First published in the Sunday Times
Ivan Vladislavić remembers his friend, poet and novelist Chris van Wyk, who loved and lived through stories.
Chris knew books could change your life. Could save your life. If you want to hear his booming laugh, open any page of his memoirs.
Chris van Wyk was a rare kind of writer. He brought people and places so vividly to life in his books that reading them makes you feel more fully alive yourself. His company had the same effect: he was so full of life that it spilled over to the people around him.
We met when I joined Ravan Press as a social studies editor in 1984. The press was in an old house in O’Reilly Road, Berea, loomed over by hotels and blocks of flats. On my first day there, it was Chris who steered me towards the crucial stuff — author files, stationery cupboard, kettle. He had been editing Staffrider for a while and was keen to show me the back issues of the magazine. We went into the garden, where a dilapidated coach house faced the service alley, and I followed him up a wooden ladder into the attic. In the hot, dim space under the corrugated-iron roof, surrounded by towers of books and magazines, he told me about his work, and I began to think that editing might be a proper job after all.
I had seen him once before, in the late ’70s or early ’80s, at a poetry reading on the Wits campus. There were a lot of angry young men on the programme, the young black poets who would fill the pages of Staffrider, and Chris read “About graffiti”. It is an extraordinary poem, this tough, wryly amusing collage of hard-boiled street imagery.
When one black child tells another / “Ek sal jou klap / dan cross ek die border” / it’s graffiti.
He read the piece so vehemently that the wit passed me by, almost shouting the last lines: Soon graffiti will wade into Jo’burg / unhampered by the tourniquet of influx control.
When I came across Chris again at Ravan, the angry young man had mellowed. Politically he’d shifted from the Black Consciousness camp into the non-racial world of the newly established United Democratic Front. He was then involved in the Transvaal Anti-President’s Council campaign against the Tricameral Parliament.
I remember one of his stories from this time. He and some other activists were picked up while they were going door to door and taken to John Vorster Square, where he was left in the hands of a sergeant. He started out boldly determined to speak English only and ignore the policeman’s rank. But then he noticed the size of the man’s freckled fists, he said, and found he was quite able to say “Sersant” in his best Afrikaans. This sort of self-ironising comedy about painful things is at the heart of Chris’s storytelling. He often evokes the laughter that isn’t far from tears.
When I met him, Chris had already published his first poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home (1979), which won the Olive Schreiner Award; and his children’s classic, A Message in the Wind (1982), with a warm introduction by Richard Rive. He and his friend Fhazel Johennesse had also founded and disbanded Wietie, a literary magazine no less extraordinary for having run to just two issues.
I bought a copy of his collection and soon realised that his skill as a poet went far beyond the jagged polemic of “About graffiti”. There was the conceptually brilliant “In detention”, which has entered South Africa’s collective cultural memory, something that does not happen often. This intricate verse, no longer than a sonnet, remains one of the most chilling critiques of the apartheid lie.
Many of the other poems are equally memorable. The book is studded with exquisite love poems dedicated to Kathy, his high-school sweetheart and later his wife. “Winter without you”, “Portrait”, “You must never know I’m writing you a love poem” carry a huge emotional load on their slender frames. My favourite is the perfectly simple, heart-burstingly beautiful “Confession”:
i ate them
As an aspirant writer myself, I was both admiring and envious. How had he learnt to write like this? There are answers to this impossible question in his memoir, but that lay 20 years in the future.
There were a dozen of us working at Ravan Press. The editors — the other two were Mike Kirkwood and Kevin French — sat together in a single room, two desks on either side, facing one another across a narrow channel. We talked and joked, overheard one another’s telephone conversations, edited and argued. Frequently we rearranged the schedule. We worked hard too, as the publishing record shows. We were harassed by impatient authors and the security police. When the CCB threw a petrol bomb through the back door, it was a stroke of luck that a house full of paper did not burn to the ground.
Chris and I sat side by side for four years. We discovered a world of common interests, in books of course, but also in things like crosswords, which we did at lunchtime, somewhat competitively. He told me his favourite crossword clue was gegs (9,4). It’s up there with the best: the answer is “scrambled eggs”. He liked it so much, he mentioned it in his memoir. He was an incredible punster. Given half a chance, he could keep a riff of puns going for 10 minutes.
