NAME: Jemma Wayne Kattan
DEGREE OBTAINED: SPS, 1999
COLLEGE: Newnham College
"I have never felt so clever as I did during those three years at Cambridge, nor that there was so much I didn’t know.
As for many, my first year was a blur of introductions – supervisors, lecturers, gowns, formal halls, buildings, bicycles, sports teams, drama productions, clubs whose party invitations appear mysteriously in pigeonholes. Sometimes it was a heady mix of excitement. Sometimes I missed my mum. But underpinning it all was the study, which I loved always. I still remember that first term ploughing through Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and grappling with Weber’s ideas about charismatic authority. They are concepts I think about even now, though my knowledge today feels less furnished in quotes than it once was.
It wasn’t however until I elected the Politics pathway in my second year that I felt I’d truly found my niche. We were going deeper now, wrestling with ideas, and in my first Machiavelli lecture with the incomparable Quentin Skinner, I felt myself doing this in new ways, pulling together strands of previously disparate thoughts, wishing I had even a thimble of his knowledge of the political symbolism in art. It was inspiring, galvanizing. In my third year I took the Revolution module. It was hard, I’d been warned, and having done Maths at A Level I could have danced through Statistics. But Revolution was China and Russia, and everything that interested me, and lectures were led by professors Dunn and Barber, so eminent that in many of our essays it was they who we quoted. I loved these lectures. Under scrutiny with only six or seven of us in the group, and scheduled at an inconvenient 3pm on a Friday afternoon, nevertheless, I reveled in them. And that feeling of inhaling knowledge, of listening and learning and reading and gathering, collecting ideas until full to the brim and only then releasing them into a flurry of exams or 2am essays, that was a joy I discovered at Cambridge and pursue still.
My first job was as a journalist. It seemed natural to me to combine two of my passions – writing and politics – but after just a year as a staff reporter at The Jewish Chronicle, I found rogue ideas nagging, fictional ones, and in a determination to explore them I decided to go freelance. While working on ‘the novel’ I happened upon a totally different idea for a non-fiction book - a tongue-in-cheek survival guide to being a grownup. Whimsically I wrote a chapter, a synopsis, and sent it off to three publishers. Within a fortnight, one of them had made an offer. It’s not quite the fairy tale it sounds. The book slipped onto bookshelves a year later with barely a whisper, but it was a beginning. It got me a meager advance, an agent, and a short decade on, my first novel was published.
In the intervening years there has been much journalism, including various articles for the Huffington Post that initiated me into the world of trolls. There was a play in Hampstead. Short fiction. The arrival of two children.
And my third baby, After Before, was finally published in 2014 by a superb but very small publisher called Legend Press. A wonderful editor there was the first I’d found to take a chance on my writing, which time and again had been described to me as falling between commercial and literary, and was therefore hard for PR types to market. But Legend published it – a tale of three women, consumed by different betrayals in their pasts, stuck because of them, until their lives interweave and they are forced to confront their demons. One of these women was a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, and during my research, I found myself reaching for the political, the universal, as well as the intimate, and utilizing all those skills I had nurtured at Cambridge – collecting ideas again, gathering, inhaling, and then releasing. To my delight, the book was received well and amongst other awards was longlisted for the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
My second novel, Chains of Sand, was published this June. Again, it channels the political and the personal. Located amidst the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, it traces the stories of two men: one an Israeli soldier desperate to move to London, the other a British Jew longing for Tel Aviv. A third strand reveals the forbidden Jerusalem love of a Jewish girl and a Muslim man. Again, research for this book was heavy, and the themes are highly political - it explores racism in Israel, antisemitism in the UK, hatred, loyalty, feminism, truth. I spoke to IDF soldiers, I spoke to immigrants in all directions, I read, I watched.
Time soon to inhale again…"
Links to Jemma's books: