Chris van Wyk, who died last Saturday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, will be remembered as a poet, novelist, translator, editor, memoirist and, above all, a storyteller of great impact and verve. His 2004 memoir Shirley, Goodness and Mercy was a runaway success, selling over 25 000 copies and translated into Afrikaans; it was followed by Eggs to Lay Chickens to Hatch (2010), not a sequel but a book that “filled in the missing bits”. His 2006 children’s book, Ouma Ruby’s Secret sold over 50 000 copies and his children’s version of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (2009) sold 55 000 copies.
His 1996 debut novel, The Year of the Tapeworm, attempted to describe the impact of apartheid on ordinary people; he told the story the other way around. Achmat Dangor, reviewing the book in the Sunday Independent said the novel had been a long time coming. Van Wyk was on a roll when I interviewed him over tea and “jam squares”, baked by his wife Kathy, at Number 1 Arno Street, Riverlea, where they lived with their sons Kevin and Karl at the time. Van Wyk was derisive of the top-down “political vantage point” he said many South African novelists adopted as their starting point. “People come home from work and say, ‘I need a holiday’, they don’t come home and say, ‘I want to put on a Free Mandela T-shirt’.” His impatience with the political correctness straitjacket hardly meant that the rage that fired his activism in the United Democratic Front had subsided. Certainly, it fuelled the febrile imaginings in his debut novel, with its quirky twists, its flirtation with magical realism and its subversion of the traditional presentation of apartheid’s final paroxysms. “I don’t want to know what Cyril Ramaphosa said to the workers, I want to know what they said to him,” he said.
Strong family connections
In describing his origins – he was born in Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, 1957 – and his early life as the oldest of six children of a cabinet maker and garment worker, he suggested it would be instructive if we left Arno Street, in “the posh part” of Riverlea and took a ride into the township. So we visited the small TC Esterhuysen Primary School, a “hand-me-down” from the Afrikaners and drove past Riverlea High and the house of James Bouah, his English schoolteacher in his matric year. Bouah read Oswald Mtshali’s poetry and encouraged Van Wyk to develop his writing skills. Passing the house on Colorado Drive where he courted Kathy when they were 16, Van Wyk lit up. Van Wyk was 35 when he published The Year of the Tapeworm. He told me he thrived on skinder, indeed it seemed there was little he did not know about the people we knew in common. He had worked as a clerk at the South African Committee for Higher Education, he edited Staffrider, the literary magazine founded in 1977, worked at Ravan Press and was a member of the Congress of South African Writers. He was scathing, sometimes, and brilliantly funny often. His declamatory performance style was flamboyant, riveting. He had inherited his “father’s voice” as well as his fuming temper, he admitted in the poem, I Have My Father’s Voice. His father had bequeathed him everything a poet needs, “except the words”. Van Wyk was four years old when his family was removed from the suburb of Newclare one night “on a lorry packed with our stuff” under the pernicious Group Areas Act. His family settled in a small Flinders Street house, where we visited his parents, Nick and Shirley, that day. His father Nick was now working in a department store. His mum, Shirley, the figure immortalised in his childhood memoir,Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. Shirley’s mother, Ouma Ruby, was celebrating her 81st birthday. She was the “granny” of the eponymous poem that told of their visits to a second-hand book store in town to buy books. His discovery years later that she had not learned to read came as a shock. His relationship with his mother was key. In the poem My Mother, he writes: “My mother could never embrace me/While she kept house for them/Held their children/My mother is a boesman meid/A kaffir girl/A coolie auntie/Who wears beads of sweat around her neck/And chains around her ankles/But defrocked of her dignity she/has broken free of the heirlooms of oppression/And dresses in the fatigues of those/Grown tired of serving evil gods./Now my mother is dressed to kill.”
