African Writes: Karen Jennings on her novel An Island

Cover of an An Island shows the sea with an island in the shape of an upturned face towards a slate-grey-blue sky.

A few months ago, when social distancing and self-isolation were recommended across the globe as ways to limit the spread of COVID-19, social media was quickly inundated with memes about what quarantine and isolation had afforded famous people during previous pandemics. Shakespeare, for example, is said to have written King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1606, while Isaac Newton developed calculus and the theory of gravity while working from home for the same reason in 1665 – the suggestion being that we too can use this time to be as productive as the greats of history. While many people immediately began joking about how little they are achieving as they comply with social distancing measures, I have found that my life has remained largely the same – I have been more or less isolated for the better part of 5 years since  moving from South Africa to Brazil with my Brazilian husband.

I am an introvert at the best of times, but never more so than I have been in this country. Compelled to go where my husband found work, we ended up in the centre of Brazil in a city that is predominantly conservative, full of staunch supporters of the nation’s right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, dictatorship-adoring president, Jair Bolsonaro. I have very little in common with such people. Moreover, the city is a bit of cultural backwater, with very little to do except go to the various malls. With no friends or family to ameliorate the situation, it was lonely and challenging. While my husband went to work every day, I was left in the apartment with the general advice not to go outside as it was unsafe. I could go down to the little grocery store half a block from our building, but beyond that was not a good idea. The local news was full of stories of people being robbed and shot at all hours of the day and night.

So I stayed inside, and I wrote. At the end of 2015 I had been awarded a Miles Morland Foundation scholarship to write An Island. I had had the idea for the novel in July/August during a month-long writing residency in Denmark where I stayed in a beautiful manor house in the countryside with several other writers. The idea had been a simple one and I had been excited by it, but two weeks after the completion of the residency, I left for Brazil unaware that those days of drinking wine under starlit summer skies with writers from Denmark, Argentina, Italy and Hungary would be the last proper socialising I would do for years, nor was I able to predict that soon I would find myself so easily able to replicate certain aspects of Samuel’s (the protagonist in An Island) day-to-day life.

Samuel lives alone as the keeper of a lighthouse on a small island. The only people he sees are two men who bring supplies to him once a fortnight. One day a stranger washes up on the shore of the island and Samuel must adjust to having his isolation interrupted. Though not quite an island or a lighthouse, I was alone for 10 hours a day in an apartment on the 17th floor of a tall apartment block. I hardly went anywhere. I saw no one but our building’s security guards. When I did meet people, I was unable to have any sort of conversation with them as I knew very little Portuguese and had no opportunity to practise – much like Samuel and the stranger are unable to communicate in the same language. Like Samuel, I became obsessed with the order of things – everything had its place and time – and I became unsettled when my husband disrupted that order. In my mind, he began to feel like an interloper.

Worst of all, I woke up each morning and felt stifled by my life, by the manuscript, and “This book is killing me, this book is killing me,” I said to myself every day, all day. But, of course, it was not the book. It was the isolation, the difficulty of being a lonely stranger in a foreign land. A loneliness that still persists though I have grown much better at accepting, even sometimes enjoying, it. My continued isolation has meant that I am free to write as much as I like, and I have been writing a great deal, yet it comes always at a cost. I have no life outside of the pages I work on. I have only the words.

Having confessed all this, it is evident that there is a certain aptness to the title An Island, which cannot help but bring to mind that oft-quoted line from Donne: “No man is an island”. That is something that I continue to confront and am slowly trying to work on – making friends, becoming part of something (a place, a people) from which I still feel so vastly separated.  

Published worldwide (except southern Africa) by Holland House Books, UK : The ebook will be available as of 13 June. Unfortunately, due to delays caused by the lockdown, the release date of print versions of An Island has been postponed until later in 2020.

Published in southern Africa by Karavan Press: Due to delays caused by the lockdown, An Island’s release date has been postponed until later in 2020.

White woman with fluffy brown hair in an up-do, smiles at the camera.

Bio: Karen Jennings 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. She has published a short story collection Away from the Dead and a poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes, as well as a memoir, Travels with my Father. In 2019 she published the historical mining novel Upturned Earth. Her most recent novel, An Island, was written with support from the Miles Morland Foundation. You can find her on Facebook by clicking here.

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