Saturday 27 June 2009

Selling the idea of a genocide in Sudan


Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror - Mahmood Mamdani
HSRC Press

The conflict in Darfur has been in the forefront of the media for the past six years, with human rights organisations, politicians and celebrities calling for intervention in what has widely been regarded as an act of genocide.

But in his new book, Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, published in SA by HSRC Press, academic and author Mahmood Mamdani offers a controversial insight into the workings of this demand for intervention, as well as providing a detailed account of historical factors that ultimately led to the conflict.

Uganda-born Mamdani is the Herbert Lehman professor of government in the departments of anthropology and political science at Columbia University in the US. He is also the director of Columbia’s Institute of African Studies.

He is in SA to promote his latest book, with a lecture tour, seminars and discussions around the country.

“The idea for the book arose when I started to question why the conflict in Darfur was being reported differently, and in more detail, than conflicts in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda,” Mamdani says. “The conflict there exploded into the news quite early and so I started looking for the reasons.”

In his book, Mamdani says reporting from Africa is a low-risk job: “Not only are mistakes expected and tolerated, but often they are not even noticed.

“When it comes to mainstream media, there are no Africa specialists.”

When he asked himself what made Darfur different, he realised that this was not the fault of the media, but rather of a US advocacy group, the Save Darfur coalition, “which had ‘packaged’ Darfur, very much like an off-shoot of advertising”.

“There was little concern for the realities on the ground, little regard for accuracy, but there was an appeal — but whom or what was it appealing to? When I discussed the situation in Iraq with my students in the US, they had a strong sense that Iraq was political, that it had a geography, that there was history. But with Darfur, there was no sense of history, it was as if Darfur had just emerged from nowhere. Darfur was just about atrocities, with no room for history, politics. There seemed to be no need to contextualise.

“And when asked why they believed genocide was taking place in Darfur, it was because they had been told so. ”

In his book, Mamdani writes: “Only those possessed of disproportionate power can afford to assume that knowing is irrelevant, thereby caring little about the consequences of their actions.

“Not only is this mind-set the driving force behind the War on Terror … it is this shared mind-set that has turned the Save Darfur movement into the humanitarian face of the War on Terror.”

He does, however, emphasise that this sharing of mind-set is not necessarily intentional. “I don’t believe that there is a conspiracy here, it is simply the sharing of a view that sees causes of conflict to lie with the perpetrators.

“Violence is seen to be its own explanation. This emerged particularly after September 11 2001, where there was a refusal to look at issues, at reasons for violence.

“I have looked at human rights organisations’ reports on Darfur. There is little about the history of the region, just details of atrocities and calls for punishment against the perpetrators.

“Again, there is no attempt to look at issues. This is different to responses to conflicts elsewhere in Africa, where there has been a drive towards reform, not to criminalise people. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in SA is an example.”

In his book, Mamdani refers to a 2004 World Health Organisation report that put fatalities in Darfur at 70000 and found that most deaths were not the result of direct violence. Death due to direct violence had been restricted to “adults between 15 and 49 years of age”, but not across all age groups.

This finding alone, Mamdani says, challenged the hypothesis of genocide. The report had found that the main cause of death reported during the period of the survey was diarrhoea, as a result of poor environmental sanitation. There was also the issue of severe drought in the region.

Mamdani also points out that the Save Darfur coalition was created through the joint efforts of the Committee on Conscience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service. “I don’t think that the fact that these organisations are Jewish is important in itself, but what is notable is that they are religious organisations. The thrust of the campaign was a moral one, not political. It worked as an interreligious coalition, and offered ‘faith action packs’ which were divided according to religious grouping — Christian, Jewish, interfaith and general faith.

“This was at a rally calling for military intervention in Darfur. Later, a Muslim faith action pack was added.”

The Christian action packs spoke of “divine empowerment” and “the burden to save”, while the Jewish pack highlighted “the special moral responsibility of Jews as ‘quintessential victims’ to identify genocide, wherever it occurs”. The Muslim action pack dealt with, among other items, “how to avoid being oppressive, and intervene where other Muslims oppress”.

“But why did these religious groupings come together, and why at that time, in 2004?” Mamdani asks. “Mainly because it was the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The general feeling about Rwanda is that the west acted too late, that it first sought to understand — that is the lesson.

