Van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness & Mercy is an autobiographical account of a young boy growing up in a coloured community in South Africa during the apartheid era. Van Wyks account is similar in context to Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue except for the fact that Es’kia’s account takes place in a black community. In fact, Van Wyk owns a lot to Mphahlele and sees him as one of his heroes. “…I read his Down Second Avenue – a tattered copy, which I keep hidden far away from the security police. Because I want to write like Zeke one day…I want to shake his hand and say, ‘I read your book. I want to write a book like yours one day.’ I want to say, ‘You are my literary grandfather, I look up to you.” p268
Van Wyk as a young boy tells his experiences growing up in the townships of Coronationville and Riverlea. He tells stories about the lives of his family under apartheid. For instance, his mother Shirley, born in 1937, lived with her parents in a three-bedroomed house in a working-class suburb called Coronationville and describes how the name of the town was named. ‘This name had something to do with the queen of England putting in an appearance here in South Africa sometime in the forties shortly after she was crowned and declaring that this suburb be the exclusive residence of Coloured people.’ p16
In reading Van Wyk’s book, I was curious in knowing all about why he chose the title Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and in the early chapters we are told about the young Wyk reading Psalm 23 and replacing ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me’ with ‘Shirley, Goodness and Mercy…’ p31 Her Shirley mother is brought into the prayer recitals, perhaps, as a result of the motherly love.
Van Wyk shares the mystery of many nice books he encountered growing up as a child. He talks about his Ouma visiting them in Riverlea and taking him to the bookshop. Once in town, he learns about why a bookshop is named Homes and Orphans. ‘The bookshop in Diagonal Street is called Homes and Orphans…because it collects old books from the rich (who are white), sells them to the poor (who are Coloured and African), and gives the money to old-age homes and orphanages.’ p67
In terms of identity, we are told that when applying for an identity document you ought to state where you belong. For instance, after the bookshop episode, the young Van Wyk tells us: ‘I know I’m a Coloured boy because that’s what you have to put on any kind of official forms – at school, in church or when applying for an identity document.’ P67
Van Wyk’s account of growing up as a Coloured boy under apartheid is a totally revealing tale. Shirley, Goodness & Mercy was first published in 2004 by Picador Africa.