Joylyn Phillips grew up in Blompark, Gansbaai with the scent of fynbos in her nose, the sound of the sea in her ears and the salty music of her community’s spoken language on her tongue.
She watched everything, she heard everything, she absorbed everything and when the time was right, the people of her childhood came knocking on her door, grabbing her pencil and writing themselves and their landscape into a wider world through the rhythm and richness of their speech.
When Jolyn’s first book, Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and Other Stories first hit the book stores in 2016, she was hailed as an exciting new voice in South African literature, breaking through existing language barriers and allowing her vibrant characters – ordinary fisherfolk, grandmothers, aunties, uncles, pregnant teenagers – to speak for themselves in the cadences of their mother tongue. Although the book is written in English, the characters speak in their own home-grown patois, a spicy mixed masala containing many different language roots.
Each of the 13 short stories focuses on an individual or a group of characters with a specific tale to tell. While the stories are liberally leavened with humour, they are linked by an underlying thread of sadness; these characters are all seeking redemption, healing, release from demons. For them, the exuberance of life walks hand-in-hand with death – of dignity, spirit, hope or physical being – yet each one fiercely holds on to the right to choose the path they will travel. Their haunting portraits are painted by Jolyn with a deep sense of compassion, against the light and shadow of their personal landscapes.
Poet, Antjie Krog summed up her response to the book when she wrote “An impressive debut that brings across voices never heard before in South African English – not only in rhythm and timbre, but plumbing the unspoken. With such a remarkable ear, Jolyn Phillips is a young writer to watch”.
And indeed she has been watched. She is a Mandela Rhodes Scholar and has been recognised with prestigious awards for both her publications. She was shortlisted for the UJ prize for debut creative writing and won the Human and Social Sciences Award for Fiction (single author) for her first book. Her second book, published in 2017, is an Afrikaans poetry anthology, Radbraak and this has won the UJ Debut Prize for Creative Writing.
At a recent talk and poetry reading in her home town of Gansbaai, Jolyn emphasised the deep connection she retains with the people of her community; it is where she comes to dream. Despite holding a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of the Western Cape (in English, a language at first so intimidating that it literally left her tonguetied) and is working towards a transdisciplinary PhD which explores the epic in Afrikaans, she never strays too far from her roots.
“It was the whole community of Gansbaai that raised me,” she says, “and it is to them that I constantly return for inspiration – especially when my ego is running away with me. I lecture to a class of 169 First Year students at UWC, I have been interviewed on TV and radio and for magazines and newspapers, and have spoken and sung at festivals, but when I come home, I am very soon reminded of who I really am…”
She tells of a recent experience in her home town when she encountered one of the anties on the street. “’Hello dinges (whatsisname)’ she said, ‘I hear you’ve written a book now.’ I responded as modestly as possible that, yes, I had. Then she rummaged around in the bodice of her dress and hauled out a R50 note, which she handed to me. Shame, I thought, she probably thinks I need the money, but no… ‘Ag, just go and buy antie a bread please.’ And that put me firmly in my place.”
Apart from her writing and her community, Jolyn has two other passions, all interconnected: the Afrikaans language and music. She reads dictionaries and she collects accents like others collect wine. She describes the language as a lappieskombers (a patchwork quilt), of so many other languages, each with its own history and tradition. Language, she says, is so tied up with identity that they cannot be separated and therefore none of them can possibly be considered better than another. She has no patience with people who, ashamed of their roots, try to adopt some bland form of accent.
The title of her poetry anthology Radbraak refers to the mediaeval torture wrack, which literally pulled victims apart, limb from limb. That is what she attempts to do through her poems: break the language open to reveal its very essence. When she wrote Tjieng Tjang Tjerries, she says she was often woken in the middle of the night by one of her characters who wanted to share, confess or dictate some aspect of their story. At the same time, she was being interrupted at the most inopportune moments by a word or a phrase or a rhythm that had to be scribbled down as a poem.
Jolyn often talks about her writing in musical terms. She first fell in love with music, and especially jazz and boeremusiek, when she was a pupil at the Emil Weder High School in Genadendal and now she plays and sings whenever she can at Music and Literary Festivals. It felt completely natural, therefore, to set some of her poems to music and to sing them, rather than speak them. It is no surprise that she sees her role models as performers like Koos du Plessis, Laurika Rauch and Amanda Strydom, for whom the lyric is as important as the music.
She worked with Jason Jacobs to create a theatre piece based on some of the stories from Tjieng Tjang Tjerries, adding elements of music, which she wrote, and choreographed movement. It was performed to great acclaim at this year’s Woordfees in Stellenbosch.
Having achieved so much in her 28 years and having broken through so many barriers, Jolyn feels she has come to a crossroads. She is wildly excited to be participating in the Festival voor het Afrikaans in Amsterdam in the Netherlands in September, together with some of South Africa’s luminaries in the fields of Afrikaans music, theatre and literature.
“And then we’ll see”, she laughs. “I can’t just go on dreaming; I have to have medical aid, too”. To quote from one of her stories, Ouma’s smile is so forever-and-ever. I think everything will turn out for the best soon enough.
Whatever direction she takes, it’s bound to be packaged in the words and music that feed her soul. And one thing is for sure, this quiet child of the sea and the fynbos will always remain a Gansbaaier in marrow and bone.
Tjieng Tjang Tjerries is published by Modjadji Books and Radbraak (which is currently sold out) by Human & Rossouw.