Marie-Lais Emond
2 minute read
30 Jul 2018
11:44 am

With a view to writing

Marie-Lais Emond

Marie-Lais Emond visits the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study, and soaks in its literary atmosphere.

The story begins at the imposing iron gates of 1 Tolip Street, a once famous guesthouse, where we hear our hostess has the chicken pox and has wisely left.

It cannot be helped and we continue with our mission to discover how the Most Luxurious Accommodation of 2005 competes with its literary namesake of a century before that and what happens here today.

Heather and I continue our castelline climb, debating whether people can get chicken pox more than once, though Edwardian literary characters were more likely to suffer consumption.

Like an EM Foster pension, this could be in Italy or France or one of his wildest architectural dreams. It was a Melville guesthouse once regarded as the epitome of splendour to rival the Westcliff.

Lunch is in progress. My eyes dart around for clues about the nationalities of these writers and academics. I am delighted to renew a slight acquaintance with the guest to my left, Saliko S Mufwene of the University of Chicago. He is currently exploring the role of language contact in language evolution.

Over chicken and ratatouille, William Kellerher, a local linguistic ethnographer and he discuss their eyeglasses. Emelia Kamena, the assistant here, assures me that, aside from this multilingualism colloquium, other writers come for retreats, spending a semester in this creative environment, taking in the waters of the Roman pool and producing a body of work, such as a play, film script, novel or publishable research paper.

I know Fred Khumalo, Niq Mhlongo and Zukiswa Wanner have been through these portals and reflected in this eyrie. Kole Omotoso and Brooks Spector too. The owner of the ex-guesthouse, where lucky candidates get to sojourn in the astonishing suites, is the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, a co-project between UJ and Singapore’s Nanyang University.

The multilingualists move to the Cartoon Room, the walls there full of local, thought–provoking cartoons, for a section of their seminar, while we dawdle in the upper reaches of the baroque-neoclassic folly with its statuary, turrets and ironmongery.

Climbing up a steep outer staircase to the top most room, I see the old sign for the guesthouse, A Room with a View.