As I get older, I am grateful for the peace that comes with having a few more years under your belt. Mostly, I am pleased about the dwindling relevance of the angst of my teens and early adulthood. I no longer feel the need to question who I am, why I am here and how I want to be be perceived. Yet some questions linger. Perhaps it is because my circumstances and cultural reference points today are so different to those of my youth and childhood, but one of the things that I just can’t seem to shake is the question of racial identity. I know that this is a minefield in South Africa, and probably everywhere else in the world. Its just not something that I have ever been able to answer adequately. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps the fact that there are no easily identifiable answers points to the fact that race really shouldn’t be an issue at all.
Over the years, I have had many discussions with family and friends about what it means to be coloured and what the coloured cultural identity is. I have had as many answers as discussions.
I have heard, “Of course there is a coloured culture! It can be difficult to explain, but coloured people can recognise each other.” Coloured koeksusters are different to Afrikaans koeksusters. Our roti is different to Indian roti. ‘Play-whites’, ‘twanging’, Jack Purcells and Bomber jackets – worn together. These things are (supposedly) ours alone. While I recognise that there is some truth in all of this, I also know that there are so many similarities between various South African cultures that the differences are almost completely cancelled out.
Some say that there is no specific coloured culture because coloured people are by nature so diverse. Our cultural references are tied not only to the languages we speak at home, but to which part of South Africa – or even a particular city – we grew up in. “Even the slang is different,” I’ve been told. These differences can be distilled down to the suburb and street you grew up in, the school you went to and the amount of curl your hair holds. Then again, isn’t this true of everyone regardless of colour? And yet we wouldn’t argue that there is no such thing as culture At All, would we?
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been told that there is no such thing as a coloured person. Supporters of this theory are particularly fond of citing the fact that ‘coloured’ is a created race that exists only in South Africa and no other country. ‘We are all black,” I’m told. “Calling yourself coloured is to take on the false racial stereotyping of the apartheid regime that sought only to divide and conquer.” Again, I can see a kernel of truth in this. But I can’t ignore the fact that there Are coloured people in South Africa and we Are a separate racial group and this Has led to a whole new set of cultural references. Perhaps the way in which it happened was false and engineered, but it did happen and to deny that is to deny our history. Also, I must admit that this response makes me really uncomfortable because – to my mind – it is inflammatory in its implication that an entire group’s existence and experiences can be negated by saying, “It should never have happened, therefore the consequences do not exist.”
Being exposed to such diverse opinions since childhood has left me confused and unsure of what to believe a lot of the time. So its probably easy to understand why Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay and Chickens to Hatch had such an impact on me. Here, I am presented with literature that speaks not only to the human in me, but the South African and – undoubtedly – the coloured.
Van Wyk grew up in a time and place separated from my own youth by a few decades and a considerable distance. Yet I understand the picture that he paints of a Riverlea in the 60s and 70s, that goes beyond his proficiency with the written word or our common ground as South Africans. I recognise this place. I recognise the dog tied up in the back yard while children play in the street. I have tasted the somewhat bizarre combination of roast chicken, roasted potatoes and biryani served on special occasions. I close my eyes and can smell a multitude of curries being cooked in a dozen different houses as I walk up the street with my friends. What I will always think of as ‘the five o’clock smell’, because that is when most of the mothers came home and started the cooking. My jaw aches in sympathy at the horrific surprise of biting into an elachi seed cleverly disguised in a lamb curry. I know how to play kennekie. Perhaps there are white and black people who know these sights and smells as well as I do. And yet the special way in which they are combined, I am convinced, is particular to coloured people.
When I first heard of van Wyk upon the the release of his first memoir, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy; I went straight out and bought a copy of the book – just as I did with Eggs to Lay and Chickens to Hatch. Here was a man who grew up in a suburb not too far from my father’s home in Coronationville. A man who was what I had always looked for while growing up – a coloured literary role model. These books have meant a lot to me. They have connected me to a people from whom I have often felt disconnected in my later years. They have provided a sense of familiarity, recognition and comfort that I have rarely experienced in my years of reading books produced by Americans, Englishmen and even white South Africans.
And so I say thank you to Chris Van Wyk for answering a question that I have been asking for close to 30 years. Clearly there is a coloured cultural identity, for I share it with you, across time and space.
But I am still left wondering, “Is race really important and should it define us, colouring our interactions with each other?” I don’t know. Perhaps that’s a question for another book… If you know what that book is, let me know.