Malla Nunn is the author of four highly praised crime novels for adults, as well as the young adult novel When the Ground Is Hard, which won the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. Her new YA novel, Sugar Town Queens, tells the story of a biracial teen girl named Amandla who lives with her unstable white mother, Annalisa, in the impoverished neighborhood of Sugar Town on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa. Amandla discovers a secret that Annalisa has long hidden from her, and the revelation upends both of their lives.
You were born in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and have lived in the U.S. and Australia, but South Africa takes precedence in your fiction. What is it about South Africa that commands your imagination?
I ask myself that question all the time! My childhood was embedded in the smell, dirt and heat of rural Eswatini, and those memories have a powerful hold on me. My attachment to southern Africa is confounding. Being there ties me in knots. I swing between anger, anxiety and a hopeless, blinding love for the place. Call it “unfinished business” or “unrealized trauma,” but southern Africa owns a piece of my heart that no other place can lay claim to.
You wrote your first mystery series for the adult market, but your two most recent books are for young adults. What drew you to writing for teens?
Crime writers spend a lot of time delving into the dark side of human emotions. I love that so many YA stories cover hard topics and still work their way to hope. There’s also a special magic in firsts. First love. First “best friend forever.” First time realizing that your parents are flawed. First broken heart. The path to the future is still being built, and that gives teenagers a special power. Crafting a story with struggle and hope at its heart is deeply satisfying.
I love that teenagers are on the cusp of making discoveries about life and love and what the future might hold. Amandla is on the bridge from girlhood to adulthood, and that’s what makes her life and her experiences in the township so special. She’s old enough to be aware of the dangers of Sugar Town but young enough to dream of a better life.
Dark and long-buried family secrets are at the heart of Sugar Town Queens, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a girl going through typical teen experiences. What inspired the novel, and what made you want to tell it through the eyes of a teen girl?
The inspiration for Sugar Town Queens comes from real-life moments when I’ve wondered what my life might have looked like had my parents stayed in southern Africa instead of migrating to Australia. In that “what-if” dream space, my visions of poverty and helplessness are tempered by memories of growing up in a close-knit community with countless aunties and friends.
Setting is incredibly important in this novel, and you do a beautiful job of making Annalisa and Amandla’s home come alive on the page. How did you accomplish this?
Years ago, I sent my father a link to a photo essay of “poor whites” living in a township and basically said, “Why should I feel sorry for people who were given every advantage by the government and did nothing with it?” My father’s answer, “I’m sad for everyone who has to live such a hard life,” cooled my anger. Life in the townships is hard. For everyone. When it came time to write Sugar Town Queens, the township location was there waiting for me, but it was tempered by my father’s humanity.
What is unique about South Africa is that the young are living in the shadow of a dream that felt so close to being realized after Mandela’s release.
Evoking Amandla and Annalisa’s home came easily, and I wasn’t surprised to find (through my father and older sister) that the first house we lived in as a family was a one-room shack with dirt floors and no running water. Call it root memory. I knew every detail of Amandla’s home even though I was too young to recall sleeping on the floor with my siblings.
The racial dynamics of contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa play a prominent role in the story, as the novel takes us into intimate spaces within vastly different segments of a stratified and still somewhat segregated society. How much of what we see on the page comes from research and how much from your own personal experience?
Pretty much everything that made it into the pages of Sugar Town Queens has a personal component. The location, Sugar Town, is partly based on a “government area” that my mixed-race cousins were forced to move to after their homes inside Durban city were reclassified as “whites only.” On my rare visits back to southern Africa, I have moved (in the space of a few hours) from a rarified beach suburb with ocean views to a one-room tin shack in the country. The gap between rich and poor is shocking.
Amandla’s journey takes her from the bottom rung of society, where a majority of Black South Africans still live, to the very top of the economic system, where white South Africans still dominate. I have seen and lived this disparity in real life and real time, so no research was needed.
Throughout the book, I got the sense that the late South African president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela had left an indelible feeling of idealism among South Africans—a multiracial, egalitarian national dream that had not yet been reached but was still held sacred. Do you think the idealism of Amandla and her friends is unique to young South Africans, or is it more universal?
The idealism of Amandla and her friends is deeply rooted in South African soil, but it’s also universal. Social inequality and poverty are part of Amandla’s life, but millions of girls around the world share the same struggles. In a strange way, the more location-specific the struggle, the more universal it becomes.
What is unique about South Africa is that the young are living in the shadow of a dream that felt so close to being realized after Mandela’s release. They were promised freedom and opportunity and watched those promises disappear before their eyes. The disappointment and anger is fresh. Reality has fallen short of Mandela’s promises, and a hunger for justice and change has ignited a fire in a new generation of South Africans.
Connection is such an important part of Amandla's culture, yet she and her mother are living very disconnected, isolated lives at the start of the novel. Could you talk about the concept of Ubuntu, how it informs the book and what that means to Amandla?
Ubuntu is the concept that “a person is a person through other people.” We are all connected together, and this sense of togetherness is necessary for us to live a full and meaningful life. Both Amandla and her white mother are so focused on getting out of Sugar Town that they miss the opportunity to connect with others. When Amandla is forced to ask her neighbor for help, she finds kindness and connection. One brief visit opens Amandla’s world up to other people and other ways of doing things. She begins to live more fully inside Sugar Town, and when danger comes to her door it is Ubuntu, not isolation, that saves her.