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Chris van Wyk Remembered

‘Man, I am so hungry!’ It’s late at night on a hill in Swaziland. Chris is my house-guest, and we’ve just got back after a session with some senior students. I’m teaching at Waterford Kamhlaba, and we’ve brought down some South African writers for one of our Arts Weekends, to engage with the students. For this one I have invited the unlikely troika of Chris Mann, Andries Oliphant and Chris van Wyk. I let Chris loose in the kitchen, and he emerges with a plate of fried eggs on toast, which he eats with the same kind of relish as he tells the seemingly endless flow of anecdotes that come tumbling out of him as he eats. Not much by way of sleep that weekend! But – obviously – Chris is a lovely house-guest.

The gentle guitar-strumming poems of Chris Mann, the almost impenetrable theorising of Andries Oliphant, and then … the mini-whirlwind that is Chris van Wyk, bursting with ebullience, laughing, joking, telling stories – always telling stories. This was the first occasion when I heard him tell the story of his two sons Kevin and Karl and the ‘days of miracles and wonders’ that he retells in Shirley, Goodness and Mercy (p. 327).
I had just had the updated version of my school anthology, New Inscapes, published. Chris was really chuffed that I had included three of his poems: ‘Injustice’, ‘A riot policeman’ and the masterly ‘In detention’. He made me sign the copy I gave him, and he signed my copy of his Olive Schreiner Prize-winning collection It is time to go home.
All of that was in 1986, and I met Chris and his wife Kathy many times over the years since then. One occasion was when I went to Joburg as IBBY SA’s Chairperson to hand over the first Exclusive Books IBBY SA Award in 2007. That was when we decided on five joint winners, and Chris’s Ouma Ruby’s Secret was one. I notice now that my citation for that reads: ‘for the humanity and the homespun South African authenticity of both text and illustrations’.

All good words for the man himself. Definitely one of the nicest people I have known.

Robin Malan

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