Q&A: “honoring the writers” – in conversation with Colleen Higgs, Modjaji Press

AiW Guest: Susanna Sacks.

Two weeks ago, I caught up with Colleen Higgs, writer and publisher of the independent feminist press Modjaji Books, to discuss Modjaji’s history and her own publishing activism.

Higgs founded Modjaji in 2007 to build space for writing by women from southern Africa. The texts Modjaji publishes span a wide range of genres, styles, and perspectives, but they share an ethos that sees the vibrant in the everyday. Under Higgs’ direction, Modjaji has distinguished itself as a space for innovative writing, publishing experimental, thoughtful works, such as Barbara Adair’s recent WILL, the Passenger Delaying Flight…, a series of overlapping stories that explore the experience of waiting. As a writer, Higgs began publishing her own poetry under the imprint Hands On-Books in 2004 before going on to found Modjaji. Her most recent work, a memoir entitled my mother, my madness, will be published with Deep South later this month.

Modjaji is celebrating fifteen years of independent publishing with two new collections: a short story anthology published last year, Fools Gold, and the forthcoming poetry anthology, The Only Magic We Know. These anthologies include a full sampling of the short stories and poetry (respectively) that Modjaji has published over the years, offering a compelling introduction to the publisher’s catalog. 

I will be reviewing both of these anniversary texts over the coming weeks, two in a series of AiW posts on Modjaji and its influence. The series began last week, with Higgs’ “Words on the Times…“, an AiW Q&A set that offers space to share our common interests and experiences under the measures necessitated by the pandemic. In her “Words on the Times…” and as part of her finding alternatives for the canceled launch (of WILL, the passenger delaying flight... and Adair’s “Words on the Times…”), Higgs explained the pressures publishers and writers face during the “limbo” of the “#Covoid”, with book launches, reviews, and sales delayed, if not canceled.  

Two days before I met with Higgs for our Q&A, South Africa announced a transition to “Lockdown Level 4”, but the pressures for publishers remained. We discussed the challenges Higgs has faced as a publisher, both now and over the course of Modjaji’s history, and her hopes for the future of both Modjaji and small publishing in South Africa generally.

Susanna Sacks: We’re here, in part, to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Modjaji Books. How has Modjaji changed in that time? What has been your greatest accomplishment or proudest moment with Modjaji?
Colleen Higgs: In a sense, it’s been 13 years, rather than 15. I had been working at the Centre for the Book since 2001, and I’d written a book about self-publishing, advising writers on different routes to publication. In 2004, I started Hands-On Books as a self-publishing imprint to publish my own poetry book, and as a way of test-driving the things I was advising other people to do. So that’s where the slight confusion comes in. When I started Modjaji in 2007, I kept Hands-On as an imprint under Modjaji. Modjaji itself is 13 years old, but Marike Beyers (editor of The Only Magic We Know) wanted to include that first poetry collection, so that makes it fifteen years. As Modjaji has grown as a press–even though it’s still just me and a new intern each year working here–it’s become quite challenging to keep track of all of our operations. Initially it was easy, because there were just a few books. But now we’ve published over a hundred and fifty!

Did publishing with Hands-On prepare you for running a press?
The short answer is no. I might not have started Modjaji if I had worked in a publishing company before, because I would have known better. I didn’t know what I was taking on: I just dived in head first and did it. There were many things I didn’t know, mistakes I made, and things I learned along the way. I was quite connected to the publishing scene, so I had a lot of people I could ask questions of and get helpful resources, such as contract templates. And when I’ve had tricky issues with writers, I’ve been able to ask other publishers for advice. Publishing can be extremely stressful. Once I signed up a book, and then the author came to me and said that Penguin had offered them a contract. They hadn’t told me that the book was also being assessed by Penguin when I took it on. So I phoned up my friend and I asked what I should do. And he said, let them go: keep things simple for yourself. Because actually, at this point, you’ve invested very little. Rather let them go. So I did. And that was a useful lesson.

