Obituary: The warmth and laughter of Chris van Wyk

A love of laughter: Chris van Wyk pulled no punches when dealing with social injustice, but he could always find humour in hardship. (Paul Botes)

A love of laughter: Chris van Wyk pulled no punches when dealing with social injustice, but he could always find humour in hardship. (Paul Botes)

Chris van Wyk, who has died of cancer at the age of 57, was a South African writer of extraordinary versatility and imaginative vigour. He was a prize-winning poet and short-story writer, novelist, author of books for children and young adults, biographer, and, in recent years, he penned two best-selling memoirs. 

Born in Baragwanath Hospital, Soweto, in 1957, Van Wyk grew up in the coloured suburb of Riverlea in Johannesburg, a community he was later to bring lovingly to life in Shirley, Goodness and Mercy (2004) and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch (2010).

In 1979, when he was only 22, he published It Is Time to Go Home, a remarkable collection of poems (now out of print and very difficult to find). It won the Olive Schreiner Prize in 1980. Included in it was In Detention, one of the most famous South African poems ever written. Moving as it does from ostensibly matter-of-fact statements to increasingly frenetic absurdity, the poem ridicules the lies with which the apartheid government sought to account for the deaths of detainees while they were in police custody.

Even now, it is impossible to remain unmoved by the chilling opening lines: He fell from the ninth floor/ He hanged himself/ He slipped on a piece of soap while washing/ He hanged himself.

Van Wyk was also one of our most important writers of books for children.
He adapted Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom into a book for young readers, and wrote a series of short biographies of liberation struggle figures for schoolchildren. A Message in the Wind, published in 1982, won the Maskew Miller Longman Award for Children’s Literature.

Encouraging young people to read was an enduring passion for him. One of the episodes in Shirley, Goodness and Mercy was turned into a children’s book called Ouma Ruby’s Secret. It is a poignant story about reading: the young Van Wyk did not realise that his beloved maternal grandmother, who bought him books and encouraged him in his voracious appetite for them, was herself illiterate.

To my knowledge, Van Wyk never turned down a request to speak at a school, a library or a community centre. He was our ambassador for reading. Beaming and avuncular, he showed children that they should read because it is fun, and not because they were told to. No account of his life or work would be complete without mentioning his sense of humour. He was famous for it, and it was one of the qualities that made him a sought-after speaker and the most entertaining of raconteurs.

One could see when a laugh was beginning to rise up in him; and then it would emerge, loud and unabashed – a sound that was something between a cackle and a guffaw. In the unstinting gusto of Van Wyk’s laughter all the richness and warmth of his personality found ample expression.

In his poem My Mother’s Laughter, Van Wyk acknowledges his mother’s gift of laughter to her family. His memoirs pay extensive tribute to the strong and resourceful women in his family and community, particularly his mother (the “Shirley” of the title) and grandmother. Here he shows how his mother’s laughter emanated from her strength: … even though there was much to cry about/ as there is even now/ so seldom does she weep/ that I am forced to put her tears in parentheses.

Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch are both full of humour, despite their descriptions of poverty and deprivation, and of the impact of apartheid on the community of Riverlea. But Van Wyk was determined to make the point that disadvantaged people are capable of living lives that refute the diminished identities attributed to them by officialdom.

And that is what his humour spoke of: a capacity for resilience and an irrepressible appetite for life, even in straitened circumstances. Without romanticising his early years, he showed that these qualities were to be found in the community he knew so well. And they were abundantly present in him.

Much of his work may be viewed as an enactment of what Njabulo Ndebele has called “the rediscovery of the ordinary”. In the ordinariness of life, he found his inspiration; but his imagination and craftsmanship transformed it into something extraordinary, even magical. “Writing a memoir,” he explains in Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, “is a little like travelling into your own past. Unlike science fiction, you can’t change the past. But, like science fiction, it does have its own magic.”

Van Wyk pulled no punches when it came to castigating racial and social injustice, and he will always be acknowledged as one of our most important anti-apartheid writers. But stringency was what he came to by necessity, not by choice. His natural inclination was towards warmth, joyfulness and delighted laughter. In his life, as in his writing, he gave expression to the creative spirit at its most generous, capacious and exuberant.

Those who knew him, loved him; and many of those who were acquainted with him only through his writing felt a great affection for him too, and a personal connection with him, for he was the least detached and most inviting of writers. Van Wyk always aspired to making a living as a writer. For years, he worked as an editor (most notably, editing the literary journal Staffrider from 1981 to 1986) and took on whatever came his way. But the dream eluded him. In the last years of his life, however, he had the satisfaction of knowing that at last he could devote all his time and energy to his writing.

Prolific as he was, there is no doubt that his fertile imagination held many more delights in store for his readers. But the sudden onset of his illness prevented him from completing his second novel for adults, and now the other stories that bubbled within him will remain untold. His death, at a relatively young age, has taken from us a singular talent.

Van Wyk’s family life was a source of much gratification to him. His wife, Kathy, was his first and only love, and their marriage was an exceptionally happy one. In Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, he gives an account of the beginning of their relationship. Towards the end of the chapter, he reflects on the coincidental fact that the surname of his childhood friend was also Van Wyk: “Kathy van Wyk will always be Kathy van Wyk. 

She will never change her name to take her husband’s. That’s because our long-time friendship will later turn to love and we’ll get married in 1980, when we’re both a few months away from our 23rd birthdays.” In the last weeks of his life, Chris and Kathy welcomed their first grandchild, a little girl, born to their eldest son Kevin and his wife.

He is survived by Kathy, their sons Kevin and Karl, his father, three brothers and two sisters.

Chris van Wyk: born July 19 1957, died October 3 2014

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