Jolyn Phillips captures the spirit of “Cannery Row” in her stories about a local fishing dorp, writes Diane Awerbuck for the Sunday Times
Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and other stories
Jolyn Phillips (Modjaji Books)
Jolyn Phillips’s spine must be sore. If her debut collection Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and other stories is even a quarter true, there is a lot resting on her shoulders. She has taken on the task of recording the language, loves and losses of the people of the depressed fishing town of Gansbaai — not unlike her character Mollie in “The Fire”, who has assigned herself the role of soul guide to the newly dead.
Gansbaai being the perverse place it is, not all the deceased are ready to move on, and this works as a metaphor for the state of the country, too. Some shades prefer to hole up in a half-built house, smoking dagga: “Sakie and Delie cannot be taken over because when Mollie tried to take them to Holy Ghost they were too drunk and Holy Ghost banished them.”
The spirits are unrepentant. “There is fokkol of starting over man. Forget about it. We are already dead.”
But Phillips does make a case for starting over, with a lustiness and tenacity that energises her writing. Phillips makes no apologies for the way that geography and industry throw people together and keep them rubbing along, each thinking that her story is a secret from her neighbour. In this collection there is neither the false romance of poverty nor pity for its depredations, which — hallelujah! — puts Tjieng Tjang Tjerries more in a class with Steinbeck’s Cannery Row than Rive’s Buckingham Palace, District Six.
She fathoms the old story of addiction and apathy, but goes beyond that. The themes centre on responsibility and fidelity, mostly for the female characters, who bear the brunt of social inequality. Every character is at some crossroads or some revelation: what they do after their discoveries is what matters.
Phillips’s compassion for her characters shines through the sea mist. Even the pieces that are sketches rather than fully developed stories are exasperated but affectionate: consider “Lelik”, a story ostensibly about a dog that turns out to be about a man. He’s drunk so much that he has “forgotten how to be human”.
Phillips’s dialogue feels real but will annoy purists. She trots out cheerfully brutal idioms: (childbirth is “in like ’n piesang; out like ’n pynappel”) but also writes with a clear lyricism that seems to be plain speaking but is actually a careful weaving of tone and place. It slips a couple of times into caricature. Her writing otherwise soars and swoops, from the barely contained hysteria of the soap opera “Secrets” to the quiet, desperate strength of “The Fisherman”, when a girl tries to take over her father’s place on the boats.
Look out for Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and other stories, with its fantastic, ambiguous cover, its peculiarly dire proofreading, and its sense that something new and lovely is being made.
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