By Ian Currie
Karen Jayes is water.
As she speaks her right hand moves. A small arc from the bottom of her neck to the table in front of her. It pours with her words. Each finger led by the hum in her voice.
Her eyes are still. A smile breaks easily across her face. Her left arm is always crossed on her lap. Resting.
“I grew up in the water, I understand the feel of water – between your fingers, the softness of it when you dive in, the silence, the breathing…”
Sentences trickle from her lips and fill the space. There is a quiet command in her voice. Her presence pulls you toward her. She regards you as if you are the only interesting thing in the world.
From a time before Jayes was what she is today – a critically acclaimed novelist and journalist – she found a certain wonder in stories, and particularly South African stories.
As a student at conservative Stellenbosch University during the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Jayes began to find companionship in writing.
“I was alone. I was moving in a weird space, I was sporty and around jocks all the time, and yet I was having this huge awakening in myself and I didn’t have anywhere to go with it. So I wrote poetry.”
In her largely conservative Afrikaans surroundings during the Commission the general response to the proceedings ranged from denial to outright mockery. However, Jayes listened to all the testimonies, and dove into transcripts, fascinated and appalled at the stories they produced. The commission deeply impacted her and watered the seed of her storytelling interest. In a narrow-minded context, her world was blown wide open.
“I remember the image of the women hired to comfort women. Imagine being hired as a comforter. That was their job, to comfort the people who broke down. That struck me as a young person – why are they all black women? Where are the white women? They should be there comforting.”
As a journalist who has worked and stayed in many countries around the world, Jayes began to feel the world echoing itself in the places she worked and in the stories she told.
Settled now, in Constantia, Cape Town in the Western Cape of South Africa, Jayes continues to look for stories that echo elsewhere. “The local now is universal,” Jayes said, “A story about a burglary in downtown Joburg will echo with someone who lives in Rio Di Janeiro.”
This outlook leads to a certainty in her beliefs. Jayes knows that her work is relevant. She knows that it is important.
Jayes is a single mother who has two children in primary school. She works as a contributing editor in the city – to reach her job she takes an hour-long train ride – before returning home in the afternoon to fetch her children from school. When she was writing her first novel, For The Mercy of Water, she would work on it after her children had gone to sleep, from 8pm to midnight, five nights a week.
Towards the end of the three years that it took to write the novel, the culmination of her project coincided with a culmination in her lifelong quest to find answers to a restless spirit.
Jayes engaged with Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism and Buddhism without finding what she was looking for.
She found those answers in Islam.
Through numerous events Jayes found a calling to Islam, and she has since committed fully to the religion. It grounds her life and contributes to her peaceful presence.
“I have a very full life so being Muslim kind of anchors it.”
Jayes anchors her life around the five daily prayers that Islam requires. It is through her faith that her numerous other roles make sense to her.
Of particular interest to Jayes is the significance of words in the Muslim faith, “poetry is very important in Islam,” and she is considering reading for a Masters/PhD in Early Arabic Female Literature.
Towards the end of 2013 Jayes travelled to Israel and the West Bank, Palestine, where she was struck by how highly people regarded South Africans.
Palestinians, suffering under abuses that Nelson Mandela compared to South African injustice under Apartheid, were excited to have a South African in their midst.
“The words ‘South Africa’ still have a very strong ring overseas, especially in countries like Palestine,” Jayes was invited into the homes of Palestinians and developed relationships with Palestinians, which has made the recent Israeli-Palestine conflict exceptionally difficult for her.
When she returned home, Jayes faced external pressure over her expressed and public opinions on the situation in Gaza.
“After I wrote a piece for the Mail and Guardian, all my photographs from my trip were removed from my house. I had to move twice because I had evidence that people were in my house.”
Jayes had to decide whether or not she would continue to write about her experiences and opinions with regard to the conflict. She decided to continue writing.
“I believe in the value of the one who records history. And later the one who contextualises it and interprets it within an honest framework. That’s important to preserve our society and allow people to continue learning from one another, to bridge gaps that are often deemed unbridgeable.”
The role of the storyteller and the role of the story are cores of Jayes life as an artist second only to her faith. She knows that there is value in journalism, in novel-writing, in poetry, painting and play. She urged that the message of faith and trust in the role of the story be spread from her.
“You don’t need to be afraid. If you’re treading the right path and you’re doing things with good intentions, I firmly know and believe that the doors will open and you will get opportunities.”
Jayes speaks quietly. She laughs quietly. Her eyes are soft and gentle. She has found her faith and is unafraid to wield her unique perspective and expression.
The world buzzes frantically outside. Trucks. Hadedas. Doors slamming. People shouting.
Karen Jayes doesn’t seem to hear any of it. She sits quietly and waits for the world to echo again.
Ian Currie: If you could take me through a general day in your life?
Karen Jayes: I work for a magazine called ‘Earthworks’.
I wake up at about 5 and then I do my morning prayers with my children, and then we have breakfast and get in the car and go to school. I get the train into town and I work from 9 until 1. I get back on the train, do the school run, back home for homework.
In the evenings I’ll write.
Ian Currie: Why is it important that South Africans be exposed to South African art?
Karen Jayes: There is a trend, especially among writers, to emulate foreign forms of writing. I think that can be good, but at the same time there are so many other stories in South Africa that need to be told. By stories I don’t just mean literature. It is very important that when we study literature we look locally at what’s going on: it gives you validation, but it also gives you an argument. It is important as an artist to have an argument; if I didn’t then I wouldn’t have had the anger I had when I wrote the book.
Ian Currie: If you had to suggest a few novels that a person should read before visiting South Africa in order to gain insight into the country, which ones would you suggest?
Karen Jayes: ‘The Life and Times of Michael K’ by J.M. Coetzee.
‘My Traitor’s Heart’ by Rian Malan.
Any book by Dambudzo Marachera. He was actually Zimbabwean, living in South Africa, and he writes on male violence and aggression. It’s quite gritty, and difficult to read, but it really is good.
Anything by Deon Meyer.
Also some short stories, perhaps by Bessie Head and Pauline Smith.
For the Mercy of Water is published by Penguin, recommended R190, and was the winner of the 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.