Ask Nick Mulgrew for the advice he’d pass on to aspiring wordsmiths and he’ll say, “I’m not sure there’s anything I’d pass on, that would be me prescribing, whereas the main thing for me has to be not to accept anything as a kind of mantra or framework for doing things”. He speaks articulately with an accent that’s hard to place and is sometimes presumed by foreigners to be Canadian. It’s not his British heritage, but rather a brief stint living in New Zealand whilst a kid, that shaped the way he pronounces his words.
Despite being a Durbanite for most of his life, the ‘othering’ effect of people assuming he’s not a local has profoundly shaped his worldview. “This idea of being seen as foreign or weird or very middle class from a very privileged society makes you see things for what they are,” he quips. Growing up Nick learnt that adjectives associated with the seaside city he called home are words like ‘laid-back’ and ‘slow’. But to him, the rest of the world was simply too rushed and people weren’t willing to enjoy being present in a place that’s a crash of culture, worldviews and politics.
To be a writer is to stoke the collective imagination, sharpen sensibilities, present alternative perspectives and possess the ability to soak up small details that reveal greater truths. So it’s ironic to hear after the publication of Stations, his discerning collection of short stories, and his poetry anthology the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, that as a first year student at Rhodes, he found literature impenetrable. The realisation of the gap between the way it’s taught at school versus the intellectual rigor required at a tertiary level of study, and the way it’s received outside of institutions was a revelation that motivated him to seek ways to make a tangible difference in the industry.
There are bridges to be built across our literary landscape, and if writers and publishers want change he suggests they start by identifying what upsets them most about the industry and then find ways to fix that. For Nick, this was a lack of good poetry collections. “I think we’ve intellectualised poetry far too much when in reality, poetry is around us all the time; if you’re looking at copywriting, sports commentary, lyrics or jingles – these are all aspects of the genre…I’m not too sure how to break the stigma surrounding it, but as far as getting people to really engage with it, that’s something that needs to be changed by collectives,” he says.
This inspired him to launch uHlanga Press to help shift the perception of poetry in South Africa and give himself, Genna Gardini and Thabo Jijana the means to publish solo poetry collections – the latter of whom won the 2016 Ingrid Jonker prize for his anthology, Failing Maths and my Other Crimes. As an emerging literary force, Nick’s name is already associated with accolades. Just last year he was awarded a Silver BASA Journalism Award as well as being a winner of a National Arts Festival Short Sharp Stories Award, but listening to him talk it becomes evident that his career aims extend beyond honing his writing talents. Currently, he’s the associate editor of fine writing magazine Prufrock, and the deputy chair of Short Story Day Africa, an anthology of short fiction from our continent and diaspora.
Being passionate about creating opportunities for writers means he’s well aware of the challenges and cautions against being too hubristic. “I don’t think there’s anything I can accomplish by myself. I would like to help create the means by which more people can come through to literature and destabilise conceptions about what literature is, what is should be, and the role is has in society.”
Nick has been writing throughout his life but the moment he proclaimed himself a professional took place at party where one day, instead of saying he worked in publishing, he answered the small talk career question with “I’m a writer”. Admittance to this was not without the fear of sounding pretentious, but by then he’d been tinkering with words both as a journalist and in a publishing capacity for some time. In addition, he had two years’ worth of performance in the folk band called Life of Riley which he co-founded withTerri Lockhart. The ways in which the rhythm of language works and how it creates meaning was something he’d learnt from university lectures and lived experience.
This year, the Cape Times said of his collection of short stories that “It’s difficult to believe that this is only [his] debut collection of stories. Stations reads like the work of a seasoned writer. Here is someone with acuity and a perfectly pitched voice”. For him to write with depth and detailed observation is to have a very honest and self-critical gaze. It’s being able to posit oneself in a position of vulnerability and risk the possibility of being incorrect.
He’s often asked how he can write stories from the perspective of people who occupy different spaces and experiences. That comes with having endless conversations with those who are politically and socially engaged, but radically unlike him. Engaging long enough allows him to better understand his own position, how to contribute meaningfully to discourse and discern when his participation doesn’t forward the dialogue. Knowing that it’s okay to be incorrect and deal with criticism is something he thinks many South Africans still need to lean. Dealing with difference isn’t easy because it involves humility and accepting that you might be wrong. If you call yourself a writer you have to read a lot and engage with contrast.
When we speak about the youth now, he mentions the older generation’s shock at the physical and linguistic violence of young South Africa. He feels the current student activism is an unsurprising and legitimate response to a lived environment where for many, daily life has not changed since Apartheid. Its legacy is alive and functioning. The disparities between generations comes from the older generation having lived under the formal machinations of segregation and the youth having been born in the aftermath. Young South Africans are saying Apatheid isn’t over. Old methods of working things out haven’t been entirely successful and we need new ones. Reconciliation and reparations never really happened, and this process is taking place now. That’s the goal of the youth.
If we’re going to counter linguistic oppression and help create a thriving literary culture, Nick says “The main thing is disrupting the way that publishing in South Africa operates. It’s important for young people to take up publishing houses, to publish in African languages, to publish different kinds of stories – whether that means abandoning the traditional novel or short story form – or you know, just experimenting and making mistakes…I don’t think it can be summed up. You have to find it for yourself”.
Photographs of Nick by Neo Baepi.
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