Maverick Life

The beautiful soul of Chris van Wyk, departed

By J Brooks Spector 6 October 2014

Famed author Chris van Wyk passed away over the weekend and J. BROOKS SPECTOR examines his work and his impact on the society he loved and feared for over his lifetime.

J Brooks Spector

Chris van Wyk, the writer who brought the delights and sadnesses of childhood to life for children – and yet again for adults – passed away over the weekend at the age of 57, succumbing after a battle with cancer. This news has come far too soon for his many admirers – readers who had hoped to enjoy his Chris’ writing for many more years yet to come.

As the news spread, his fans took to social media to share their grief and sadness over this loss – as well as their memories of how it had felt when they first encountered his writings. For some, it was the shimmering, near-elegiac quality that came through so clearly in his two childhood memoirs, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch that was key to their admiration for Chris van Wyk.

But there were many other sides to Van Wyk – besides those wonderfully narrated memoirs of a well-lived childhood.  There was also the man who had written a small library’s worth of children’s books – including a version of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom for young people – along with biographies of many other noteworthy and accomplished South Africans in order to give children a way to embrace their history with joy and affirmation.

There was also the man who fairly revelled in speaking to students in their classrooms all over the country, to help nurture and encourage the love of reading on the part of the next generation of South Africans. But there was also Chris-as-playwright. Working with Janice Honeyman, he had fashioned Shirley, Goodness and Mercy into a heart-warming stage play. And then there was his important role as an editor, most crucially with the Ravan Press and on the Congress of South African Writers’ (COSAW) literary journal, Staffrider, where he had sharpened the journal’s focus and upped its game to turn it into one of the 1980s’ must-read periodicals in South Africa.

Then there was his warm, welcoming role as mentor to the next generation of writers coming along after him. He returned the favour, just as he had himself sought out the advice and counsel of earlier mentors like Stephen Gray and Robert Greig, as van Wyk was getting his own literary sea legs. Greig, for example, recalls of Van Wyk, “He and a friend, then in matric [the final year of high school in South Africa], arrived on my doorstep when I was living in Mayfair in the 1970s, next door to Stephen Gray, clutching pages of poems. Chris was warm, funny, eager and entirely without rancour.  A marvellous, brave poet and prose stylist.”

And author and journalist Fred Khumalo tells of the time when he first met Chris in 1984 when “Mafika [Gwala, the poet] introduced me to him. I was the youngest participant at that underground conference, also attended by the likes of Omar Badsha, photog, Paul Weinberg and others. Inspired by Jeremy Cronin (yes, the politician) after he had done his reading, I also got up to read from my sheaf of poems. I received thunderous applause after reciting in my squeaky voice. At lunchtime, Chris sidled up to me. I always loved his humour. So, he sidles up to me and says, ‘Ah, comrade, you used some nice English words there. And you’ve got quite a collection of slogans.’ Longish pause. And then, ‘You see, comrade, now the challenge is to shape those nice English words and slogans into poetry.’ No wonder I became a journalist and a novelist. Poetry is farking tough. Ask Mzwakhe Mbuli. And, yes, a few years after giving me that candid opinion about my ‘poetry’, Chris started publishing my earliest short stories in Staffrider magazine which he edited.”

Still in his early years as a writer, when he was only twenty-two, with a short list of poems and other bits of writing published in newspapers and a few other publications, Chris crafted what – for many – became the defining poetic anthem of Apartheid’s horrors. In his passing, people have been recalling that this poem had been a crystallising moment for them in grasping the nature of the police state that surrounded them. This short poem, “In Detention”, became a much read, widely anthologised, and often-recited work, capturing the essential dishonesty and cruelty of the tyrant’s hand, distilling the inner truth of all those callous police statements about how, one after another, political detainees had somehow taken their own lives, even as they were being interrogated in a South African police headquarters building – John Vorster Square.

In Detention

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.

This writer also remembers Van Wyk participating in literary conferences in the early 1970s at the old US Information Service offices in downtown Johannesburg, Shakespeare House, even though the poet was still a teenager. Together with another young “wannabe” writer, they came to those events to soak up the ideas and drink in the heated arguments among South African writers about how they could or should relate to their highly unequal society – this at a time when open, integrated gatherings such as those events on neutral territory were very few and very far between. Such meetings clearly had a major influence on Van Wyk (just as they had been to many other writers beginning to stretch their creative wings, or labouring under banning orders or other restrictions). He later wrote about such events with great affection in his first memoir, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy.

In that early phase of burgeoning literary career, Van Wyk was already walking around with handfuls of foolscap paper covered with poems and prose sketches, eager to show them to older writers for advice. Just a few years later, “In detention”, included in Chris’ first published collection of poetry, It is Time to Go Home, helped him cop one of the country’s preeminent literary prizes, the Olive Schreiner Award.

