As always, the reading by the featured poet will be followed by an open mic session for poets from the audience. Poets are welcome to read from their own work as well as from the work of a favourite poet.
At the start of 2021, I am surprised again by the freshness that a new year inspires. Struck by the arbitrariness of the ten … nine … eight … countdown of the second hand to one particular midnight, yet the naive hopefulness that insists on rising with the ensuing dawn.
Despite the tsunami second wave of Covid-19 that swept us in, our fearful concerns about vaccine procurement, and the violent storming of the US Congress by right-wing mobsters, one dressed bizarrely like a Davy Crocket Viking. Despite humanity’s collective horrors, and my internal echoes from this day a decade ago when my son became a paediatric brain tumour patient, there is a quickening.
Perhaps it is like Jonathan Livingston’s seagull trying to master flight, and catching an unexpected updraft.
Or Emily Dickinson’s ‘hope’, ‘the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the song without the words –’.
That liberating of the soul that I observed in my son, and those around him, when our physical surety is stripped away.
My internal little bird chirps at the sight of clear spaces in my diary, gaps which I despaired of ever conserving myself. This pandemic has pruned weeks and months that had become overgrown with obligations. Pared back a self-inflicted schedule that was like the tick-tock clock in the stomach of the crocodile that ominously pursued Captain Hook.
Yet my relief stands with a guilty conscience alongside the concurrent, living hell of healthcare workers, people struggling to breathe, or to support their families.
In his memoir A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser emerges from unimaginable personal tragedy to observe that he preferred the person he had become as a result of such loss. A paradoxical title that offended me, having felt the ugly underbelly of grief heave and repeat itself painfully in the wake of my son’s death. Until I read Sittser’s qualification that he would never in a million years have chosen this route to personal growth, would have chosen – if only one could – to remain his ignorant self with his mother, wife and daughter still alive.
‘Happy New Year’ we still messaged to others in 2021, although more soberly due to the alcohol prohibitions, the curfew, and the sobriety invoked by mounting Covid numbers and names.
My friend, a nursing sister, remembers the theory of pandemics from nursing college in the 80’s. To me it was an outdated word relegated to dusty, foxed hardcovers with blurry black and white photographs which never sell in charity bookshops.
This pandemic feels like humanity slithering down the longest snake, which I for one did not see coming on the snakes and ladders game of human history.
I punctuate my WhatsApp wishes (for now at least, before accepting, or not, the new T&C’s) with little illustrations. And suddenly remember P. B. Bear’s Birthday Party by Lee Davis. A charming children’s book from twenty years ago in which sentences were dotted with pictures – his striped pyjama top, a picnic basket, a slice of cake – instead of their corresponding words.
Who could possibly forget Ant and Bee thoughtfully organising a surprise birthday party for their friend Kind Dog, in which Angela Banner used the rebus form in the 50’s to teach her young son to read. The excitement of Ant and Bee’s invitations and preparations, the dog biscuit and pink frosting cake, Kind Dog in his new hat and kennel are happy images and feelings that have lived with me into my own middle age.
Into 2021, where we wrestle with social media privacy issues. Yet who remembers with me the old party line telephones and switchboard operators? Who watched ‘Nommer asseblief’ on SABC TV in the 70’s in which the switchboard operator doubled up as the small-town gossip?
My junior school prize-giving evenings featured, year upon year, our nicotine infused headmaster – in his mustard polo neck for the Hilton Village mist, reading from Ecclesiastes:
‘There is a time to reap, and a time to sow’, etc. That same thousands-of-years-old book that asks whether there is indeed anything new under the sun.
I find myself now, mid-late in my own story, truth be told, before a neglected sewing machine. Finding comfort in the crinkly rustle of unfolding and smoothing out pattern piece papers. The faint adrenalin rush that accompanies the no-turning-back-now snip of scissors through fabric. Those time honoured rituals of pinning and tacking. The hiss and spit of a steam iron and the singed smell of neatly pressed seams. The hum that is the vibration of the machine. And the soporific, train-like, tick tick, tick tick, tick tick of the needle as it falls and rises, falls and rises, falls and rises again.
Karavan Press co-published An Island by Karen Jennings with the UK publisher, Holland House Books.
