South Africa writer Imraan Coovadia talks about his latest novel

Yazeed Kamaldien

Writing a sentence that included the words “taxi boss” set Cape Town-based novelist Imraan Coovadia on a three-and-a-half year process to produce his latest book.

‘The Institute for Taxi Poetry’ is the fourth published novel by the award-winning writer whose full-time job entails teaching creative writing at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Between the covers of his latest effort he has imagined a world where minibus taxies are filled with poets who document in words the lives of the working class.

Coovadia agrees to meet at Wembley Square in Gardens for a Friday afternoon interview about ‘The Institute for Taxi Poetry’.

“I just read the first page of your novel while in a (minibus) taxi to town. My car is being fixed,” were my opening words of the interview.

“Okay. That’s what we have in common (broken cars). Please put that you read the book in a taxi in your interview,” he requests.

Coovadia says the book started with a sentence and could possibly have been a film.

“Most books just come by accident. I wrote a sentence about a taxi boss. Once I had written the words ‘taxi boss’ I just liked the sound of it. From there the idea of taxi poetry seemed interesting,” says Coovadia.

At first glance, the concept sounds like fertile ground for poverty porn. That’s the sort of treatment that films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ would impose on poverty.

It entails romanticising the setting via exploiting the poor and even making light of poverty. Middle class audiences particularly fall in love with poverty porn characters simply because they are so well-meaning and – ag, shame – so devastatingly poor. That’s probably a bit beside the point.

Coovadia though thinks that the world of minibus taxies “probably deserves to be romanticised”. He believes that the much-hated informal public transport vehicles, which resemble sardine cans with squashed up occupants, have long been neglected.

“Romanticising things can be a good thing and problematic. Don’t they (minibus taxi fraternity) need some romanticising?” he asks.

“With most South African fiction, you don’t see the working class experience. You don’t see whole parts of the city. You don’t see suffering. There is this whole field of existence that is ignored. There is all this life around us and so little makes it into our books,” says Coovadia.

“There are lots of books about writers and universities and it’s boring. We notice middle class people having a crisis of conscience. Too much of our (South African) writing is boring.”

So Coovadia spent “many days working from morning to night” to create a world where minibus taxi poets work for various taxi associations. They travel on different taxies and talk about the experience. They are also part of a newly-established university institute that aims to “teach taxi poets to write taxi poetry better”.

“The idea is that taxi companies have their own resident poet travelling around in minibuses and recording what happens and making poetry out of it. To professionalise it, the university has set up an institute to teach poetry,” elaborates Coovadia.

In this novel’s setting, the taxi poet is a separate entity. He stands apart from the taxi driver and the ‘guardjie’. The latter are the persons who collect cash from passengers and are sometimes referred to in more posh-slash-pretentious terms as ‘taxi fare collectors’. Coovadia names them “sliding door men”.

When Coovadia talks about the ideas that drive his story, one senses that his latest novel leans on his teaching job for inspiration. He teaches writing at a university and he has created an institute that focuses on teaching a writing form. Does he perhaps imagine his students to be taxi ‘gaurdjies’ or are they taxi poets?

“Academic environments are always very complicated. I’m interested in how the arts and imagination fits into what is essentially a bureaucracy. It’s very high school,” he reflects on higher learning institutions.

“But this book is about the subject of poetics. I thought it would be an interesting comparison of one (writing) genre versus another. It is about what makes a piece of language striking or beautiful. As a writer you think about the sentence, paragraph, chapters and whole novels.

“Explaining it is like being a musician. You can have a philosophy of your music but the only way to show it is by playing a sample.”

While “teaching isn’t painful but I’m not sure no-one enjoys it either”, Coovadia finds himself tied to writing in a way that most would not have the patience for. He says that he wrote the opening sequence – a death scene and funeral – “dozens and dozens of times”.

“I tried out dozens of different versions. You use different verbs, fewer adjectives and punctuation to get the tone of the book right,” he continues.

“Part of our job as writers is just to be slow and make sure that everything is as good as you can have it before anybody looks at it. You only have so many books that you can write and you want each one to be individualised and structurally sound. To do that takes time.”

Coovadia, who speaks English and “supposedly Afrikaans”, wrote and then “borrowed” some of the short poetry snippets in his book.

The few poems are all in English but are set in a Cape Town minibus taxi context that thrives in a strongly expressive Afrikaans. Or, one should say, ‘Afrikaaps’, which is the term for the creative version of Afrikaans that the Cape Town coloured community lives with.

The language usage is perhaps as a result of Coovadia being from “a strange place” called Durban. He moved to Cape Town six years ago to start teaching at UCT. And he admits that he is “not sure that I know Cape Town that well”. He uses this to his advantage in his writing.

“Sometimes if you are not from Cape Town you are a little freer to imagine it without knowing who you are in the scheme of things. That’s useful.”

“I don’t know that much about the taxi industry either. A lot of it (in the book) is invented and imagined.”

And although Coovadia “likes buses”, he is fascinated with what he does know about the minibus taxi world; “how taxi associations control territory”. The thought of being a taxi driver enters the conversation. The appeal vanishes.

“I would have made more money if I had spent this number of hours driving a taxi (instead of writing the novel). On the other hand, I don’t like driving.”

Book launches for ‘The Institute for Taxi Poetry’ will be held at the Book Lounge, Roeland Street, on April 17, and at Kalk Bay Books on April 24.

A book launch is also scheduled for Durban this month when Coovadia also speaks about this novel at a gathering in Michigan.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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