Offering a look at some more personal sides of the late author, Terry Morris of Pan Macmillian, Van Wyk’s publisher, said, “He was so incisive in terms of his views on politics and the country, but he also had this larger-than-life presence and great sense of humour. He was the author whom I had the longest association with at Pan Macmillan and Picador Africa.” The first book they published, Shirley, was initially supposed to be a novel, “but he changed it to a memoir [inspired, Van Wyk had said in other circumstances, by Frank McCourt’s memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood, Angela’s Ashes], and it was a huge success. Kids loved him – he visited schools all around the country to tell stories and get kids reading. He simply captivated them. He and his wife Kathy both came from big families. Their story was so special: they had a childhood romance and were inseparable. It’s hard to think of one without the other. Chris couldn’t drive [because of very poor eyesight] so Kathy took him everywhere.”

A few years back, this writer had spoken at length with Van Wyk, when the dramatic version of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy first opened at the Market Theatre. No longer resident in Riverlea, the Coloured neighbourhood on the western side of Johannesburg – right next to all the abandoned mine dumps – where he had grown up and had, astonishing, written about with such warm, nostalgic feelings, he was now living in a more “upmarket” Johannesburg suburb.

While Shirley, Goodness and Mercy ends with the author averring that home will always be his family’s neighbourhood, I remember writing, “Here we are, sitting in the garden of his home in Northcliff, enjoying coffee and fresh fruit under the afternoon sun.  Van Wyk carefully notes that his house is ‘in the valley’ side of Northcliff, not up on the ridge with its exclusive houses.  He laughs – it is a delicious, generous laugh – as he realises that when he recently painted this Northcliff house he did it in a way that recalled the favoured colours of his old neighbourhoods of Riverlea, Newclare and Coronationville.” And perhaps those shades of green recalled a distant connection to still-earlier Cape Town neighbourhoods – and perhaps even some very ancient Southeast Asian Islamic antecedents as well. The author had seen those precise shades of green on houses all over Java, and – especially – on the small village mosques on that island as well.

In our conversation, Van Wyk had explained how one of his great – and entirely unexpected – satisfactions arising out of the success of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy had been that when his uncles and cousins – the kind of men who work with their hands as highly skilled artisans – saw his play they told him that now they finally understood what he actually did for a living – and that they fully approved. Chris added that until they had seen his play, most of his relatives were hard-pressed to explain what he actually did with his day – or even if it was real work.

After learning of Chris’ passing, actor Zane Meas, the man who had created the role of the adult Chris van Wyk in the dramatisation of Shirley, wrote of Chris’ outsized impact on his own life, noting that when he had first met Chris, he was the man “who used to jog -very slowly – around the sports ground where I used to practice daily. Then someone mentioned he wrote that famous poem about the ‘9th Floor’…. In my matric year, my teacher asked Chris if he would adapt one of his written stories, ‘Flats’, into a play that we could perform. Malcolm Purkey [the theatre director] was asked to come in to give some pointers. So began my acting career. I enrolled at the Wits Drama School the following year where Malcolm was lecturing.

“After a few years Chris and I worked on a one-man show based on the life of his good friend William Smith. We performed it at the Grahamstown festival later that year…. Years later I was privileged to play Chris in the stage adaptation of his book Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. He mentioned that he could not think of anyone else he would have wanted to play him, but was, playfully, critically playful of my portrayal. He called me later the following year when he was writing the follow-up to Shirley to update me on the progress and also too chat about a movie deal he was about to sign… I will always be indebted to Chris for the role he played in forming and shaping not only my career, but my political consciousness and civic responsibility….”

Despite his sometimes-public reputation as primarily the purveyor of those more gauzy childhood memories, as Meas indicated, Chris van Wyk was also thoroughly engaged with the questions inherent in the great South African conundrum of identity. When the author spoke with him about “Coloured identity”, Chris had added those inverted commas with his fingers in the air, as if to indicate the very problematic nature of that phrase.

Back in the 1980s, he had been frequently cited as a black consciousness writer – even though he was also an active UDF supporter, by virtue of his role on Staffrider. That magazine was a project of the Congress of South African Writers, which was an affiliate of the UDF. Nevertheless, like so many other politically engaged Coloured South Africans, he had usually referred to himself as “black”, in preference to “Coloured” in those days.

More recently, though, Chris seemed to be trying on a South African identity that drew upon a complex mix of all the things that went into being both Coloured and South African – something like putting on a newer, bigger coat with more of space to stretch and move in, by contrast to an earlier, more tightly fitting model. To show what he meant, a few years back he had met with a visiting Scandinavian literature professor. The professor had looked at Van Wyk’s face and said to him, despite Chris’ increasingly vigorous demurrers and despite all the obvious evidence in his writing, “You’re not black… you must be white.” Despite Chris’ goal for that more inclusive identity, perhaps the black-white dichotomy sometimes boxed him in – at least in the minds of some outsiders.

In writing about the late author, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa described Chis as an “outstanding cultural activist and writer who used his creativity and talent to fight the Apartheid system. Thus he contributed to articulating the vision and aspirations for a new society.