“There is also the lesson of Holocaust, of ‘never again’.

“There is an absence of wanting to stop to ask why.

“The Save Darfur movement may have initially made a positive contribution, but eventually it became part of the problem. After there had been a dramatic drop in fatalities in 2005, to the point where the United Nations no longer regarded the situation in Darfur as an emergency, the movement’s rhetoric increased, with its call for action growing louder and louder. It was determined to go on with its campaign.”

In his book, Mamdani writes: “The description of the violence as genocide — racial killing — has served to further racialise the conflict and give legitimacy to those who seek to punish rather than to reconcile. Thus, the movement , which initially had the salutary effect of drawing world attention to Darfur in 2003-04, must now bear some of the blame for delaying reconciliation by focusing on a single-minded pursuit of revenge as punishment.”

Another factor in the Save Darfur movement was the involvement of celebrities, notably George Clooney and Mia Farrow.

In his book, Mamdani recounts that the footage of a trip Clooney made with his father to Darfur, and which he showed on The Oprah Winfrey Show, included images of Darfuri child refugees shouting “Hi, Oprah!”

Then Farrow, a Unicef goodwill ambassador who had visited Darfur in 2004 and 2006, branded the Beijing Olympics as “a genocide Olympics” because of China’s links with Sudan.

This stance was followed by Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics.

“But by this stage,” says Mamdani, “the death rate in Darfur had dropped considerably. These celebrities seemed ignorant of facts on the ground.

“This is another way in which the Save Darfur movement is different from other previous mass movements, such as the antiwar movement or the anti-apartheid movement. There was no attempt to bring educators into the movement. In terms of seeking support, the movement also turned from colleges to schools, where children would be less likely to ask questions.”

It is no doubt because of this “ignorance of facts on the ground” that the backbone of Mamdani’s book focuses on placing “Darfur in context”, tracing its history from precolonial times to the present. He explains how the conflict in Darfur began as a civil war in 1987-89 between nomadic and peasant tribes over fertile land in the south of the region, triggered by a drought that moved the southern perimeter of the Sahara out by more than 95km in 40 years.

There is also the effect of British colonial policy and the artificial tribalism of groups in Darfur, dividing its population into “native” and “settler” tribes and creating homelands for the “native” groups at the expense of the “settlers”.

He looks at the rise of rebel movements and the insurgency of 2003, which led to the Sudanese government’s brutal response.

He also examines regional influences, particularly how the Cold War prolonged the 20-year civil war in neighbouring Chad, which spilled over into Darfur.

Then there are also the contemporary superpowers at play, with US oil interests in Chad and Chinese oil interests in Sudan.

But despite the arguments about causes and history, ignorance of details and facts, disputes about numbers of fatalities, and well-intentioned but misinformed celebrities, the bottom line is that atrocities took place in Darfur.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity, but has found no evidence of genocide.

“There is no doubt,” says Mamdani, “that a mass slaughter occurred in Darfur in 2003-04 and that the Sudanese government of President Al-Bashir should be held accountable, though I suspect that if it went to trial some of the ‘facts’ on the charge sheet would be found to be exaggerations.

“But is the issue political or criminal? Is the court political?

“Just as it is important to hold perpetrators of violence accountable, it is also important to ensure that enforcers of justice are held accountable. Any intervention in Darfur must be a regional one, by neighbouring countries with long-term interests in seeking a peaceful and stable solution.

“It should not be by other powers, intent on demonising perpetrators and advocating good violence against bad violence.”

(Published in The Weekender, June 27, 2009)

Thursday 25 June 2009

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Authors discuss literary prizes

Literary prizes are often seen as an endorsement of a book’s value, and may be regarded as something hankered after by authors.

In a discussion at the Via Afrika forum on the first day of the Cape Town Book Fair, four authors — all of whom have works under consideration for literary awards — debated the question, “Literary prizes — praise or prattle?”

Julia Martin, author of A Millimetre of Dust, set the keynote, saying there is a part of her that likes the idea of receiving a literary prize — they are like presents given to a child for doing well. Everybody, after all, likes praise. The receipt of a prize also helps to sell books and so publishers as well as authors like them.

But another part of her questions the awarding of prizes and asks how much of it has to do with business and branding rather than creativity. The creative spirit, she says, does not concern itself with receiving prizes.