When the UK edition of An Island appeared last year in November, this stunning novel and its author went on a blog tour, organised by Emma Welton of Damppebbles Blog Tours. Here are some highlights:
In my novel, An Island, I have attempted to engage with the dark history that many African nations share, the ramifications of which are felt to this day. Because of the complexity of the historical influences, I chose to tell the story in as simple a way as possible, using as location a small fictional island off the coast of Africa, never revealing to which country that island belongs. I dislike the pervasive western notion that Africa is a single country, an idea that reduces the vibrant cultures, societies, languages and traditions to all being one and the same. The intent behind An Island was never to take part in that reductionism. Rather, I hoped that through focusing the action of the novel on two key characters and their interactions within the confines of this small space that it would allow significant relevant historical influences to be seen as irrevocable and undeniable aspects in the life of the protagonist, but without the risk of specific events, historical figures and political policies overshadowing his thoughts, emotions and behaviour. By those means I wished to examine what the influence of such a history might be on an individual – most specifically, what might drive a seemingly ordinary person to violence?
Karen has created an atmospheric tale, one that has humanity sewn through its core. The setting of an island backdrop breathes the chill of loneliness through the chapters and the way it feels personal and raw will have the reader understanding, possibly connecting with Samuel on levels we weren’t sure we would. An Island is a truly special read, that you’ll find creeps up on you chapter by chapter. You’ll get lost in the wave of Karen’s words, in Samuel’s loss, life and grief entranced by the violence our protagonist has experienced, as well as the emotional knitting that holds the novel’s core together.
An important and astoundingly good novel … The idea for An Island came to Karen during an afternoon nap at a writers’ residency she was attending in Denmark in 2015. In her sleep, she saw an old man, fiercely defending his island against interlopers. At the time, there was a vast amount in the news about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which extended to what became known as Europe’s Refugee Crisis. There was a great global outcry against xenophobic responses and calls for humanitarian aid for Syria’s refugees. At the same time, there was almost nothing about refugees from Africa – not about what drove them to flee their nations, or what their dreadful experiences were, nor about their deaths or their futures. Karen chose to explore the relationship between refugee and landowner, but within an African setting, where xenophobia is as rife as in Europe, though it often manifests itself in different ways despite largely being born of colonialism. By reducing the action of the narrative to two characters, Karen felt that a complex issue could be rendered in simple ways that allowed for a focus on individual experiences.
STEFANIE: Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why? KAREN: Last year I read the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth century writer. I found him fascinating because of his work ethic. He had very strict rules for himself, such as getting up early every morning and writing something like 2000 words before going about his day. He would write 250 words per 15 minutes and made sure to keep a strict log of his progress. Travelling was no excuse for idleness – no matter where he was in the world, he would write, whether it was on a boat or a train, in a carriage, in the jungle, in the desert. He was “merciless”, that’s how he described his attitude to writing. If, for example, he finished writing a book, but he still had ten minutes of allocated writing time or he hadn’t fulfilled his wordcount, he would just pick up a fresh page and start a new book. Parts of this sound so mad to me, while other parts of it make sense, to a certain extent. Steinbeck, on the other hand, seems to have been quite the opposite. In his diaries that he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, he records often taking days off to hang out with friends or to enjoy the nice weather. Then he’d frenziedly work to the point of exhaustion for a few days before lounging around again. I would like to be able to sit with the two of them and have a conversation about writing practice. I imagine it would be quite fascinating, but likely a disaster. I don’t see the two of them getting on very well!
The vivid descriptions of life on the island capture the rhythm of Samuel’s days; he tends his vegetable patch, feeds the chickens and prepares his stew and while there is comforting familiarity to his life, there is also an underlying loneliness which perhaps explains why he shelters a man he knows nothing about. His resentment and fear of the outsider is entirely understandable yet also devastatingly poignant. These are two men who don’t understand each other but both are outsiders, shaped then shunned by much of a violent society because of who they are or where they come from. An Island is a powerful exploration of humanity’s complex relationship with each other, meaning the universal need to connect with others is constantly threatened by suspicion and frequently misplaced anger. Karen Jennings’ book is an affecting read – this empathetic, evocative novel is a thought-provoking look at themes which affect us all, regardless of where we come from.
Joanne Hichens’ Death and the After Parties is a story about what happens when we lose someone we love and we’re broken beyond repair.
Two weeks into lockdown, my Dad took ill. A month later, he was dead. In the months that followed, I spiralled into a dark pit of nothingness. Consumed by loss, I journeyed into the underworld, my only solace being stories about death. This is how I came across Joanne Hichens’ Death and the After Parties – a story about what happens when the matrix shifts – when we lose someone we love and we’re broken beyond repair.
Hichens writes, ‘How do we keep in mind how fast time diminishes for us, that the years left become a smaller and smaller percentage of time compared to what we have already lived?’
This is at the heart of the book – the fact that time is a narrow bandwidth. We live. We love. We lose loved ones …