By COLLEEN HIGGS
My new book, my mother, my madness arose from a secret blog I started in the early days of taking care of my mother. Reflecting on it now, writing in a notebook or journal is different from writing a blog. In a blog, there is an assumed reader. Another difference was that while the blog was available for anyone to read, my name was not attached to it. These factors influenced the writing in subtle ways.
At the time as I was writing the blog, I was embarking on setting up Modjaji Books and on top of that my marriage was in trouble; in the book I don’t write about Modjaji, and only mention my marriage and divorce in a low-key way. The book was about my mother, and what it was like to care for her; what it took. She was a volatile, unstable person. She was like that even when she was younger – only later in life was she diagnosed as being bipolar. During my childhood, she attempted suicide and was hospitalised a number of times. When I was three years old, she had a ‘nervous breakdown’ and spent six weeks in Tara Hospital in Johannesburg and then another six weeks in Mozambique recovering. So, bearing in mind the painful history of my relationship with her, it was not easy to take on the burden of care and responsibility for her. It took overcoming resistance within myself to do the tasks I needed to do.
I’m glad that I focused on my relationship with mother and caring for her in the last ten years of her life, because that helped to make the book strong and clear. In this period, she became frailer and also suffered from dementia. My siblings and I bought her an apartment in the High Care section of a “Luxury Retirement Resort” in Cape Town using the money left to her by her husband, our dad. This meant that most of her day to day needs were taken care of by the centre. They provided all her meals, administered her medication, involved her in activities, did her washing, cleaned her apartment, kept an eye on her, contained her and nursed her when she was ill.
I thought that putting my book out there might offer something to those many women (and men) with complex relationships with their mothers/parents. I felt it would help some of them realise that they were not alone in struggling with the discomfort and resistance they experience.
I’d originally thought of making the book both about my mother and Modjaji, but in the end this seemed too big and complicated. Interestingly though, these two themes had quite a lot in common. In thinking about why I have had several difficult interactions with writers I have published, I came to have many insights. One of them was my own madness in attempting to be a “good enough mother” to the writers Modjaji published (all of them women) who were not seen by the “father” – the literary establishment, which is largely controlled by men and animus-driven women. How on earth did I think I could do that?
The feeling of not being seen was a key impulse in my setting up Modjaji. I wanted to create a space not only to publish women writers, but to publish what they felt was important to write about and worthy of paying attention to. This often included things that traditionally have been invisible to men – housework, child care, juggling tasks, elder care – so-called “women’s work”.
One of the first books Modjaji published was Malika Ndlovu’s Invisible Earthquake – a multi-genre book about her experience of stillbirth. She had sent it to other publishers who’d told her that even though they could see it was interesting, they didn’t think there would be a market for it, and they couldn’t see how to position the book so it would sell. I bet if Malika or another writer had to approach publishers now with a book about stillbirth, it would be taken up. The preoccupations of the world have shifted, and in South Africa, Modjaji has been part of making that shift.
In the same way, my book about caring for an aging mother, one who was also mentally ill, might not seem to be an interesting or marketable topic, but the response I have already had from readers has been overwhelmingly affirming. My book has struck a chord, its readers are feeling seen in an area of their lives that was previously invisible.
Colleen Higgs is the author of two collections of poetry (Halfborn Woman, 2004, and Lava Lamp Poems, 2011) and a short story collection (Looking for Trouble – Yeoville Stories, 2012). She founded Modjaji Books in 2007 and, after publishing more than 150 books, is still Modjaji’s manager and publisher. my mother, my madness is published by Deep South.