And then there are questions about whose interests are served by literary prizes, how judges are selected, and who pays for the prize money. Still, Martin concedes the possibility of winning a prize does act as an incentive, especially for new writers, but overall she does not feel prizes should be taken seriously.

Zukiswa Wanner, author of Behind Every Successful Man, favours literary awards but criticises the amounts paid to writers, which she says are a clear indication that writers are not appreciated in SA.

The Rowing Lesson author Anne Landsman takes a similar view to Martin, that generally writers write because they have to write, it is part of their blood, a vocation, and literary prizes are a byproduct of the creative process.

She also questions the segmentation of literary prizes — such as prizes for women’s writing — but agrees that it is not a bad thing to endorse a literary work as much as possible.

Finuala Dowling, author of Notes from a Dementia Ward, feels literary prizes involve a clash of worlds — the one materialistic, the other a world of solitude and creativity. She feels awarding prizes is like trying to put a price tag on creativity, and as literary prizes in SA involve relatively small amounts of money, this makes her even more cynical about their value.

However, she agrees that prizes can motivate new writers, and help them to become better known as prizes do boost sales.

Across the table there were concerns about prizes being, as Martin says, short-cuts to branding, and about how judges decide which work wins. There were also questions about the absence of literary awards for crime writing and light writing in SA, despite the popularity of both genres.

The size of the prizes in SA was clearly a concern, but as presenter Ben Williams, editor of Book SA, pointed out, some longstanding, prestigious literary awards such as the Olive Schreiner Award might offer only a couple of thousand of rands, depending on what the English Academy of Southern Africa can afford in a given year, while relatively new awards, such as The Sunday Times Literary Awards, offer far more.

The M-Net Literary Awards recently paid out a total of R350 000 — but, as Williams pointed out, the Impact Dublin Award pays €100 000.

In conclusion, Martin and Landsman again warned that literary prizes should not be taken too seriously, and Dowling warned against the dangers of writers and writing becoming commodified.

Wanner, however, still came out strongly in favour of prizes — but with more money.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Poets compete with soccer fans

Cape Town small publisher Modjaji Books launched four collections at the Cape Town Book Fair.

Burnt Offering is Joan Metelerkamp’s seventh poetry collection, and she read the poem Penelope at the launch, weaving rich images and motifs from classical Greek mythology into a contemporary, domestic setting.

It reflects her concerns and preoccupation with the depth and complexity of life, rather than being interested in writing “book club ladies’ books”. Metelerkamp’s confident, steady reading was thankfully not too disrupted by cheers from a 2010 Soccer World Cup stand just a few aisles away.

This was followed by a reading from Helen Moffett’s debut collection, Strange Fruit. Moffett started off by reading some short and relatively light poems from her collection, saying she hoped nobody scored a goal while she was reading — but then someone did.

Nevertheless, Moffett continued, reading the lighthearted We will fight them at La Playa, which opens with the lines: “You and I are at the Waterfront/on a secret mission:/it may look as if we are drinking coffee/and eating Florentines;/but in truth we have bazookas,/and are shooting every twosome/we see holding hands”.

But not all Moffett’s poems are lighthearted fantasy: several trace her painful journey to acceptance of the fact that she cannot have a child, and poems such as Baby shower, The ultrasound, My daughter, and Envy are the evidence. Moffett read from The ovary in the arm, which contains the lines: “All I wanted was natural, normal/the everyday stuff;/conceiving in passion/…an ordinary breeding and birthing./ So little to ask for;/beyond impossible to get.”

Please, Take Photographs is the first poetry collection of award-winning author Sindiwe Magona.

Magona’s gift as a storyteller shone through as she read the delightfully warm narrative poem For Maria, tracing the life of a woman from her first to ninth decade, as she marries and has children and then watches her children in turn become adults.

It is a life in which she sees “all those brilliant/Moments of loving,/Of giving to others”.

The poem ends hilariously, with the 90-year-old narrator demanding: “Pass me that damn bottle of wine, will you?” — which drew much laughter and applause from the audience.

The fourth book launched was Oleander, which is the fourth collection of Fiona Zerbst who, while present, declined to read, and so poet Malika Ndlovu read a selection from the volume.

