In celebration of transport month, City Views’ writer Ambre Nicolson spoke to Cape Town-based writer, academic and author of The Institute for Taxi Poetry Imraan Coovadia about transport and why Cape Town is a great city for writers.
Part satire, part thought experiment, your new novel is set in an imagined Cape Town in which the Institute for Taxi Poetry trains young people to use taxis as canvases for poetry. What made you combine the different worlds of poetry and taxis in the book?
I think the question really is why not taxis? They are such a paradoxical and unexpected part of the new South Africa, and such a central feature of our society and yet they have never made it onto the page. I also think that our ordinary means of transport are actually very strange in this country. If you followed every person’s transport day, you would find out a lot about people – just the route they take, where they come from, the connections they make – these facts are very revealing and interesting. When it comes to poetry, I’ve always had the feeling that imagination belongs to everybody. Perhaps you get people who are faster and slower, but I don’t think you get people who are more or less imaginative. I think imagination is quite democratic and people have all sorts of expressive resources which are often invisible. So, in the case of the book, I invented a genre in which they would be visible. In fact, since I wrote the book, the Goethe Institute in Joburg has suggested running a competition to put poetry on taxis. There are, after all, examples of transportation poetry around the world: There’s an interesting book of South African railroad poetry, Pakistani taxis sometimes have religious verses written on them, and there is often poetry on the London underground and the New York subway.
The Cape Town in your novel is a one-party state in which Portuguese is the dominant language. What made you choose Portuguese?
I suppose I wondered why we have all these countries next to us, some of them Portuguese speaking and quite different, yet our imagination tends to be quite national or neighbourhood based – as in the Kalk Bay novel or the Sea Point novel. Rather, I thought it would be interesting to imagine Southern Africa as a cultural unit, and as a Portuguese speaking place. That would give a whole different feeling, to the names in the novel … one of the curses of being a South African writer is that race is such a compelling problem, but there are not that many new ways into it imaginatively. The Portuguese-speaking Catholic countries, like Brazil, Mozambique and Angola, have different angles on this stuff and I thought it would be good to be more open to these things.
You were born in Durban and lived in the United States for over a decade. Do you now consider yourself a Capetonian?
On one level writers only need a pen, or a nice laptop perhaps, but on another level there are places in South Africa where I think it would be hard to be a writer unless you were very self-reliant. Cape Town is not like that, it’s a city of culture. I think that’s why it’s an interesting place to write. I have lived here for a number of years but I still find it quite odd … I think that’s really key for writers, to ask questions and be curious about things that other people consider too simple. When I first arrived there were some obvious differences that set me apart from the locals. Capetonians spoke slower, they were generally happier; they had a few close friends, rather than a huge social circle. I think I have become a lot more like that. I eat and talk slower, I like to be outside and I cycle these days. So yes, in some ways I am a Capetonian now.
Do you have a favourite place in Cape Town, somewhere you go for inspiration?
I think there are too many places to choose from. I do think that it is truly wonderful how proximate and accessible all these shockingly great places are, that you don’t have to drive two hours to be on Lion’s Head or the beach – everything is close and extraordinary. I also love to cycle; I think perhaps I should have written a book about bicycling in Cape Town. I think writers are natural cyclists: there is an affinity between cycling and writing, something about the rhythm of sentences and cycling that go together. I do feel it is quite dangerous to cycle round Cape Town because of the traffic but I believe that the more bicycles you have, the more novels you will have.
What do imagine Cape Town to be like in the future?
On the one hand as a writer I think you are a natural revolutionary: you want to sweep everything aside and start over, but in another way I think it’s important to recognise that there is a lot that is very valuable about Cape Town: the ways in which people have preserved it and grown up here over generations and the specific rituals that accompany this. It’s hard to see how Cape Town’s future will unfold without undermining some of the things that make it special. Of course, it’s natural for places to go through transitions. If you look at America, there are all these problems but it’s quite open, whereas here I think our subculture is quite closed. So I think the question is how to make Cape Town’s default position more open. The easy way is for it to become a pseudo city, a shallow hotel-ridden international city with too many developments, but that’s just the openness of money. It could be open in a deeper way, and I think that’s the experiment of cities.
- If you’d like to read The Institute for Taxi Poetry for yourself, copies can be found at Central City bookstores like Clarke’s and the Book Lounge, and at the Central Library on Darling Street.
- This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of City Views: Cape Town as a mobile city.
As a counterpoint to this story, make sure you read our interview with taxi driver Mzi Phephani on page 10.
Photo by Jacques Marais Media