Novelist Imraan Coovadia talks about poetry, fish, not having fun as a writer and the appropriateness of South Africa’s minibus taxi industry as a subject for literary fiction

Words by Sean O'Toole | 28 Jun, 2013

I happen to be a taxi poet,” explains Adam Ravens, the narrator of Cape Town-based writer and literary scholar Imraan Coovadia’s fourth novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012). As Adam concedes, some say he is a lapsed taxi poet as he now teaches taxi poetry at the Jose da Silva Perreira Institute for Taxi Poetry at the University of Cape Town. An invented genre, taxi poetry, explains Adam, eulogises “all the shifting sensations, impressions and moving feelings of the participants” in the “turbulent universe” of the taxi industry. A gently absurd whodunit, Coovadia’s novel takes shape around the murder of Adam’s mentor, Solly Greenfield, a “fat old man” with “vegetable features” and Catholic reading tastes in poetry. Set in a Cape Town that is both familiar but unreal, the novel retrieves a strange beauty from a seemingly banal phenomenon: South Africa’s unregulated multi-billion rand taxi industry. Fiction writers have largely bypassed this urban phenomenon, one that has for years occupied sociologists, labour researchers and economists. This interview, done at Coovadia’s home in Gardens in 2012, begins by recalling earlier statements from a public interview at the launch of his novel in Cape Town.

CS: When I interviewed you at the launch of your book, you said that you researched the book in your hometown of Durban. How did you go about researching the story?

IC: I interviewed a taxi boss there, because I had access to him. But I also did some research here in Cape Town, and some was just done on paper, reading things. I also spoke to people who use taxis, which I do not use frequently, as well as researchers.

CS: During that interview you said the subject, South Africa’s minibus taxi industry, was an obvious subject for literary fiction. Yet no-one locally had tackled it as a subject. Why?

IC: I don’t understand why. It is such an entirely obvious subject. My diagnosis is that there is some kind of inhibition in South African thinking. There are things we don’t or can’t notice. Obviously some of that has to do with race and class and power, but some of it has to do with an inability to find the country interesting, and thus fit as the object of representation. Maybe every country except America has this problem. You watch films set in another place, you identify adventure or glamour with another place. I think we have a pretty serious case of that.

CS: That is a pretty broad context. Was there perhaps a particular incident or thing that prompted your interest in this as a potential subject? After all, you rarely use the minibus taxis yourself to commute to UCT, or anywhere in the city.

IC: Very rarely. Two people asked me about making films, and I think I had just seen that Brazilian film, City of God (2002). The advantage of being a third world country—which Brazil really isn’t anymore—is that you have visually interesting things. You can compose interesting shots and scenes with crowded markets, interesting slums and so forth. Very little of that makes its way into the local film. The moment you start looking at the taxi industry, you realise it is the focus of immense life, history and interesting stories. It is just startling that no-one has really taken it on in fiction. We’ve talked before about the slowness of writing. To be a writer here, you have to be in rush, practically and economically. It doesn’t pay to spend ten years on a book. Nobody will notice. What the taxi industry really requires is an epic of its own.

CS: Based on what I’m hearing, your research appears to have been more broadly applied than extensive or detailed?

IC: I think writers are really good at using everything that they have to give a feeling that there is all this other stuff. But no, it was not a documentary book at all. Cape Town, for instance, has taxi conductors, or gadjies; in Gauteng they don’t even have that figure.

CS: Your book is founded on the conceit that a genre of vernacular poetry celebrating the commuting life is alive and well in Cape Town. An excerpt from a Mongane Wally Serote poem prefaces the book, but as I understand it you fabricated all the other poems?

IC: Fabricated, and modified as necessary.

CS: That must have been fun. Our poetry tradition is very rich and must have offered lots to plunder from.

