There is a fresh breeze rustling through the South African literary scene. A new generation of young English writers is coming into their own. Among them, no other voice is simultaneously fresher and more mature than Craig Higginson's.
Born in Zimbabwe in 1971, Higginson grew up in Johannesburg and studied at Wits. Multitalented, he has already made his indelible mark as a playwright, novelist, theatre director and lecturer. Sitting across the table, he impresses with his erudition and eloquence which are accompanied by an inner calm, making you feel immediately comfortable in his presence.
In conversation, he moves across a wide range of topics, quoting other writers and thinkers with ease to illustrate a point he is making. But there is nothing pretentious about any of it. It is not a pose. There is a genuine willingness to exchange thoughts, to share. And when asked about his own work, although eager to discuss inspirations and ideas, he becomes modest and shy: "I think I'm too young as a writer to start pontificating too much about myself - as either a novelist or playwright."
Others don't hold back. Higginson's latest two novels, the elegant Last Summer (2010) and the astounding The Landscape Painter (2011), come with promising endorsements from such greats of South African literary and theatrical worlds as John Kani, Janet Suzman or Nadine Gordimer. And Higginson delivers the goods. The critics' response is nearly unequivocal, ranging from "tremendously creative intelligence" (Janet van Eeden) and "like cool air in our hot literary landscape" (Leon de Kock) to "as capable with language as the heavyweights of local literature" (Bruce Dennill).
Higginson's theatrical work has toured South African and foreign stages to wide acclaim and his plays, Dream of the Dog and The Girl in the Yellow Dress, were published in London by Oberon Books in 2010. Last year, the same publisher released Higginson's adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which he first directed in 2008 at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg where he is currently Literary Manager. Forthcoming is Little Foot, a play commissioned by the National Theatre in London for the Connections Festival, 2012. It will open at the National Arts Festival in the Rhodes Theatre in July, before transferring to the Market Theatre.
Higginson was last in Cape Town in late January to help cast Little Foot. He says that it "has been incredibly hard to write. On one level, it's an ensemble production with five characters in conflict with one another - in the tradition of Chekhov. But they are also around twenty years old and they are surrounded by a very wayward ancient Chorus of hominin-like creatures. It's also the first unambiguously multi-media play I've written."
Dream of the Dog and The Girl in the Yellow Dress work with fewer characters, but are intricately layered, addressing such difficult themes as identity and reconciliation. They tackle more pressing contemporary issues than the rather intimate, emotional novels he writes. He sees plays as "communal" and thinks that "their function in the South African tradition have been to engage directly with the social and political world of its audience."
Novels for him "are more private and personal...they are usually driven by a single perspective and concern themselves above all with the consciousness of the protagonist. Having said that, my next play, The Boy and the Lavender Bush, is not at all political, and my next novel will probably have seven narrators, each trying to capture an elusive protagonist."
There is little doubt today that Higginson's star is surely and steadily on the rise, but the vocation took a while to crystallise.
In his early teens he devoured James Herriot's farm books. The idea of living in the countryside and helping animals inspired him to follow in his idol's footsteps and become a veterinarian. Just in time it struck him "that it was the writer in him that I wanted to be - not the vet. Fortunately, I realised this before having to plunge my arm deep into a cow's behind." Instead, after university he left for England, where for a few years he found work at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London, assisting directors such as Michael Attenborough and Barney Simon, and doing his own production of Laughter in the Dark, an adaptation of Nabokov's novel which Higginson later turned into a radio play for the BBC. He also ran writers' workshops in London, and today continues to work with aspiring authors at Wits University.
Higginson's own evolution as a writer is remarkable. Like many of us, he first found expression in poetry. But then he remembered T.S. Eliot who said that "you can't call yourself a poet unless you are still writing poems after the age of twenty-five. For some reason, this statement froze me and I have hardly written a poem since my twenty-fifth birthday." But poetry shines through all his prose. "Plays at their best seem to me to owe a great deal to poetry," he says. So do novels.
His first, Embodied Laughter (1998), was published during the ten years he spent in England. It reads like the debut that it was. A kind of Mr Hyde to John van de Ruit's Dr Jekyll-Spud, the novel explores the darker depths of adolescence. It was accompanied by a fantastical short story, "The Gooseberry". Both, the novel and the story, have the feel of something that the author had to write out of his system. Higginson's next novel, The Hill (2005), also a boarding school story about a sensitive boy on the brink of puberty, moves in a comparatively imaginative space.
"There is a similarity in content between my first two books but not in form," Higginson points out. "I wrote them in my early twenties when I had a limited experience of the world. Both - with varying degrees of fiction - explore aspects of my schooldays. They resemble each other because they share a common source." But there is something about The Hill that is more captivating. Higginson himself feels that in the novel he discovered his "real writing voice for the first time". He is "still fond of it, however youthful the writing may be in places."
Youthful it may be, but it already holds the promise which the next two novels fulfil with aplomb. "I have tried in everything I've done to open new ground for myself - both in content and form," Higginson says, and it couldn't be truer for Last Summer and The Landscape Painter. The first tells the story of a group of theatre people caught up in a tangle of off- and on-stage relationships during a summer they all spend in Stratford-upon-Avon. The second moves between post-war Britain and South Africa at the time leading up to and during the Anglo-Boer War and pieces together a haunting tale of abuse and obsession.
Here is a worldly, assured novelist at work. There is nothing laborious about the beautiful writing. Deep insight illuminates the complex psychological world of the characters. Higginson is an acute observer and a meticulous researcher, but above all he relies on a finely tuned literary intuition. And it is because of this intuition that he is surely set to become a leading figure of his generation.