The first memoir I read was “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden, the first trip I took in time to a different world of a young Japanese girl who would eventually become one of the famous Geisha’s of her time – her unique struggles and victories that eventually lead to the memoir. A few books later I find myself face to face with Chris van Wyk’s childhood memoir, being a coloured man I expect the author to take me to a heart drenching time in apartheid South Africa, during the struggle of non-whites for freedom from the clutches of white supremist rule. But I have to say, Mr. van Wyk made this trip a fun and humbling experience – seeing the world through the eyes of a young coloured boy from the zombietown of Riverlea, one truly appreciates the importance of family, laughter and adventure during times of hardship. It would be unfair of me to focus on the challenges the young Chris van Wyk went through without alluding to the charming, intelligent and brave character of this cockeyed bookworm that eventually grew up to be a freedom fighter through his conscious literature and poetry.
One thing I love about this book is the brutal honesty Mr. van Wyk tells his story, growing up from the township of Mashishing in Mupumalanga I found many similarities between myself and the young kuller i.e. being sent to the shops to buy items for neighbours and hoping for a tip for the trip, eating fried chips, sausages, bread and cold drink with friends; alcohol abuse by my community and the typical adventures of a hopeful boy in the townships. I find it quite amazing that the author, coming from a relatively poor family somehow found joy in the simplest of things until of course he grew up and realized the terrible conditions non-whites lived in apartheid South Africa – van Wyk points out to horrible moments he had to endure in the hands of the racist Boers – things like the murder of close friends and humiliation one had to swallow i.e. a grown coloured man having to cower to an 18 year old Afrikaner policeman, being kicked out of a whites only swimming pool, visits to Jon Vorster square where many unknown struggle heroes met their deaths and torture (this reminds me of the story of the one Ahmed Timol who had returned from Moscow to help build the freedom movement in then South Africa – a few days later he came hurtling to his death from one of Jon Voster Square’s ninth-floor windows into the street below – “the fall was so severe that it gauged out one of his eyes, crushed a testicle and dislodged all his finger nails” says the author.
Brutal times those were indeed, yet Mr. van Wyk never fails to bring relief to such recollections (always a depressing and heartbreaking part of reading memoirs, when one re-lives the pain and struggle that the author endured) through those moments of hope i.e. attending one of his childhood heroes the late Prof. E’skia Mphahlele’s lectures and meeting former president father of the nation Nelson Mandela.
A fun, honest and graphic read. Shirley, Goodness & Mercy is without a doubt one of my favourite memoirs so far. Enjoy.