Tjieng Tjang Tjerries by Jolyn Phillips

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Tjieng, Tjang, Tjerries is a short story collection that lives up to its intriguing name. Yet all is not as it seems. The reader discovers in the title story from which language the phrase ‘tjieng, tjang, tjerries’, is derived; or do they? The stories have a large sprinkling of the colloquial variant of Afrikaans that is spoken by Cape ‘Coloured’ people.  If you know what this accent sounds like, it is difficult not to hear it in your head as you read.  Language is indeed akin to being a character in these interlinked stories.

The stories centre around colourful characters that live in Gansbaai, a small coastal town in between Hermanus and Agulhas, where the author grew up. Her intimate knowledge of the community is evident, as is her insight into what lies beneath the surface. Tough lives give people tough exteriors that belie the love they have for one another. Small triumphs seem to outweigh the hardship in families that experience violence and sorrow.

The sense of place is ever present; the fynbos, the ocean, the fishing boats, ‘kapstyl’  cottages and the weather. The writing appeals to the senses in the sound of “seagulls swearing and “the smell of fish guts”, the morning mist, ‘bak brood and moer koffie’. Most of all, the characters are real, flesh and blood people, depicted through their dialogue and relationships more than through their appearance.

There are thirteen stories, none of which are very long. The focus is mainly on different family relationships and how tragedy, secrets, alcohol and poverty affect their lives. Even though most of the stories are about different people, nevertheless, they seem interlinked through their proximity to each other. The matter-of-factness and humour inherent in the dialogue counters the sadness of the different events. The stories range from the death of a loved son to the ‘dronk verdriet’ of a runaway husband; from the girl that schoolteachers thought was stupid because she could not see, to the girl whose parents die and those who look after her, abuse her; to mention but a few. The one that pulls at my heartstrings the most is The Fisherman. It tells of Andrea, a young woman who did not want to be relegated to working in the fish factory because her calling was to be a fisherman like her Pappa, not a fish packer.

Quite a few of the stories are from the perspective of a child. The naivete of children who are exposed to much that they do not fully understand exposes the goings on of the adults. There is Mollie who is ‘n bietjie mal’ (a bit mad), Hennie who ‘murdered all his brain cells with the papsak’ (box wine) and Ouma, who loves funerals and gives funeral crashers ‘the stink eye’.

Trevor Noah said in an interview that Coloured in South Africa says more about a culture than it says about a race. I know this is a highly contested area as it speaks to identity; some reject the use of the word ‘Coloured’ while others use it with pride. These short stories celebrate the expressiveness of the language, a bearer of the culture, and are an absolute delight.

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