The poems ranged from the tense Remembering S-21, Cambodia, which opens with the lines “This was a school/before it was wire and silence”, opening out to the wider world of Possibilities , where “The possible is/a room like the cell/of a monk. No dust./A bed. A chair./Anything happens”.

There was also the powerful, closing poem of the collection, Beside the Nile, which contains the haunting lines: “I hold out my hand/and here you are,/Nile that watches the watcher/look at the water;/Nile that knows/a hundred crimes, excuses”.

Ndlovu’s poetic book, Invisible Earthquake — A Mothers’ Journey Through Stillbirth, was published by Modjaji earlier this year and on Monday at the book fair she gave a moving reading.

Ndlovu explains that for some time after she lost her child she was haunted by a sense of a void, and so created the book to fill that void. Her performance was attended by about 120 people, some of whom were visibly moved by the experience of loss and pain that she recounts in her brief but powerful work.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Jacana uses guerilla tactics

Rumours were circulating last month that Joburg-based publisher Jacana would not be exhibiting at the Cape Town Book Fair this year.

Jacana director Bridget Impey cryptically let on that while Jacana would be participating this year, the nature of its participation would be different.

Come June 13 and all was made clear. Jacana was present at the book fair, but did not have a stand in the exhibition hall.

Instead, the publisher was present either through organised book events and readings, or by unscheduled, guerrilla-style flash appearances at retailers’ stands.

Visitors could be notified of these flash appearances by registering with an SMS service, though this unfortunately fell flat on the first two days due to network problems.

Not that this was a train smash, since Jacana — which organised its office in the foyer of the convention centre — had staff circulating flyers to visitors shortly before the events.

Publishing director Maggie Davey says Jacana felt a need to adopt innovative marketing, though she agrees it could be seen as a cost-cutting measure. “Jacana felt a need to use more innovative, less conventional methods to put our authors forward and reach audiences,” she says.

Director Mike Martin says: “We asked ourselves why we were participating at the book fair, and what we wanted to get out of it. When you start by asking yourself that question, you start thinking out of the box, and wondering if renting a stand is necessary.”

There were also a number of practical business considerations. Impey points out that at previous book fairs, when Jacana had a stand, it would be selling books in competition with retailers who were their biggest clients.

So this year, rather than selling books, Jacana partnered with retailers on scheduled and unscheduled events.

“And it hasn’t been easy,” says Davey. “It is a lot of hard work. You have to work a lot harder than if you are just at a stand.”

Last year, there was concern among some exhibitors that the trade aspect of the fair was being drowned out by the retail and literary event components, and some would prefer that a day be devoted to trade, with the fair closed to the public.

Davey still holds that an exhibitor’s stand has its value, but says trying to create business within the exhibition hall is difficult, particularly because of the noise and the amount of human traffic.

Martin believes that a problem with the Cape Town Book Fair is that it is becoming repetitive. “It is the same thing every year, the same exhibitors, the same stands. There is nothing new, nothing to really knock your socks off.”

Added to this is the cost of participating in the fair, and looking at what benefits are being received. One solution for players from outside the Cape is the possibility of creating a Johannesburg book event.

Martin says: “In Johannesburg, publishers could reach bigger audiences; in Cape Town it is always the same audiences. With a Johannesburg book fair, publishers could grow their market.

“It is also a matter of rethinking the concept of the book fair and of placing it on a more human scale rather than in a huge convention centre. We should stop trying to be London or Frankfurt, and create something unique.

“People are already talking about what Jacana has done by not having an exhibitor’s stand, and if we have got some debate going, that is a start, as other people will also start thinking out of the box.”

By Monday afternoon it seemed that Jacana’s guerrilla approach had annoyed a fellow publisher, who lodged a complaint with the fair’s organisers, accusing Jacana of “pamphleteering”, and that the publisher was ordered by security to leave the convention centre. However, it turned out there had been some misunderstanding, and Jacana was assured it could remain at the fair.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Cape Town Book Fair 2009:The world of ideas is alive and well

There might have been some initial concern about the recession’s effect on the success of this year’s Cape Town Book Fair, and with 60 fewer stands in the exhibition hall than last year, those concerns may have seemed well founded.

