Colorism, Internalized Racism, and the Power of Privilege: Malla Nunn Discusses "When the Ground Is Hard"

When the Ground Is Hard is the tale of an unlikely friendship that blossoms between the societal slabs of systemic racism, colorism, and classism in an Apartheid-era Christian boarding school in Swaziland. Award-winning crime fiction writer Malla Nunn talked with SLJ about the personal experiences that shaped this tightly woven, thoughtful, and timely YA adventure story.

When the Ground Is Hard is the tale of an unlikely friendship that blossoms between the societal slabs of systemic racism, colorism, and classism in an Apartheid-era Christian boarding school in Swaziland (present-day eSwatini). Both biracial, insecure Adele is the wealthy daughter of a black woman and a married white man; Lottie is self-possessed, ready to defend herself, but poor. Despite their class difference, they are forced to room together, contrary to the norm. Told honestly and unsparingly, the reader witnesses how Adele and Lottie tackle discrimination, gossip-mongering, brush-fires, family secrets, and the apparent murder of a dear, disabled friend. Award-winning crime fiction writer Malla Nunn talked with SLJ about the personal experiences that shaped this tightly woven, thoughtful, and timely adventure story.


Sara Lissa Paulson: Issues of class are so prominent in this novel, which is inspired by your childhood in Swaziland and in a boarding school for mixed-race students. Tell us about the class system you grew up in. How deep are the roots? Have the rules changed?

Malla Nunn: I grew up in a small, tight-knit community of mixed-race people that tried to emulate British notions of class and race. There was a definite pecking order and we all knew our place in that order. Those with money were considered a cut above and given fawning respect while poverty was treated as a self-inflicted injury. Light skin was preferable to dark skin. The laws made that clear. But even then, being a light-skinned biracial person meant that you were second best when compared to the white ruling class. You’d never be a Swazi chief either! There really was no way to “win” in the greater world, so the mixed-race community closed ranks and turned inward. Shame and humiliation at our mixed and “dirty” blood made for a poisoned environment. Money was the one sure way to prove that you were as good and, maybe even better, than everyone else—black and white included. Money and the Bible ruled our lives.

Attitudes have slowly changed. An increasing number of mixed-race people are marrying into the black Swazi population. The British class system is no longer the yardstick by which we measure ourselves. Having said that, talk of “us” and “them” is still prevalent. The “colored” community is still set apart; its own entity. We were set apart by British and Apartheid laws and breaking the habits of a hundred years is difficult. When I talk to my aunties, I fall back into the old traps. Everybody is labeled by race. "Remember her?” I’ll say, “She married that Indian man.” And so it goes.

As the number of biracial people grows, I see positive changes. There is less pressure to choose a side. Less pressure to follow the rules of one part of your heritage. My children identify as mixed-race Jews and I’m happy for it. They feel no need to lie or apologize for who they are. They are simply themselves.


Malla Nunn headshot
Photo by Darryl Robinson

SLP: By shedding her class and racial prejudices, Adele’s sense of self and belief systems shift profoundly, but Lottie’s transformation is less overt. Since the first time we see Lottie, we know that her resistance is her strength. Lottie explores and “does not accept how things are.” How did your experience shape Adele and Lottie’s characters? Were you more like Adele or Lottie as a young person?

MN: I had an aunt who was a troublemaker. She spoke her mind and flaunted the rules. She was also ferociously smart and articulate. I adored her but I was also intimidated by her ability to stand up, to say “I refuse!” to the rules that held her down. She was talked to, and talked about, but she walked her own path. I wanted to be like her when I grew up but I knew, in the secret heart of me, that I lacked the bravery she had. I wanted to be liked and accepted too much. Girls who spoke out were sidelined. They were criticized. I wanted to be in the safe center of things even as I longed to be more like Aunty M, who played Louis Armstrong records, taught at a black school, and rode on the back of a motorcycle.

Lottie is based on my Aunty M and I am definitely Adele… afraid to break the rules.


SLP: Why did you decide to make class relations and internalized racism your primary themes?

MN: I didn’t decide! Setting the story in a mixed-race boarding school made class tensions and internalized racism an inevitable part of the landscape. Class relations and internalized racism were, in fact, the primary themes of my entire childhood. I wrote from experience. I drew on my memories.


SLP: Adele reveals her understanding of the class system: “I’m supposed to be an improved version of my mother: kind to the poor students but accepted by the sorts of snotty girls who once spurned her.” How does her mother’s story inform her own?

MN: Poverty sticks to you. It leaves a trace. My own mother grew up poor and deep in the country. Her experiences molded her and she molded me. I grew up knowing that my job was to build on the gains that she’d made by becoming a teacher. My mother wanted me and my siblings to be educated, well-traveled, but also aware of our own good luck. Adele is in the same position. Her mother wants her to climb the social ladder but to never look down on those below her. That’s a hard balance for Adele, who has lived a comfortable life. It’s easier for her to cruise with the popular rich girls and give the occasional nod to the poor kids. It’s only after meeting Lottie that she finds a place off the ladder that is purely her own.


SLP: Adele, who has been conditioned to be envious, immediately finds a reason to hate Lottie. “Of all the reasons to hate Lottie, that father with his stories and his kisses is perhaps the best one of all” cuts deep into the emptiness that so many young people have. Can you talk about this struggle Adele faces against herself, her family, and the societal factors that cause her to doubt the love her “sometimes father” has for her?

