#LoveOzYA Q&A with Malla Nunn about SUGAR TOWN QUEENS

SUGAR TOWN QUEENS is Malla Nunn’s second YA novel, after her first, When the Ground is Hard, won a slew of awards in 2019. SUGAR TOWN QUEENS is released on 3 August, 2021.

Malla chats with #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about SUGAR TOWN QUEENS, racial injustice, and female friendship. You can also watch clips on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!

What’s Sugar Town Queens about?

Sugar Town Queens is about three girls whose friendship becomes more intense when they’re solving a mystery. So my main character, Amandla’s mother, she doesn’t know where she comes from or anything about her, but one day she gets a clue and she starts following that clue to find out who her mother is and her family, and her friends join with her. It’s a bit of a mystery of finding out about what happened to the mother, but it’s a lot about what people, especially women and girls, can do when they join together in a quest and they all have their own singular power. I really wanted to avoid any sense that girls are always in competition.

I think you’ve really achieved this. That’s one of the strong themes that came out for me, with the friendship between Amandla, Little Bit and Goodness. And the strong women that are present in the novel, with Amandla’s mother and other family members.

Yeah, that was part of it. My memories of my childhood are all peopled by aunties, who I was always slightly scared of, but they were real figures of power in my world. The men were, but they were sort of not central to it, like the women were. I just had aunties, who had to have their feet on the ground. They had to deal with all the things that come your way when you’re poor and not white and the way they did it sometimes was, sort of like, with what New Zealanders would call, manna, which is this inner power, which can be destroyed, but is held on to. I still have aunties like that, that I’m really scared to disappoint because they’ll tell me.

Have they read the book?

No, not yet. I’m actually really excited because this book is dedicated to one of my aunties, Auntie Maureen. When I was growing up, she was a groovy auntie, who would be on the back of a motorcycle with her boyfriend and she had an Afro and I just remember thinking “Maybe one day…”. So, I can’t wait to give her a copy of the book. I was planning to go to Melbourne in the next week or so, to have dinner with her and give her this book, but everything’s shut down [due to covid lockdown] so that will have to wait.

I think the other thing that struck me was their groundedness, their strength. There is a lot of brokenness and trauma there, particularly in Amandla’s mother, but there is a lot of strength there too.

Yeah, I think the way I worked with her was that, you can be broken, but if at some point in your life you’ve been nurtured and loved, then that is cocooned somewhere in you and you can find that place. For her, she was so broken because she could never figure out what that place was, but once she was told, she had something to hold on to. But yes, that comes a lot from coming from a community where you see all sorts of things. I never grew up thinking that pain would never come my way, I was just like, “oh yeah, that stuff is going to happen, it happens to everybody, not just you, not just your auntie there”. And Australia definitely has the sense of having the help from outside your family, but I still think family is the first port of call for people.

I think the other thing that is obviously embedded deep within this novel and also your other YA novel, When the Ground is Hard, is that strong sense of racial injustice, and you talk about colour a lot. In SUGAR TOWN QUEENS, Amandla is biracial, she never knew her father. He is Zulu and her mother is white. And then, in When the Ground is Hard, there’s almost this hierarchy in the boarding school based on your colour and whether you’re the daughter of a mistress or your parents are married. It really gave me this strong sense of that world. How much of your own experiences have you put into writing about racial injustice?

Yeah, so, in When the Ground is Hard, which is my first YA novel, that was just all based on my boarding school that I went to. And absurdly enough, it was a boarding school that was only for mixed race people, so immediately your catchment area was only for mixed race kids and then bizarrely, if one of your parents was black, you weren’t allowed into the boarding school. Your parent needed to be mixed or white or two mixed. I try to explain to people the insanity of some of these racial laws that came through and it’s really hard to explain it, but certainly I was brought up in a place where it wasn’t like, “this is your country”. I was brought up with “These are your people, they’re mixed race people. Other people are not your people at all. Don’t expect anything from them because they’ll see what you are straight away and then they’ll know you don’t belong to them either”. So, there was always this floating thing from my childhood of being between, being between two major blocks. When I was writing Sugar Town Queens, I thought, “Take a look, South Africa’s changed. You’ll probably find there’s no blocks into racial relationships”. I googled a few things and thought “hmm, no, no, that’s still happening”. And then I went to a wedding in Melbourne where the guy is Zulu and his wife is white Australian, very blonde, very beautiful. And he went to South Africa 3 years ago, the last time you actually could go, and I asked him what it was like and he said “well, we’ve been spat at in supermarkets”. And the opposite to that, they have people come up to them, old white men or women, and they say, “thank you for being so strong and making a new world”. But he said, it’s still pretty rough, especially when it’s a black man with a white women. That, for some reason, still really affronts people, I don’t know why. But it’s still there, as much as I wish it was in the past. So, when I wrote Sugar Town Queens, I was like, “oh no, it’s still there, that feeling is still there”.