It’s quite complicated working with someone on their creative work. The better that relationship, and the more similar your understanding, the better it will go. Of course, most of the relationships that I’ve had with authors have been good. But Modjaji’s a really small press: the only constant in terms of people who work here is me. And writers have great expectations, even projections, which take a lot of managing. They want you to be a certain way, often on an unconscious level. It might be different if you do have a more formal relationship or you’re part of a big company and, as the person who’s dealing with the author, you would be able to say, “Well, marketing says no,” or “Sales says that won’t fly.” Whereas when they know it’s just me deciding, there’s more pressure. So it often comes down to setting clear boundaries and managing expectations. 

What motivated the decision to publish these collections now? Given that it’s not technically the 15th anniversary, how did you decide it was time?
2020 felt like a good moment, a new decade. We’ve been around for a while, and there’s this whole body of work, some of which might not have received as much attention as it should have because it came out when Modjaji was new. So these collections share what the press has achieved and accomplished. We’re saying, look at this work and look at these wonderful varied voices. And it’s honoring the writers.

One of the things that sets Modjaji apart is how often you publish first- or second-time authors. Do you see a difference publishing earlier career authors?
There are a few reasons for that. People sometimes come to Modjaji because they can’t get published by a bigger publisher. And then, after they’ve been successfully published, if they have done well commercially, they might get agents or go on to larger publishers because they get a better deal financially. In South Africa, we have a very small market for books. So for a novel by a new author, I would print between 300 and 500 copies initially–and if the book takes off, we can print more. It is partly about building a platform for new voices, for writers that can’t get access. 

And it is also about supporting the books that don’t fit comfortably into a clear commercial genre. I find, interestingly, some of those books have the longest tails. They might not sell the most copies, but they find their readers and become perennials. For example, Hester van der Walt’s Hester’s Book of Bread is a combination of memoir, recipes, and a meditation on the meaning of bread and of human life. And she has a partner who is a woman, and they’re both quite elderly now. So the book is about their long lesbian relationship, and bread, and retirement. It’s an unusual book. The recipes are delicious, and Hester’s writing is beautiful. Maybe I should market it now, because people are all into making sourdough bread during lockdown. 

Let’s talk about the current pandemic and shutdowns. You were recently involved with PEN South Africa’s petition to consider books essential items, as South Africa opens up to Level 4 and broadens the range of businesses that can open. Could you speak to that in more depth? Why do you think we should consider books essential items at this time?
Writers offer deep, clear thinking, and that’s especially important at a time like this. It’s not the same as just getting up on a platform and talking, or writing posts on social media: writing is processed and refined thought. Books are deeper. So in times of anxiety, it’s a relief to know books will still be there. 

Shutting bookshops and making it impossible to sell books in this time is destructive. Because if people are allowed to buy the books they want, the whole book making and selling economy will continue. But crushing the industry the way it’s happening now… We’ve actually had some disastrous news in South Africa: two big magazine publishers have closed down in the last month, and each of them publish ten magazines or so. And that’s a blow for the book industry, not only because those people all work in a similar field and are now out of work, but also because those were all outlets for book reviews and publicity It is bad news for the whole publishing industry.

I think it’s short sighted, because I’m sure it’s not only going to be those magazines. For years, ever since I was working for the Centre for the Book in 2001, there have been different activists trying to get the government to take VAT off books, because things that don’t have VAT are essential items, like vegetables and bread and milk, unprocessed food. And they haven’t done that. So there is a sense that books aren’t seen as essential by our government.

You know, libraries are also shut at the moment. I get why everything is shut, because as soon as you open to the public, you’re exposing yourself to the possibility of getting the virus. But it is hard. And the thing about South Africa is that there’s a huge percentage of people who are really poor and who don’t have access to things. And while selling books may not affect those people as much, it’s hard that schools are closed. For some children, they get a meal at school, and that will be their main meal, or in some cases their only meal. Schools can be a safe place in some situations where the home lives of children are unstable or even violent. 

(For more on the effects of the pandemic on small independent publishers, see the statement,  “International Independent Publishers Facing the Pandemic,” published by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers.)

