One of the recent highlights has been the longlisting of three African authors for The Booker Prize. [See here if you missed it.] When veteran South African editor Helen Moffett got the news that Karen Jennings was one of them, she took to Facebook to share some heartfelt reflections on Jennings and why her Booker nomination means a lot. We had to share it because of how much it reflects the kind of love, friendship, and culture of mentorship that keeps the African literary community thriving.
“I am ridiculously happy. My much-loved friend Karen Jennings has been longlisted for the Booker Prize for her exquisite novel An Island — and my equally beloved friend Karina Brink is the South African publisher (the indie Karavan Press, which in only two years has already had a significant impact on the local book scene). I’ve been crying happy tears all morning, because Karen is one of my BABIES. I don’t mean this to infantilize her in any way, or to suggest our relationship isn’t one of reciprocity. But there’s a story: there’s always a story.
Eleven years ago, she asked if she could come and see me for advice on becoming a literary editor. How I laughed. I usually say no to these requests, but she got me on a good day. And so this delightful Masters student with PreRaphaelite hair came and sat on my patio and we talked and talked. I was so impressed by her nascent writing and editing skills, I agreed to take her under, if not my wing, a feather or two, and sent her off to Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books (an indie that publishes women authors) to work as an intern.
Since then we’ve worked on so many projects, always happily. She’s proofread my manuscripts, helped me precis a challenging monograph, provided editing and a shoulder to cry on when I was writing a university textbook that nearly killed me; she even did my Wiki entry (which I promptly lost). All this while becoming one of Modjaji’s lead editors, working on many excellent novels presenting African women’s stories front and centre.
The story “Keeping” that became the basis of An Island was shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) prize, and I remember working on it with Bongani Kona and Efemia Chela (then the editing mentees), and presenting it as an example of what to do as an editor when confronted with an apparently perfect piece of writing. One amusing thing is that Bongani sent it back to her so buffed, it glittered – at which Karen herself promptly nuked a cliché she had found in the last paragraph. We were all so mesmerised by her writing that we missed it!
Next, Karen came on board as one of the Hotel Africa (another SSDA anthology) editors, and I have just found hundreds of emails from her showing the care and attention she lavished on those stories, the thought she put into the feedback she gave the writers. Those anthologies (the brainchildren of writer Rachel Zadok, who founded the project) are nurseries for fresh talent, and it’s exciting to wonder who and what Karen sparked or nurtured in the process.
Meanwhile, I did her interview when we launched her beautiful, delicate debut collection of poems Space Inhabited by Echoes (Holland House Press) at the glorious independent bookstore, The Book Lounge, and she brought me gifts all the way from Brazil, where she lives with her husband. I think of her every time I wear my Girl From Ipanema sandals or use my salad spoons with their carved and painted toucan handles.
All this, and she’s consistently been a loyal friend – I miss our meetings, often with Simon Sephton, of the Green Beans Tea Club, I’m remembering her very special and intimate wedding at her mom’s house, so many happy things and times…
This isn’t the first time she’s caught the attention of literary judges; she has an august track record (she’s won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, has been a Miles Morland Fellow, and was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize). But this time, pandemic and all, it feels special. Her work falls into the bleak but with empathy category, and she is that rare gem, a writer who crafts, then polishes, every single sentence. Also, her range is extraordinary: she’s good at everything she writes, whether it’s a short story, a historical novel, autobiographical exploration, a poem, a fable.
I also want to congratulate Damon Galgut on making the Booker longlist – again! It’s been a really proud day to be a member of the South African booky community. Also: long live small/indie publishers (and booksellers), long live!
How to get An Island in South Africa: https://karavanpress.com/tag/an-island/
How to get An Island in the UK: https://www.hhousebooks.com/books/an-island/
How to get Damon’s The Promise: https://www.europaeditions.com/…/9781609456580/the-promise
How to get Nadifa Mohammed’s The Fortune Men: https://www.amazon.com/Fortune-Men-Nadifa-Mohamed-ebook/dp/B08KVPK5Q8