However, from the first hour of the four-day fair, the public began pouring in and the organisers might well find that the previous record of 51000 visitors has been matched. The drop in the number of stands seemed to work better, as the hall was less crowded and the event seemed more manageable, with room to breathe.

There were also some initial concerns about the programme this year, with several people feeling that it was flat and uninspiring, placing an emphasis on issue-related discussions rather than opportunities to meet a wide range of authors. But this did not deter the crowds. There were a few repeat events, such as eight book-signings by Spud creator John van de Ruit , but, judging by the long queues of people wanting their copies signed, this was absolutely necessary.

One of the highlights on the first day was a discussion on cartooning as social and political commentary in SA, with Jonathan Shapiro, Andy Mason and Antjie Krog. Krog started out by highlighting the admiration she has for Shapiro, whose work involves putting himself at risk daily, particularly in such a divided society as SA.

There has been criticism that Shapiro is not “a real cartoonist” since he is “fighting for something”, and Krog asked him whether he felt he was still fighting, or whether he was now “an official cartoonist”. Shapiro’s response was that he felt he was still fighting but with a subtle difference and that he had become more of a commentator, a social analyst or “shit stirrer”.

He did, however, feel that he was no longer an activist, and that the political landscape of SA had changed, particularly as his critics have forgotten how critical he was of the previous regime.

Shapiro said a big challenge was how to be critical of the government and at the same time avoid becoming a tool of neoliberals, or worse, the right wing.

He has been particularly concerned to find some of his cartoons on right-wing websites, posted without his knowledge and taken out of context. The most difficult issue, however, has been dealing with the controversy of the “rape of Justice” cartoon, but Shapiro said that while he could defend a cartoon he had created, he could not take responsibility for readers’ interpretations.

An interesting panel discussion at the Via Africa forum on Sunday was with the editors of the book Load Shedding — Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, with contributor John Hyslop — and Kevin Bloom, author of Ways of Staying.

Both books look at contemporary SA, with themes of personal loss and how to continue living in such a violent society. There are concerns about how to come to terms with painful events, especially where loved ones have been lost as a result of violent crime, and how to deal with the hatred that leads to violence, including self-hatred, which sometimes leads to xenophobic violence.

The topic of crime and violence continued in a slightly different vein at a discussion among local crime writers Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer, Joanne Hitchens, Margie Orford and new crime writer Roger Smith.

One focus was the rise of local crime writing as not only a popular genre, but one that is now being taken seriously and being respected. Orford suggested that one of the reasons crime writing is proving so popular in SA is that it is escapist literature. It is different from crime depicted in novels such as JM Coetzee’s because in crime fiction there is a resolution and criminals are brought to book.

Sunday was just as busy, if not busier, than the first day, and by 6.30pm the exhibition hall was far from deserted. There were, however, some complaints about noise levels , particularly with fans cheering on their teams at a 2010 Soccer World Cup stand.

While Monday seemed slightly quieter than the weekend, the aisles remained packed, and there were also a number of schoolchildren in attendance.

In collaboration with the Goethe Institute, the fair this year also ran an Africa Invitation Programme, bringing to Cape Town publishers from other African countries such as Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Libya. However, their stands seemed to be mainly unattended.

On Tuesday, the public holiday and the final day of the fair, there seemed to be a drop in the number of visitors, but only slightly.

One highlight of the morning was a well-attended talk at the Dalro Literary Forum by Mahmood Mamdani, whose new book — Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror — has just been published in SA by HSRC Press.

Mamdani examines why, when conflicts in Africa are so often reported about sparingly and shabbily, the conflict in Darfur has received such detailed attention in the media.

Debates continue over how many deaths have occurred in Darfur as a result of direct violence, and how many from disease and drought, but still there is often a refusal to look at the real causes for the conflict, to study the historical context and find peaceful and constructive resolutions.

Instead there is an attempt to demonise the perpetrators, and to advocate “good violence against bad violence”.