IC: It was the one thing I completely avoided doing, until my agent read the manuscript and said I have to have examples of poetry in it. For ages I avoided it. I feel the sentence in a novel has a specific weight and feeling. Novel sentences are athletic, whereas poetry sentences are something else. It is important for a novelist to avoid writing poetic sentences. Poetry is what you are trained not to write, even if from the outside there may be a lot of resemblances. I was very resistant. But people were insistent, so I invented my own tradition from various poets, drawing on invented and collected works. One or two I wrote by myself. One of the things I borrowed was a Shona love poem that had been translated by Douglas Livingstone into English. I ended up liking that idea. South Africa is never going to be a place where you have an endless, unbroken literary tradition practiced by the same people, at least rarely. Much more often someone writes something, it ends up in an archive, someone picks it up, translates it, does something else with it. I think that is an interesting version of our tradition.

CS: What have the responses been to your novel?

IC: As a writer you can’t tell what is going to happen with a book. Everyone who read it before its publication seemed to like it, a lot. I think people who don’t know me—critics and reviewers for instance—have been quite baffled by it. They don’t know what to make of it. The nature of the thing seems to have escaped them, or seems to not be there for them.

CS: Which is strange given that migration and commuter travel is central to our history—and given how this history played out in the way our cities and labour market is organised, central to our contemporary urban life and culture. But I want to turn to the figure of the taxi driver as someone who rewrites the rules of passage on urban roads.

IC: Although I don’t endorse what the taxis do, it is interesting that they do it. Writers have to get out of the praise and blame business, and look at what’s there. No-one praises taxis, everyone seems to blame them. It was interesting to try and think of them in a slightly different light. What kind of life have they brought into being? I am not sure I have a really good view of that, but at least I thought let’s try have a view.

CS: In the same way that taxi drivers take permission to do as they please, did you do as you pleased when writing this book? It does seem so. One of the virtues of your book, I would argue, is its gentle absurdity. For instance, Solly Greenfields, the godfather of taxi poetry and Adam’s mentor, praises snoek (barracouta) in such a lavish and hyperbolic way.

IC: That is an interesting question. I think from the outside this book can seem like a wild, freewheeling and arbitrary book. For me, being on the inside, writing is really about discipline and control and order. It never felt wild and uncontained. I feel other writers are much better at being wild and uncontained and freewheeling. The inward experience has not been of arbitrariness. I feel I would be much better off with wildness.

CS: Yet it is mischievous and playful. Your book celebrates Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese novelist and poet who grew up in Durban, claiming him as a kind of godfather figure for taxi poets. Clearly you were having fun writing it.

IC: It is an open question whether you can actually have fun as a writer. I wanted to at least note the different kind of joys of South African life—and there are immense pleasures. They aren’t the ones that are set up for us, luxury cars or days at the beach. There is a strange strain of wildness in our actual life itself, an unexpectedness and exhilaration that I was trying to incorporate.

CS: Was it a process of discovery for you too?

IC: It always is. Discovery might be the wrong word because it suggests a landscape you find. It is more like putting together things that sound right: you tap them and ask yourself if the sound comes off right. You do that for the length of the book, and hope it sounds right to other people when they pick it up and read it.

CS: The novel is a whodunit, of sorts. Solly gets murdered. By who? Read on. How important was that to telling the story you wanted to tell?

IC: In any novel you start off being insincere with your commitments, because they haven’t formalised yet, but then, as you write it, you try to make a sincere thing. I don’t think the book would have worked without some form of mystery. It could have had some other form of action rather than they mystery. A mystery is a cognitive thing: you are finding out something rather than acting. Maybe the mystery part is a weakness. I think the other thing I feel quite strongly as a writer is that there aren’t any perfect novels. They are kind of messy and untidy things, and they proliferate unnecessary subplots, and slow you down in places you don’t want to slow down, or speed you up in other places. Living with a novel is really getting used to that kind of untidiness and realising that things are experiments, and sometimes they will work and sometimes not.

CS: As a writer, does it take you time to get used to a character you have created?

