Notions of a purist

SMILE: Photo credit

“Obviously I am very shocked and continue to be shocked and disturbed” – Colleen Higgs

At the age of 55, Colleen Higgs grapples with the digital age of feminist writing. As a modern day single mother Colleen ponders over feminist identity in the 21st century. Founder of the independent feminist publishing press, Modjaji Books, she admits that the realm of social media is a tiring space.

“Sometimes reading the kinds of things on social media that young feminists are writing, I found disturbing. Things are just so stark and polarizing. I always think that there is much more to everything than just that.”- Colleen Higgs

As a self-proclaimed feminist, I was taken back by Colleen’s opinion of radical feminist self-expression. Was the abrasive nature of instantaneous uploading and sharing of ones opinion alluding to a lack of introspect? Have the modern day feminist generation drifted into an oblivion of vulgar ferocity in an attempt to subvert the dogma of frail femininity? How empowering are we when stating #MenAreTrash? Are we witnessing the rebirth of an absolute radical feminist culture or the ramifications of a narcissistic digital age? I sit down with Colleen to talk about poetry, writing and what it means to be a feminist press in the 21st century.

As I approach Colleen’s house in Sybrand, I am welcomed by a pink fuchsia park bench grazing her front lawn. Standing on the porch behind it, with a warming smile on her face, is Colleen. I do not recall who seemed more nervous, me or her, but the familiar presence of a dog always resonates with home. Following Colleen to the kitchen we pass through her vibrant living room- where the unforgettable pink pops up again. This time in her choice of decoration which captures that of a calm and collected, relaxed ambience. Dark wooden floors shows years of trotting and you can tell by the collection of novels, children’s books and study guides that this is home.

Born in Kimberley, Colleen traded her diamond roots for the metropolis lifestyles of Jo’burg and Cape Town. After completing her studies, a BA majoring in English and History, she entered the world of teaching. Over the past three decades, Colleen has worked as a teacher, a teacher trainer, an academic developer, program manager and librarian. During that period she published three of her books titled Halfborn Woman (2004), Lava Lamp Poems (2010) and Looking for Trouble and Other Mostly Yeoville Stories (2012). She also released a practical guide for self-publishers called A Rough Guide to Small-scale and Self-publishing (2006). In 2007, she left the world of mediating publishing for writers and started her own independent press called Modjaji Books. Modjaji Books is a feminist press that publishes the work of southern African women writers. It’s aim is to give a voice to those who are marginalized by lack the opportunity. When asked about the ideology behind Modjaji Colleen states how her main aim is that of unity.

“I felt that I wanted to work with not just South African writers but with neighbouring countries too. I feel like I wanted it to be more of a regional thing because I think that there is ways in which we can learn from each other”- Colleen Higgs

Modjaji publishes approximately 15 books each year and receives manuscripts from writers based in South Africa, and even Nigeria and Uganda. One of its biggest successes was Yewande Omotoso’s novel titled Bom Boy ( 2011). Colleen is currently working on a crowd funding project to publish a full colour book called An A-Z of Amazing South African Women. The book speaks about 26 South African women, in the past and present, with one for each letter of the alphabet. Veering away from the traditional black-and-white text based books that Modjaji publishes, An A-Z of Amazing South African Women aims to attract a new audience. “The book would be perfect for younger women”, says Colleen, “it’s the kind of book that would be a cool thing for tweens. A book that you can give to a friend or someone you think of as an amazing woman.”

When asked about her own writing and the source of her inspiration Colleen admits that ,for her , it is a process of documenting and introspection. “I’m not the kind of political writer. I would say that I am more of a poet”, says Colleen. Her daily ritual of writing begins at half past eight in the morning after having a cup of coffee and taking her daughter to school. Not  seeing herself as someone who follows routine religiously, Colleen admits to the guilty pleasure of playing word games with friends in the morning. Since becoming a publisher, her work has taken up a lot of her creative energy but she finds that adhering to the habit of keeping a notebook helps.

“I have a notebook and I jot things down when they occur to me. I also write down dreams when they stay with me. I find it very helpful.”- Colleen Higgs

Apart from keeping a notebook, Colleen also has a  blog. Keeping up with the times is a requirement for the profession that she’s in. “It’s amazing how things have changed and how quickly. When I wrote Rough Guide there was no Facebook and social media. Blogs were only just starting”, says Colleen. She aims to maintain an active presence on social media through sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Scribbling on a piece of paper while brooding over today’s bitter-sweet digital age, Colleen admits that she is tired of it.  “For my work it’s very useful,” she says, “so it’s quite hard to just give it up. The community that I am in is very much fed by social media”.

“If I was a young woman today, I wouldn’t be wanting to look at what is happening in the world and just be pissed off. I would want to do something positive, to make a difference. Not just to bang on about how terrible everything is.”- Colleen Higgs


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