It was also extremely encouraging to note that while previous Cape Town Book Fairs have tended to be mainly middle-class white affairs, this year there was a noticeable change in the demographics of visitors.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Saturday 20 June 2009

New Dye Hard Press publication: Green Dragon 6


Dye Hard Press is proud to announce the publication of

Green Dragon 6



ISBN:978-0-620-43490-4


Contributors to this issue of Green Dragon are Alan Finlay, Arja Salafranca, Haidee Kruger, Janet van Eeden, Joop Bersee, Kelwyn Sole, Kobus Moolman, Tania van Schalkwyk, Megan Hall, Cecilia Ferriera, Anton Krueger, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Goodenough Mashego, David wa Maahlamela, Vonani Bila, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Aryan Kaganof, Neo Molefe Shameeyaa, Colleen Higgs, Gus Ferguson, Brent Meersman, Kai Lossgott, Daniel Browde, Ingrid Andersen, Gary Cummiskey, Mick Raubenheimer and Mxolisi Nyezwa. Lyrics from Durban folk group The Litchis.

Green Dragon 6 will soon be available at bookstores throughout South Africa, estimated retail price R80. If purchased directly from the publisher, the price is R65, including postage (South Africa).

E-mail dyehardpress@iafrica.com for more details.

New publication from Dye Hard Press: Who was Sinclair Beiles?


Who was Sinclair Beiles?
edited by Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska

ISBN:978-0-620-42792-0


In 1960, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles collaborated on the now legendary collection of cut-ups, Minutes to Go. Readers of Beat literature know of Burroughs, Corso and Gysin, but who was Sinclair Beiles?


Sinclair Beiles was a South African poet and playwright, born in Uganda in 1930. He moved to Paris during the 1950s, where for a time he was an editor at Olympia Press and a resident at the Beat Hotel. He later spent several years in Greece and his first poetry collection, Ashes of Experience, won the first Ingrid Jonker poetry prize in 1969. Many other collections followed, published either overseas or in South Africa, to where he returned in the late 1970s. Beiles died, generally ignored by the mainstream South African poetry anthologies, in Johannesburg in 2000.


Who was Sinclair Beiles? brings together a collection of interviews, memoirs and essays about Sinclair Beiles and his work, by Gary Cummiskey, dawie malan, George Dillon Slater, Earle Holmes, Eva Kowalska, Alan Finlay and Fred de Vries.


The book also includes previously unpublished photographs of Sinclair Beiles. Perfect bound, 136 pages.Beiles's work is in danger of sliding into obscurity forever, and it is time for a renewed assessment of his contribution to South African literature.


Who was Sinclair Beiles? will soon be available at bookstores throughout South Africa, estimated retail price R160. If purchased directly from the publisher, the price is R100, including postage (South Africa).


E-mail dyehardpress@iafrica.com for more order details.

Friday 12 June 2009

Small players feel the whiplash


Since 1994 there has been an increase in the number of small, independent publishers in South Africa. A more recently established venture in Cape Town is unique in that it focuses solely on southern African women’s writing, and one of its titles, Whiplash, by Tracey Farren was last week short-listed for the prestigious 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Modjaji Books was launched in 2007 by writer Colleen Higgs, when she published Megan Hall’s debut poetry collection Fourth Child, which went on to win the Ingrid Jonker poetry prize. Higgs had been working as project manager at Cape Town’s Centre for the Book at the time, and felt she was ready for a new challenge.

She explains how by managing the centre’s award-winning Community Publishing Project, she was constantly giving advice to others about how to go about publishing.

“I wrote the book, A rough guide to small-scale and self-publishing, as part of my work, and as a way of putting down the frequently asked questions and the basics of publishing,” Higgs says. “My work was an in-depth research project into publishing - all the aspects from commissioning, finding authors, production and printing, design, marketing and distribution. I built up good networks and started to feel that starting my own press was doable. I needed a new challenge and wanted to be able to work more flexibly.

“Most small presses are run by men, so I wanted to do something for women, to open up a different aesthetic. Publishing is full of gate-keeping, it has to be. Resources are always limited and there are lots of writers looking for a break. I wanted to give a new set of writers - and a new set of aesthetics - a chance.”

Higgs acknowledges that small press publishing is fraught with difficulties, but this is something that goes hand-in-hand with an approach that does not cater for a commercial market. Indeed, Higgs sees the role of Modjaji Books, as a small publisher, as being concerned with publishing new voices and taking risks. She aims to “publish purely out of love or passion and because I resonate with a writer or her work. Not because she is marketable or worthy.”

