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by Cheryl Goodenough

Award Winning Author from Swaziland

Crime fiction writer Malla Nunn, who grew up in Swaziland, continues to receive international acclaim for her first novel, which is set in the divided society of apartheid-era South Africa. Her second book, which again features charismatic detective Emmanuel Cooper and gives an insight into the harsh realities of living under the racial segregation laws, was published recently.

The first novel A Beautiful Place to Die won the 2009 Sisters in Crime “Davitt” Award for Best Adult Crime Novel by an Australian female author and was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award for best novel. The winner will be announced in New York on April 29.

The second novel Let the Dead Lie sees Cooper living in Durban after being forced to resign from his position of detective sergeant and re-classified as being of mixed race.

Malla's childhood in Swaziland was split between boarding school and her grandmother's farm. “We lived in the southern part of Swaziland, which is still considered the boondocks. It was an isolated, rural life.”

About her move to Perth when she was 11 years old, Malla says that her biggest challenge was moving from a rural boarding school to a city. “Perth in the 1970's was really a big country town, but to us Swazi kids it was a metropolis. Traffic lights, tarred roads, electric streetlights…it was classic Jim goes to Jo'burg time!”

After schooling in Perth, Malla attended the University of Western Australia and then did a Master of Arts in Theatre Studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia in the United States. She subsequently went to New York City where she worked on film sets, wrote her first screenplay, nannied children and met her American husband-to-be.

She returned to Australia where she has written and directed short films and corporate videos. Her films, which include Fade to White, Sweetbreeze and Servant of the Ancestors, have won numerous awards and have shown at international festivals from Zanzibar to New York City.

Malla says that she'd always wanted to be a book writer, but was afraid of the time and effort involved. “Then I had children and was a stay-at-home mum for a few years. That gave me the time. My husband had a full time job so I had financial support as well. It was the perfect time to write and (with luck) finish a book. It took years, but I got it finished.

Being a screenwriter is about ensuring that the story gets moving from the first page, and Malla says that she thinks her books read fast and lean, like a screenplay.

So can we expect an Emmanuel Cooper film? “Fingers crossed. I've had some nibbles, but nothing solid yet,” she says. “I would love to make a film in South Africa.”

Even though she immigrated at a young age, Malla says she still misses the smell of the land after the rains. “I miss the land itself and the intense feeling of life that seems to spring up everywhere you go.”

A year and a half ago Malla and her husband took their children to where she had grown up. It was an emotional return. “It was fantastic fun and unsettling at the same time. My children loved every minute of it, but couldn't understand why I'd burst out crying at odd times! They'll never have the emotional connection to the land and the people that I have.”

Malla and her husband had also returned to Swaziland for a traditional marriage ceremony, which included the payment of lobola. About this she says: “Lobola is basically the price paid by a man for his wife. If, for example, you were the virgin daughter of a chief and a partner in a law firm then the minimum payment would be 30 cows. After much haggling my bride price was set at 16 cows…a decent amount, but not spectacular. Having a low-paid job in the arts and not being a great housekeeper cost me dear!”

Malla says that the experience was very light-hearted and lots of fun, but anyone going through the haggling process needs to be prepared to have their strengths and weaknesses discussed openly by the bargaining parties.

Writing novels set in South Africa during the apartheid era, it is obvious that Malla's work is influenced by her childhood. She says that her parents are her main inspiration. “They went through hard times in the apartheid era, yet still have such humour and good grace. I do wonder what my life would be like if those laws hadn't forced my family out of Southern Africa.”

She's had a mixed response from her South African audience to the first book. “Lots of people have said I captured the claustrophobic small town atmosphere and the undercurrent of menace perfectly, while others have accused me of portraying Afrikaners in a negative light. You can't please everyone.”

Now a mom living in Sydney and juggling work, home and family life, Malla says that she drops lots of balls every day. “It's a struggle so the only advice I can give is to just keep juggling and try to marry a sympathetic man who understands that there is no such thing as a perfect life.”

Malla's Advice to New Immigrants

“Take the great things the country has to offer and accept that it will take time to make a new life in a new country. Australians love the beach and a good barbeque and are, generally, open and accepting. Universal health care and decent public education are just icing on the cake.”

On Malla's Bookshelf

“David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, on which the television series The Wire is based, is a terrific non-fiction read. I also enjoyed a 1959 Australian crime fiction book Boney and the Black Virgin by Arthur Upfield. I'm halfway through Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, which I just know is going to make me cry!”

South African Parenting Books Available in Australia

Several parenting books published by Metz Press are now available in Australia.

  • International best-seller Baby Sense by Megan Faure and Ann Richardson helps couples to deal with the early days of parenting and understanding their baby's sensory world.
  • Sleep Sense by Megan Faure and Ann Richardson provides simple solutions for ensuring parents and children get a good night's sleep by establishing healthy sleeping habits.
  • Toddler Sense by Ann Richardson focuses on toddlerhood, what constitutes normal toddler behaviour and helps achieve effective, guilt-free and realistic parenting.
  • Positive Parenting: The importance of communication in family life by Margaret Fourie, which is a tool to help parents face the frightening and wonderful responsibility of being a parent in the 21st century.
  • Children Need Boundaries: Effective discipline without punishment by Anne Cawood focuses on the basic premise that we all flourish within the safety of clear, consistent boundaries.
  • Teenagers Need Boundaries: Effective discipline without punishment by Anne Cawood provides parents with tools to cope with the challenges of parenting teens.

Metz Press books are distributed in Australia by Gary Allen. Contact customerservice@garyallen.com.au.

Posted in books |
Posted by Cheryl Goodenough
12 Apr 2010

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