Spinal Tap

Chris van Wyk’s writing life started with a “big fat book” given to him by his grandmother, and he has been shaped by words ever since. He talks to Leon de Kock

LOADED: Van Wyk's memoirs are so chock-full of people and accounts that you need to hold it with both hands

WHEN Chris van Wyk was a small boy, his grandmother gave him a big, thick book. It was so big he could hardly pick it up. He was afraid of it, until he prised it open and discovered its treasures: card games, magic tricks, puzzles, word games and “general knowledge”. For a barefoot boy with cracked toes and one squint eye, born into dirt-poor conditions in a coloured township in 1957 — ironically named Coronationville — the big fat book was a kind of deliverance.

For this cross-eyed boy was no ordinary japie, even though he may have looked like one. At the age of eight he announced to his stunned parents that he would become a writer. He spent entire days lost in his book of knowledge. He was interested in everything. Stories, accounts, games, trickery, jokes, anything that was captured in sentences and that claimed to explain the world, beguiled and absorbed him.

Then one Saturday afternoon an uncle came to visit. The uncle was hardly inside the house when he spotted Van Wyk’s big book.

“Where did you get that?” he demanded.

“Ouma gave it to me,” Van Wyk replied.

“Gave or lent?”

Before Van Wyk could convince the uncle to stay while he woke his sleeping mom up, the uncle asked whether he could “borrow” the book. Taking it from the respectful boy, he announced that he and his wife wouldn’t be staying, and the stiff, crooked man marched away with the fat book tucked under his arm and his wife in tow.

That was the last Van Wyk ever saw of his book. He was forced to return to comics — Spider-Man, Richie Rich, Little Lotta, The Hulk, Batman, and some Hardy Boys volumes his grandmother bought for him at a second-hand bookshop.

Forty years later, I am interviewing Chris van Wyk, writer of adult and children’s fiction, poetry, biography, and now Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, his childhood memoirs — he has been a journeyman writer all his adult life — and I ask him whether his uncle ever gave him the book of treasures back.

In his strongly flavoured, explosively laughing manner, Van Wyk expresses some less-than-adoring sentiments about that particular uncle. Chris van Wyk is a man who is unsparing of those who do him in. It’s the way he grew up, on streets of dust in some of Joburg’s oldest and poorest coloured group areas. First Coronationville, then Riverlea.

A day later, after struggling to find an angle for my interview with Van Wyk, he phones me. I am at a swanky wedding reception at the Saxon Hotel, where Nelson Mandela spent many days finishing Long Walk to Freedom.

Van Wyk says to me on the phone: “Remember yesterday you asked me about that uncle of mine. It was about 11.30am, right?”

“Yes,” I confirm.

“Well, the old bugger died yesterday at 11.30am,” and he explodes with the laughter of pure wonder, a kind of amazed merriment that has guided him throughout his writing life.

“Now do you see why people like you and me are interested in stories,” he says, breaking into his high-pitched, funny, staccato laugh. It’s the laughter of recognition. The kind of laughter that says to you: “Isn’t it incredible, the way things turn out. Isn’t it funny?”

Van Wyk has an eye for precisely that. It is the single gift with which he came into a world where the odds were heavily stacked against him. That and a talent with words and what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”. The only reason Van Wyk is so smart is that he steadily avoids being too clever.

“It’s the stupid part of me,” he says. “The naive, stupid Chris is the one who writes stories. The stories are everywhere. I just let them come.”

The “stupid” part of him has also brought him the luck of work, projects, books to write — and income.

One day, he says, an old friend, Roger Jardine, son of political activist Bill Jardine, comes to see him. The Jardines were family friends in the apartheid township days. Now they’re politically connected and have made good.

“He tells me he wants me to write the story of his father’s life. I was still in my slippers and it was 1pm. That’s when you know you’re in trouble.

“Without even thinking about the implications of what I was doing, I just said ‘Yes, I’ll do it’. That’s the naive, stupid Chris. Next thing he hands me a cheque for 30 grand. He says he’ll give me the other twenty when I’m finished. Just like that.”

This eventually resulted in an oral history project and a book called Now Listen Here: The Life and Times of Bill Jardine, a work which has won high praise from professors of history for capturing the flavour of the old “Fietas” in Joburg, where the Jardines lived.

The money he got for the project — almost twice the amount Roger Jardine initially promised — is hardly the point. Van Wyk has little use for money in his modest Riverlea home, where he lives with his bank-manager wife, Kathy, and where he has raised two children, one of whom is now a lawyer.

He doesn’t drive a car — never has, as a result of his bad eye. All he needs in life is a keyboard, a room full of books, and the uncluttered “naivety” of never getting too clever to let the stories in. Within this kingdom he is secure. He is a writer and you’d better know it. Here he can be “stupid” and bolshy all at once. He knows he has to be “naive” to allow the world of stories in, but he doesn’t like people taking writers for granted. He enforces a recognition of his writerliness that few other writers have the gumption to pull off.

“One day this guy phones me. He says he wants to do a series of books on freedom fighters for schools. He says I must come and see him in his office.”

Big mistake. “Listen here,” I said to him. “If you want me to write something for you, you must come and see me here, in my house. That’s the way it works.”

The publisher got the message. He came to Riverlea. Chris said he’d think about the freedom-fighter series. In the meantime, he was finishing an edited version of Thabo Mbeki’s speeches.

While still working on this project, the President’s spokesman phones him to say, the President is in Johannesburg and wants to meet this Chris van Wyk. Would he come into Joburg now, please?

Mistake again. Van Wyk was tired. He’s just got off a taxi ride home. “Excuse me,” Van Wyk said, “if the President wants to see me, he can come here and see me here, in my own house.”

Thank you very much. I’m a writer.

After making the “freedom fighters” publisher wait two months, Van Wyk agreed to write the series. It is an attractively illustrated boxful of titles on figures like Helen Joseph, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Sol Plaatje , Nelson Mandela, and others, written for school learners.

Almost accidentally, this series has made Van Wyk financially comfortable and continues to do so. But that is almost entirely irrelevant. It’s a writer’s due, and Van Wyk is a rare species — a journeyman writer who enforces recognition, and reward, for his labours at the keyboard.

The real point is that he is still chasing stories. He is interviewing the old people of Riverlea and elsewhere, gathering boxes full of cassettes, even though the Jardine project is done. He’s not sure what he’ll do with the stories, but he knows he’ll recognise the pattern when it emerges. It’s the stories that really feed him.

And, meanwhile, he has published his memoir, which is so chock-full of people and accounts that it’s a book you need to hold with both your hands.

Chris van Wyk has been out there all his life. In a strange way, being poor made him rich, because he spent so much time on the streets while others, more “fortunate”, were cloistered against the rough, edgy, dangerous world which was Van Wyk’s bread and butter.

And he has stuck to the task of writing, unlike so many other writers who emerged in the Donga and Staffrider years of the 1970s and 1980s. Or those who have gone into the world of politics and fast cars.

And it’s actually so simple. You sit down every day to write. You keep the faith. You remain interested. You laugh. You never forget the lesson of the big, fat book full of wonder. And, unlike the now-dead uncle, you share the treasure. That’s the whole point. It’s still a kind of deliverance.

• Chris Van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness and Mercy: A Childhood Memoir is published by Picador Africa.