Whereas small publishers have traditionally focused on publishing poetry, Modjaji Books is also devoted to publishing a fair amount of fiction. “Fiction is more successful,” she says, “but you still have to get the numbers right in terms of print run and how much to spend on a particular book. Publishing is a calculated gamble. I don’t want to only publish poetry. I’m interested in short fiction, essays, novellas, books that experiment with form. One forthcoming title, Hester se Brood, by Hester van der Walt is a recipe book, but not in the conventional sense. It is also a memoir, an exploration of the meaning and history of bread and bread-baking.”

Last year Modjaji Books published the controversial novel, Whiplash, which has been short-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Dealing with prostitution in Cape Town, the novel had been rejected by several commercial publishers before finding a home at Modjaji Books. The decision to take on its publication resulted in Higgs taking the leap and resigning from Centre for the Book to focus on publishing fulltime. This was courageous, especially since many take the view that it is near-impossible for a small publishing venture to generate a full-time income, and that it should be best treated as a part-time hobby.

Higgs muses: “I haven’t earned a salary for myself out of Modjaji Books so far, although it has begun to cover its own expenses, including phones, petrol, printing costs, design and so on. I hope as I build the list and develop better strategies for getting the books into stores and build up my direct sales too, that it will begin to become sustainable. I’m beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel for next year. In the meantime I also do freelance work, give advice about publishing for which I charge an hourly rate, do manuscript assessments for writers, do some journalism and other work. I’ve also cut back on luxuries, though it is enough of a luxury to do what I am passionate about, to have flexible time to spend with my child, and to be my own boss.”

The issue of financing publications is always paramount, and obtaining funding is not always as easy as it may initially seem. Higgs says that so she has not been successful in obtaining state funding, “but I have received funding from the Cape 300 Foundation for poetry collections by Joan Metelerkamp and Sindiwe Magona, which are to be launched at the Cape Town Book Fair, along with collections by Fiona Zerbst and Helen Moffett, also published by Modjaji. I keep writing proposals and look for sponsorship opportunities. Hester se Brood is a likely candidate for sponsorship. I am also looking for sponsorship for an anthology of short stories that Modjaji Books gathered last year. I want to pay an editor to work with the writers and I need funds to pay for the printing of that book.”

Marketing and promotion can also be particularly difficult for a small publisher with limited finances, but again Higgs turns to innovative, relatively inexpensive means, such as blogging on the Book SA website or promoting on Facebook.

“I have found online marketing to be very successful. All of the events and launches I have organised have been very well attended. We sold over 80 copies of Whiplash at the launch, even a large publisher would have been pleased with that. I use Facebook to build relationships with people who are interested in my work and in whose work and profiles I am interested. Recently I have started on Twitter, which I find far more useful as a way of learning things, but do also use it to share ideas and finds and to market what I am doing, or just to build awareness of Modjaji Books”.

In the midst of this, however, the economic downturn has put the dampers on publishing worldwide, and in SA many publishers and bookstores are adopting a cautious approach. Tremendous challenges are raised for small publishers in particular.

Higgs sees two main challenges ahead: “The first is how to increase the profitablity of what I am doing, to make it sustainable. Secondly and related, is how to get the attention of book sellers while I don’t have a sales representative who is dedicated to promoting my titles. I wish all booksellers kept up to date with Book SA, but I fear many don’t. I also think that they often have conservative tastes about what their readers will like. Small presses need to hand sell and build relationships with independent booksellers and readers and hope for the best with the rest.”

Always resilient and determined, Higgs is already committed to several more titles in the next 12 months. “I plan to publish Hester se Brood, four collections of short stories – by Arja Salafranca, Lauri Kubuitsile, Meg van der Merwe and Wame Molefe, as well as a novel by Makhosazana Xaba,” she says.

“I am also hoping to compile a 2010 South African Small Publishers’ Directory in collaboration with the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the British Council, which will represent small publishers at the London Book Fair next April. I am just waiting to hear about the funding for that.”

(Published in Busness Day, June 12, 2009)


Photo of Colleen Higgs: BookSA

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Fair trade in South Africa

The Cape Town Book Fair, which will take place from 13th June to 16th, is now is its fourth year. Organised in collaboration with the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the Frankfurt Book Fair, this year there will be a total of 250 exhibitors from 29 countries...read more here

Tuesday 02 June 2009