Chris poured his energies into his work with the Staffrider writers, who arrived at the house like pilgrims from all over the Rand. He spent half his time on a bench in the garden, going through handwritten poems in school exercise books with the authors, or unrolling drawings on the counter where the orders were packaged. Because of his poor eyesight he had to hold the pages up at an angle, which made his attention seem incredibly fierce.
Ravan was something of a refuge. Despite the personal and political tensions that played themselves out in the press, it felt a lot saner than the surrounding madness. Some of us made enduring friendships. We drank where we could, at the Market bar, or Dawson’s, or a gloomy kroeg in Langlaagte. We ate in the Coffee Bean in Hillbrow, where the proprietor Penny turned a blind eye. Mainly we got together in one another’s homes, in Troyeville, Noordgesig, Crown Mines. I was welcomed into Chris and Kathy’s place in Riverlea. Long after Ravan came to a sticky end, I would drop in at Arno Street for a chat and stay until lunchtime, or even suppertime. Sometimes Willie Smith would come past with a couple of quarts. Kathy, who was always the rock in Chris’s life, tolerated our carousing with good humour.
Once, in the early days of our friendship, we were reminiscing about the book exchanges we had gone to as kids in search of Alistair MacLean or Louis L’Amour, and I remarked that we were cut from the same cloth. Years later, when he took me past the matchbox house he’d grown up in, I realised what a thoughtless statement that had been.
In the early-2000s, Chris wrote the series of biographies for young readers that earned him enough to focus on his writing. The two books that followed about his childhood in Riverlea, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, will loom large in his legacy. Here he found his true voice on the page and it turned out to be a resonant echo of the one he used in the world. You can hear him speaking in every funny, sad, large-hearted line.
The books put Riverlea on the map and brought him a wide readership. It was the local response that mattered most to him, the reactions of old schoolteachers or neighbourhood shopkeepers. He loved to tell stories about the many people who contacted him to correct or confirm things, to challenge how they’d been portrayed or ask why they’d been left out.
The interest in his memoirs helped him to discover a talent for public speaking. The wonderful storytelling that had always entertained his friends grew into a kind of comedy. He was utterly fearless in these performances. If a little boy cried in one of his stories, he would bawl like a baby. If his mom shouted at him, he would shout at the top of his voice. In Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, he tells us that his first teacher, Miss Abrahams, told stories with this kind of conviction.
To the end, Chris made me laugh. We were talking about his chemotherapy and I said, “I’m glad the tumour’s responding well.”
He said, “No, no, Vlad, you don’t understand. We want it to respond badly.”
He told stories about the cancer survivors he met during his treatment. I remember thinking: “He’ll get through this. He’ll beat the odds, and then he’ll write an amazing book about it, full of the human detail that only he would notice.”
I will miss the long, hilarious phone calls, usually sparked by a pun in a headline or a clever newsbill (on the impending transfer of the footballer of the year to Real Madrid: “Hier kom Kaka”) or some Louis Jordan or Cole Porter rhyme he’d heard on Eleanor Moore’s radio show The Bandstand. He made me laugh so much the neighbours would come to see what was going on. It’s a truism that writers live on in their books, but with Chris the comment holds. If you want to hear his voice, his booming laugh, open any page of his memoirs.
Chris knew books could change your life. Could save your life. It’s why the failings of our education system infuriated him and why he spoke so often at schools. It’s remarkable, even in the life story of a writer, how much his memoirs circle around books: getting them, having them taken from you, using them to change your mind and the minds of others, revealing their true uses and values.
One of his most touching childhood stories tells how his Ouma took him to town to buy books out of her pension, carefully considering each one before pronouncing on its merits. And how he discovered a few months later that she had never learnt to read and write.
In the late ’70s, when the country was a darker place than it is now, he dedicated the poem Candle to his friend Caplan, another Riverlea raconteur who died too young. It ends like this:
Read brother read.
Only the wick shines red now.
But it is not yet dark.
it is not yet dark.
- 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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- Long Walk to Freedom by Chris Van Wyk, illustrated by Paddy Bouma
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