These rapid changes and widespread devastation might make it especially difficult to get to the next step in whatever you’re publishing right now.
I do have books coming out, though they have been slow: the poetry collection, The Only Magic We Know, should have come out in early April, but it will come out in May. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m very pleased with it. And then there’s a collection of poetry, which was meant to come out in February, called Fall Awake by Jeannie McKeown. There are a couple of poems from that in the big collection. But part of what’s concerning me is that there’s no certainty. So it’s hard to know what decisions to make about when to bring books out, how long to hold them in the wings. In terms of money and financial planning, Modjaji will be fine for a few months. But, do I want to spend that money now…  or wait? It’s quite confusing.

We had to cancel two book launches, and the release dates of various books are being pushed into the future. One of the books is a big novel, The Gospel According to Wanda B Lazarus by Lynn Joffe. It’s not particularly South African, though it’s written by a South African writer. I haven’t even developed my elevator pitch for it! It’s a time traveling novel with a Jewish heroine that starts around the time that Jesus was born (although it’s looked at from a different perspective), and you meet Wanda again in different time periods. It’s a wild ride: it’s got a Tom Robbins-y feel. But I have to make sure it’s the right time to bring that book out.

Modjaji is dedicated to publishing women from southern Africa. What motivated that decision? Where do you draw the boundaries?
It’s partially about giving those women, about giving us a place to get published, and about highlighting the topics and themes and books that come out of those experiences. I do get submissions from ex-South Africans who live now in Australia or the UK or even the United States, and I’m prepared to look at those, but there is something about living here, now, and what you would write that’s shaped by that experience – even if it is a wild novel about a time-traveling Jewish heroine. For example, a Canadian publisher submitted a book by an ex-South African writer. It was set in the 1980s, and although it was all very accurate, you could tell that the person hadn’t spent much time in South Africa recently. It had a Rip Van Winkle quality; it was missing something, it felt a little off. Take the #MeToo movement: you don’t have to mention it in your work, but the fact that writers are aware of it is going to inform their writing in some way.

When you founded the press, it was because there weren’t enough avenues or outlets for women writers from southern Africa. Is this still the case? Do you feel #MeToo or #PatriarchyMustFall have shifted anything for women writers?
There is definitely much more space than there was in 2007. And in a way, I feel proud of being part of shifting that landscape. But I think there is enough space for Modjaji to continue. It’s not like, “Okay, everything is fine now, I can just close up shop.” Different publishers and other publishing houses have different ideas about what’s important, about how to position a particular book. I’m always delighted to see people doing things that didn’t used to be done or that only Modjaji has done, and I think that there is a lot of room for more. In South Africa, there’s still a tendency for books by men to be reviewed more and get more prizes. Women’s issues are still sometimes undervalued, especially by the so-called “serious” critics.

You’ve written that Modjaji is for writers who take their writing and their readers seriously. What distinguishes a text that takes itself seriously? How do you think about the press relative to other feminist presses?
It’s about publishing books that have some lasting value, not ephemeral texts that won’t be relevant in a couple of years. Our books go a bit deeper than that. Many Modjaji titles contribute to the literary heritage of South Africa.

Because I’ve been going to Frankfurt for a number of years, I’ve made relationships with publishers from other parts of the world. Spinifex in Australia publishes a lot of overtly political books, books on pornography, prostitution, surrogacy and so forth. I think it’s important that such books are published. But what Modjaji does is different in that we publish works that highlight the personal. So, for example, we published an amazing book, which Spinifex bought the rights to, Michelle Hattingh’s I’m the Girl Who Was Raped. It’s a memoir by this young woman who had studied young men’s attitudes to rape during her Psychology Honours degree. At the end of the course, they had a party at the beach, and she and a friend were raped. So it was a very particular set of circumstances. It is a book that is infused with feminist politics, but it isn’t polemical. It’s introspection and analysis from a personal perspective. So that’s a perfect example of how our books can be distinguished.

