For Books Sake Talks To: Colleen Higgs

20th Sep 2012


Lucky enough to work at the Centre for the Book for over seven years from 2001, where she learnt a huge amount about the book trade in South Africa, owner/publisher Colleen Higgs started Modjaji Books out of passion.

Writing since childhood, Colleen has had poems and stories published in literary magazines, women’s magazines and in academic journals. She also participated in the 2006 British Council-sponsored Crossing Borders project and has had stories published in collections such as Dinaane, Just Keep Breathing and Home, Away.

Colleen’s own published works include poetry collections Halfborn Woman, Lava Lamp Poems and an anthology of short stories, Looking for Trouble.

South African writer and poet Judy Croome caught up with Colleen to ask her about her experiences in running a publishing house specifically for women.

FBS: Modjaji Books is a small South African independent press for women. Just five years old, and already many of your authors have been nominated for the prestigious literary awards, such as the Sunday Times Literary Fiction Prize and the 2012 Wole Soyinka award. What’s your secret for success?

CH: I feel as though we are still becoming successful. Of course, it is gratifying to have authors long-listed and short-listed for prizes. However, this doesn’t always mean a huge amount in terms of sales. There is still a great deal of room to grow into, selling rights, garnering more sales of each title, finding ways to lower production costs.

I think what I do that works is to keep going, not be defeated by setbacks, but to try and learn from them. To keep trying different things. To work hard, to build relationships. To be open to opportunities. To trust my judgement in the authors we choose to publish.

FBS: Tell us about the name “Modjaji.” What does it mean and why did you choose it?

CH: Modjaji is the name of the rain queen in Limpopo, spelt Modjadji. The name Modjaji has all the right sort of associations:  a publishing house that is both female and a rain maker.

The name came to me when I was driving and, a few days later I had a dream that confirmed the name for me. In the dream, I saw two naked, strong, large, black women in the shower and, as the water splashed down their bodies, they were singing loudly and beautifully. As they washed themselves and allowed the water to pour down on to them, I could see they were completely OK with their bodies, their selves and their beings.

The dream was filled with energy, power and joy, everything that I wanted: it was a vision of a publishing house associated with the Rain Queen that, like her, was a powerful female force for good, for growth, for new life, regeneration and a rain-maker for women writers.

FBS: Why do you believe it’s important to have publishers primarily aimed at female writers and reader?

CH: Not meant to be female readers, but women writers. There is still lots of gate-keeping about what can be published / written about and it’s important to make a space, to provide a platform, for all kinds of women’s stories and voices.

Of course, I have favourite male writers, like Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Mxolisi Nyezwa and so on. But there are still silences about certain kinds of women, like prostitutes or sex workers, and issues like still birth, infertility, choosing to be a single woman, longing for a child / children, mothering.

I want to see more stories, poems, memoirs, plays written by writers with psychological depth and maturity. I’m also interested in how women manage to be artists / writers and mothers. I am fascinated by the relationship between mothers and daughters and how girls find their way.

I am interested in how this new post-feminist generation of young women experience the world where they can take some things for granted which previous generations of women could not. I am interested in mental illness and health. I could write for pages and pages on this.

FBS: What’s been the biggest challenge Modjaji Books has faced so far? How did you overcome it?

CH: The biggest challenge is the continual struggle and, far from having achieved it, Modjaji is still very much a subsistence publisher. There’s a constant struggle to make ends meet, to find time and money and resources to do what we are doing.

Of course, in publishing, there are also many difficulties. There are so many places where things can go wrong. I could write several pages about the challenges. In short: binding, paper, thread-sewing, perfect binding, centring the text, trimming, timing, distribution, convincing booksellers, publicity, reaching readers, cash flow.

There is an element of gambling in publishing, you have to decide on the print run. Which is another way of saying – how much money shall I put on this particular horse?

The Internet makes small-scale publishing much more workable these days as one can reach markets that would have been impossible without it. Digital printing means one can print in small, competitively priced quantities and you don’t have to tie up money for at least two years with books that may or may not sell.

It’s demanding if one person performs all or most of the roles involved in publishing… from the outside, it may seem glamorous to be a publisher, but there are lots of things I’ve found myself doing that are far from glamorous – schlepping boxes to and from my car, carrying boxes of wine, crates of glasses to launches. My front hall, my car boot, my office are piled with boxes. Sometimes I feel like a smous – trying to sell snake oil, but not.

I started small, and sometimes I get this panicky feeling watching the flood of unsolicited manuscripts arrive in my post box, on my desk – how will I manage them all? I want to proceed from feeling, intuition, what interests me, works for me.

I also want to work with writers who interest me. The beauty of a small press is that all of this is possible. I see Modjaji Books as activist publishing, which doesn’t necessarily need a huge market, so Modjaji’s titles can be exploratory.

FBS: Are you trying to find new writing talent or just trying to encourage people to tell their story?

CH: Neither and both, in the sense that by having Modjaji as a platform – it provides more opportunity, and I do nurture writing talent in that we provide a supportive environment for writers, and they receive excellent editing for their work. We also publish things that need development. We seek out promising writers who may not be quite there yet, and then we work with them.

I do want to find new and interesting voices; works that experiment with form that venture into dangerous terrain, subjects that may not seem publishable by bigger, more market-driven publishers.

Modjaji wants counter the prevailing position of “books as commodities, reading as consumption.” Publishing is an arena that directly contributes to the shaping of culture, changing minds, offering new ways of being in the world. Publishing is not just a business, although it can be.

FBS: You’re heavily involved in the Franschoek Literary Fair and the Cape Town Book Fair, and you’ve been invited as a special guest to the Frankfurt Book Fair. With e-book sales on the rise, what is the importance of these book fairs and do they have a future role?

CH: Yes, book Fairs and literary festivals are important. Readers seem to enjoy hearing writers talk and that in turn encourages them to buy the books of those they listen to. We’re still overcoming prejudice against South African writers – even here in South Africa, local authors who write in English have to compete with international writers to be read.

[Frankfurt] is more for people in the industry to meet each other, and not just publishers, but agents, printers, translators, paper manufacturers, journalists, librarians, rights organisations and so on. Yes, it’s still important for there to be opportunities for people to meet each other in the flesh, as it were.

FBS: You’re a talented poet yourself, and many of Modjaji Books are poetry collections. Is poetry as a popular genre making a comeback?

CH: Thank you. I don’t know if it can make a comeback, has poetry ever had the kind of popularity you are referring to? I publish poetry because I love poetry. It’s been a little disappointing to find out that it’s a tough sell, even when the books are beautifully packaged.

The best way to get readers for poetry is to have live readings; for the poets to get out there and read and have their books available for sale afterwards.

FBS: What’s next for Modjaji and for Colleen?

CH: Surviving. I also want to be able to hand on the legacy of Modjaji. I want to create a company that is sustainable beyond me and my lifetime. I would like the vision of making rain for southern African women writers to continue.

I think we are far from a world where women can live peacefully as equal citizens. There is enormous violence of all kinds in our society and our world. I hope that the work of Modjaji Books provides some bulwark against this and offers a different vision of how things might work.

I have a novel that I started writing some years ago. I’d like to challenge myself to finish it. I hope to keep writing and publishing my own poetry.

I also have a non-fiction piece I have been working on, via a private blog. It’s about looking after my mother as she has developed early onset dementia.

If you’d like to find out more, there are details of Modjaji’s full catalogue on their website.

Judy Croome