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Exclusive: Etisalat Prize Candidate Karen Jennings Feels African Writers Should Not Wait for Approval

Karen Jennings

Karen Jennings, who was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature for Finding Soutbek, talks to Jennifer Malec from Books LIVE about writing in pyjamas, stealing chocolate and the gruelling task of exploring truth in South African literature.

Jennings is joined on the inaugural shortlist by Yewande Omotoso, for Bom Boy, and NoViolet Bulawayo, for We Need New Names.

Finding SoutbekBom BoyWe Need New Names

The prize, which is the “first ever pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published fiction books”, comes with £15,000 prize money, an engraved Montblanc Meisterstück pen and an Etisalat Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, under the mentorship of Professor Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland.

The winner will be announced on Sunday, 23 February.

Would you describe your novel, briefly, for those who may not have read it?

The focal point of the novel is the small town of Soutbek (a fictional town based on visits I made to the West Coast while researching for the novel). It centres on the troubles, hardships and corruption, but also kindness, strong community and friendships found in the town. It is a divided town – the upper town destitute, and the lower town rich, and this division informs the relationships and behaviour of the characters, such as the troubled relationship between Pieter Fortuin, the town’s first coloured mayor, and his wife Anna, or the relationship between Pieter and his nephew, Willem.

Was this the first novel you always intended to write, or did you find the process of writing led you down a different path?

As a child and a teenager I wrote several manuscripts, but nothing to be taken seriously, in fact, not to be taken seriously at all! I suppose that the seed for Finding Soutbek was planted as far back as 2002, but at that time it was a very different book. In fact, my short story “Sarah Begins” which is published in African Pens (2007) is taken from an early version of the novel. It wasn’t until I visited the West Coast towns of Doringbaai and Strandfontein that the novel really took shape in my mind. By that stage I had become more interested in the literature of social realism, and more importantly, in the lives of the forgotten of South Africa.

South Africa is a country that I love, but that I feel ashamed of. There is so much poverty, so much of the everyday struggle of people that is ignored. I wanted to engage with that and represent a reality. On one of my visits to Doringbaai I was informed that a teenage boy (I will not say his name as I don’t think it is right to do so) had committed suicide just a couple of days before my arrival. His mother drank, there was no money for food, there was no school for him to attend. He weighed up the options given to him and he decided to take his life. That was something that I felt needed to be reflected in my novel. The hopelessness that accompanies poverty, that accompanies promises and promises that never materialise – promises for housing, for water, for jobs. I have had a lot of people complain to me about the ending of my novel. There is no resolution, no sense of closure. No “happy ending”. But this was a conscious decision on my part. My novel was not written to give answers to how situations like this can be improved – I am not an economist, not a parliamentarian. I wrote my novel to explore a truth.

It must feel pretty good to have your talents recognised?

Of course it makes the hours spent in my pyjamas, the days without showering or brushing my teeth, the ups and downs and self-loathing, feel justified. But to be honest, I feel more pleased that the actual story has been given recognition. Take me out of the equation and focus only on the story. I want people to read this story to read about the small lives of people that have been forgotten. I think this is more important than ever in an election year in South Africa. More and more service delivery protests arise. There are strikes, countless cases of corruption. So my feeling is that I would like people to put my talent aside. I want, instead, for them to recognise what it is that I am writing about.

I believe the award organisers buy 1000 copies of each shortlisted book. What do you think the award will mean financially for young African authors who are hoping to carve out a career as full-time writers?

It cannot be anything but life-changing. I feel that an award of this nature has been long needed. African authors are often considered as second-class writers. We are not given the recognition we might get elsewhere. We are the younger sibling who is looked on with a condescending smile. I hope that this award will help to change that attitude. This award comes alongside a growing trend in African writing circles where the decision has been made to no longer wait for nods of approval from elsewhere. I am speaking perhaps specifically of the recent development of an event like Short Story Day Africa run by Rachel Zadok and Tiah Beautement. An event like SSDA, aimed at Africa and the diaspora, is run with commitment, minimal finances and many headaches, but mostly I think it is run with a deliberate intention of recognising and acknowledging the talent of our continent’s established and emerging writers.

In terms of the financial implications, speaking personally, money isn’t what drives me to write. I am one of those old-fashioned impoverished writers. I made a commitment to myself and said that I wouldn’t get a full-time job until I have published three books. I hope to have achieved this aim by next year. But it does mean that I live a rather hand to mouth existence. I do editing work when I have lulls in my writing, and I have been fortunate to have received some funding from both the National Arts Council and the Arts and Culture Trust for different writing projects over the years. I have also been fortunate in having been awarded writing residencies. I was awarded an M-residency for Sangam House (a three-month residency in India for Nov 2012 – Jan 2013), a four-week residency in Arnhem, Holland by the Africa Centre and the Thamgidi Foundation, and a 10-day residency in Entebbe, Uganda by Femrite. (Femrite is currently open for applications for their 6th annual residency and I encourage woman writers to apply.) Each of these residencies has enabled me to have time to write for various periods of time without financial worry.

But it isn’t realistic for any writer to move from residency to residency and many of them do not fund travel expenses or accommodation. What a writer needs is a “room of their own” and the option to sit down at a desk every day and write. I am fortunate – my mother provides me with a study in her house. She feeds me lunch and lends me money when I am in need and doesn’t complain too much when I steal chocolate from her secret stash. My partner, Juliano, pays the rent on our apartment and takes care of me to a great extent. What I am getting round to saying is that, while I have been in a fortunate situation where people and organisations have chosen to award me small grants, residencies and a room of my own, none of this is enough to sustain my writing forever. Any writer needs money – not for the sake of having money. But for the sake of rent and food and new pyjamas and cups of tea and lots of chocolate – and all the things that can help them in committing to the desk, the page, the pen.

Of course, to return to your question, more than the financial implications of the 1000 copies, is the dissemination of literature, which I believe counts for so much more.

And how does it feel to be shortlisted with NoViolet Bulawayo and Yewande Omotoso? Did you enjoy their novels?

I am delighted to be on this shortlist with two such talented women. I haven’t read NoViolet’s book yet, though I have a copy waiting for me. Yewande’s book, Bom Boy, I know very well as I actually edited it for Modjaji Books. That makes me doubly proud to be on this shortlist.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    February 4th, 2014 @14:52 #

    ' So my feeling is that I would like people to put my talent aside. I want, instead, for them to recognise what it is that I am writing about. ' - wonderful line.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 5th, 2014 @23:52 #

    "Take me out of the equation and focus only on the story. I want people to read this story to read about the small lives of people that have been forgotten." I found this so powerful - esp as I visit the rural Free State once a year, and it's like the land time forgot, populated by people the government are ignoring. Thank you, Karen.


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