Literature in South Africa is an exciting space, but it’s fundamentally broken for several reasons, says author and publisher Nick Mulgrew.
Many flaws were caused by apartheid, and others are caused by literary professionals accepting the status quo and not pushing boundaries. To help change the face of South African literature, Mulgrew founded a publishing house, uHlanga, to focus on new, experimental and classic works of Southern African poetry.
“To make sure that people can see themselves on the bookshelf. To make sure that all forms of literature — poetry, in my case — can be accessible and appreciated,” he says. “I do all of the commissioning, most of the editing, and all of the design for all our collections.”
In the past year it has published 10 books, including Collective Amnesia, a debut collection of poetry from Koleka Putuma. Mulgrew himself holds a Thomas Pringle Award for Short Fiction and a National Arts Festival Short Sharp Stories Award. His collections of short stories are Stations, The First Law of Sadness and The Myth Of This Is That We’re All In This Together, his first poetry collection.
His stories are a blend of comedy and despair set in South Africa’s dingiest suburbs, with killer eagles, tattoo removal parlours, punk guitarist-auditors, turtle sanctuaries, plane crashes, amateur pornographers and biltong-makers. The First Law of Sadness was named one of the books of the year by the Sunday Times last year.
He started out in journalism, but finds fiction a much richer field. “The truth isn’t stranger than fiction — at its best, fiction should be stranger. Otherwise, what’s the point?” he asks. “My fiction explores the intimate and personal ways that South African society — and white South African society in particular — operates.”
It’s important, though, that this writing doesn’t seem polemic but is readable, well-written and engages with society in an oblique way, he says. “That’s something a lot of young South African writers are having trouble with balancing. Life is political, and literature is political inherently. But politics can’t lead the story. The story must lead the politics,” he says.
Next in his pipeline is a novel set between South Africa and New Zealand, where he lived for a while when he was younger. He is also the fiction editor for the literary magazine, Prufrock, which he co-founded, and head of communications for PEN South Africa, an organisation representing writers of the world, defending free expression and encouraging literature. — Lesley Stones