Authors begin writing with that which is familiar, says Imraan Coovadia, whose ancestors first came to South Africa at the same time as Gandhi. For writers belonging to the Indian diaspora, what is familiar is the feeling of growing up in a nation that should have been home but still makes them feel estranged.
“I had knowledge about the Indian community in South Africa,” says Coovadia, who is also the director of creative writing at the University of Cape Town. “As you get older you want to write about more universal themes, you want to write about humanity as a whole.”
His first novel, The Wedding, was based in Mumbai and South Africa, and is partly based on the story of his grandparents and loosely on the Taming of the Shrew.
“I’m clearly Indian and Muslim at some level. I like the idea of being South African,” he says, adding half in jest that one must live in Cape Town for 30 years to be accepted. Coovadia, 47, believes it becomes difficult to sustain identities at a certain point. As a Muslim, he doesn’t want to be dragged along with actions of some extremist groups.
“When you watch South Africa collapsing it’s quite hard to think that I will die for this country or I want to devote my life to a country that’s unraveling. It makes no sense. I ask myself if these are particular identities that I would sacrifice for? You sacrifice for your children, for your family, to your values to some level, for other things you need to make sure that you’re sacrificing for the right thing,” he says.
He is clearly perturbed with the unwillingness shown by Indians in South Africa to mingle with the rest of the population. In fact, political leaders in the nation have accused Indians of treating Black Africans as inferior.
“People were living in specimen boxes, everybody was caught in a particular situation. I also became interested in it from a literary point of view,” he says, talking about how people are involved in their particular situations in a local, narrow way, where they wake up in the morning and go through the day. “Not really connected to the world, that was my thinking behind what I was trying to do,” he says of his early novels, The Wedding, Green Eyed Thieves, and High Low In-Between. His latest work, Tales of the Metric System, also focuses on South Africa.
Despite the years he spent in the United States, studying philosophy at Harvard, and then earning his doctorate at Yale, Coovadia says he could not write very successfully about the American experience. “There was a real problem with me living there,” he elaborates. “I somehow couldn’t see it from outside in a way that you need to see it.”
However, geography, he feels, only plays a role to some extent to influence one’s writing. “Sometimes it’s quite hard to write about your home and then actually when you move you can see your home more clearly,” he says, talking about how a writer should be able to make up the mood of a society despite never visiting the place. His next novel, for instance, has scenes set in future Morocco, where he has never been.
Interestingly, Coovadia, who runs a creative writing program at the University of Cape Town, also feels that everybody is right when they say that writing cannot be taught.
Writing, after all, can be an arduous process, even for writers. Dorothy Parker had succinctly described it when she said, “I hate writing, I love having written.”
Coovadia, whose writing process is “pretty straightforward”, stresses upon the need for people to have spaces to progress, to come to their conclusion, especially with an art form. Writers, he believes, cannot be given 10 rules and a clear process that they can adopt. So the process becomes much more about having space where one can think about certain artistic process and subject matter that cannot be found in books.
The writer-academician is deeply distressed by the state of current affairs in South Africa. The recent violent protests at South African universities over access to education and rising tuition prices highlighted the divide among various economic and race groups, making the government take affirmative action where only Black Africans would receive state contracts of over R50 million in KwaZulu-Natal, barring Indians and coloreds from gaining economically.
“It’s just one aspect of the whole South African state’s collapse,” stresses Coovadia. “All the things you expect from the state — roads, mail, post office, security, electricity — collapsed several years ago so nobody got mail for six months.” Cape Town, he says, is about to run out of water. “The collapse of the university is part of the national systematic process. It is disturbing for me because when you look from outside it’s hard to understand how countries self-destruct.”
He blames the hateful political movements that are coming into power in different countries. Coovadia has lived through and protested against Apartheid. He equates the current situation, where students don’t want White South Africans in universities, to that of the Apartheid era.
“People say things that are very hateful and they’re after the library to burn down or determined that there won’t be anymore universities, they want to have meetings where there are no white people, or courses where white authors are not taught. They want to abolish western science and have only African culture. Things that are so off-the-wall, unless you believe them then it seems natural,” he says.
Watching such people makes interesting political education, but he is not sure if he wants the education. Writers like adventure, risk and change, he points out, but they want underlying stability like universities, publishers and readers.
“The country is in chaos, there’s very little authority and order and in that vacuum all kinds of criminal networks have come up,” he cautions. “South Africa might be headed towards a very serious lapse if we’re not careful.”