Two burning questions simply must be answered when meeting author Chris van Wyk. Is he as funny in the flesh as he is in his new book? And how did he manage to remember in such painstaking detail all the conversations, names and incidents contained in the pages of his tragicomic memoir, Shirley, Goodness & Mercy (Picador Africa)?
He’s shy at first, or perhaps just slightly vulnerable — after all, he’s made his intensely personal story about growing up coloured in apartheid South Africa a public one.
“A lot of writers stop being funny because it’s a serious book, but being funny is part of my character,” explains Van Wyk. “I can write comic stories and dialogue effortlessly, so why not do it? It can become a trademark.” Soon he is relaxed and laughing.
Even the title, Shirley, Goodness & Mercy, a malapropism taken from young Van Wyk’s youth is funny. Having misheard the words of the hymn at school at age five, he took “surely” to be “Shirley” — his mother’s name. She features prolifically in the book as a poverty-stricken, hard-working mother and wife trying to nurture and raise her children with dignity.
Van Wyk, born in 1957 in Riverlea, a coloured township near Soweto, credits his mother for his love of reading. Taunted his whole life by teachers and other children for being squint (skeeloog), Van Wyk reckons that this encouraged his voracious reading: “Every time I went out to play, someone would tease me!” In one chapter, the priest “does battle with the devil in his eye”, but Van Wyk leaves the church as cock-eyed as ever.
His father, a furniture-factory worker, never really spoke much. “I was a little dopey and my father thought I was stupid,” he says, admitting he’s a little scared about his father reading the book, although Van Wyk has issued a warning that certain parts aren’t complimentary.
About six years ago Van Wyk, realising he’d been writing stories about other kids who were actually himself, began his memoirs, writing them over the course of a year. Inspired by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (about growing up dirt-poor in Ireland), he says he thought, “My story is also about warmth, happiness and family. I’m a funny guy, I can write like this.”
The anecdotes, written as self-contained short stories, have a menacing undertone, but the glaring absurdities of life soak them in the blackest humour. “Stories that I’ve never told are gushing out now,” explains Van Wyk. “The past came flooding back — things that stuck in my head. They’ve got a spin that makes them a good story.”
Yet there are some horrifying revelations in the book. In the chapter Stamp Collector, Van Wyk suffers a brutal beating (100 lashes) by a teacher for no reason. It’s painful to read. “It was the last chapter I wrote and I did it in one sitting to get it out quickly,” says Van Wyk.
In 1972 Van Wyk read Oswald Mtshali’s poetry collection Sounds of a Cowhide Drum and “discovered that black South Africans were writing poetry. That’s the moment I became an activist,” he says. Despite the verbal abuse of teachers, Van Wyk won newspaper poetry competitions while still at school. At 22, after starting a black consciousness magazine with a friend, his collection of poems, It’s Time to Go Home, was published and won an Olive Schreiner Award.
Van Wyk was arrested and beaten up by the police numerous times. Such events are described in his memoir, but with humour. The Year of the Tapeworm (Ravan), a novel, was published in 1998. He wrote a biography of African National Congress activist Bill Jardine, with whose children he grew up. Van Wyk has also written a successful series of children’s books called Freedom Fighters, and he has three more books in the pipeline, including one featuring a South African Harry Potter. Van Wyk says: “There’s more magic in Africa then anywhere else.”
Still living in Riverlea with Kathy, his wife and childhood sweetheart, and their son Karl (their other son, Kevin, has just qualified as a lawyer), Van Wyk says, “As a storyteller I can recognise a good story and there are so many that need to be told.” He is interviewing old people in the township for a future project. “The coloured community feels that they’ve been passed by. They think it’s racism, but many people have been overlooked by the government.”
The memoir tells of his relationships with the quirky characters of his community. He writes of going to the zoo with a friend, who wanted to ask a white woman to take a picture of them. The young Chris objected: “You can’t ask her — she’s white!” Acutely aware of being coloured, Van Wyk felt others were too quick to accept their situation. “I was taught extreme dignity and hated being demeaned. I fought for that.”
Not only is Van Wyk’s memoir an authentic and important contribution to South African literature; it is also an entertaining social document of a specific community. “I can’t die one day without telling our stories,” he says. “It’s part of our soul, our spirit. This book is a celebration. Ten years ago, I’d write serious books that were like weapons — one-dimensional books about people wanting to be free. Now I’m just telling stories.”