Jolyn Phillips

Language and history are powerful components of identity. Zimbabwean novelist and lawyer, Petina Gappah and South African poet and songwriter, Jolyn Phillips, spoke about reclaiming history and language here at the Winternachten festival in the Hague this weekend. Gappah revisits the figure of David Livingstone through a narrative that focuses on his death rather than his life. While Phillips uses her considerable talents as a singer/ songwriter to reclaim her native Afrikaans tongue from its links to apartheid South Africa.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light has been twenty years in the making. Inspired by the historical fiction of Hilary Mantel (also featured here in Arts Talk), Gappah spent years researching the death of British explorer, David Livingstone and the lives of all those involved in transporting his body through central Africa to the Mozambiquan coast. This was in order that it could be shipped back to Britain for burial. The Zimbabwean writer explains that she wanted to use the well known historical figure of Livingstone, the man who ‘discovered’ the Victoria Falls, through the eyes of his servants and subordinates, who accompanied his body on the long 9 month journey to the East African coast.

‘David Livingstone was a fantastic gossip!’ – Petina Guppah

The story is narrated by Halima, Livingstone’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, a deeply religious freed slave. Gappah explains that she used Livingstone’s own diaries – ‘David Livingstone was a fantastic gossip’, she tells us good humouredly and this resulted in lots of details about those who accompanied him on his numerous trips through the African interior. The author also admits to drawing on other sources of inspiration like The Thousand and One Nights and even Stephen King. She explains how the last helped her to explore the gory details of Livingstone’s disembowelment, followed by the mummification of his body for fourteen days in the African sun. Perhaps not the most dignified way to end but the heat and the length of the journey left few other options. 

During the course of her research, she also spent time investigating the history of  the East African slave trade. Something about which we know very little. Gappah came across black explorers like Sidney Mubarack, nicknamed Bombay because he was educated in India but later returned to his native Africa, crossing the continent at least four times with more than one of the great colonial explorers. ‘But no one knows anything about him’ Gappah tells us with her usual directness. A similar concern for forgotten histories was raised by Jolyn Phillips. South African poet, singer-songwriter and activist.

‘My ancestors don’t have tongues, but I understand them.’ – Jolyn Phillips

Growing up in the Western Cape, Phillips’ mother tongue is Afrikaans but her ancestors are a mix of many different peoples. She speaks to us of the ‘unbearable silence’ that surrounds her history. To this end she has spent time investigating the Kwam people – those who lived in the area where she was born and grew up, before the arrival of the white settlers and the traders. There is little that remains of them now. Their language is extinct and Jolyn admits that she is only able to trace her own family tree back to her grandparents. ‘My ancestors don’t have tongues, but I understand them’ she maintains, explaining that she is ‘just picking up the pieces, not necessarily putting them together’. Phillips’ poems and songs are her way of reclaiming language.

In her debut collection of short stories, Tjieng Tjang Tjerries, Jolyn admits to wanting to ‘make a space for myself in English’. She aims to undermine the power of English as a colonial language by ‘coming at it through Afrikaans’. However, she is also interested in what she describes as the different varieties of Afrikaans and the relative power associated with each one. The young writer admits that she is glad that ‘certain varieties of Afrikaans are dying out’. Those associated with the apartheid era, driving narratives of power and oppression are no long welcome here she tells us. However, her own highly creative use of the language, highlight the many ways in which it is growing and developing. Phillips’ unerring sense of irony and self-deprecating humour are clearly integral to this process as evidenced by her song ‘Cleaning products’. Inspired by her mother’s apparent obsession with laundry, the song uses blues rhythms accompanied by lyrics that talk of the narrator’s wish to be ‘shiny clean’ with the help of a new language for a new chapter in the history of South Africa. ‘I’m not really good at doing laundry’ she confides, ‘but I can certainly write a poem about it.’        Souwie Buis     19th January 2020

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