The great South African novel?

SOLD: All the books discussed were on sale for audience members to buy during breaks. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

SOLD: All the books discussed were on sale for audience members to buy during breaks. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

An old acquaintance barely seen since primary school days, in a chance meeting recently complained that our country had yet to produce “the great South African novel”. With the 2013 Mail and Guardian Literary Festival a few short hours away, his observation was an attractive alternative to the small talk gnawing for attention at the corners of our conversation.

Appalled and mystified in equal degrees at the valid line of enquiry, I asked him what he meant by the “great South African novel”? He fired off a series of answers whose sum total escapes the memory of a mind that was blind with excitement at the prospect of three days immersed in South Africa’s finest literary offerings.


The great novel, as Dickens, or perhaps Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, was to the British? There was sense of this in my acquaintance’s response. Nigerian-born literary scholar, Aghogho Akpome, in a panel discussion chaired by South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer about Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People, made a remark along these lines.

On the second day of the festival in an airy under-construction Market Theatre, he recalled that his English-teacher father would refuse to engage him in literary conversation until he had read Pride and Prejudice. Our reading culture as Africans, and the canons which we instinctively reference, are inherently Western. A moot point Akpome acknowledged. What the University of the Free State research associate was getting at however, was that there did not exist one African story or one way of telling it that was more valid than another, and that its formation could take any number of trajectories.

LEGEND: Nadine Gordimer opens a discussion by outlining some of the major themes drawn from Chinua Achebe's works, in tribute to him. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

LEGEND: Nadine Gordimer opens a discussion by outlining some of the major themes drawn from Chinua Achebe’s works, in tribute to him. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

Gordimer herself could be said to have penned at least one the great South African novels. My acquaintance hazarded JM Coetzee or Antjie Krug as possibilities only to immediately reject them, saying the latter author was “too self-flagellating”. I thought of suggesting Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools or any works from the Sophiatown school of writers.


But after factoring in a few racial, proudly South African variables, and sensing that he was thinking of something more contemporary and light-hearted, I eventually suggested Chris van Wyk’s memoir Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. He had not read it but said he would. One might have also suggested the book by Gordimer and Akpome’s fellow panellist, Imraan Coovadia’s remarkable Institute of Taxi Poetry, which is about as South African as it gets.


The many possibilities created by the thought of “the great South African novel” beget an inevitable question, one that seemed a preoccupation of the festival as a whole if the theme, Chinua Achebe’s children: Africa’s suspended revolutions, is given due consideration.

What is the nature of the relationship between literature and society in societies on the brink of, or newly emergent from, revolution?

Chinua Achebe, the organisers seem to have been saying, had already written the great African novels. His choice as the spiritual conduit through which these questions and that of the continent’s “suspended revolutions” would be explored, then, set the scene for a confrontation: A joyful exorcism and harrowing incantation of the complexities of the times we live in. “[T]he fourth annual M&G Literary Festival aims to foster robust debate about political, social and literary revolution,” according to books editor at the Mail and Guardian Darryl Accone.


And the festival kicked-off on that urgent note with the presentation of newly installed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand Professor Adam Habib’s new book, South Africa’s Suspended Revoultion: Hopes and Prospects. In it, Habib suggests that “it is not the foibles or wisdom of our leaders” that will ultimately determine a prosperous future for the country. He advises rather, that it is imagination and commitment from the political elites and ordinary citizens that will forge a path to transformed society.

LET'S TALK: Investigative journalist, Adriaan Basson and Adam Habib spoke about "Hope and Impediments" in the South African political and social context in the first panel discussion of the day. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

LET’S TALK: Investigative journalist, Adriaan Basson and Adam Habib spoke about “Hope and Impediments” in the South African political and social context in the first panel discussion of the day. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

A score of other great South African publications and their authors were engaged on these and similar questions, with Achebe’s scorn for African leaders who have hijacked and short-circuited Africa’s revolutions as omniscient guide.

The great South African novel? Nadine Gordimer guessed the character of its author when she quoted Albert Camus: “The day I am no more than just a writer, no longer will I be a writer”.

Taxi Poetry: A ride on the rhythms of fiction and beyond

Stubble bearded and  glass-eyed, dressed in army-green knit sweater and soil-brown slacks, author Imraan Coovadia cut a weary figure on Wednesday evening at WISER’s discussion of an initiative, to put poetry on Johannesburg taxi’s,  that sprung from Coovadia’s 2012 novel The Institute for Taxi Poetry.
But he steadily warmed to the occasion. And while the mercury dropped in Braamfontein’s solemn streets, the temperature inside WISER’s modern conference room climbed, as the concept of Taxi Poetry was “uncoiled in the ears” of the attentive, expectant audience.   The University of Cape Town creative writing professor was at the tail-end of his Joburg lecture tour and looked like he was courting exhaustion. Taxi Poetry

The WISER event was billed “From Fiction to Reality”, and sought to “present and explore the Taxi Poetry project that has resulted in poetry being written for and placed on 70 taxis in Johannesburg over the last few weeks.”

In Coovadia’s experimental book  unusual tales are told of poets and a form of poetry that emerges somewhere beneath the skin of Cape Town’s murky taxi industry –ruled and populated by some of the most imaginative and cosmopolitan characters to be found in South African literature.


Observer: Author Imraan Coovadia engaged with audience members after the event.                       Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

Director at WISER and collaborator on the project, Sarah Nuttall, spoke in her introduction of a “tradition of transportation poetry in South Africa that was mostly found in trains”.

It was this idea, and a meeting with Coovadia in Cape Town about the possibilities of his novel, that led to the conception of Taxi Poetry.

Nuttall then co-opted Wits fine arts lecturer Zen Marie, and media polyglot and poet Karabo Kgoleng, with the backing of the Goethe Institute, to build a project around the novel.

The result: a group of Johannesburg poets wrote pieces about Johannesburg; a line each from the poems was transposed on to large “fridge magnets”; and off the poets went into CBD to convince taxi drivers to display the poetry on their taxis.

“The idea of magnets came from realising that in Joburg taxi drivers don’t have the agency to intervene on the taxi,” explained Marie, who did research for the project by collaborating with a Durban taxi driver to produce a music video about his taxi- Big Boss.

The main difference, Marie said, was that “in Durban most drivers owned the taxi they drove, while in Joburg drivers worked for owners who owned large fleets [of taxis]”.

Kgoleng picked up the thread where Nuttall had left it, and spoke at length of poetic inspiration and its relationship to the “aspirational quality of Joburg”.

“Poetry is the medium which the personal can become public,” she said. “Coovadia has used his creative licence to characterise the poet as a player in the taxi area”.

And from this, the poets were able to take poetry and expression outside of the commercial realms and return it to the people.

When Coovadia addressed the audience, reading now and again from his smartphone, his energy was palpable.

With artful simplicity, he explained the complex process that his book both captured and unleashed. A concept that all the speakers on the night had alluded to, that of the fragmented associational patterns that emerged in small, overlooked pockets of our urban society.

“Novelists are like carthorses, and poets are grasshoppers”, he said describing how the process of writing the novel had pushed him into different areas of expression and working with others.

“You realise that social reform is possible precisely because of how human feeling can pass from one person to another,” Coovadia concluded.