Karen Jennings is still in shock. It has been a few days since the announcement that her novel, An Island, has been longlisted for the Booker prize, and the 38-year-old South African author looks as though she’s reeling. Considering the novel’s difficult route to publication, you can understand why. She doesn’t even have an agent.
“It was incredibly difficult to find a publisher,” she says, via video chat from Brazil, where she has spent the pandemic alongside her Brazilian husband, a scientist. Due to being essentially stranded there, she has yet to hold an actual physical copy of the book in her hands. “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.”
After many rejections, An Island – the story of a solitary lighthouse keeper’s encounter with a refugee who washes up on the shore of his island – was published by tiny indie press Holland House in a print run of a mere 500 copies owing to the pandemic. It was met mostly with silence.
“I felt very ashamed of myself,” she says, with refreshing honesty. “Because my publishers had put a lot of faith and time and, obviously, money into it. And it’s not that I personally was expecting fame or fortune or anything, but I felt that I had disappointed them. So it’s quite an extraordinary moment now to suddenly have all of this attention and I’m not quite sure how to handle it.
“The most disheartening thing for me has been that there’s been no interest in my writing, or in publishing me, in South Africa,” she continues. Though in the novel the lighthouse keeper’s nationality is not stated, nor the dictatorship he rebels against identified, the novel’s concerns – colonialism, racism, xenophobia, trauma, poverty and resistance – are clearly rooted in that country’s history. “It’s certainly not that I think that I’m an amazing writer and deserve all sorts of recognition,” she hastens to add.
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. ”
It is literary, but it’s not exactly inaccessible. There’s nothing florid or complex about Jennings’s spare prose, and the story has an allegorical feel to it that gives it universality. “It’s a short novel – I do prefer to write short novels, and I do prefer simple writing, no big fancy words or showing off … As much as I really work very hard at the writing, I would like it to appear effortless. So that when someone reads it, they can really get swept up with it.”
Jennings doesn’t read much contemporary fiction, and cites classic social realists such as Émile Zola and Charles Dickens, as well as John Steinbeck, as her literary influences. She was born in Cape Town and is the daughter of two teachers, an Afrikaans mother and an English father; her relationship with her dad, who died of lung cancer, is the subject of her memoir Travels With My Father. She wrote from a very young age, especially poetry, but she says she was very lazy about it. “I did a master’s degree in creative writing. And that’s when I started becoming quite disciplined, because I realised that in order to be a writer, one actually does have to write. You can’t just sit back and wait for inspiration or opportunity.”
Pursuing a writing life has come at a cost. “I’ve been really poor for a very long time,” she says, without a trace of self-pity. “I don’t have much of a social life either. You know, I don’t have fancy clothes. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a career the way other people have.”
She was only able to write An Island thanks to the Miles Morland Foundation writing scholarship, which supports African writing and literature. The vision of an old man defending his island came to her in a dream. “At the time in the news, there was a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and the incredible xenophobia, but there were terrible cases of African refugees drowning, hundreds of them in boats that could barely stay afloat.” Jennings was interested in writing the story “from the point of view of the person that doesn’t want someone entering their land, and wants to keep the land for themselves”.
“I want to be very clear about this, that I don’t believe in reducing Africa to a single country. But in this case, I wanted to use an allegorical means to examine a very complex issue. To take what has been done to Africa in various forms over the centuries, and examine that in a very simple way with just these two protagonists.”
The result is a heartrending psychological portrait of trauma and xenophobia, and the scars left by successive corrupt governments on the people forced to endure them. “[The novel] was just an attempt by me to understand what it is that leads to violence, what leads to this feeling of wanting to keep outsiders away? South Africa has a very strong history of violence and of anger.”
Jennings works part time for an NGO that is trying to give a voice to people who live in informal settlements without access to water or sanitation. “Millions of people are living in these terrible conditions and they’re fed up. The government has been promising them things for 27 years now. Things have not improved for them. So they’re angry.”
She hopes that the Booker nomination will help draw attention to some of these issues, and to writers in South Africa who are grappling with them: “I want, as far as possible, this little bit of success that I’m having to benefit South Africa and Africa as much as it can.” It is still, she feels, largely ignored by the rest of the world, and she believes this is also a problem within the country itself. “Too often we are waiting to hear what the rest of the world thinks before we decide for ourselves if our own writers are good enough,” she says.
“There’s a big problem with the way that the rest of the world sees Africa. I think they want certain stories from Africa, and also they are tired of those stories. So it’s a difficult dance. Obviously, there’s more than just one type of story or one kind of African. And it’s not all child soldiers and acacia trees. There’s a variety of people and stories of cultures.”
“I think that the big publishers have to be very careful, because they are expecting authors to reduce themselves and their writing to stereotypes in order to be published, and then that is reinforcing the stereotype to readers, who are expecting certain stories. So, if the publishers are willing to take chances on different kinds of stories and different kinds of writers, then I think the public will, too.”
I ask her whether, with the current conversation about cultural appropriation, she wrestled with the kinds of characters that she felt she could write. “I have really struggled with that for a very long time,” she says. “It’s no secret that I’m white, and I am claiming to be African, and I think a lot of people will have a problem with that. As a white person, what are the stories that I am allowed to tell? How will people respond to it if I’m not just telling the story of a white woman? I do worry very much about appropriation. The one thing I have tried to do in my writing is to be very sensitive to who it is that I give voice to.
“I don’t really have an answer, I can only say that it’s never my intention to take away anyone’s voice. Rather, I’m trying to understand South Africa, understand Africa, understand what my place in it is.”
A condition of the scholarship she received is that 20% of her earnings from the book are returned, so that the foundation can continue to fund African writing. She is pleased that the longlisting means she will be able to give something back. “As writers we hate ourselves, we hate our writing, and we have to deal with rejections from agents and publishers, and then reviews and critics. Just to have that little bit of dignity for a year where you don’t have to be grabbing for money or doing jobs here and there. Just that bit of a relief that it offers is so valuable and so I’ll be very happy that I can contribute to that.
“Also I would like my publishers to have some success with this, because the pandemic has been really difficult for small publishers.” It would, she says, be her way of saying thank you to them for taking a chance on her and her work. Thanks to the longlisting, 5,000 more copies have already been printed, and Holland House founder Robert Peett tells me that, in addition to Australia, they have sold translation rights to Greece and have interest worldwide.
“It was one of those I knew we wanted within a few pages,” Peett says, when I ask him how he acquired the novel. “I read it at one sitting and, to be honest, felt that one of the bigger publishers should have snapped it up. Selfishly, I am glad they didn’t.”
How, I ask Jennings, did she find the strength to keep going in the face of so little recognition? “I was never motivated by money or success, I’ve always just loved writing,” she says. “As long as I believed in what I was working on [I kept going]. So it’s not necessarily that I believed in myself, but rather that I believed in the work.”
• An Island is published by Holland House (£9.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.