The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.
Jolyn Phillips works as a word-vagrant in Cape Town. She sometimes stays in Gansbaai where she was born and sometimes in Bellville and Cape Town with a big backpack with stuff in. Her family calls her a professional student because she has not left university after graduating so many times. They also believe she doesn’t ‘really’ work but mostly they are proud that she is now a millionaire because she published a book called Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and other stories published by Modjaji Books. If she is not scratching around for words she performs as a jazz vocalist, theater performer, educator and poet.
The Spark for Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and Other Stories
In 2009 there was a poster up in the English Department at the University of the Western Cape. A new module would be launched at third year level in 2010 called Creative Writing. The requirement was that you submit 15 poems, two short stories or a chapter from a novel. The then due date was the 30thth of October 2009, submit before 4pm. I read this notice a month or so before and it was printed on a neon purple coloured poster that just glared at me whenever I was in the department. There were these poems I wrote in High School. A lot has happened in my life since those poems and four years later those were the only words in existence that did not have red marks crossed through them, with comments like “check grammar”, “you are misinterpreting the question”, and “these mistakes should have been resolved in High School”. I realised how silent I had become and that that the black letters on the white pages gave me literary migraines. I handed in anyway. Unfortunately, I handed it in with a red cover page in a peculiar font because first impressions count. I was accepted. The module would be taught in the second semester.
In the following year my story visited me way before I started the module. It presented itself with challenges that almost cost me the ability to come back to university. I am a first generation graduate that meant that during vacations I was working at Spar packing packets of Simba chips, deodorants, cutting cheese and Bokkie polony. The fees had increased. I was helping out at home. NSFAS funding was delayed. People in Bellville always say that when a train is delayed it might as well be cancelled but I came back and sat in the NSFAS lines, sat in the Financial Aid lines because I knew going home was not an option. I started to write about these experiences, I felt something stole away at me, it made me quiet, it made me enough- just enough. I was from a small town. This was as good as it gets, here at university. I had no family here, I felt different, sounded different and I once mispronounced Addison and said Edison in English Lit class and there were giggles and gawks. Plaasjapie.
When I sat down in our first Creative Writing lecture I also sat down with a lot of insecurities. I looked at the rahrah-boys at the back, the DKNY girls in front of me and the lecturer talking about how excited she was about helping us find our voices and sharing our stories. Our first assignment was to go and ask the oldest family member we knew to tell us their oldest story. It took me a week to work up the courage to tell the lecturer that I was not able to do this task.
‘Why,’ she asked?
‘I am not from Cape Town. I have no family here. No one to ask’
‘Surely you can phone home?’
‘Ok. Yes. Thank you.’
It is difficult to get hold of my mother. She keeps the phone in her closet. My mother and I spoke to each other when she remembers to call. She once mentioned that she prays for me and that, that didn’t require a phone call. She had faith that her prayers were being answered. So I decided to make up the interview with my mother. How would the lecturer know I am making this up? I just had to make it believable, I thought to myself. Just make it believable.
In my household the only family tree I have ever known was that of silence and resentful eyes, so I wrote my favourite day. It is my mother and I sitting on the stoep in the squinting sun. My mother is holding a cup of coffee in her hand. I have a stick in my hand making circles, looking for toktokkies. I am not making eye contact but I ask her in a so- by –the- way manner.
‘Ma, what is your oldest story?’
She replied, ‘dis grootmens goed…’
Since this story only amounted to a couple of lines I started again. I rewrote my mother.
This mother had no glasses. But I kept her blonde hair that I imagined was real gold, that if she had any sense she could sell it for a better life. This mother was tired but hopeful. She would tell me everything I needed to know to pass this assignment.
I asked again. Although this “I” is also different, this “I” is the twelve year old me and wears manga- shorts, kappalangs, a big blue shirt and Jesus-wants-me-for-a-sunbeam hair.
I asked again, ‘Ma what is your oldest story?’ The answer I imagined was born out of torn pieces of stories I took with me to Cape Town, some mine, some gossiped, some ours.
She doesn’t answer my question but she says, ‘you know I got a borrowed dress. I didn’t even have a honeymoon. It was the worst day of my life. If I had known what I knew now, I would have run away. You know my mother ran away. Isn’t that funny? Where have you heard of that, a vrou wat gat brood koep?’
In the same breath this rewritten mother shouts at the children in the street.
‘Get out of that blooming kwartel boom! Your asses wil be on fire, if you- get out of that tree I say!’
Suddenly, a next door neighbour peers over her double-hung door and shouts in a high pitched question-shout voice,
‘Hoeit! Dingetjie-kind! Get out of that tree! Go buy bread by Buy and Motjie.’
The child gets out of the tree runs to the neighbour’s house. Takes the money wroeep, he skedaddle. The three of us follow him with our eyes up the street until he disappears.
The rewritten me watches how my rewritten mother gets up and walks over to the fence, hakkies-draad connected to fence posts, looking like a stave with bar breaks covered with fish net, a thin barrier dividing her and her neighbour’s yard. They meet here every day after their morning soapies and tjie-tjie about this and that, church, birthdays, funerals, how they must stretch a R10 to make ends meet and by the way Santjie’s boyfriend left her hoog en droog – ag shame – She must ma apply for the Mandela money, I hear them say.
They both laugh-shrill ‘fool me once’ and goes back in to their houses and prepare cabbage stew I can smell still sitting there in the squinting sun, still sitting here in Cape town.
In the same way I went to that hakkies-draad fence to gather my characters there. Sometimes I was the child eavesdropping on my characters’ lives. Other times I was bothered by their unruly and messy existence. Most days I wished there were things I didn’t know about them. Other times they would insult me and say,
‘Hey watse kak skryf jy! Give the pen here. I will write myself.’