So yeah, I try not to take a stick to anyone because no-one likes reading books where they feel they’ve had a stick taken to them. Therefore, they’re always fantastic black people and terrible white people or fantastic white people and someone who’s mixed is not so good. Because we’re all people essentially, in the end. I’ve never thought “white people are terrible”. I’ve just never thought that. Because I’m from such a mixed community that you can actually see that everyone’s got a dodgy someone or other in their family. It’s just human. We’re just human.

So that was the main message you wanted to convey in the book?

Well, what I wanted to convey is that our togetherness is what makes us strong. We’re in a very individual society now and individualism is really good and it’s important, but a lot of times, I feel it becomes a weird selling point, rather than actually what we should be selling is a sense of togetherness and community. There’s an African proverb which is “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. So that’s kind of my feeling about it. It’s great to be an individual, but I just feel like that sense of community was really important to me growing up and it still is now.

It’s interesting you say that because I know that there’s an African proverb that’s at the heart of When the Ground is Hard as well. Is that one of the starting points for you, for writing both of those books, thinking about proverbs and trying to embody them? Or how did you start?

With When the Ground is Hard, my mother, way back in the day, had done a documentary proposal about the black female leaders in South Africa during apartheid who had done work, anti-government work. And she didn’t get the documentary funded, but she did get a poster made by a friend who was an artist and it was “When the ground is hard, the women dance” and I’ve always seen that poster, anytime I go to their house. So when I started working on When the Ground is Hard, it wasn’t the title then, but when I finished it, we just didn’t have a title at all. And then Katherine (my agent) said, “what made you think about the situation?” and I told her about the poster, and she said, “well, that’s the title of the book”.

So, I often do try to find a guiding expression, something that guides me in terms of this is what this is about. So, when the ground is hard is that no matter what happens, you have to remake things. And that’s really hard, but you have to do it. That’s part of the job of being alive is to reteroform inside yourself, your community. And this one [Sugar Town Queens] was very much, you go further together. You need that help, everyone needs that help. That’s where that comes from. But yeah, I do have those guiding philosophies, if you will.

That’s beautiful. I think that’s so important and it is perfectly incapsulated in the book, with Amandla needing to re-think some of her first impressions and accept help from unexpected quarters or from people she doesn’t know she can trust because she’s judged them in a certain way first.

Yeah, yeah, which is super easy to do. I wouldn’t say it was a great joy, but one of the great things that happened to me was when I’d just finished my MA in America. I moved to New York with my now-husband and I got nannying jobs and the great thing about being a nanny in a fabulous $20M apartment is to realise “my god, she’s really sad, her husband works all the time”. My sister and I were both nannies and we’ve been in all sorts of situations. My favourite one was getting in a town car, I was just walking and a town car comes up, the window comes down and my sister’s employer is in there and she’s got a huge fur coat on and she’s being chauffer driven and she goes ‘come in, come in!’ and I said OK and I got in the town car with her and her big fur coat, and then the whole thing proceeded to be her telling me about how her weekend had been cancelled because her husband had a meeting on and he was supposed to helicopter to their hotel and then he fudged out on that because he had another big meeting. And so there I am in this unbelievably privileged situation with a women in a fur coat, crying, while her chauffer drives us up town and I just remember thinking “oh my god, how amazing life is, that it really doesn’t say “oh, you’ve got a million dollars in the bank, here’s a leave pass, don’t worry you’ll be happy from now on”. We’re all the same, we’re all moving through life in these bodies and good things and bad things happen to us.

Yes, unhappiness isn’t only for the rich or the poor. It hits both of us.

Yes, equally distributed. So yes, I always tend to, not by design, but this is my second YA and they’re both about girls, and I think maybe that’s because my growing up time was in South Africa, but yes, the complications of that and say, in Sugar Town, is that no-one gets to live in safe environments all the time.

This is your second YA and before that you’ve written 4 adult crime novels, and you’ve also written screenplays as well. So what inspired you to change genres and try out YA?

I got a bit tired of crime. Crime is always bad news, but you’ve got to spin it as entertainment, which is quite fun and it’s good. But my daughter was then a teenager and she was reading Perks of Being a Wallflower and the John Green stuff and a whole heap of different things. She thought some of it was a bit naff, but others she thought was so wonderful and she said you should read this. So I did. And what amazed me was that it wasn’t what I was expecting. While a big part of the YA genre is dream fulfilment and that’s fine because I adore dream fulfilment stuff, but what I found too was that there was just a lot of YA books, and this shouldn’t have surprised me, about how complicated it was to grow up. I’d forgotten that! I’d totally forgotten and, yeah, it’s quite complicated. So yes, it was actually through my daughter and then going to – big shout out to Kinokuniya [Sydney bookshop] because they had a guy who worked there. I’d walk in and say “my daughter’s mad about the Kennedys, she also likes this author and she also likes Mad Man” and he’d say “let me show you around!”. And he’d walk around and pull off books. He was incredible, he’d read everything he sold me, unbelievable! I had a fight over him at Christmas time – I saw him walk out of the staff room and I had a list, and this old guy came charging up saying “I’ve been waiting for 40 mins now!” and I was like “fair go, you go first and I’ll take him second”. He was incredible. But yes, it was through my daughter that I discovered YA is really complex and it’s like crime – its’ a really broad church, there’s so many different types in there. For my first YA, I did try to write a fantasy and it was really bad, really bad. And I realised it was because my only idea of fantasy was clichés, I couldn’t get to the real, I tried to get to what was real, the base note of that story, and I just completely failed. And so I thought “I’d better go back to basics”.