IC: It is quite complicated for me. The huge cross you bear as a South African writer is particularising everything to race, class and region. I am not a Capetonian, really. None of the characters in my novel are very socially or racially near me. On the other hand, what I have noted in Life & Times of Michael K (1983) is JM Coetzee using a kind of unspecified but clearly Coloured identity as a way of writing a certain of book that would have been impossible for Coetzee to particularise further. Sometimes it is useful to have that distance. One of the things you fall into as a South African writer is writing from your own community, whatever that is, or your putative community. I think only writing about Indians in Durban would run cold for me after a while. It locks you into certain attitudes towards the country, whereas opening up slightly and writing about different communities was quite interesting. There was obviously a certain amount of overlap between Indian and coloured communities.

CS: In South Africa, artists and writers are often confronted with criticism to do with the politics of representation. Who is representing who, and why? Is it something that presses on you as a writer?

IC: Not really. I don’t think anyone sees me as speaking for anybody. I don’t feel like I’m a writer with an audience or community that specifically cares for anything I’m doing. In a way, the freedom of not having a large audience … [laughs] … you don’t feel the need to censor yourself.

CS: There is also your life as head of the creative writing department at the University of Cape Town, which mirrors the activities of your protagonist, Adam Ravens, who teaches at a taxi poetry institute at the same university

IC: I wasn’t actually teaching at the creative writing programme when I started writing this book. But obviously it is useful way of thinking about that experience. What does it mean for artists or writers to be taking places up in the university? The space, I think, is interesting. It is a good space to have open to you. All sorts of students use it, even if they don’t carry on and write. It is a place to write freely, which is good to have happening. However, it needs to be a place relatively free of university methods, which are being imposed much more strongly than they used to be as universities corporatise and democratise. There is a way that even administrators of good faith can’t process the need to operate by a slightly different logic. In the US, an administrator will look and ask what is the method of assessment. There is no method: writing is simply powerful, beautiful, astonishing.

CS: How long did you live in the US?

IC: From the time I was 19 to 35, roughly.

CS: One of the now standard understandings of apartheid was that it was about the organisation of space. Coming from the US, or at least having lived there for a considerable part of your adult life, what struck you when you returned home, in particular about South African cities.

IC: I’m not sure I have any deep thoughts about this. The huge disappointment for me with South African cities was that, for all their problems American cities still have a lot of public space (beaches, parks, the street). A city is healthy and alive when the roads are occupied, when shops are open late and you can walk and cycle.

CS: The reason I asked that question is because South African literature, it seems to me, doesn’t have a fully-fledged cosmopolitan tradition. The flâneur, the urban walker, someone like Julius in Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), is, for the most part, absent from our literature. You can see hints of its emergence though in writing about Johannesburg.

IC: In a way there is no social basis for an observer of the city because it is such a rare position to be in: partly because it is dangerous and complicated to navigate, partly because what people recall about their experience of cities is not necessarily of interest to anybody. Increasingly, South African life seems to be about erecting barriers of non-interest to the general phenomenon of the city and all its aspects. That can be reinstated at the level of the academy or the novel, but it is not there as a general cultural type. Helen Vendler [an American poetry critic] writes somewhere about the ideal of American poetry being to write a poem for every stream and every hill. There is something appealing and democratic about the idea that writing should reach everywhere and everyone. Obviously it never will, but it helps when you go somewhere, or even live in a place, to have writing attached to it. It is a comforting thing, even if you disagree with it, because you get to frame your thoughts in relation to your disagreement. It is quite disconcerting to be a place where there is very little writing. I grew up in Durban. It is numerically big but culturally very small. In the 1970s the best piece of writing about Durban was Naipaul in the 1950s. It is really a un-thought-through experience, and therefore difficult to process what is happening about you.

Sean O'Toole is an author, art critic and journalist based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of Cityscapes Magazine

Imran Coovadia (b. 1970, Durban) is a writer and director of the creative writing programme in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town. His novels include The Wedding (2001), Green-Eyed Thieves (2006) and High low in-between (2009), which won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize. He has also published the scholarly monograph, Authority and Authorship in V.S. Naipaul (2009) and a collection of essays, Transformations (2012).