Crime Beat: Malla Nunn under interrogation
Four years back Malla Nunn hit the crime fiction scene with a book that was snapped up internationally. The book: A Beautiful Place to Die. But who was Malla Nunn? Turned out she was Swazi-born now living in Aus with a considerable reputation as a movie director. What distinguished A Beautiful Place to Die – as much as the story and the characters – was the time and the setting: Natal (as the province was called then) during the 1950s. Now Mulla Nunn’s new and third book, Silent Valley (aka Blessed Are the Dead in the US) has hit local shelves. It is already out in the US and Australia and available as an ebook on Amazon. Time to put Ms Nunn under the interrogator’s lights.
Crime Beat: Given that you’ve got history in this part of the world, and given that the 1950s were an extraordinary time in South Africa for a number of reasons, the question still begs: why did you choose that decade?
Malla Nunn: Prior to writing A Beautiful Place to Die I’d made a television documentary for SBS (special broadcasting services) here in Australia. The doco, Servant of the Ancestors, followed my mother back to Swaziland to perform an ancestral ceremony that made peace with the dead. In preparation for the film, I interviewed my parents and loads of aunts and uncles to get a clear picture of the Southern Africa they’d grown up in.
The 1950s kept coming up as the decade that changed everything for them. It was a brutal time. The new racial segregation laws split families along colour lines with the ‘lucky’ ones gaining white papers while others were classified coloured and shunted off to soulless townships. It also became laughably easy to draw the attention of the police. My research left me wondering if it was possible to be a good person in a bad time.
In response to the new segregation laws my father joined the merchant navy and ditched South Africa. He realized that he’d always be a second-class citizen in his own country. Later, my parents migrated to Australia. I’m now an Aussie because of laws passed in that turbulent decade. Plus, growing up in a rural backwater at the bottom end of Swaziland had some strong similarities to growing up in the insular and stitched down 1950s!
Crime Beat: And why Natal? First the depths of the rural areas, then the depths of the Durban underworld (with your second novel, Let the Dead Lie), and now back again into the rural regions?
Malla Nunn: I go where my heart leads. The idea for A Beautiful Place to Die came to me while standing on a riverbank just outside the Kruger National Park. Let the Dead Lie is set in Durban because both my parents spent a chunk of their adolescence in the city. And I like port towns: the influence of the outside world floating in on the evening tide, subtly changing the tenor of life. The rural nature of Silent Valley came straight out a four day hiking holiday in the Drakensburg Mountains in KwaZulu with my family. The only word I could find to describe the mountains was ‘almighty,’ and I knew my next novel would be set in the rural Drakensburg. Also Southern Africa (like Australia) is split between wide-open spaces and cities. I wanted to explore both ends of the South African spectrum.
Crime Beat: Your books have met with an enthusiastic response in various countries, especially Germany. Were you pleased with the quality and insight of this reception?
Malla Nunn: Honestly, I’m just pleased to be published in these uncertain times! To be published internationally is an absolute blessing and more than I’d hoped for while sitting in my back yard and scribbling notes for A Beautiful Place to Die. My work has received critical praise but Southern Africa crime fiction has yet to reach a wide audience a la Scandinavian crime. Every good review, whether in crime fiction loving Germany or the diverse USA, helps to spread the word.
Crime Beat: The story in your first novel is overlaid with politics, particularly the ominous security branch. In Let the Dead Lie, you descend into the world of the disenfranchised and the outlaws, although the country’s political boundaries are everywhere present. And in Silent Valley, the murder of a young woman in a remote part of the country opens up a community outwardly separated and yet bound by complicated relationships. Your work moves from the chaos caused by a murder to the underlying networks – some good, some manipulative, some downright evil – that make up South African society. Despite the hell of apartheid your stories seem to be suggesting that basic human emotions for good – a moral form of justice if you will – will win out.
Malla Nunn: My view is that the apartheid system harmed everyone involved. So, even if a character is white and powerful, a little piece of them is being eaten away by living in an unjust society, even if they don’t realize it. That ‘equal harm’ theory is a form of moral justice, I suppose. I believe there are individuals who act for the good, no matter how degraded a society becomes. These people are often in the minority but they exist and they are the light in the dark.
Crime Beat: Just as an aside, crime fiction suits your purposes in revealing a society at a critical time, is this why you chose the genre?
