A few months ago I walked into The Book Lounge for the first time. Eager to buy a piece of the store's atmosphere and of Cape Town itself, I picked up a thin short story book with a sunny, brightly coloured cover. I knew nothing about Jolyn Phillps then, but felt an affinity toward this small South African book. Only later when I read it later did I realise that its size was misleading - I didn't have a book in my bag, I had a world.
Jolyn's stories mainly capture the characters of Gansbaai. Her musical, urgent phrasing is unlike anything you have read before, but it is not idiosyncratic or gimmicky. Rather, her voice pulls you instantly into her world. She answered these questions for me from somewhere in Genadendal, and I am so happy to bring more of her words to you.
1. Which was the first short story you wrote for the collection, and what inspired it?
“Fraans” was the first story I wrote. I remember the character echoed the following lines in our creative writing class “God became a ghost when I came to work on the boats in Gansbaai”. I remember it was a class on ghost stories and what I came up wasn’t a ghost but a man haunted by his past. There was something almost nihilistic about him. He was an outsider. He walked around with death and he taught me that there are things worse than death when you are forced to be alive to walk with death every day. I had no words for Fraans. There was nothing I could say and I knew it wasn’t my place to feel sorry for him. It was just my job to be his scribe. In the end he created a moment of reconciliation for himself however minute. He was the message I needed to confront my own loss. I now know that even though there had been many losses in my life it left behind a language, a musical scale that only I knew and I composed “Fraans” and the stories that would follow on the same beat.
2. When reading your stories, I felt pulled forward by your inimitable voice. Tell us about how you found your voice as a writer?
As mentioned before I really like to make use of musical vocabulary to explain my writing process and how I have come to write the way I do. I consider my language as a fictional device. I believe that it is not only a story that can be transposed to fiction. I feel the language is also a character. No voice in the collection is a solo. They are a chorus of many voices that gives the characters their quirk. Their language is not just geographical, but it also body language and spirit language. I understand this about my fragmented tongue and I wanted to find a way to express this fragmentation in my writing style. Once I accepted that having a fragmented tongue was strength I curated the words as such.
3.Your writing style is clean, yet raw and unstylised. How did you approach the editing process to achieve that effect?
The stories as published are written in an English that is Afrikaans. Some of the stories were written in Afrikaans and the translation process helped me to develop this fragmentation I mention above. I found myself sounding rather than writing. I developed a rhythm and I spent a lot of time trying to find the time signature of the written rhythm. This was a language decision I made to address those language purists that told me the language is not literary. This decision says:
For as long as you try to hold on to language, standardize you will create a language rebellion. Trying to control language is like holding on to water because water like language can mold itself into any form and it will do what it was destined to do which is to continue moving.
4. Does the subject of your PHD inform your writing in any way?
My writing informed my PhD. When I was busy with my MA in Creative Writing we were challenged to place our work in literary context. It has taught me to be accountable for my words. I also noticed that storytelling is a wonderful pedagogical method to facilitate language learning. In my own life I had struggled to express myself through the English language because I couldn’t convey the story of what I was trying to say. The moment my words had purpose in my second language, a story to tell, I was able to express myself properly.
I thought to myself: If storytelling could help me become a better writer and critical thinker (I hope) imagine what it could to those who find themselves in the same language predicament. Being a critical reader has given me a means to try and explain those ideas that come across as too ethereal (A work in progress. I tend to digress).
5. What do you love about the short story form?
Riana Scheepers writes in the Die Afrikaanse Skryfgids (2012) that there is no recipe for the short story form but that there are guidelines. She then eloquently says as long as there are writers they will constantly challenge these guidelines. The short story form is a challenging form of writing as it teaches you discipline. It remains to teach me how to sculpt words because I believe that every paragraph is a portrait of an entire universe. That is the challenge, the craft of sculpting at your writer’s voice to become a voice for your characters. You will write a thousand words in search for the one line that says everything. That is plight of the short story writer.
6.Can you share a few of your favourite short stories?
Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl
The Suit by Can Themba
Holding Back Midnight by Maureen Isaacson
I had an amazing English teacher in High School. Her literary choices for our class introduced me to South African writing. I read for the first time about stories that spoke about the country before I was born and writing about imagined realities of a new South Africa. These writers and others that belong to this literary fold imagined a freedom even though the idea of freedom remained a dystopian idea. The act of writing proved that once it was written it became a truth. This realization still gives me goose flesh when I realize I am living and reading a freedom that was once only free when it was imagined. Albert Camus says fictions are lies that tell the truth and I want to believe stories have an alchemic power to change the world. It also also reminds me of Paulo Freire’s famous words that says “to read the word is to read the world”.
7.What do you love about the current South African literary landscape?
The other day I joked to a friend there are cracks in the literary canon. The new voices that are currently propelling themselves onto the literary scene carry with it a different caliber of gunpowder. It is not in waiting for Godot. The works that I have read are all busy exploding out of the canon. This is exciting because this means that the literary landscapes are slowly but surely losing their barricades so that new voices may walk there. I for one am curious to see what will happen to these landscapes and what writers will use to propel themselves with next.
8. When did you know that you wanted to write?
When I began my writing journey I wasn’t a writer. There were stories knocking on my door. They were begging to be reconciled. In many ways it reminds me of the Greek fable of Pandora‘s Box. I had opened a box. I sometimes feel like the woman in Can Themba’s The Suit forced to walk around with her lover’s suit like an albatross. I find that a lot of writers paint an idyllic picture of the writing process. Prometheus stole fire from where Zeus had hidden it from human beings as punishment. His punishment to be chained to rock so that an eagle could eat his liver, but because of his immortality he would regenerate for his liver to be eaten by the eagle for eternity. Sometimes I do metaphorically relate to Prometheus. Words are fire. Fire is creation. In the hands of a writer a deadly combination. Writing is not all moonshine and applesauce. I know it will take a lifetime of picking up the pieces of stories to put them back in the box. Although, I have recently decided that I won’t pick them up to put them back anymore. I will allow myself to look for them and allow them toruthlessly and freely run through my imagination in the hopes that one of these days I will catch one so that I can write again.
9.Do you have any advice for new writers who want to start writing short stories?
Don’t write short stories, novels or poems.
Write the story first.
Hone your craft.
Challenge your language landscapes.
Acquire a literary ear by reading. In music repetition triumphs. In writing reading triumphs.
There is no such thing as an original word. Every word in the dictionary is there because it has been written. In music once you have to have played through all the notes, understand the theory of the music.it is only then that you can arrange and manipulate the existing notes to the rhythm of your own music.
If you do this you will find that your narrative will mold itself into what it was destined to be.
Read more about Jolyn's wonderful book, and buy it here.