A Win for the Institute of Taxi Poetry
Director of the Creative Writing programme at The University of Cape Town (UCT), Imraan Coovadia, won the 2013 M-Net Literary Award for his novel The Institute for Taxi Poetry. The prize, which was established to showcase new South African writing, is one of the only literary prizes that is open to submissions in all of South Africa’s official languages. The prestigious award was started in 1991 by the TV channel M-Net and has awarded over eighty writers in various fields for their contribution to South African literature. Past winners in Imraan’s category include Finuala Dowling, Ivan Vladislavic, Sally Ann Murray, Anthony Altbeker, and Zoe Wicomb among many others.
In a recent review of this award winning novel, Percy Zvomuya comments that “if Imraan Coovadia's work was a computer operating system, we would call it open source – it is so open in its imagination of another world.” This is true of the novel which aims to imagine a South Africa where every interaction and conversation is not steeped in race.
Set in a version of Cape Town that is heavily influenced by the Portuguese, The Institute for Taxi Poetry tells the story of what Adam Ravens describes as the most complicated week of his life; one that begins with the murder of his mentor and only friend, Solly Greenfields. While Adam tries to make sense of Solly’s death, he is also tasked with babysitting a visiting taxi poet for whom he has no respect and a cat to which he has formed a strange attachment. Solly’s death brings several issues to the foreground for Adam as he begins to wonder if he should be spending his days with taxi poets, instead of trying to convince his fellow academics of the value of taxi poetry.
Cape Town is a socially awkward city that makes it possible for one to curate one’s life so as to completely leave out the aspects of the city that are uncomfortable. The Institute for Taxi Poetry succeeds in imaging a world that weaves these problematic bits of the city together and reminds us that it is never a good idea to aspire to live alongside a working class that has been rendered invisible.
Imraan’s fourth novel has been lauded as being brave in its imagination; witty, hilarious in its delivery and successful in its experimentation. But my favourite thing about the novel was the discovery that the taxi industry in Cape Town, which was modelled on a fair amount of research, bears striking similarity to that of several African cities. Imraan has found a beautiful way to connect cities that have a world of difference between them. Solly would have blended right into the Nairobi’s Matatu Association where taxi poetry lives in the form of matatu art; where offending taxi drivers and makangas (sliding door men) get involved in mysterious freak accidents, and whose inner workings are completely concealed from the untrained eye.
This is the third time that the R50, 000 prize has been awarded to a member of the Creative Writing faculty at UCT, following on from Etienne van Heerden who won the prize twice - in 2001 for his novel Die Swye van Mario Salviatti and in 2009 for 30 Nights in Amsterdam.
The Institute for Taxi Poetry was also shortlisted for the 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and for the 2013 University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Work.