, has not been afforded the acclaim in South Africa that she deserves. The truth of the hoary adage that a prophet is rarely hallowed in her own land rings especially true, it would seem, of South Africans who write literary fiction in English.

The sales figures are notorious: Serious English-language writers are routinely edged off the stage by titles from abroad. A local literary novel in English would count itself lucky if 300 copies were sold. Perversely, usually only once such a novel garners international accolades is local readers’ interest piqued.

At UCT Jennings completed two master’s degrees, one in English literature and another in creative writing, before attaining a PhD in creative writing at UKZN. In 2010, her short story “From dark” won the Africa Region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.

In 2012 her first novel, Finding Soutbek, appeared at London’s small Holland Park Press. The narrative is set in Soutbek, a fictional town on the west coast. It centres Pieter Fortuin, its mayor, his wife Anne and a circle of supporting characters. Pivotal is a historical account of the town that Fortuin wrote together with a retired scholar.

The measured, understated and poetic prose that marks An island is already much in evidence. So, too, Jennings’s fondness for allegory. It was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature.

In the following years Holland Park Press continued to champion Jennings. Away from the dead, a collection of short stories, appeared in 2014. In 2016 it published Travels with my father – an autobiographical novel.

LitNet reviewer Mathilda Slabbert wrote the following about this tenderly written account: “The narrator, Karen, takes the reader on a reflective journey prompted by the death of her father, Keith Jennings, after a long battle with cancer. At the heart of the autobiographical project then lies a patriography: a struggle to write the father.”

This was followed, in 2018, by her first collection of poetry, Space inhabited by echoes, which deals in part with her move to Brazil. In 2019 her second novel, Upturned Earth, appeared, set in the winter of 1886 in the copper fields of Namaqualand. William Hull arrives to become a magistrate; no one else had been prepared to take up the position. A copper mining company holds sway, under the command of a tyrannical mine superintendent. Molefi Noki, a labourer, is set on finding his brother, who had been jailed for drunkenness.

An island is Jennings’s third novel and sixth book.

In an interview with Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett of London’s Guardian newspaper she said: “I finished the novel in 2017. And no one was interested. When I did finally get a small publisher in the UK and a small publisher in South Africa to co-publish, they couldn’t get anyone to review the book. We couldn’t get people to write endorsement quotes, or blurbs.”

Cosslett writes: “Even her previous small publisher didn’t want An island. I ask her why she thinks it was rejected so many times. A bunch of reasons were given – too short, too experimental, too African, not African enough – but ultimately it came down to economics. ‘The only real response that I have been able to pin down was that it would not make any money,’ she says, noting that however much an editor might love a book, these decisions are often made by the finance department. ‘Because I’m a literary writer, because I’m not famous, it’s too risky. Because no one buys or reads literary fiction. Also, I don’t write uplifting stories. And so it’s not the kind of thing that people want to take on holiday with them.’”

Yet, eventually Holland House Books, another London micro-publisher, co-published with the South African Karavan Press (https://karavanpress.com), a publishing outfit set up by the author and reviewer Karina Szczurek which describes itself as “an independent publisher based in Cape Town … [d]evoted to excellence and integrity …” Other names listed among its authors include Sindiwe Magona, Dawn Garisch and Nick Mulgrew.

An island, a lean novel spanning fewer than 200 pages, centres on Samuel, the lighthouse keeper on an unnamed island. One day what at first blush appears to be a dead body washes up on shore. Yet the person is not dead. Samuel provides the man with shelter – only soon to start harbouring doubts about the sojourner and his intentions.

Interwoven with the present-day account on the island, which spans four days (the book is divided into four parts, the fourth somewhat shorter than the other three) are flashbacks to Samuel’s earlier life on the mainland, under the colonial regime but especially, later, under the dictatorship that came in the wake of liberation.

Jennings’s prose is taut and beautiful. The tale, about colonialism and its aftermath, is bleak and freighted with foreboding.

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The Booker Prize for Fiction was inaugurated in 1969, sponsored by Booker, McConnell Ltd, a food wholesale operation. In 2002, the administration of the prize was entrusted to the Booker Prize Foundation. The main sponsor then became the Man Group, an investment company. It chose to retain “Booker” as part of the prize’s name; it was then known as the Man Booker Prize.

In 2019 that relationship ended. Since then it has been known simply as the Booker Prize.

Initially, the prize was open only to books published in the United Kingdom and Ireland by their nationals and those of the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe.

Since 2014 it has been open to books by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. This saw the entry into the Booker fold of American novelists. Two of the laureates since then have been from the USA.

Since 2016 the allied International Booker Prize has been awarded yearly to a novel translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland; the prize money is shared equally between the author and the translator.

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Whether Jennings’s name appears on the shortlist that will be announced in London tomorrow afternoon or not, one can only hope that her longlisting will have changed the trajectory of her career – that she will never again have to make out a case to be published. And never again be published in print runs of only 500. Her longlisting surely also underlines the importance of niche publishing houses like Holland Park Press, Holland House Books and Karavan Press.

Yet how exciting it would be were her name to be read out tomorrow.

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Whether Jennings’ name appears on the shortlist that will be announced in London tomorrow afternoon or not, one can only hope that her longlisting will have changed the trajectory of her career: that she will never again have to make out a case to be published. And never again be published in print runs of only 500.

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Also read:

An island by Karen Jennings: an interview

Podcast: The promise – Ron Irwin in conversation with Damon Galgut

The promise by Damon Galgut: a book review

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