Malla Nunn: In a way, the genre chose me. After overcoming an irrational fear of writing ‘popular’ fiction as opposed to ‘serious’ literature, I accepted the fact that crime was, and still is, my first love. I write the kind of books I like to read.
Crime Beat: Apart from the stories and the setting you have in your central character, Emmanuel Cooper, a man with a backstory that makes a mockery of the racist laws. In fact, in Let the Dead Lie, Cooper has been stripped of his white classification. What are the stories and experiences which fed into his creation?
Malla Nunn: Skin colours in my family run from charcoal black to washed out white! There is no such thing as pure white or pure black either. Emmanuel is living proof that life is complicated and that any attempt to boil human identity down to a one-word labels like ‘European,’ ‘Coloured’ and ‘Bantu’ is flawed.
A case in point: My parent’s married in Swaziland, which did not have apartheid but did have racial segregation laws. They travelled to three different magistrates and were denied a marriage permit each time because my mother was obviously ‘white’ and my father ‘mixed race.’ One of the office clerks (a relative of my mother’s) vouched for the fact that while my mother looked Scottish, she was in fact mixed race. Then there’s the cousin on my father’s side of the family who dyed her red hair black after the police pulled her off the ‘non-whites’ bus to check her racial ID papers one too many times. What you see on the outside is not the ‘truth’ about a person or even close to it.
These stories of mistaken identity informed Emmanuel’s creation. As did my father’s unshakable moral core: despite being discriminated against and driven from his own country he believes that people are people and equally capable of love and cruelty.
Crime Beat: And why do you give him such a rough time? His classifications are enough to give most an identity crisis.
Malla Nunn: Emmanuel’s a big boy… he can handle what I throw at him! And he has medication if he hits the wall.
Besides, I needed a war veteran who understood with every cell and fibre of his being that humans are savage, no matter what their skin colour.
Crime Beat: Cooper might have a good understanding of his society but out in the rural areas he needs an interpreter to not only interpret the language but the cultural subtleties. His colleague here is Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala. Their relationship is complex. Cooper outranks Shabalala but Shabalala has important resources that make them equals. And this very much the nature of the relationship.
Malla Nunn: I personally dislike wildly brilliant characters who know the exact rotational orbit of the earth and the last stanza of Wagner’s opera ‘Das Reingold’ … often in the same scene! Emmanuel and Shabalala have different but complimentary talents. Their relationship is one of give and take. In an unequal and divided society it makes sense that they’d bring different cultural perspectives to a crime scene. The two halves make a whole.
Crime Beat: The crime fighting duo has a tradition in South Africa – especially the duo from different racial groups. Was this deliberate on your part?
Malla Nunn: I had no idea Emmanuel and Shabalala followed a tradition until a Publisher’s Weekly review pointed it out and gave examples. The decision to have a racially mixed crime-fighting duo wasn’t planned. Emmanuel came to me first, looking out at the body of an Afrikaner police captain floating in a river. As the scene expanded, Shabalala came into view, sitting in the shade of a tree with the boys who’d discovered the body. I knew Shabalala was also a policeman and that he nursed a dangerous secret about the dead captain. That was it; the characters took it from there.
Crime Beat: In Silent Valley you take on two very different groups: the Zulus and the local farmers. Both groups are immersed in cultural rituals, and prejudices towards others. Both groups are volatile and voluble and yet both are silent when it comes to self-preservation. What attracted you to this conflict?
Malla Nunn: The conflicts in Silent Valley weren’t planned in advance but emerged as the story unfolded. Generally speaking, the first thing to come to my mind is the victim and the crime scene. Emmanuel and Shabalala investigate from there, asking questions and digging around for answers. Because the victim, a beautiful girl named Amahle, worked for a white farmer both the Zulus and the Europeans in Silent Valley come under the microscope. Both groups are bound by tradition and to each other in ways that neither cares to speak about or to acknowledge. On the surface the groups are absolutely separate but under the skin they are connected by a history of war and conquest. Within each group are the usual and very human jealousies and power struggles. History doesn’t end with a neat full stop. The blood dries but tensions live on for generations.
I double majored in history and English a million years ago and the lure of digging up old bones still appeals.
Crime Beat: What’s in the pipeline? Are Cooper and Shabalala back in the next book?
Malla Nunn: Book 4 is already well advanced and yes, Cooper and Shabalala are back; this time in the grittier and more urbane setting of Sophiatown in Johannesburg. A violent robbery, township gangsters and a clutch of corrupt policeman force Emmanuel and Shabalala into the fight of their lives.