From PE-ness to fatherhood

IN the late 1990s, Hagen Engler drove a battle tank of a station wagon he aptly named The "Hagen Wagen” and parked it at the "Zumf” – the hip Port Elizabeth commune that was then the centre of the city’s modern hippie movement, the birthplace of "PE-ness” and the lifestyle think tank that inspired trendy newspaper columns and his very first book.

Location, marital status and a host of other things have changed since he first self-funded and published Life’s a Beach in 1997, but six books later, Engler’s edgy writing style has not.

Comrade Baby and other South African adventures is the latest assault on the reading senses from one of Nelson Mandela Bay’s literary and journalistic exports, who has a notched up a volume of publishing achievements, including a stint at the helm of men’s magazine FHM.

Alongside a series of lifestyle columns he penned for Weekend Post and sister publications The Herald and Sunday

Times, Engler has also worked at You magazine and pens a blog,

Speaking from Johannesburg this week, where he is now married with a two-month-old baby girl and "as happy as I’ve ever been”, Engler outlined his foray into writing.

"Well, this is the seventh book after Life’s a

Beach, which was a compilation of my columns written for The Herald. There have been two novels and four compilations of columns and another story cycle that was published on the web only,” he said.

"They’ve always been self-funded. I’m quite an independent operator as far as that kind of thing goes. I believe in a DIY, punk-publishing philosophy of making things happen at your pace. If you sit around waiting for someone else to come help you out, you’ll never get anything done.”

Describing his latest work, Engler said "to quote from the back cover, it’s a book of learnings on the path from white privilege to the Benoni taxi rank”.

"On one level it’s just a collection of stories I’ve written for Sunday Times, Weekend Post, my blog and elsewhere. But it also documents a personal and social evolution. In this period I met my lovely wife Nomfundo, who is the Comrade Baby of the title. She has quite militant Africanist political views, so knowing her has also shaped that evolution.”

Despite the mounds of writing already under his belt, Engler revealed it was not "old hat” even after the seventh published work.

"It’s always a bit of a ego boost holding a book of yours in your hand. But there is an element of pressure, because now you need to sell the bloody thing,” he said, describing the time span to put the book together as a six-year effort.

"The earliest bits are from 2006, so you could say it took six years. But the main work was going through all the pieces I had on file and deciding which should go in the book. That took about three or four months.”

"Telling it like it is” is one of the strongest attributes of the latest book, which is full of thought-provoking lines and interesting prose, with one of the standout lines, "Marrying Black Girls for Guys who aren’t Black”, taking pride of place on the back cover. "That began life as a piece for the blog Mahala. Then it was republished in Afropolitan and subsequently became a massive hit on my blog.

"I think it’s had about 10 000 page views. It’s a slightly autobiographical piece about my learnings as a nonblack person from marrying my black wife.

"Things like being forced to listen to Tevin Campbell, my aversion to tripe, and getting a brand-new wife every month when she gets her hair done.”

Of his five-year dream editorship of FHM magazine, Engler said: "Being editor of FHM is indeed a dream job. You get to work with the most talented designers, writers and photographers – not to mention the beautiful women we photographed.”

While living the freelancer’s life, which includes writing for magazines, newspapers, blogs and corporate clients, and with another "almost complete” and "pretty edgy” novel already in his laptop, Engler is still involved in the music industry.

"I’m playing a lot more than I have since my days playing with the Jedi Rollers band in PE. I’m doing solo shows around Johannesburg where I perform spoken-word, slam poetry-type stuff, as well as ‘sung’ songs with guitar and voice.”

Engler is considering visiting Port Elizabeth next month to "do a proper launch for Comrade Baby”.

  • Comrade Baby is available in Port Elizabeth for R150 through Betty Engler at 082 7805414 and at Fogarty’s bookshop at Walmer Park, at African Soul at the Boardwalk, via and through Engler’s blog,
This is a version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, January 26, 2013.