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GLAM Book Chat: Jolyn Phillips

Text: Zainab Slemang van Rijmenant; Photography: Courtesy images

June 2, 2016

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A small town girl from the West Coast in Cape Town, Jolyn Phillips is a rare voice in South African literature. So it’s hard to believe that Tjieng Tjang Tjerries & Other Stories is her first book. GLAMOUR sat her down to learn more about her and her unique writing voice.

1 When did you decide to become a writer?

I don’t know whether it was a decision or a dormant truth that awakened when I was in search of healing. I certainly knew that I loved literature but to assume the role of a writer is something I wouldn’t dare dream for myself before as the idea was so out there, like the shrine of presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore – only reserved for Gods. I didn’t want to be blasphemous by putting myself up there and calling myself a writer. What I do suppose I am is a storyteller. By the time I was accepted for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape, I was already writing about myself, my family, my

I suppose I am a storyteller. By the time I was accepted for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape, I was already writing about myself, my family, my neighbours and the landscape. While living in Cape Town, I missed my home of Blompark in Gansbaai, and found that the only way to remember everyone was to write.

Growing up, I was always around stories or, rather, eavesdropping when my mother had guests over for tea. I’d like to think these stories were the foundation of my storytelling journey and can still hear my mother’s voice in my head, saying, “Gaan speel buite. Moet nou nie kom tande tel nie” (Go play outside. Don’t count teeth). I’m not sure whether there is a true equivalent for “tande tel” in English, but my peers and I understood it to mean that eavesdropping was wrong – a one-way ticket to the devil – so I don’t know what will become of me now that I’ve written this book.

2 Did you have any specific influences when you were writing the stories for Tjieng Tjang Tjerries & Other Stories?

My community is my greatest influence. I would never have been able to write the way I do if I was not born in Gansbaai. My writing is accompanied by a kaleidoscope of the landscape, language, people and memories – both my own and those I am part of. I write so that I can remember and resurrect those people and moments I can’t let go of.

Studying literature has influenced my critical awareness of a plethora of narratives – African and European. My studies have made me more accountable for the words that I speak and write. This book is my letter to my hometown, but it’s also for the reader that I’ll never meet who will read the stories and see Gansbaai through the eyes of the people in them. I am influenced by a community of women – some writers, some nurturers – whose doors I can always knock on for solace and shelter.

My supervisor Dr Meg Van der Merwe also taught me that fiction stories are lies that tell the truth and that, in fact, there are many truths – it just requires one to be present enough to see the story and brave enough to write it.

3 What does your writing process entail?

I wish I could say that I keep a diary and have set writing appointments but I am never good with keeping time when it comes to writing. My writing process is very weird. I had these 13 universes living with me. I know it sounds nuts, ethereal almost,  but I was invited to tea – or sometimes got caught into argument  or saw something I’d rather not have seen from these characters – and other times I was shut out and I had to get the information by holding a glass against the wall to get the full story. Currently, my process is very different. I am rediscovering my language history, reading and taking narrative chances by just trying different forms so I can figure out my next writing journey. Tjieng Tjang Tjerries were written out of an exploration of who and what shaped me. The next journey leans towards a personal self-exploration. At the moment, words are my place of grace.

4  What are you currently reading and loving?

I am reading for pleasure and while this might sound frivolous, when your working life also deals with books, it can make your eyes go numb just looking at anything that is written in print. I thought I would never get back that innocence I had when reading but I have, and I am grateful. I am mostly reading South African fiction and nowadays I place a strong focus on Afrikaans literature from every genre. It is as though I have this thirst for Afrikaans reading that cannot be quenched. It’s like making an acquaintance with my mother tongue for the first time. I guess one could call it courting with the Afrikaans language.

I am currently loving the ability to have quiet within myself. I can hear clearly again. Last year was a tumultuous year. I was not able to write or do anything meaningful (or so I thought). At that time, I did not have the wisdom that writing is a bit like agriculture. What I experienced was that I had just harvested and that now the literary landscape needed to be tended. After harvesting, I wanted to get back to work, but writing has a different chronology, its sun sets differently. I had to go ready myself for the next seed to grow. Right now my narrative earth is ready and I am less impatient. So I am loving that writing presents itself with possibility again.

5 What are your 10 favourite books to read?

1 Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

2 The Suit by Can Themba

3 Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl

4 Dance with the Poor Man’s Daughter by Pamela Jooste

5 The Color Purple by Alice Walker

6 Beloved by Toni Morrison

7 The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

8 Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

9 Fiela se Kind by Dalene Matthee

10 Die Uitgespoeldes by Dalene Matthee

And one more: Die Ander Marta by Eleanor Baker

All the narratives of these stories have a common uniqueness to the language, like the distinctness of a fingerprint.

Writing can be as much fun as reading! Get pen to paper with Jolyn’s 10 tips for aspiring writers.

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