Photo Credit: Liesl Jobson
Growing up in South Africa, I had read very little by local writers. I don’t remember ever reading anything at school by an African writer. I think the first time I came across such writers was at university. As a teenager I thought that South Africa was boring and far away from where things really mattered and where real life was happening. I know I wasn’t alone in this. But now as an adult as more and more local books are published – each book I read enriches my sense of here and what is going on in my country and continent. These books add depth of meaning, layers, texture, and now here has become fascinating and interesting. Part of what felt thin and flimsy about growing up white in South Africa was that it was too white, too bland somehow. I love the complexity, the wide range of perspectives that thrive now, the art, the movies, the music all interacting with each other and enriching our sense of here.
At university in the eighties I made friends with people my age, fellow students who introduced me to books by writers such as Doris Lessing, Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, Sam Shepard, Toni Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir, poetry, movies, music. I felt as though I had broken through a wall of the cheap, thin cardboard house I had been living in, and found a world starker, more beautiful and thrilling than I had ever imagined. I was deeply affected by the movie Paris, Texas with its strange compelling music, the weird crazy characters – my mother could have been a character in a Sam Shepard play, especially when younger, she was edgy, sexy, unpredictable. If I had to write about her now, I could transform her dissatisfied, dwindled down life into one of these rich narratives.
Other life-changing movies and books in my twenties I encountered were a movie by Ousmane Sembène, Camp de Thiaroye and Wole Soyinka’s memoir, Aké. I was devastated by the former and entranced by the latter.
I grew up in a home where no one had been to university; the conversations were not intellectual or culturally complex or deep. We spoke of sport, exchanged anecdotes, argued about who would do the dishes. I grew up in a culture of braais, sports at “the Club” in Maseru and watched TV (until the very late 1970s we didn’t have a TV). From where I am now, it seems like a primitive, thin place. Although my parents were generous, kind people, the language of apartheid was used in our home. At times crass disrespectful words were used to refer to Black people.
When I went on a post school exchange program to the US in 1980 I wondered what images to take with me to represent the culture I grew up in. I was stumped. I decided that White English speaking people like my family had no culture. As a way of solving my problem I decided to take recipes for bobotie and rusks, an image of Black women dressed in red and white Methodist uniforms, a picture of my family and our house, and for some reason one of our family doctor. We were also told to get a set of slides from a tourist agency (run by the infamous Department of Information). These slides consisted of maps, animals in the Kruger Park, the Drakensberg, Table Mountain, and other tourist attractions. There was no hint of what was really going on here, what the power relations between the people were. There were no pictures of the townships, the police, the army, the oppressive state, the divided peoples and the geography of apartheid. The slides were anodyne and pointless. Politically and socially ill educated as I was, even I could see that.
All of this points to why I wanted to be a publisher. I wanted to find the writing of southern African women in libraries, reviews, up for discussion; I wanted the voices, stories and experiences of women from here to be part of what we all know and read about, for our experiences and perspectives to add to the multiple layers and to the texture of all of our understandings of the world.
I wanted young women to see new possibilities for themselves, to find themselves represented in literature, so that they would feel they matter, that their lives were interesting enough to be written about, that they were an important part of the world and not just part of a huge invisible mass of people about whom we never hear anything, apart from headlines about poverty and war.
Sometimes I know that what I have done is miraculous, spinning gold out of straw. Making beautiful books with the tiny financial resources at my disposal. Other times I wonder, was it necessary for me to do this? Wasn’t it hubris? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I know that for each book I’ve published I have breathed life into it so that it could take its place amongst other books, so that the writer could take her place amongst other writers, shoulder to shoulder.
Colleen Higgs is a publisher, a publishing activist and a writer. Modjaji Books, the publishing company she started is now eleven years old, and is an award-winning, internationally recognised small, independent feminist press. She compiles an African Catalogue of Small Publishers every two or three years, she is currently working on making the catalogue available as an online database to increase the visibility of small and independent publishers in Africa. She has had two collections of poems published and a collection of short stories,Looking for Trouble (2012). She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her teenage daughter.