Colleen Higgs is the publisher and passionate, dynamic force behind Modjaji Books, a small independent press based in Cape Town, South Africa. Inspired by Modjadji, the Rain Queen of Limpopo, a powerful female force for good, growth, new life, and regeneration, Modjaji Books aims to fill a gap by taking seriously women’s writing from southern Africa, creating a space for those experiences and voices that may not fit in to the constraints of more mainstream publishers. Many Modjaji titles have gone on to be nominated for and to win prestigious literary awards.
A writer herself, Colleen has had poems and stories published in literary magazines, women’s magazines and in academic journals, and has had stories published in collections such as Dinaane, Just Keep Breathing, and Home, Away. Colleen’s own works include the poetry collections Halfborn Woman, Lava Lamp Poems, and an anthology of short stories, Looking for Trouble.
Colleen has long been a supporter of small, independent publishing; through her previous work at the Centre for the Book, she managed the award-winning Community Publishing Project, and she has written numerous articles and pamphlets on writer development.
I have been fortunate enough to meet and catch up with Colleen over the last few years (at the Cape Town Book Fair, in 2010 and again in 2012, and at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival). We talked about her experiences of running a small publishing house based in South Africa, and rainmaking for southern African women writers.
Katie Reid, for Africa in Words: With bestseller figures in South Africa at around 2000 copies for fiction titles, and a short South African fiction shelf competing with other literature in English in bookshops, the book market can be a challenging one for a small publisher of southern African women’s writing. How does Modjaji weather the storms?
Colleen Higgs, for Modjaji: Modjaji came into the market at a good time in some ways – content was changing; it has become less heavy and with space for new voices – it has opened up to a newer reading public.
I do sometimes think, will it work, will I be able to carry on? It’s not easy at all economically. My main problem is lack of capital – but that means I have to think about innovative ways of using what’s already there. And the independent bookshops – like the Book Lounge and Clarkes, here in Cape Town – have been fantastic.
Distributors do the marketing to the bookstores, but Modjaji does the marketing to the readers – that means me and the authors. I use social media a lot. And events. Modjaji has developed a kind of following – people are excited about it.
K: I pointed out the buzz around Colleen’s stand (at the Cape Town Book Fair, 2012) – where there was an animated cluster of Modjaji writers talking with people about Modjaji and their work –
CH: It’s not to do with me; it’s to do with the books and the network that Modjaji has established.
K: Your books have a distinctive and consistently high design aesthetic; they’re beautiful…
CH: Thank you. It’s one of the bits of the business that I manage that I love. I think it’s been part of why Modjaji has been noticed. I want to get something of the vibe, or the excitement, or the thrill of the book in its cover. It’s important for me that people can have a relationship with Modjaji’s books before they read or open them, that they want to pick them up, touch them, see what’s inside. And good book design doesn’t have to be expensive. [This is a small sample – for more see http://www.modjajibooks.co.za/titles/.]
K: Did you always conceive of Modjaji as providing a platform for women writers?
CH: I became interested in publishing because I am a writer myself. And I do understand, I guess, in a slightly more empathetic way, what it’s like to be a writer. And what it’s like to be a woman in this world and industry. I don’t know that it’s entirely conscious, but I think that’s how it operates. I’ve found enormous generosity towards me and towards what I am doing, from a range of people, writers, readers, feminists, booksellers, other publishers– there’s incredible cross-pollination and support.
K: We have also talked before about the perception of Modjaji as a women’s press, the anxiety that can come up around the ‘privileging’ of women’s voices, and the labels that can get stuck on as a result, none of which necessarily reflect Modjaji’s values…
CH: Modjaji is a women’s press – but some people don’t realise that it is a women’s press – they look at the titles and just think, ‘these are all good writers’, which if you reverse the gender bias, might not be seen as unusual at all. In a way, I think that means Modjaji is doing something right.
But at the same time, I do have an activist sensibility. Very often women’s voices and experiences are sidelined. And Modjaji is able to publish things that don’t fit into well set commercial genres – Hester Van der Walt’s Hester se Brood (Hester’s Book of Bread), for example, is about making bread and living in a small village in the Karoo. Many people loved it because she writes wonderfully, and her partner has done such beautiful drawings, but other publishers wouldn’t touch it because it was too weird. The first novel I published, Tracey Farren’s Whiplash, is about a sex worker – and not a glamorous Belle-de-Jour type – it was rejected elsewhere, and it was not easy to get it stocked in stores here after it was published because of its subject matter. But then it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and all those reluctant stores had to stock it. Now it is being made into a film. The director, producer and Tracey Farren herself have been working on the film for several years in different ways. Tracey has written the script. The producer and director have been working hard to raise sufficient funds for the film.
I think Modjaji is a feminist press. And that’s to do with what’s going on in the world. Having lived through and enacted it, I think publishing only women writers is a hugely political act, particularly if you think about the way publishing is owned, media is owned, who gets to make the decisions, and how women are represented. Even in South Africa, where we have a great constitution, lesbians are violently attacked and in some cases murdered simply for their sexuality; all women live with fear of violence and abuse, and our rape statistics are horrific.
Women do have a different experience of different things – not necessarily just because they are women, but because of the way power is structured and filtered. There was a point, not so long ago, maybe 30 years ago, where married women couldn’t open a cheque account in South Africa, without permission from their husbands –women were treated as minors.
K: What about your international presence, as a small publisher of Southern African women’s texts?
CH: I am really interested in building links within Africa, in some ways more than with Europe or the rest of the world. Our titles are available through African Books Collective internationally. It isn’t as easy to transform a book a into a Kindle app as one might think. But African Books Collective plug in to all those platforms.
