Q&A: Words on the Times – Colleen Higgs, writer & publisher Modjaji Books.

Colleen Higgs founded Modjaji Books in 2007 as a platform for work by women writers from southern Africa. Modjaji, the Rain Queen of Limpopo, is a “powerful female force for good, new life and regeneration”. The press continues her work by offering fertile ground for books that are true to this spirit.

Although small, Modjaji Books has had an immense influence on publishing in South Africa, with many of its publications winning prestigious prizes. Their catalog highlights searching, often experimental works, whose attention to women’s experiences and perspectives expand the range of South African literature available.

Higgs is a poet herself, and a long-time advocate of small, independent presses: during her time with the Centre for the Book, she managed the Community Publishing Project and wrote A rough guide to small-scale and self-publishing (2005, Centre for the Book) and the South African Small Publishers’ Catalogue (edited with Maire Fisher, 2006, Centre for the Book). She began publishing her own poetry under the imprint Hands On-Books in 2004 before going on to found Modjaji, where she also published the African Small Publishers Catalogues, one in 2010, the second in 2013, and another in 2016, actively building networks among small presses in Africa. Her own published writing has included two poetry collections and a short story collection. Her most recent work, a memoir entitled my mother, my madness, will be published with Deep South later this month.

Modjaji is celebrating the past fifteen years of independent publishing with two new collections: a short story anthology, Fool’s Gold, published last year, and the forthcoming poetry anthology, The Only Magic We Know. Together, these anthologies highlight the range of work Modjaji writers have produced, from comedic stories about accidental hauntings to tragic poetry about the experience of miscarriage.

Over the coming weeks, Africa in Words will publish a series as part of the anniversary celebrations, reflecting on Modjaji’s influence and including reviews of these collections and a Q&A with Higgs. Our series begins with Higgs’s Words on the Times…, an AiW Q&A series that invites collective reflections on the way the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our work and our communities. Higgs discusses the threats to South Africa’s creative industries, the challenges of working under uncertainty, and the joy of laughter and (digital) community.

Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has derailed your plans.
Colleen Higgs, Modjaji: Some of our plans were changed for us. Launches had to be cancelled for Barbara Adair’s book, WILL, the Passenger Delaying Flight… . The books got into the stores, but with lock down, they are now just sitting there. Various literary festivals have also been cancelled, these are a great way to offer authors a platform, and a space for selling books. Some of the cancelled literary festivals so far are in May are the Franschoek Literary Festival  and the Kingsmead Literary Festival . There are a number later in the year too. It remains to be seen what will happen there. We have not even been able to deliver books, as couriers have only been permitted to deliver items deemed for ‘essential’ services. This excludes books. I doubt I will go to Frankfurt [the world’s largest international trade fair for books, held in mid-October] – even if it happens. The long haul flight from here just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do at present. I hope that bookstores survive this disaster. But I suspect some won’t.
AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
CH: On a more personal level, I have found my productivity has plummeted, I think in the first weeks, I was in a state of shock and trying to figure out how to do this new way of life. I have always operated Modjaji from home, so that has not changed, but my daughter who is in her final year of school has been at home with me all this time, since late March. My intern is working from her home, I miss having her presence and her enthusiastic diligence here. I’ve felt exhausted and not able to concentrate for long periods of time. I’ve felt overwhelmed; I wanted to figure out a way to do online promotional activities but have not felt up to doing this. For most of the time under lock down, I have been keeping things ticking over mostly.
Because we don’t really know how long the quarantine will go on for, it is not easy to plan for when new books will come out. We also have to decide whether to bring them out only in e-book format at first. Or perhaps just do really small print runs. I am deeply concerned about cash flow. We are paid 60 days after sales for books that are sold in SA bookstores. No sales in April will mean that we will receive no payment in June. Not quite sure how to manage this. I am doing some assisted self-publishing, this brings in some money. I’m wondering if Modjaji will survive the pandemic, we might have to make some tough decisions in order to get through this. I may have to take on some side gigs, to keep going.
AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
CH: Writing with my friend using Zoom has sustained me. Every day we log on to say hi and to catch up. Then one of us reads a poem. We switch Zoom off and write for 20 minutes. Then we go back to Zoom and read our writing to each other. We take a few minutes to discuss the writing or anything else that arises and then we go back to our lives under lockdown.
I’ve enjoyed the memes and short videos that people have made to entertain themselves and others. It is good to laugh, even as we live through the pandemic. In South Africa it is particularly difficult as many people have been suffering and been hungry. And the repression by the police has been particularly brutal in some cases. None of this is easy to live with. I’ve been inspired by the courage of the front line medical people, and all of those delivering essential services, making sure we can buy food, get our meds, keep the lights on (in South Africa with our beleaugured energy utility company, ESKOM, this is no mean feat).
AiW: How can our communities support you?
CH: It would be brilliant if people who aren’t in South Africa go to the African Books Collective website and check out our titles there  – http://www.africanbookscollective.com/publishers/modjaji-books This is a small way to put more money directly in the pockets of independent publishers in Africa, and not into the already bulging pockets of Amazon. For international readers our books are all available as print on demand and many are also available as e-books (South Africans can buy these – but not the POD ones.) Thank you for your interest and concern with how we are doing.
Also – on another personal note, I have a book coming out in May, published by Deep South (another small publisher also on ABC) – my mother, my madness. It’s a memoir, that focuses on the last ten years of my mother’s life, and is an exploration of aging, taking care of an aging parent, the ongoing complexities of a relationship that has been fraught from the start.
Visit Modjaji Books at their website and see their books available at African Books Collective – Modjaji Books.
See ABC for Deep South Press – publisher of Higgs’ forthcoming memoir – (and read our interview with the publisher there, Robert Berold, on poetry and publishing in South Africa).
You can link through for more on Modjaji from AiW – our reviews and more of Modjaji texts over the years, including a Words on the Times Q&A from Modjaji author Barbara Adair, whose latest novel WILL, the passenger delaying flight… was released into the “#Covoid”. 

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