Chris van Wyk, the beloved poet, editor and author who first came to prominence during the struggle against apartheid, then set a high water mark as a memoirist and writer of children’s books, has died in Johannesburg.
Van Wyk was born in Soweto in 1957, and grew up in Riverlea, a so-called “Coloured” section of south-western Johannesburg, where his two memoirs, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, are set.
He worked as an editor at the literary magazine Staffrider, as well as at Ravan Press, the storied publisher of dissident voices opposed to apartheid. In 1979, he published one of the most-quoted anti-apartheid poems, “In Detention”, which appeared in the collection It is Time to Go Home under the Ad Donker imprint, and for which van Wyk received the Olive Schreiner Prize. The poem was quoted widely today on Twitter, including by Angelo Fick:
Terry Morris of Pan Macmillan, Van Wyk’s publisher, spoke to Books LIVE about Van Wyk:
“You have these kind of tumultuous memories of Chris that you sift through. 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 who I had the longest association with at Pan Macmillan and Picador Africa. The first book we published, Shirley, initially was meant to be a novel, but he changed it to a memoir, 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 so Kathy took him everywhere.”
In addition to his two memoirs and several children’s books, Morris published Van Wyk’s abridgment for young readers of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, about which Mandela said, “We are happy that all children are now able to read … the story of the long road we travelled for freedom in South Africa.”
Here is a video of Van Wyk reading his poem, “My Mother’s Laughter”:
Here is a video of Van Wyk on one of his many school trips:
And here are two videos Chris talking about his second memoir, Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, at the book’s launch, which give some sense of his powers as a raconteur:
Van Wyk, who, in addition to the Olive Schreiner Prize, also won the Maskew Miller Longman Award and the Sanlam Literary Award, was part of the Black Consciousness Movement of the ’70s and ’80s, and an associate of such fellow poets as Mafika Gwala, who also died this year. Van Wyk’s writings include biographies of Sol Plaatje and Oliver Tambo for teenagers, and adaptations of works by Bessie Head and Can Themba. This year, his story “Relatives”, first published in 1995, was selected as one of the best twenty stories of South Africa’s twenty years of democracy.
Chris van Wyk was prolific; he was real; he was one of the greats. Books LIVE’s thoughts are with his wife Kathy and their children, and all who loved him and received his wit and wisdom down the years. Hamba Kahle, Chris.
More tributes to Chris van Wyk
Goodbye dear author and friend Chris van Wyk. We cherish your beautiful words and the wonderful memories! RIP
— Pan Macmillan SA (@PanMacmillanSA) October 4, 2014
The world is dimmer today without Chris van wyk's inimitable laugh. Rest in peace.
— Michele Magwood (@michelemagwood) October 4, 2014
RIP Chris Van Wyk: your laughter,poetry and novels and brilliant and arresting performance of extracts from these leaves a chasm. Long live.
— maureen isaacson (@maureenisaacso) October 4, 2014
Can't believe the news about Chris van Wyk. A great writer and one of my inspirations. Always said I wanted to be like him when I grow up.
— Ryland Fisher (@rylandfisher) October 4, 2014
RIP Chris van Wyk. The first author I truly adored in person and in craft. He told me a joke once. I… http://t.co/xoA9NeE7Ux
— Kelly Ansara (@QueenKelso) October 4, 2014
A writer of conscience who captured our pain and our hopes. Go well, Chris van Wyk
— Jonathan Jansen (@JJ_UFS) October 4, 2014
Yho! Mbulelo Mzamane, Nadine Gordimer, and now Chris van Wyk!
— Thando Mgqolozana (@thando_mgqo) October 4, 2014
Didn't know Chris Van Wyk passed away until just know. Man, that's terrible news. He looked so lively the last time I saw him.
— Ndumiso Ngcobo (@NdumisoNgcobo) October 4, 2014
- Zakes Mda: Another staffrider taking the early train home: Chris van Wyk. We’ll find you there, staffrider! In the meantime we’ll nurse the fond memories
- Niq Mhlongo: South Africa has again lost one of the literary giants. Rest in peace Chris van Wyk. I will miss your humour and humility. Shirley Goodness and Mercy!
- Jenny Crwys-Williams: I sometimes experience moments of magic when something happens between a writer and an audience. I’ve had two of those moments with Chris van Wyk, both of them at primary schools with the book he wrote under the aegis of the Nelson Mandela Foundation: the children’s’ Long Walk to Freedom. If you could have seen those children’s faces, their rapt attention as he told his story. I was so privileged to know the man. He was one of the warmest people I have ever met. He died last night around 9 and he will be much missed.
- Kate Sidley: Chris van Wyk was one of the kindest, funniest and most generous of men. He was passionate about promoting reading and literacy and always willing to visit schools and talk to kids. The kids adored him and his wonderful stories. So sad that this lovely man and writer has gone.
- Angela Makholwa: Rest in peace Chris van Wyk. Your youthful soul will live on for eternity.
- Pumla Dineo Gqola: Chris van Wyk has crossed over to the ancestral realm. Reflecting on everything he left us as the incredible poet, activist, biographer, memoirist, novelist, revolutionary that he was. I am so grateful for his life’s work, for his humour, for his incredible generosity always. Once, when he came to talk to my English 3 class on Postcolonial Humour, after Dee Marco and I had driven to fetch him from his house, he offered to stay and talk to my students longer than I had asked. He had them inspired, eating out of his hand and in stitches. I will cherish every conversation we ever had, every time I ever heard him speak … I will hold my old copies of Staffrider a little tighter today. I hope our love lights the way as you make your last trip. I am so very sad you are no longer in this world.
- Fred Khumalo: This morning I woke up to some shocking news: Chris van Wyk, the author and poet, has passed on. A close and dear friend who helped me hold the pen with pride and confidence passes away just weeks after yet another mentor of mine, Mafika Gwala passed on! The first time I met Chris was in 1984, when Mafika 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 lunch time, 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.
Chris van Wyk links
- Chris van Wyk on Wikipedia
- University of Stellenbosch biography
- Nikki Temkin’s interview with Chris van Wyk, 14 May 2004
- Leon de Kock’s interview with Chris van Wyk, 02 May 2004
- J Brooks Spector’s obituary in the Daily Maverick
- Maureen Isaacson remembers Chris van Wyk
- The Year of the Tapeworm by Chris van Wyk
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- Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch by Chris van Wyk
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- Shirley, Goodness & Mercy by Chris van Wyk
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