Read by everyone Van Wyk said he wanted to be read by everyone; by those about whom he wrote and by those who found his own culture foreign; he chose to write in several genres because “I could”. He wanted to write serious literature “in a popular way”. He published over 20 books, including poetry collections and children’s books. His poetry collection,It’s Time To Go Home, won the Olive Schreiner Award in 1979. His powerful protest poem In Detention was widely acclaimed and studied; it deals with the improbability of the South African security branch denials of torture and murder. “He fell from the ninth floor/He hanged himself/He slipped on a piece of soap while washing/He hanged himself/He slipped on a piece of soap while washing/He fell from the ninth floor/He hanged himself while washing/He slipped from the ninth floor/He hung from the ninth floor/He slipped on the ninth floor while washing/He fell from a piece of soap while slipping/He hung from the ninth floor/He washed from the ninth floor while slipping/He hung from a piece of soap while washing.” His short story Magic won the 1996 Sanlam short story award; his biography Now Listen Here: The Life and Times of Bill Jardine, the anti-apartheid activist and sportsperson, was published in 2003; his children’s books and books for newly literate adults were My Cousin Thabo, New Stories, biographies of Sol Plaatije and Oliver Tambo for teenagers and adaptations of the work of Bessie Head and Can Themba. He translated the novel Vatmaar by AHM Scholtz, compiled and edited a South African short story collection, Obrud, in Danish, translated as Post Traumatic. In 2007 when Janice Honeyman adapted and produced Shirley, Goodness and Mercy for the theatre, Van Wyk was deeply moved by the experience of witnessing his life on stage, with distance. He found the experience “a little uncomfortable” but was thrilled to see the people of Riverlea enjoy their own stories, rather than be fed those of coloured people from Cape Town.
Frank impressions of apartheid
Van Wyk wrote frankly about his perceived good times under apartheid before reality bit. He said his childhood was “not unhappy”. But Van Wyk was hardly nostalgic; invited to participate in a public discussion centred on that theme, he read an extract from Shirley, Goodness and Mercy that centred on the role of comics in his childhood. He told me in an interview about Eggs to Lay: “I always said there was a time before I understood apartheid [and] that it was happy. In Riverlea, everyone was poor. I did not understand before I was six years old that it had to do with the colour of my skin and all we looked forward to was playing with our tops in the streets as well as ‘gezat-ing’: putting all your money together to buy a packet of chips and tablespoon of atchar to put inside a loaf of bread. You would take a bottle of Fanta and go into the veld. But there was also a man called BJ Vorster – I used to hear people say: ‘We must solve the coloured question’. I was nine years old and I thought: ‘I have presented these people with a problem, what have I done?’ We were not allowed to go to the Rand Show, to the Wimpy Bar.” His experience of apartheid was neatly divided. Phase One: “I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase, when you are about five or six years old. I just want to play with my friends and I don’t care if I am barefoot. But then you start working it out, there is the white person coming to the house, your granny and your mother are extremely polite to them.” Phase Two: “I am not as good as them, God made some trick that I have to accept.” Phase Three: “To hell with them I am so angry about what they are doing to me I want to kill most of them.” Eggs to Lay returned us to his zany schoolboy head; he tussled with a history revering “criminal Voortrekker leaders”; trying to make sense of a cultural life describing a polygamous structure that appealed to his young masculinist self and was later initiated into the extreme position of James Sofasonke Mpanza’s Sofasonke party. Reading Albert Camus’s The Outsider, the adolescent Van Wyk explained that existentialism “basically means life is meaningless. You are born, go to school, go to varsity if you are white and work in a factory if you’re coloured, get married, grow old, die.” The matchbox houses of Riverlea were constructed of “walls so thin your neighbours can hear you change your mind”. Agnes Msiza, the family helper, took him as close as he was able to get to life in Soweto; she opened the door to its realities and his future political life. He was working on a new novel set in Cape Town before he fell ill. The storyteller of Riverlea and his family moved to a house in Northcliff in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs in 2005. His literary legacy takes us deeper into the experience of this extraordinarily versatile and engaging writer, friend, comrade, skinnerbek, teacher, mentor; a national treasure, whose memory is deeply cherished. He is survived by his wife Kathy, their sons Kevin and Karl, his father, three brothers and two sisters.