How wonderful to read a city imagined, a collection of 19 pieces by different writers who live or have spent a significant part of their lives in Cape Town. It’s edited by Stephen Watson, who, regardless of whether you agree with his views on plagiarism, or like his writing, has done a fantastic job in supporting and contributing to Cape Town’s literary canon.
Zakes Mda, interviewing Mike Nicol, feels that most of our [South African] highly engaging and productive writers come from (or have spent a significant part of their writing lives in) Cape Town, and it seems he’s right.
A few years ago, reading Skyline by Patricia Schonstein Pinnock, I was struck by the novelty of reading about my city. Long Street, the baths, the dodgy building, I knew those places. Besides the works of Richard Rive, I’d never read a novel set in my city before. Now, five years later, that novelty has worn off, and I take it for granted, even expect it. Local, and Cape Town, literature is booming, but by no means ready to rival that of New York or Paris in its scope. If great cities are virtually synonymous with great writers, Cape Town is not there yet. But, if writers words are crucial in establishing the status of a city, Cape Town is inching closer.
I was surprised by the quality and diversity of the collection. The pieces go far beyond the old cliches of the Tavern of the Seas, Adamastor or the Mother City. From a wonderful sentimental look back at his cottaging days by Michiel Heyns, which includes Garlicks, of all places, the upmarket store where I was frequently dragged by my mother to visit a friend who worked there. Who suspected what was happening in the toilets as my mother admired the linen.
Or Sindiwe Magona describing her rude awakening upon arriving in Cape Town as a child, but how she now may have come to choose it as the place of her burial.
Then there’s Anthony Sher’s visit back after a long time away, and Henrietta Rose-Inne’s take on five sites, homes in, but not in, the city, such as the tree house in Newlands Forest.
Places I recognise, places I don’t (even of places I’m familiar with), contradictory glimpses into a city that’s complexities, divisions and sensitivities make it a fynbos-covered minefield to write about. And bliss to read.