Evil Games and Gifts of Mercy: Sophy Kohler Interviews Sunday Times Fiction Prize Shortlistee Karen Jayes
Sophy Kohler speaks to Fiction Prize finalist Karen Jayes about the source of life
Karen Jayes is a freelance writer and senior lecturer in journalism at City Varsity in Cape Town. She has worked as a writer and editor for a variety of magazines and newspapers in South Africa and abroad. Her debut novel, For the Mercy of Water, is set in a drought-stricken country where access to water has become a means of corporate control.
Few of the characters in the book are named. Why did you choose to do this?
I wanted to write a book that moved away from these classifiers and told a universal story about a single hero and an enemy that is itself hard to name.
When we name people, we assign them a past and a future. For the Mercy of Water embraces something greater, while at the same time working as a simple, modern fable of good versus evil.
I had a clear idea of who the characters were, so when they appeared they brought with them distinctive traits and values.
The novel is also set in an unnamed place. Is this a way of emphasising that the water crisis is a universal issue and not one relegated to the Third World?
This is not a story about environmental concerns. Although it is set in a country at war over water, water here is representative of beauty, rebirth, purity and nourishment – things we are all entitled to access for free because they are gifts of mercy.
Any conquest by capital of these and other good things is a violation of something that should be protected. The story is set in a place where there is corporate conquest of natural resources.
That, really, is any place and any resource. It is not meant to scold people for neglecting to turn off their taps, it’s the story of a woman who is called to make a choice to follow either light or darkness. She chooses light, and in that there is a great victory. Even though this victory is not recognised in the world she inhabits, she recognises it in her heart.
You don’t mention skin colour. Is this a way of forcing readers to confront their cultural and racial misconceptions?
When you remove race, you remove barriers and the story becomes more immediate in terms of values such as justice and truth. I just wanted to write about people trying to heal themselves in a barren place.
Is the book a way of getting us to think differently about water?
I hope it goes beyond that for readers. The conquest of water strongly parallels the conquest of the body, in this case, the conquest of bodies in a war, of women – but also of those who perpetrate violence. This is the curse of war. I was aware of playing with feminist metaphors, but I felt that in a world where there is so much violence against women, it was time the metaphor was revived – especially in a way that showed the wounds of all involved.
Is international aid the solution to incidents of resource conflict?
I’m cynical about the aid business. I’ve travelled enough to see that aid is a business and politics unto itself. Aid agencies arrive and are uniquely able to set up new hierarchies or bolster existing ones. I do admire certain agencies for the work they do, but there are many that give in order to further conquer the most needy.
Do you see the book as having dystopian elements or do you view the war over water as an extension of something that is already happening?
In Yemen, villages are being cleared because there is no water, and bands of people roam the desert in search of it. The Bedouin in Palestine are threatened as a result of both water scarcity and control. In South Africa, water is a determining factor in survival and settlement. In India, cool-drink companies mine the water out from the water table, drying up entire cities. As a vital element, water is a conduit for all sorts of values. When you commodify it, mine it and take it, you are playing an evil game. This is already happening.
Has working as a journalist influenced your choice of subject matter?
I saw a lot of stories on water being overlooked for what were regarded as more pressing issues. I was amazed how often people focused on oil, the fuel for commodities, while the race to secure water, our source of life, was seen as “soft news”. The framework for the novel was there in reality, it was up to me to write it beautifully.