I have participated in the Frankfurt Book Fair as part of their Invitation Programme twice now. So that’s amazing – you get to learn things that you just wouldn’t if you were only here in South Africa; you get the bigger picture of how the book trade works internationally. You build connections and relationships, you can follow up on leads, find different ways of doing things.
Through book fairs – Jozi Book Fair, the Cape Town Book Fair and Frankfurt, I connected with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Nigeria’s Cassava Republic Press, who has been incredibly helpful and supportive. And I also re-connected with Femrite from Uganda – Hilda Twongyeirwe was also part of the Frankfurt Invitation Programme. And they put our stands next to each other, so Modjaji was there, next to other African feminist presses. And I met an Indian feminist publisher there, Urvashi Butalia from Zabaan Books, and an Australian feminist publisher, Susan Hawthorne from Spinifex.
K: You mentioned earlier that you don’t have to play according to established rules. You have a big poetry list, you publish short stories, as well as other unusual or less conventional titles…
CH: I don’t have a marketing department telling me what I should be doing, although it may be helpful at times. Obviously I read widely – I read about the industry. I publish things that are too short for other commercial publishers – I publish a lot of things that are too short, actually. And I find that people are very keen to buy them. And my books, particularly the shorter ones, are probably a little bit more expensive than I or the public would like them to be, but people do buy them.
One of the books that has done very well, is a memoir but about a woman that had a stroke – Hemispheres, by Karen Lazar – like all the books I’ve published where people say, “who wants to read a book about that?” – if it’s beautifully written and suitably packaged, there will be people who will read it, will want to read it.
We also have anthologies, like The L-Word; it is a collection of stories about lesbians that has done well – has been life changing for many. They were collected by a scholar, Dr Alleyn Diesel, but I wouldn’t say it was scholarly. It’s not a scholarly press either, Modjaji. I mean I wouldn’t say it’s exactly a popular one, but I think it’s suitable for this place, for here, South Africa.
K: I’ve seen, in recent Modjaji news, that to appreciate the full gamut of reviews of Modjaji titles, we may soon need to be versed in a new language, MXitese, coined after a mobile phone app! Could you tell us more about your recent involvement with innovative book platforms?
CH: We were approached earlier this year to have our titles available on MXit a local mobile phone app. The app within the app which currently houses our titles is called Bookly and is owned and run by a local advertising agency called NATIVE. They were aware that at Modjaji we are keen to try new things and reach out to new readers. Part of our struggle here is that books can be hard to come by if you live in poorer areas or in the countryside. However, mobile phones have huge reach. Some of our titles are available for free on Bookly and others are really cheap. This means that most people who want to read what we have up there will be able to. So far the most popular title has been My First Time: Stories of sex and sexuality from women like you (edited and compiled by Jennifer Thorpe).
For more on Modjaji’s MXit titles, including Fiona Snyckers’ Trinity series, with Team Trinity, and Renilwe Malatji’s Love Interrupted, see Modjaji Books @BooksLIVE.
K: You have consistently championed small independent publishing – before Modjaji and since [in her time as Information Manager for the Centre for the Book in Cape Town, Higgs managed the award-winning Community Publishing Project] – and have written on and been involved in numerous projects promoting writer development. Have you consciously developed Modjaji as an independent, nurturing platform for new voices and developing talent?
CH: I don’t know if this is a direct answer to your question, but I would say that Yewande Omotoso approached Modjaji – and she only approached Modjaji. Any publisher would have snapped up that book – Bom Boy (shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize). To have a writer of her calibre to come to us first was wonderful. And bewildering. It felt like a big shift.
Tracey Farren also came back to Modjaji, with her second novel, Snake. Her novel, Whiplash, was the first one I published. And you know I made a lot of mistakes with Whiplash. But she still came back. I’m not sure what will happen with Tracey in the future, but I don’t feel a possessiveness, because it’s such a small market that if a writer wants to succeed, I think it’s great if they move on. But I think she will always have a connection with Modjaji, because she got something out of it.
But yes, Modjaji is a place for nurturing new talent. And for publishing the non-commercial genres, like poetry and short stories.
K: Modjaji also published the Small Publishers’ Catalogue (2013), which has lots of industry advice for writers, including an article that you wrote about publishing poetry, and thinking about your writing from the publishers’ perspective. Do you have any further advice for writers on this note?
CH: I think people are keen to write but haven’t read enough. And also writers don’t always know that the first draft isn’t the first thing that you submit. Often it’s a case of “you’re on to something here, but…” A lot of people don’t then have the resources. It takes a lot of determination, but I think you can find the resources. It can be possible. Part of the experience of being a writer is to be edited; I think that’s something people don’t necessarily know, to have someone engaging closely with your work and bringing it out – that’s part of the power of editing and part of the writing experience. And I think people do respond to it.
K: And moving into Modjaji’s future?
CH: I’ve just heard that I can go to Frankfurt again this year. A very generous writer has donated the cost of the air ticket plus a bit so I can take Modjaji to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I am excited about going there, and will start working on what to do there this week.
I would love to have Modjaji become really sustainable, and not just a subsistence publishing company as it is now. It takes nerves of steel (not that I have them) to keep on going. There are so many fascinating books and book projects that people are working on and that they keep on sending to Modjaji. I hope we can continue to publish some of the best ones.
If anyone wants to keep in touch with what we do, the best thing would be to like our Facebook page, follow us on twitter. Visit our website www.modjajibooks.co.za and our blog http://modjaji.bookslive.co.za
To purchase Modjaji titles for international shipping, see African Books Collective.
See more on the Small Publishers’ Catalogue published by Modjaji in AiW’s Review.