A large group of book lovers and friends of the Kuils River library turned out on Wednesday morning August 24 to hear author Jolyn Phillips speak about her life in a small fishing community, which inspired the blended Afrikaans-English vernacular that resonates from the pages of her maiden book Tjing Tjang Tjerries and Other Stories.
Phillips hails from Gansbaai, but she has long been an “honourary resident” of Kuils River, as her best friend, Kim Whitman, lives there. Ms Whitman is the daughter of senior librarian Wilhelmina Whitman, who invited the author to meet with readers as part of the library’s Women’s Month programme.
Growing up in a small fishing community, Phillips is not only a good storyteller in the written word but also in the spoken word. She related how she turned the tide of traditionalism when she broke away from her family who live in Blompark, Gansbaai, and moved to Cape Town where she studied for her Bachelor of Arts at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). “It was kind of the accepted thing when you finish school to join the community, and in 2004 I said I was going and left.”
After completing her first degree, she was awarded a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship in 2014 and is working on her doctorate in language education at UWC. Since 2012, she has been a familiar face in the Open Book and the Franschhoek Literary festivals and just returned from the McGregor Poetry Festival, held last weekend (August 26 to 29).
Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and Other Stories, published by Modjaji Books, was released recently to much acclaim, judging not only from the immediate response of the audience at the library when she read snippets but also from reviews that hail it as a “damn fine collection of stories” and “the prettiest collection ever”.
Describing how she started putting down her experiences, she said, “I read the stories in my head, and for two years the 13 characters I created ran around in my head. Many people I had lost, I brought back. Dit was hulle oomblik innie son,” she said.
“Every writer has a road to follow,” said Phillips, whose other passions include music and translation. “I’m comfortable in Afrikaans, but my academic side is also English. The voice carries with it the timbre and melody of Afrikaans.”
In the stories, she said, she wanted to introduce her home and people’s lives, captured in the way they speak. “Something about the way people speak is more than just the words. I wanted the rhythm to come through. As I wrote, I sounded it out loud, keeping words in that enabled a kind of cultural translation,” she said. “My love of Afrikaans has a lot to do with my background.”
Quoting Aristotle, who said, “Memories are the scribe of the soul,” she said, “My memory was doing the writing for me.” Reading from the short story, The Photograph, a poignant memory of a childhood peppered with both pain and pleasure, her memories came through as she described An Molla: “ ‘In met djou,’ she said, ‘daai is groot mens goed. You and Marelize must grate polony for the kosbakke’.
“I smiled because I knew she only cared, even though sometimes she came across as strict. Sometimes I would ask Liewe Jesus if I could trade my Ma for Liesie’s Ma. I wished I had such a nice ma like her’s. Ma Emme said she was a weglê eier from a white man. She had pitch-black hair like Sneeuwitjie’s and she wears her hair in a long vlegsel that hanged like a horse’s tail behind her back, and she is not brown like us, she is amper white like a real boer.
“I liked An Molla’s house. It was always full of laughter and they liked singing for Jesus, and on Fridays I would go to youth practice and wear skirts and doekies that you tie like a bolla behind your head.”
After her recital she said, “My memory was doing the writing for me.This book is a collection of my soul, who I am as a human being, and how I connect to the people I come from. And when you write, you read and reread; you open yourself up.”