Chris van Wyk: the storyteller of Riverlea

Chris van Wyk Chris van Wyk’s love affair with words began in childhood. At five years old, he told his parents he was going to be a writer. (Image: Pan McMillan)

Sulaiman Philip

Chris van Wyk’s memorial could easily read: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” His life was a celebration of the power of words, the wonder of expressing them and the joy of memory. Or, as he would say: “We’ve got our own magic, lots of it, which remains untapped.”

The “coloured” Black Consciousness writer, Van Wyk, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on 3 October at the age of 57, will be remembered for his humour, his generous laughter and his campaign to get others to love and enjoy words, books, as much as he did.

Whenever he said “coloured” his fingers became inverted commas dancing around the word, his friend, J Brooks Spector, wrote in the Daily Maverick. In the 1980s, as the politically active editor of the Congress of South African Writers’ Staffrider magazine, Van Wyk would refer to himself as black.

Now he was coloured, but that identifier was still problematic to him. In his writing and his embrace of his identity as a South African, Van Wyk “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 space to stretch and move in, by contrast to an earlier, more tightly fitting model”.

As proud as he was of the non-racial, democratic experiment he was a part of building, Van Wyk was always watchful. Race remained an identifier for South Africa’s population and he bristled at the way history was rewritten to celebrate some icons while the fruit of others labours were left to wither on the vine. The people of South Africa should choose their heroes, and not fall in line behind heroes sold to them. “[Nelson] Mandela and thousands of others fought and died so that you could build your own dreams and ideals,” he would tell his audiences of schoolchildren.

The poet

Van Wyk won the country’s most prestigious poetry prize, the Olive Schreiner Award in 1979 for his collection, It Is Time To Go Home. It included “In Detention”, the poem extensively quoted on social media when news of his death became public. His 1996 debut novel, The Year of the Tapeworm, attempted to describe the impact of apartheid on ordinary people; his 2004 memoir, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy,sold over 25 000 copies and was translated into Afrikaans. It was followed by Eggs to Lay Chickens to Hatch in 2010, which “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, published in 2009, sold 55 000 copies.

A bookish child in a rough neighbourhood, Van Wyk’s identity was shaped by his favourite authors – Es’kia Mphahlele, Pablo Neruda, early John Steinbeck, Albert Camus and Peter Abrahams. More than that, there were the sights and sounds of Riverlea, in southern Johannesburg, that created a world to which he returned to give his life meaning. And there was the music he grew up with – the soul-fuelled rock of The Flames, Abdullah Ibrahim’s jazz and the most loved of all, Port Elizabeth vocalist Danny Williams.

Growing up in brutal times, Van Wyk’s poetry echoed the horrors of deaths in detention, the humiliation of being ordered around by a white child in uniform. Talking to the Africa Book Club, he remembered the beginning of his writing career: “In my last two school years I had poems published in the Saturday edition of a local newspaper, The Star. That was in 1974/5 and marked the beginning of my ‘writing career’. It wasn’t easy: the apartheid government reacted harshly to anyone who criticised it. And in those days much of the writing by black writers was unavoidably about life under apartheid.”

The memories

In his memoir, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, the most difficult chapter to read is the one about an especially violent teacher who took pleasure in meting out corporal punishment, but there were others, inspirational teachers who nurtured Van Wyk’s story-telling talent. There was also the surprisingly well-stocked Riverlea library (he would joke). Complemented by his parents’ love of reading, it all added up to create the author.

“I have a vivid memory of a four-year-old me in bed and my parents telling me stories. Their plan was to make me sleep. But it had the opposite effect, leaving me wide awake and excited about suddenly having discovered a new world – the world of make-believe!”

For Van Wyk, writing, his poetry and memoir especially, was never just about fighting the demon of apartheid. Yes there is sadness and anger in his work, but also humour. His work is a celebration of the simple joys of being alive. South African writers, he believed, took themselves far too seriously; they saw themselves as artist and not story-tellers. At the time of his death, Van Wyk was collecting and recording stories from Riverlea’s older residents. Stories, he told the Writers Write website, that were jaw-droppingly fascinating.

It’s that magic of telling stories and knowing your neighbours and their families that contributed to his remaining in the suburb until 2005, when the storyteller of Riverlea and his family moved to a house in Northcliff in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.

His collection of recordings will end up in the archives of a public institution such as Wits University. A self-confessed lover of gossip, Van Wyk said these stories were skinder-filled – or gossipy– personal histories of South African life. He recorded and transcribed them personally because, he said: “I want to hear how they say things, the gaps between the words. I stayed in this community because there is that element of me as writer that kept me here.”

Here, whether it was Riverlea or South Africa, mattered because it was home; and home was an idea that mattered to Van Wyk. And after watching the stage production of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy his family finally understood. These men, artisans who worked with their hands, realised his importance in their world as the teller of their and his stories.

Chris van Wyk will be missed by the people whose stories mattered to him, by the children he inspired and by readers who will not get to read new work by a man who believed in the power of words to celebrate life.