The problem with Cape Town in literature

Cities have been the muses of writers for as long as they have existed, and in turn readers have sought out cities writers have rendered through their words. Poet and essayist Stephen Watson, who lived in Cape Town his entire life, described Cape Town as his ultimate muse, but despite the inspiration it would continually bring him he recognised a difficulty inherent in portraying the place.

In his collection of journal entries, A Writer’s Diary, Watson briefly details an exchange with a friend originally from Paris, who had lived in Cape Town for many years. She had said that “she could not really find Cape Town beautiful,” because unlike Paris, she felt that no writer had succeeded in transforming it “into a place of the mind, the imagination. The beauty of the place thus remained on the level of the merely spectacular, the touristic.”

The travel websites, guidebooks, and many of the city’s residents might unreservedly espouse its beauty, but in many works of fiction and literary nonfiction about Cape Town, the opposite is true. The city’s spectacular natural features have always been complicit with its unequal urban development, aiding the geographical shaping of its vast socioeconomic discrepancies. The writers interviewed for the BBC audio series, Writing a New South Africa, describe this. Poet Nathan Trantraal notes how one can virtually see Table Mountain from wherever one is in the city: “It’s taunting you. And the thing is, the closer you are, the more money you have, and the further away you are from the mountain, the less money you have.”

Author and playwright Nadia Davids expresses how Cape Town’s geography presents questions both for living in the city and creating work from it: “How do we move through a city like Cape Town which is so deeply suffused in difficult histories but at the same time being intensely beautiful?”

It is essential to portray the contrasts and paradoxes that haunt the city, but how much has its problematic beauty hindered writers from transforming it “into a place of the mind, the imagination,” as Watson’s friend felt it deeply lacked?

The Cape Town depicted in literature, especially literary nonfiction, is afforded less abandon than the descriptions of tourist brochures. In many cases, writers will reference its beauty followed by excuses or disclaimers. Rian Malan, in his long-form article  ‘The Wrong Side of the Cape’, quips that “Cape Town may be the most beautiful city on the planet, but we Jo’burg dudes see it as something of a fool’s paradise, a last refuge for white colonials driven out of black Africa by the winds of change.”

Stephen Watson, in the introduction to his edited volume A City Imagined, writes that the book intends to address a sense of deprivation in literature about the city: “Though books on Cape Town abound… there has been none to date that has addressed itself to the particular spirit of the place.” Yet most of the essays that follow, undertaken by a broad range of writers, abide by the uncomfortable formula of carefully acknowledging both its renowned beauty and disparities, without being able to move further into more original, untethered terrain.

Poet Thabiso Mohare, host of the Writing a New South Africa podcast, remarks between interviews, “It’s a beautiful city. And I think there’s so much beauty here to be shared. It doesn’t make sense that there [are] still people living on the other side of the mountain where there is no beauty. If it means that we need to bring down the mountain so that everyone can see the ocean, let’s do that!”

Mohare isn’t the first person to offer that solution. At a previous Franschhoek Literary Festival, poet Gus Ferguson described Table Mountain as “horrendous,” suggesting its obliteration in the hope of opening up an expanse of interaction amongst previously segregated inhabitants. On a literary level, this may offer some freedom too. What subject matter might fill a mountain’s void? Perhaps a more horizontal literature may emerge, inspired by an everyday terrain.

Imraan Coovadia, who has based his novel The Institute of Taxi Poetry in Cape Town’s daily taxi commuter landscape, suggested in a Cityscapes interview 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.”

Table Mountain isn’t going to disappear, and neither will its complicity in Cape Town’s unequal urban geographies. But literature shouldn’t be hindered by the same barriers that the city’s spectacular terrain has often come to represent. Like all cities, Cape Town presents inspiration and contradictions to creatively contend with time and time again. This potential is inviting, especially the prospect of drawing out the city’s everyday routines and overlooked features from under the mountain’s shadow.

Image via Kemal Kestelli

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply