The great poet, memoirist, novelist, essayist and biographer, Chris van Wyk spoke to my English 3 class (elective: postcolonial humour) this week on his Shirley, goodness and mercy. The class was a huge success and many things associated with van Wyk tend to be.
Indeed, even some of my most hesitant students were animated by his address and his answers to the questions they posed. Now, it does not matter how many times I teach this text, and I was probably one of the first person to teach it, just as the first reviews were coming out in the local press. Each group of students I have taught it to have loved it, even though the areas I have focused on, and the kinds of courses I have prescribed it for, have differered significantly.
It is both a wonderful and challenging text. The first challenge results from having to teach it alongside another work of creative writing. It is a firm favourite no matter what other text I teach it next to, so this year I scheduled the lecture series on the memoir last. At both institutions where I have taught it, students inevitably want to write their essays, assignments, focus on it for their class presentations and answer exam question on van Wyk’s incredible text.
The second challenge results from the sheer enjoyment that comes from reading the text. Challenge, you ask? In a discipline, literary criticism, that is about the analysis of written creative texts, the actual pleasure of reading the text to be analysed is nonetheless undertheorised. Van Wyk’s memoir hard to put down even upon third and fourth re-reading. I talked about my lecture series this year as the paradoxical exercise of “taking humour seriously”. In these classes I sometimes grapple with a way to “take humour seriously”, in other words, a means to pay attention to it, its uses, its variances, etc without spoiling the humour in my discussion of it.
For, van Wyk’s text, although immensely enjoyable, is also a finely crafted piece of literature. Although it is humorous in parts, it is also carefully moulded to sometimes use humour for politically sophisticated ends. As I work through the meanings and strategies embedded in/enabled by the humour, I hope that I do not leave my students behind – and that they will be able to return to the text several times over, after they have left the course.
I really do believe it is a wonder of a book, and the answer lies between the covers. In a country where “most people choose not to read” for leisure, and where bestseller stats start at 4500 units sold, the memoir has sold over 20 000 copies as at last count, according to van Wyk. When the Market Theatre put on a play based on the memoir, van Wyk’s magic broke another record: the theatre was filled to capacity for weeks on end. Getting tickets was quite a mission. Yet, this is the same country where we are told that Black people don’t watch theatre. Shirley, goodness and mercy was sold out to predominantly Black audiences for well over a month.
This makes you think, doesn’t it?