“Significantly, he used humour to show the ludicrous nature of Apartheid.” In his Freedom Fighters children’s book series, the minister went on to add, “[t]he series continues to be instrumental in connecting the past and present to influence the future that we all want to see.”

Van Wyk always contended South Africa needed a broader, more publicly acknowledgment of the heroism that had been displayed by many people in South Africa’s struggle towards a democratic, non-racial social and political order – rather than just the usual icons. As he had explained in our conversation, Coloured people (with or without those inverted commas) needed to explore and promote their heroes. To make his point, Chris van Wyk called attention to the now half-forgotten role of Cissy Gool, who had organised a massive protest march on Parliament back in 1931, a full generation before Lillian Ngoyi’s more celebrated march of 1954. Chris remained deeply puzzled as to how Gool’s protest had been largely brushed aside, even in today’s more inclusive, contemporary version of history.

In our conversation, Chris, when we were discussing his play, he had spoken about the music woven into the theatrical version of Shirley. He pointed out the bits of John Coltrane’s jazz performances, songs by the then-popular Durban-based group, “The Flames,” music sung by the deeply loved Port Elizabeth performer, Danny Williams, as well as some of that instantly distinctive piano tremolo from Abdullah Ibrahim’s masterpiece, “Mannenberg”.  More than just reflective of Chris’ own tastes, this music had been the constant soundtrack for the actual lives of his characters – and in his own life.

As for his literary inspirations, besides the often-cited impact of Es’kia Mphahlele’s writing, Chris noted that important influences included the early works of John Steinbeck, back when he was that fiery, left-wing author of The Grapes of Wrath. But there was also Albert Camus’ The Outsider, and Peter Abrahams’ Tell Freedom and Mine Boy. These had given him a template for his own efforts to reconstruct and document his childhood in his two memoirs.

And in trying to explain where his talents came from, he added that he felt he had come by his highly admired role as a storyteller almost genetically, as a kind of gift, given that so many in his family were, themselves, “natural” storytellers. When he had been in primary school, his teachers had often read a section of a novel to his class during the last period of the school day. Afterwards, he would return home and retell the newest episode to a crowd of his siblings and cousins.  Sometimes, his teachers had asked Van Wyk to read to the class – or even tell them his own stories. Back in our conversation, Van Wyk thought again about this bit of his past and mused that perhaps here was where the original kernel for his own deep impulse to tell a tale was to be found.

But assessing his own growing impact as a writer, when he was interviewed for Staffrider way back in 1988, by fellow author and editor, Andries Oliphant, Van Wyk set out the terms of engagement for himself as a writer – for both past and future. As he said, “I am still overwhelmed by the extent to which people without an accessible literary heritage emerged from the ravages of Bantu education and produced a literature which people inside the country and all over the world stood up to listen to. It is, however, very difficult to say how the current movement with its non-racial perspective will crystallise in imaginative writing.

“It is nevertheless an exciting and challenging period for political activists and cultural workers. It means that we can’t be complacent or rest on our laurels. We have to search for new modes of expression and this will not be easy. I do not have simple and ready-made solutions. I do know, however, that my own writing is changing and this probably also the case with other writers.

“Currently there are children in detention, there are new brutal forms of repression used by the State. We have to respond to these horrors by finding metaphors which will not only sustain our people in the struggle but will also undercut the oppressive grip of the state.”

This he surely did. But when things did change, Chris found new ways to help a nation find its way to recapturing its past. As his friend Omar Badsha wrote of Van Wyk after learning of his passing, “His use of language and imagery turned the ghetto into a place which we were able to call our own, rite of passages seen through the eyes of a young boy, told with great wit and mastery of language. He made the ghetto alive with characters that have become part of the strands of a very fragile fabric that we call the nation.”

To read his work was a joy, and to hear him talk and tell his stories was a deep pleasure. But to hear him read his own finely polished, published work aloud, why it felt like you were moving your chair closer to a roaring fire, burning brightly during a winter’s night and out of the cold.

Good-bye, Chris. We shall miss your laughter, your warmth, and your all-encompassing humanity. DM

Photo of Chris van Wyk, by Cedric Nunn –  courtesy of Pan McMillan.

For more, read (and watch):

  • Sunday Read: a Story and Two Poems by Chris van Wyk (Videos, Multimedia) at the website (includes links to videos of the author reading his own works)
  • “My Mother’s Laughter” on YouTube, also read by the author;
  • I am Coloured, but you’re stupid – Chris van Wyk’s angry response to the infamous column by Kuli Roberts in the Sunday Times, denigrating all Coloured women as thoughtless and lazy;
  • RIP Chris van Wyk, 1957 – 2014 at;
  • Chris Van Wyk Discusses His Writing, Finding a Readership, and the Interaction Between South African and Other African Writers at the Africa Book Club.


The power of what if? And why our curiosity has been worth it

By Don Pinnock