I think the very best YA makes me feel like I’ve become a better person reading it. And certainly, that’s how I felt when I finished reading both of your books, particularly When the Ground is Hard, and then this one [SUAGR TOWN QUEENS], I was just really, like, “Wow, this is fantastic”. So thank you so much for switching genres. I really appreciate it.

Oh, thank you! I’m actually really loving it. I have a friend who is in film, but he read When the Ground is Hard, and he pulled me in and said, “you know what I loved about the book, was the bitter-sweet ending”. And I said “yeah, because a lot of things in life have got that”. But I’m so glad you enjoyed both of them. It’s been a good switch up and I’ve only been to one YA author conference because of lockdown. YA authors are like crime authors, by this I mean, they’re very tight and they’re very inclusive. They’re a great community. And I’m so sad I’m missing out on all those things that would have happened because of covid. It’s just a really good community.

It is a great community. And I think you’ve achieved your goal as well because I know I immediately started googling Swaziland and Eswanti and South Africa and apartheid, and I watched United Kingdom [film] and I’m amazed at the difference in history there between neighbouring countries where you’ve got a black king marrying a white English woman at the same time as a neighbouring country is introducing apartheid and removing rights from people. And, with Eswanti, with the king there, and I found it amazing that you’ve got these neighbouring countries where if the king enters that country, all rights removed, and they’re not allowed to drink in bars and things like that. It just blew my mind.

Yeah, it’s interesting because Swaziland was under British rule and there were laws and you couldn’t actually marry. When my parents married, they had to go to three separate judges to marry them because the judges were white and they looked at my mother and said “you’re white, you can’t marry this mixed-race man” and finally the third judge, her cousin worked for him, and her cousin said “no, no, she’s mixed, she’s my cousin” because we’re cousins with everyone in Swaziland and so they were able to get married there, but it would have been difficult in South Africa.

The whole thing is so difficult to explain how insane it was. I think what annoys me about the whole racial segregation thing is that it was always coming from a point of weakness. How do you expect this to work? I mean, if Jews are truly inferior, you don’t really need to kill them in their millions, just let them go and they’ll be inferior by themselves, and if it’s so against God that people mix, then God will strike them down. Let’s just leave that to God, shall we? But it never happens! And that’s why they introduced the laws because it doesn’t happen that way. And it was crazy. We were from Swaziland which was a bit more open and when we went to visit our cousins in Durban and they were living in a suburb for mixed-race people and some Indians too. You knew who you were. That’s the worst thing about those systems. They tell you who you are and they’re very strict about it, so if you get above yourself, they will absolutely let you know. It’s a terrible, crushing thing. I know the ANC is in power now and Mswati’s got his own problems, but just to have the fact that you can’t dream about things without reality saying “no, I’m going to burn that dream, that’s not going to exist”. I think that was fundamentally quite crushing for a lot of people.

And I love that between Adele and Lottie in When the Ground is Hard, their different reactions to Jane Eyre and almost their different responses to this idea of dreaming – could you imagine a life for yourself or not, and what that might look like.

Yeah. And for the girls in Sugar Town Queens, it takes Goodness, who’s very confident in herself, to say “well, what are you going to do?” Because she plays sport and her thing is to take a shot at goal because why wouldn’t you just take a shot at goal if it’s presented to you? I really loved spending time with them. The first draft of Sugar Town Queens was bad, really bad. My agent, Katherine, was really sweet and she said “you know, there are a lot of good things in here” and when someone starts out like that… So I said, “OK, I’m going to go back”, but I kept the three girls. I love these girls, bringing them together in a better way. I love them. I love my girls.

They are very wonderful. And I agree, I think it is that Goodness acts as a bit of a catalyst to push them out, push Amandla out and push Little Bit out, into contemplating possibilities or giving it a go. It’s interesting you said about the sport because I just assumed it was a bit more to do with her having that slight buffer of wealth, relatively speaking. She’s got the mobile phone, she’s got the brothers who protect her and that sort of stuff.

Oh, absolutely, it’s definitely coming from that [wealth]. She’s protected by a number of things. I can’t really explain this, but when we came to Australia, we were so used to being mixed-race, coloured people, that when an Australian would say “oh, who cares?”. Like, go and tell that person what you want. And I would be like, I’ve got to go and ask that lady for that shirt because this one doesn’t really fit when we were trying on new clothes. And Australians would say “who cares?”. And I would. And it was like being led into a new world, it was being led into a world where it was OK to have some power, some agency, and I think Goodness is the catalyst for both Little Bit and Amandla who are very stuck in their dreams of what the future should be, which is, we’re going to leave Sugartown and go to university. And she says “how about we have some of that stuff now?” instead of waiting for the future, for it to happen. So yeah, she is a cool chick, I love her.

She is completely wonderful….



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