Chris Van Wyk is an important figure on the South African literary scene. Born in 1957 in a coloured township of Johannesburg, he experienced at first hand the inequality and deprivation reserved to “non-whites” during apartheid. Fascinated by literature from a very young age, Van Wyk rose to fame in the 1970s for his engaged poems where absurdity and humor brought a daring counterpoint to the harsh realities they were referring to. In 2004, his acclaimed childhood memoir “Shirley, Goodness & Mercy” gave a delightful account of his special relationship to the township he grew up in and its inhabitants. In this interview with Africa Book Club, Chris Van Wyk discusses his writing, the challenge of finding a readership in South Africa and the present state of his country.
You grew up in a township where books were a rare commodity. Where does your fascination for literature come from?
Books were not as rare as you think. Riverlea, the township where I grew up, did have a fairly well-stocked library despite Apartheid. Added to that, my parents were readers. When I saw how much fun they derived from it, I began reading too. And I was fortunate to have teachers in my formative first three years of school who also encouraged reading.
How did you eventually become a writer? Was it difficult to follow this path?
Even before I was nine or ten years old, I remember boasting to my parents, uncles and aunts that I would one day be a writer – when brothers and sisters and friends were dreaming of becoming teachers, doctors, firemen and policemen. 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.
Poems, novels, children’s stories, biographies, books for neo-literate adults… You regularly change literary genres. Is this by design?
I don’t change literary genres, I simply write in all of them because I can. There isn’t a conscious decision to change from one to the other. While busy writing a novel for instance, I would be commissioned to write a children’s story – as happened about three years ago when the Nelson Mandela Foundation asked me to write the young kids’ version of Long Walk to Freedom. But, having said that, I must mention that I have stopped writing poetry altogether to concentrate on writing prose. I now work as a full-time writer and poetry cannot sustain me financially in the way that writing a novel (or even a children’s books) can.
You wrote on the struggle against apartheid, on figures of contemporary South African history and even on your childhood in a township. What draws your inspiration? At what point do you know that an idea you have will make a good story?
The funny thing is that I don’t ever know for sure. A few years ago I wrote my childhood memoir, Shirley, Goodness & Mercy only after reading Irish writer Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, which inspired me to write my own story. I hoped my memoir would sell about two or three thousand copies. I was stunned when it eventually sold over 25 000! I hope that I would find the formula with everything I’m going to write from now on – but it’s not so easy to repeat that success.
You were surprised after publishing your childhood memoir “Shirley, Goodness & Mercy” that the inhabitants of the Riverlea township, the very characters of the book, bothered to read it at all. Is literature too remote from “mainstream” preoccupations in South Africa? Or should writers adapt their work to the public?
I suppose just two of the many problems are illiteracy and apartheid. J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer are both Nobel laureates, but I could take you to communities that have never heard about them, where people either cannot read, or can but don’t see the point. I wrote Shirley in a simple, accessible way and somehow it worked: people who had never read a book in their lives before were reading that book. And yet there were others who, even though they or members of their families appeared in the book, told me they were not curious to read the book because, well, they just didn’t like wasting their time reading.
On language: a glossary is enclosed in “Shirley, Goodness and Mercy”, translating savoury Afrikaans terms and township slang into English. Is there a market for South African writers besides English? Or is writing in English the only way to get published?
No, definitely not. Books in Afrikaans are published virtually every month. And there are books being published in African languages such as Zulu and Xhosa. My second memoir, Eggs to lay, Chickens to Hatch, was published in Afrikaans and the children’s version of Long Walk to Freedom was published in all South Africa’s African languages.
African literature is growing fast, and unprecedented numbers of African writers are getting the chance to be published. Does this surprise you?
Despite growing up during apartheid, a lot of African literature was made available to us (young South African writers at the time) thanks to among others the “African Writers” series published by Heinemann. Two books from this series that I can never forget are Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (‘Beautyful’ is deliberately misspelt for reasons that become clear in the story) by Ayi Kwei Armah. Today there is far more African writing being published – and much more interaction between South African and other African writers. This must and will benefit all African literature in obvious ways.
Your readers know of your admiration for Es’kia Mphahlele – the author of “Down Second Avenue”. But is there any writer to inspire you among younger generations in Africa?
If I could call J.M. Coetzee a writer from a younger generation (older than me but certainly younger than Mphahlele) then it is he who I would say has inspired me the most. While his stories are often bleak, devoid of humour and laughter, he shows how important it is to read and read and read some more. There are not many African writers who inspire me. But this is probably my fault rather than theirs – to my shame I haven’t been reading as much as Coetzee believes a writer should – but I try!
A tricky question for the road: a lot of your writing reflects your fight against apartheid. Is the “new South-Africa” truthful to the expectations you had during the struggle?
The new South Africa is far from it. This question usually provokes a lot of anger in me and I could go on for ages and pages. But let’s mention only one of its tragic shortcomings: it is extremely corrupt from top to bottom. If anybody in the Government had bothered to read The Beautyful Ones… they might understand how corruption can kill the ideals and dreams of freedom that Mandela and thousands of others had fought – and died – for. But no, it seems that the corrupt are too busy stealing and spending to read a book.