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
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.