“Samuel has lived alone for a long time; one morning he finds the sea has brought someone to offer companionship and to threaten his solitude…
A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history. In this new man’s presence he begins to consider, as he did in his youth, what is meant by land and to whom it should belong. To what lengths will a person go in order to ensure that what is theirs will not be taken from them?
A novel about guilt and fear, friendship and rejection; about the meaning of home.”
Hello and welcome to damppebbles. Today I am delighted to be joined by Karen Jennings, author of the literary fiction novel An Island. An Island was published by Holland House Books on 12th November 2020 and is available in hardcover, paperback and digital formats.
Without further ado, I will hand over to Karen…
A Violent History
The history of Europe’s relationship with Africa is long and violent, yet it was at the Berlin Conference in 1884 that the Scramble for Africa reached its zenith. The continent was officially sliced up and shared out amongst various European powers, the borders of these new countries set at random with no care for ethnic or social groups and traditions. What followed was oppressive leadership, unconcerned with the development of the colonies. The sole aim was to exploit the land and its people for the benefit of the colonisers. When, in the latter parts of the twentieth century, Africans began to rise up and demand their independence, a slow and oftentimes reluctant relinquishing of power occurred – not without bloodshed and vindictiveness. In fact, in some places, such as Guinea, the departing colonisers took whatever they could carry; all the rest, such as medicine, office equipment, telephones and lightbulbs, was destroyed. What was left behind, however, included embedded traditions of authoritarian systems in which rulers and officials wielded vast personal power. It is little wonder then that many new African nations found freedom meant not much more than a change from one authoritarian system to another, whether under corrupt and inept governance or the tyranny of military dictatorships.
Unfortunately, what pride and hope there had been at the dawn of independence was often quashed by these new systems, as well as by the lack of resources and qualified professionals, which meant that infrastructure and amenities could not be improved. Added to this were legacies of illiteracy, poverty, natural disasters and fragile links between ethnic and political groups that led to countless cruel and destructive civil wars across the continent. For many, life in Africa still continues to be a daily challenge and millions of people have either chosen to emigrate or have been compelled to flee, sometimes to neighbouring countries or else to wealthier nations like the United States, Australia or those in Europe. Disturbed at this influx, foreign governments have introduced harsh restrictions on who can enter their borders, and have fuelled an alarming rise in nationalistic and xenophobic thinking in western nations.
But we cannot pretend that xenophobia is not present in Africa too. With people already failed by their governments, many living in terrible poverty, battling unemployment, without proper housing or regular access to food and clean water, dissatisfaction has led to horrific xenophobic attacks. In my own country of South Africa, we have seen terrible cases spanning two decades, the most recent being in September of 2019 when foreigners were assaulted and killed in certain hot- spots, their businesses attacked and looted. More than 600 Nigerians were evacuated from the country for their own safety, though they were by no means the only foreign nationals that were under threat.
In my novel, An Island, I have attempted to engage with the dark history that many African nations share, the ramifications of which are felt to this day. Because of the complexity of the historical influences, I chose to tell the story in as simple a way as possible, using as location a small fictional island off the coast of Africa, never revealing to which country that island belongs. I dislike the pervasive western notion that Africa is a single country, an idea that reduces the vibrant cultures, societies, languages and traditions to all being one and the same. The intent behind An Island was never to take part in that reductionism. Rather, I hoped that through focusing the action of the novel on two key characters and their interactions within the confines of this small space that it would allow significant relevant historical influences to be seen as irrevocable and undeniable aspects in the life of the protagonist, but without the risk of specific events, historical figures and political policies overshadowing his thoughts, emotions and behaviour. By those means I wished to examine what the influence of such a history might be on an individual – most specifically, what might drive a seemingly ordinary person to violence?
It is worth noting, as I write these words during a time of global lockdowns, that borders have been consistently closing between nations in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. There is very real fear, which we all carry within us now, of being endangered by infected foreigners. In the early months of the pandemic xenophobic incidents occurring worldwide, such as Chinese-Americans being attacked at a rate of 100 a day and their businesses boycotted, while international cruise ships were unable to find a port that would allow them to dock. Soon the centres of infection moved from Europe and the United States to Africa, which has limited resources to combat the spread of COVID-19 and to treat those who fall ill. Millions are projected to die. While several western nations have pledged financial assistance or the postponement (even cancellation) of loan repayments, the fact remains that the coming months will be devastating for the people of Africa, and one cannot predict how vulnerable and desperate communities might react in order to protect themselves and their families from those that they consider a threat. Moreover, what does the future look like for Africans across the globe? As the infection rate rises on the continent, what effect will that have on immigrants and refugees in foreign lands?
In short, what might individuals of any nation do to protect their homes from outsiders?
Many thanks for joining me today, Karen, and for writing such a fascinating piece. I’ll be sure to check An Island out.
An Island by Karen Jennings was published in the UK by Holland House Books on 12th November 2020 and is available in paperback and digital formats (please note, the following links are affiliate links which means I receive a small percentage of the purchase price at no extra cost to you): | amazon.co.uk | Waterstones | Foyles | Book Depository | Holland House Books | Goodreads |
Karen Jennings is a South African author. She holds Masters degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in English Literature from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 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. Karen is currently living in Brazil with her Brazilian husband, and last year completed post-doctoral research at the Federal University of Goiás on the historical relationship between science and literature, with a focus on eusocial insects. In September 2019 her new novel, Upturned Earth, will be published by Holland Park Press. Karen is also affiliated with the mentorship programmes run by Writivism and Short Story Day Africa, both of which promote writing in Africa. Broadly speaking, Karen’s interests lie in colonialism, historically and in the lasting impact that it has had on the continent of Africa and beyond. She is particularly concerned with the quiet lives of the everyday people who have been mostly forgotten by the politicians, big businesses and the rest of the world. In this way, she strives to give the ordinary a voice that can be heard and appreciated.
The idea for An Island came to Karen during an afternoon nap at a writers’ residency she was attending in Denmark in 2015. In her sleep, she saw an old man, fiercely defending his island against interlopers. At the time, there was a vast amount in the news about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which extended to what became known as Europe’s Refugee Crisis. There was a great global outcry against xenophobic responses and calls for humanitarian aid for Syria’s refugees. At the same time, there was almost nothing about refugees from Africa – not about what drove them to flee their nations, or what their dreadful experiences were, nor about their deaths or their futures. Karen chose to explore the relationship between refugee and landowner, but within an African setting, where xenophobia is as rife as in Europe, though it often manifests itself in different ways despite largely being born of colonialism. By reducing the action of the narrative to two characters, Karen felt that a complex issue could be rendered in simple ways that allowed for a focus on individual experiences.