Looking sho't left
Fiction Prize finalist Imraan Coovadia marries 'taxi' and 'poetry' to steer a tale about murder and beauty in Cape Town. Interview by Tymon Smith
Imraan Coovadia grew up in Durban and holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a master's from Cornell and a PhD from Yale. He is director of the creative writing programme at UCT and the author of four novels, including High Low In-between, which won the 2010 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize. His latest novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry, begins with the murder of a taxi poet. At the Institute for Taxi Poetry, where young people train to write poetry on the bodies of Cape Town's taxis, the dead man's protégé tries to make sense of his death.
What was the genesis of the novel?
I liked the way the words "taxi" and "poetry" fell in with each other. Like most novelists, I didn't understand poets well and wanted to more. And I had developed an interest in taxis since watching certain films about taxi drivers (Taxi Driver, Night on Earth) in the early 1990s. Plus, if you're trying to figure out the unplanned way this country has changed since 1990, the taxi industry is probably the best way in. It seems transport changes more rapidly than the conservative poetry-industrial complex.
Did you spend any time with taxi drivers in preparation for the writing?
I've taken taxis to places like airports and hotels and have always tried to talk to the drivers. I read a fair amount about the history of taxis in this country and interviewed the chairman of a taxi association. I had friends who had spent more time in taxis and I borrowed the stories they had borrowed from the drivers. But most research you do as a writer is experimenting with sentences and scenes to see which ones resist reading.
You work in an academic institution but you're often cynical about academia in your writing. Do you get a lot of blowback from academics as a result?
I have many wonderful colleagues and friends at universities. I think it would be unjustifiable if, say, young magicians mistreated JK Rowling or serial killers travelling through time took a special interest in Lauren Beukes, just because they had been portrayed in their good and bad aspects in their novels. Having said that, yes, on blowback, and it should stop because it shows we don't have democracy in our bones. But resistance is interesting when you encounter it as a writer, or as a person. Sometimes it shows you a mistake you've made. Sometimes it implies you might be right.
Are you concerned with the social peculiarities of Cape Town and how do they affect this story?
Yes. I suppose the story has something to do with the combination of beauty, murder, monopoly and social exclusion that I think defines Cape Town.
In the book you've re-imagined Cape Town in terms of a relationship with the former Portuguese colonies rather than Europe. Why?
I don't know. It sounded right and then it started to seem imaginatively right. Like a poet, I was misled into thinking that certain sounds made an interesting sense.
How do you feel about the state of writing in SA at the moment?
It's uneven. There's lots of unexpected new and startling work, as the Sunday Times shortlist demonstrates. And there's stuff that doesn't interest me.
You're working on a new novel. Can you tell us about it and how it's going?
It's a historical novel about South Africa between 1970 and 2010. And I'm realising that, after 20 years of writing, I still don't have the slightest idea of how novels work.
If you were to win the prize again, what would you do with the money?
I saw recently that the extensive Gupta family, originally of Saharanpur in India, has been living in a house valued at R490000 in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Now, for R490000 in Saxonwold, you can't buy a doghouse fit for a thin beagle, or a cathouse, for that matter. I propose to dedicate the prize money, if I win, to buying air tickets to send the Guptas back to Saharanpur, where they will enjoy a fairer standard of living. In fact, I would say our freedom isn't complete until we take care of the Guptas and everyone with the heart of a Gupta and every last person in government who gave excuses instead of treating the Guptas with decency. Because if they can do that to the Guptas, what will they do to the least of us? What will they do for the most of us?
- The Institute for Taxi Poetry is published by Umuzi, R189.90 at CNA