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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Mary Watson is the author of Moss, a collection of interlinking short stories, published by Kwela in 2004.
In 2006 she won the prestigious Caine Prize for her story “Jungfrau” from Moss.
       Mary teaches in the Film and Media Department at the University of Cape Town and lives in Woodstock.

Chris van WykChris van Wyk, born in July 1957, lives in Northcliff, Johannesburg, with his wife, Kathy, and their two sons. He makes his living as a full-time writer. His short stories and poetry have been published in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France, Turkey, the UK, the USA and Canada. He won the Olive Schreiner Award in 1979 and the Sanlam Prize for the year's best South African short story in 1998, the same year his novel The Year of the Tapeworm was published. In 2003 he published Freedom Fighters, a series of biographies for children and young teens which is used extensively in South African schools. The follow-up appeared in 2006. He also published in 2003 was Now Listen Here - The Life and Times of Bill Jardine (STE Publishers), the biography of Bill Jardine, an ANC sports activist who, together with Makhenkesi Stofile, Ngconde Balfour and others fought racism in apartheid sport.
Shirley, Goodness and Mercy - a Childhood Memoir, was published by Picador Africa in 2004. It is the story of Van Wyk's childhood and youth as he grew up and lived in a "coloured" township in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The book was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in 2005 and published in Britain in 2006.

Mary Watson in conversation with Chris van Wyk

1. I loved Shirley, Goodness and Mercy.  Despite the gap of a decade or so, your story really took me back to my own childhood in Cape Town.  I found a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in revisiting these experiences with your younger, somewhat fictional self. I’m interested that it struck me as so very similar despite the differences in time and place.  To what extent is that particular sense of community which you invoke in your story still intact? Could you write your contemporary experience in the same way or have things changed too much?

Thanks. Many people have reacted as you have done to the book – people who have lived in other towns or cities as well as in different times. I set out to write the story of the life of Chris van Wyk and inadvertently ended up writing the history of a community – and of people beyond that community. Wow! I hope I can pull it off again sometime.

As to whether things have changed in Riverlea? Oh yes. And for the worse, it seems. Crime has increased, people are poorer, there is more alcohol and drug abuse. This “coloured” community has a perception (real or imagined) that the new ANC government has forgotten about them.

And as you can tell, the adult Chris could not look at Riverlea with the same childlike innocence.

2. You’ve mentioned that one of your inspirations for writing emerges from speaking to people – could you tell me more about that?

A few years before Shirley I wrote a biography (entitled Now Listen Here) of one Bill Jardine, an ANC activist who lived in Riverlea. In order to write Bill’s life story I interviewed dozens of people in Riverlea. The stories were so incredibly interesting that I continued to do the interviews even after I had finished writing the biography. So interesting, in fact, that I became almost obsessed with it. I became a kind of stalker of oupas and oumas, looking out for someone to interview everywhere I went. I now have in my possession dozens of cassettes crammed with stories which I can use in any creative way I like. And I strongly recommend that all writers in this country embark on a similar exercise. Apart from enriching one’s own writing, it is crucial that ordinary people, who in many cases did not believe they were part of our history, tell their stories.

There is a storytelling project happening up here in Jo’burg, sponsored by the local ANC Government. But from what I hear, it is happening only in African townships, not in coloured, Indian or white ones. And it seems that the project is concerned mainly with “what happened during the struggle” – which leaves a huge chunk of history untold.

3. Do you think that because we’re now both old and grey, we regard ourselves as children through rose-coloured glasses? Usually, in our stories of ourselves we’re always the heroes, never the irritating kid who picked his nose and smelt bad. To what extent does the rosy haze of nostalgia alter your recorded experiences and identity as a child?

I personally know one or two writers who I am quite sure would’ve written the same story differently. “Our family was the only non-racist one in a sea of racists,” they would’ve written. “My ma and pa always helped the poor.” Or even gone the other way, as in, “We were the poorest.” (Next time I see you I’ll give you some names.)

Many aspects of the book were written spontaneously – almost without thinking seriously about what I was doing. However, the one thing I did consciously think about all the way through was that many writers in this country take themselves too seriously – too clever or too sensitive or talented; and before you know it they’ve removed themselves from a community which they might then want to write about – but which they cannot because they’re too far removed from it.

Ninety percent of the people of Riverlea didn’t even know I was a writer. The other ten percent knew but couldn’t care.

But having said all that, I did bump into a man a few months ago who was in my standard 5 class and who I hadn’t seen in twenty years. He was, and still is, a dull, humourless fellow and did not even know that Shirley existed, even though he still lives in Riverlea. He also showed no desire for talking about our shared childhood, as people normally would do.

“Do you remember me?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “You were the guy who was only interested in writing good English essays, so much so that you completely ignored all the other subjects.”

I was offended! That is certainly not how I see myself.

OK, I admit, I did pick my nose in grade 2. But people read books while having lunch, so I decided to spare them the details.     

4. There is a lot of painful stuff that emerges in the book, and this is masterfully handled. Your blend of comedy and memory de-emphasises the unpleasant, which allows it to emerge all the more powerfully. What was it like to write the more painful experiences in the book?

One of the more painful bits was about one Melbourne Kelly (I’ve used his actual name – no alias for old Kelly to sneak behind, I decided). He was a sadistic teacher who once gave me one hundred cuts. And of course there was the principal who did nothing about it, my own father who was fooled (by Kelly and the principal) into believing that it would not happen again, and an entire classroom of mates who expressed no sympathy or support for me. (Incidentally, when it was time to stand up to those other sadists, the apartheid government, that same bunch of classmates was nowhere to be seen. So, sadly, I do have a kind of love/hate relationship with the people of Riverlea.) A chapter of that length would normally take me, say, two or three days to write from start to finish. But I remember deciding to do it in one five-hour night. The memories are so painful and I didn’t want to stay with it for too long.

I could not, of course, approach the Kelly story with my characteristic humour (peeing in your pants in a classroom full of boys and girls is no laughing matter). But I used to be a stamp collector and use that hobby to make the Kelly story bearable to the reader as well as to me. As I wrote down the story I remember telling myself to stay calm, not to curse him, not to exaggerate his looks or the smell of his breath. Shirley has just been published in the UK and today a journalist from a British magazine interviewed me telephonically. The only character she asked me about by name was Kelly. This gives me lots of satisfaction – thousands of kids are brutalised by teachers, humiliated by aunts, teased by friends. One of those kids becomes a writer and suddenly the secret is out. Kelly is still alive and probably knows by now that he’s been immortalised.

5. What’s your next project?

After Shirley I wrote eleven children’s books, which were published this year. One of them, Ouma Ruby’s Secret, is a picture story taken from Shirley. The other ten make up a series called Freedom Fighters and include the biographies of Lilian Ngoyi, Yusuf Dadoo, John Dube, Robert Sobukwe, Mohandas Gandhi, Ruth First, Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu and Cissie Gool.

But if you’re talking about books for adults who are “old and grey” the answer is: more of the same – if you can bear it.

After a sneak preview of the first 50 completed pages of Shirley the publishers Panmacmillan wanted it, but had a deadline and got me to hurry up and finish it. Of course I’m grateful to them, because if they hadn’t screamed at me to get on with it, it would still have been in my computer, into the twentieth rewrite and with all the spontaneity sucked out of it by now. But writing in a hurry meant leaving out lots.

And the people (of Riverlea at least) want more of the same. They cannot believe that they too can be in books, that they have participated in some way in the making of history and not been mere participants. And, my God, I have got them to read, so why not let them read some more?

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LitNet: 30 August 2006

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