I was struck by how many of the texts in Fool’s Gold and The Only Magic We Know were about the feelings and experiences of everyday life, rather than the spectacular moments. And I was pleased to see that, because while those spectacular moments deserve attention, they’re often the only pieces of women’s lives that get seen and that get published.
What you’re pointing to is a very important aspect of how I understand feminism: taking women’s lives seriously. Even now in the pandemic, it will still be women who are having to do all of the other stuff as well as their jobs – managing daily life as well as saving the world, being on the frontlines of the hospital, or wherever they work. It’s a huge generalisation, but there’s a way in which women’s lives are steeped in the everyday, in the quotidian, as well as whatever else it is they’re doing or whatever else is going on. I’m glad that came through. Modjaji’s publishing foregrounds that.

What was the process of putting these collections together? How did you select their editors?
In both cases I asked an editor who was also an author. Maybe it would have been better to get an editor who wasn’t, but I wanted an editor who understands what it means to be a Modjaji author. Arja Salafranca, who edited the short story collection, is passionate about short stories, she was an arts journalist. She has written quite a few articles, reviews and essays about short stories. So she felt like a good choice. And I encouraged both editors to own their selection. I ensured they had all of the collections, and asked them to read them and to make their choices. I was tempted to ask Arja to choose a different story of mine, but then I thought, let me just allow Arja the freedom to make the choice. 

How do you balance the roles of author and editor?
In some ways, it has been a choice of where to put my creative energy. But I also needed a job. So I have put more energy into being a publisher than into being a writer. Publishing in the way that I’ve done it is all-consuming: juggling marketing, editing, contracts, sales reports, media requests, building a website, rights sales, book fairs and literary festivals, and dealing with all the writers and their wide range of queries and needs. I do outsource editing, book design, illustration, PR, sales and marketing into stores. But I need to keep on top of what’s going on and to manage the many processes. I have a writerly sensibility, but a lot of my creative energy has been put into my publishing work. It would actually be a relief if Modjaji could become an imprint within a bigger company, so that there would be support in administrative and other ways. Some of the load could be shared.

Colleen Higgs and Tracey Farren at the launch of Whiplash in Muizenberg in June 2008

You mentioned understanding the two collections as a celebration of what Modjaji has accomplished over the years. What have been some of the greatest accomplishments over the past 13 years–for you, for the press, or for your authors?
It’s hard to choose. The press still going, still being alive, thirteen years later: that’s an accomplishment in itself.  A number of titles have won prizes, authors have been invited to international events, a movie has been made of one title, and a short opera from a short story. Some of our titles have been prescribed at school and for university courses. Writers have been included in international anthologies, and some of our titles have been bought and republished in other parts of the world. We’ve been part of a few really successful writers’ first steps in publishing, but that’s not necessarily the thing I feel most proud of.  I loved publishing Whiplash. Tracey Farren was one of the writers I’ve published who’s gone on to be successful. Her third book has been published by NB publishers. It’s speculative fiction called The Book of Malachi. When I first read the Whiplash manuscript, I felt this electric current coursing through my body. I’d never heard a voice like that in South Africa or anywhere. I couldn’t believe that I was going to get to publish it. It was a life-changing moment.

I think I’ve been most proud of Modjaji launching the careers of many women writers. They have been put on the literary map, and their perspectives have become part of our understanding of the world.

Colleen Higgs was in conversation with Susanna Sacks Assistant Professor of English at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Susanna studies contemporary poetry and performance in southern Africa. Her current projects examine the influence of digital media and transnational institutions on literary form. 

Susanna will be reviewing the first of the Modjaji anniversary collections, Fool’s Gold: Selected Modjaji Short Stories (edited by Arja Salafranca), next week. You can catch Colleen’s Words on the Times Q&A – the first of the posts in this Modjaji anniversary series for AiW – published last week here (as well as more from Higgs about the limbo of the “#Covoid” for books in Barbara Adair’s “Words… for her [Modjaji] novel WILL, The Passenger Delaying Flight…“).

For the anniversary collections, as they become available, and the books mentioned in the interview, plus all of Modjaji’s catalogue,
visit Modjaji’s website www.modjajibooks.co.za and catch them on
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To purchase Modjaji titles for international shipping, see African Books Collective– Modjaji’s page is here.

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