Tag Archives: Karen Jennings

Review: Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings

Upturned Earth“You learn to like the taste of sand out here … It gets to a point where you don’t feel quite right without a grain or two in your mouth. After all, it’s what the miners eat, isn’t it?” With these words the new magistrate of a mining town in Namaqualand is welcomed by his predecessor. It is winter of 1886, and after an arduous journey, William Hull arrives in Springbokfontein to guard the rule of law in the desolate place. Hull is well-meaning but obtuse and naïve; it takes him a while to grasp that there is only one real authority in town, the Cape Copper Mining Company, and that his attempts at justice are also being treacherously undermined in his own home, under his very nose. The battle of wills that ensues has tragic consequences.

At the same time, Molefi Noki returns to the copper mines from his village in the Idutywa Reserve in the Transkei Territory, where he and his wife had just lost a baby after yet another difficult pregnancy and birth. Grieving and desperate, the Xhosa miner embarks on a search for his missing brother who had been sent to the notorious local jail for drunkenness and seems to have disappeared since then.

Tensions between the miners and the Company arise over working conditions and pay. After a tragedy claims many lives, the conflict escalates into outright horror. “It’s the way of the mines; you should know that well enough. How many old miners do you see walking around? … None. No miner sits by the fire in his old age with his grandchildren bouncing on his knees. It’s the same for all of us”, one of the mine workers reminds Noki.

Shattered by the Marikana Massacre of 16 August 2012, and inspired by historical sources about the Cape Copper Mining Company, Karen Jennings wrote Upturned Earth “as a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present,” as she states in her author’s notes. The novel is a sobering reminder of the roots of everything that has been going wrong in the mining industry for decades. Written from the perspectives of Hull and Noki, Upturned Earth throws a light into the darkest places of this history and shows that not much has changed, and there is so much to fight for.

Jennings is a novelist, short-story writer and a poet. Upturned Earth is her fifth book, showcasing her striking talent that is maturing with every new publication. Born in Cape Town in 1982, she currently lives in Brazil, but her creative consciousness is steeped in the African imaginary. Her latest novel is an incisive contribution to our understanding of what it means to endure a system that “no individual could ever hope to alter or redeem.”

Upturned Earth

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 13 September 2019.

CREATIVE WRITING MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITY WITH KAREN JENNINGS

Karen JenningsKaren Jennings is a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, they were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for Karen. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of her birth, a place that she loves and had hoped always to be part of. This year she started to look at her life and consider how she could realistically be involved in the future of her country, in even the smallest of ways, at the distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist her. She was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, she has decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.

For more details click here: CREATIVE WRITING MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITY WITH KAREN JENNINGS

And here are two of my reviews of Karen Jennings’s work:

Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

Space Inhabited by Echoes by Karen Jennings

If you are an aspiring writer, please apply. This is a rare opportunity to work with someone who is passionate about what we do and who truly cares.

 

Review: Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

travelsTravelling in India, Karen Jennings visits an art gallery where “holograms of rare gold artefacts line the wall. A notice declares that precious items might be stolen and so holograms are the next best thing. They are fuzzy, unclear. It is like looking at an object at the bottom of a dirty pond.” It is a striking image that made me think of writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. In the hands of a mediocre writer, recollections and artefacts can become like these blurred holograms. But Karen Jennings is not a mediocre writer.

Travels with My Father is a deeply engaging book in which Jennings attempts to come to grips with the death of her father and the memories and records she has of his life and their relationship. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows what a merciless and curious creature grief can be. Jennings’s father died of cancer, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. Soon after the father’s death, the mother decides to sell the “big house” they lived in and Jennings falls in love with Juliano. The book describes the processes involved in these endings and beginnings the family tries to navigate in the wake of the tragedy.

There is anger and silence, depression and incredulity. These are not uncommon reactions, but every story of grief is intimate and individual, too. Jennings delves into her family history and explores the many journeys that define her own life and the lives of her relatives, some of whom are larger than life characters.

During a visit in Tasmania where her uncle and aunt live, she feels like “a prisoner serving my time.” She plans her own death. Her family surprises her with a weekend away. Together they visit Port Arthur, a former convict settlement, a place which had been her father’s favourite when he’d explored the Tasman Peninsula years earlier. Jennings embeds her own struggles with depression and isolation into the story of the settlement and the mental illnesses convicts suffered during imprisonment. At the same time she weaves family tales of addiction, abuse, and ghost haunting into the narrative.

Trying to understand her experiences, she makes fascinating, often unexpected, links between the various stories. And while she enquires into the private with a fine brush, she paints a much larger picture. In 1982, her father, who used to be teacher, played the role of Captain von Trapp in an adaptation of The Sound of Music and received a certificate for the performance on the day Jennings was born. Years later, sitting in the school hall where the musical had been staged, she remembers a man “in a polyester green suit, smelling of soap and armpits. A church-going man who touched girls, who stole, who was a bigot. A man who hated my father.” Her father dared to stand up to this man who was his superior, but was professionally crushed as a result. He later wrote a poem about his retirement: “After 35 years / What I need is / The screaming ecstasy of silence.” Jennings travels to Mondsee in Austria to follow in the footsteps of the musical family and she meditates on the disappointment we feel “in our parents … That they had to live a life of smallness.”

Her father did not wish for a funeral or a memorial: “He wanted to be cremated, scattered, and then forgotten.” He made these instructions in writing, but they were found long after his death and a service at which hundreds of people paid their respects. One of them was a pupil her father had taught in the 1970s. He sends her a letter chronicling how her father had changed his life for the better. The memories of others and their gestures of gratitude make her realise that her “pity is meaningless” and her “bitterness misplaced”.

She visits the hospital where her father died and speaks to a nurse who tells her that “tidying of the body is her favourite part of the job.” She sees it as “a gift” that she can “give to the people who are left behind.” Seeing her deceased husband, Jennings’s mother is reminded of Lenin and their visit to his mausoleum in Moscow. Jennings relates the story of Lenin’s embalming and how viewing the body had been a “highlight of the trip” for her father. Travels with My Father becomes an embalming of sorts.

Jennings remembers how she taught a class at her father’s school after his retirement. A student of his asks her to tell them stories like her father used to. She refuses and gets nowhere with the teaching. When she comes home frustrated, her father reprimands her: “You should have told them a story. I always told them about my travels through other countries. At least that way they learnt something about life outside of their own. Most of them have very small lives, you know, and no promise of them getting bigger.”

Storytelling has that potential. “We are all guilty of … dismantling the past, trying to create something new, something we consider to be an improvement”, she writes. “Even in this book there are memories I have created from the rubble of others.” Jennings’s stories in Travels with My Father are not fuzzy holograms, but vivid art objects she conjures up in the reader’s mind.

Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 11 November 2016.