MN: Following the rules is the quickest way for Adele to gain acceptance. To fit in, she ignores the fault lines inside herself and focuses outward. It is easier to envy Lottie than to delve too deeply into her own uncertainties. These internal frictions come to light after Lottie questions Adele’s assumptions and attitudes. Lottie’s questions do not make Adele change; they simply uncover the fears that are already inside her. Fears that she keeps hidden—even from herself.

There is tension in being the part-time child of an absent white father; a sense of being second best. This tension is reflected in the greater society where mixed-race people are “almost civilized,” by virtue of their “white” blood. Mixed-race people must accept what they are given and be grateful. They cannot ask for more. White people, especially white men, are free to fulfill their desires and ambitions. They are also free to walk away once their desires are fulfilled.

Adele is vulnerable. She is conflicted. Her mother tells her to be happy with what they have. To count the material blessings that come with having a white father with money. Lottie’s prodding forces Adele to admit the truth, that she is scared that her father will leave them one day, that she doesn’t know him and she doubts his love but wants it just the same.


SLP: The theme of sharing as opposed to competing is central to the friendship between Adele and Lottie. They share some beautiful moments and reflect on their dreams for the future as they read Jane Eyre together. Can you share some of your ideas about the power of reading and reading together?

MN: Books were the time machines of my childhood. They had the power to transport me from a forgotten corner of the British Empire to the center of London and into the steaming jungles of Malaya. Books opened the world. They allowed me to travel without money or a passport. They gave my family wings.

My mother would read Aesop’s Fables, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and old newspapers to us in the evening. When the lights went out we imagined snow and other marvels that we knew of only through books. Reading had the power to shape our dreams. Reading aloud is an act of generosity. Even now, I love being read to.


SLP: Adele uses her privilege several times in the book, which reveals the prejudice of the staff. And she finds there is contradiction with the Biblical verses she is busy memorizing. Can you discuss these contradictions and how they serve as a narrative thread?

MN: Part of growing up is recognizing the contradictions in the world around you and deciding how to respond to them. Adele goes from following the rules, to questioning the rules, and finally to breaking the rules. She grows up. She moves away from blind acceptance of the system around her to seeing the disparity between the word and the deed. The narrative thread of moving from naïve trust to logical reasoning is summed up in this verse in Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a woman, I put away childish things.”


SLP: The scene where Lottie pushes Adele to When the Ground is Hard coverinterpret from Afrikaans to English is fascinating to unpack. Do you mind uncovering some of the layers of that cultural and linguistic hurling match?

MN: There is a sense in Southern Africa that every verbal exchange is, in essence, a fight for superiority. A battle for the upper hand. In this scene, Lottie lets Adele do the talking. She knows that Adele has the right manner to deal with an angry white man. Adele will show respect. Adele will be polite. Adele will play the game, where Lottie refuses to. And, though Adele is polite and mindful, she learns that, with some men, there is no winning.

Bosman is poor and white. He will never let go of the power that his skin color grants him. Deep down he senses that Lottie and Adele have more than he does. That they see him for who he is; a dirt poor farmer. He puts them in their place by forcing them to use Afrikaans, his language. He then takes a second swing at them by asking if they are Principal Vincent’s girlfriends; a crude way to let them know that he sees them as pieces of flesh who will sell themselves for money. His insecurity as a poor white person is what generates his need to exert control and put them back in line.

When Lottie breaks and tells him that he is crazy, he shoots off his gun: another way to exert his dominance. He is owed respect and he will use violence to make Lottie and Adele comply. In the end, the girls have no option but to follow Bosman’s orders. They do this with dignity. They leave the farm stronger, but Bosman remains the same.


SLP: The book is so tightly woven and contains as much life as death in its narrative. Both times a death occurs in the novel is when a living creature crosses an artificial boundary. Lottie and Adele have very different perspectives about the death of the driver who hit the cow in the opening scene of the Keziah Christian Academy and the death of Darnell at the end. Can you talk about how Adele and Lottie face dangers differently when boundaries are breached?

MN: At the beginning of the novel, Lottie has already crossed the boundary lines and faced danger but Adele has not. Adele is afraid of losing her father to his white family but Lottie knows true loss. Her father is dead. She’s moved through the grieving process and emerged wounded but with the certain knowledge that her father loved her. Adele has never been tested. She is safe inside the boundaries, protected by her father’s money but uncertain of his love. Her insecurity is her weakness.

Lottie has never had the luxury of safety. She lives on a native reserve with her mother, not out of choice, but as a matter of survival. With no father and no money to protect her, Lottie adapts to her circumstances. She stands up for herself. She fights for what’s hers. And, what gave her the strength to be who she is, is the love she received from her late father.

Adele is kept separate from her black relations. Her roots in the country are weak. Her mother has crossed the race and class boundaries by 'living in sin' with a white man and she is punished for it. She is ostracized. Her mother’s experience teaches Adele that crossing boundaries is dangerous. Crossing boundaries comes with negative consequences. Lottie, who has no choice but to cross the race and class lines, is ready to fight the world. She has no time for false niceness. Her life is split across the boundaries that define and limit Adele.

When the girls encounter the crashed car and the dead cow, Lottie speaks from a place of harsh truth. The driver did the wrong thing. He deserves to die. Adele is trained to smile and she speaks from a book of platitudes. She is afraid of her own raw emotions and she hides behind manners. When the girls find Darnell’s body Lottie knows what to do and what to say. She leads and Adele follows. Adele crosses the boundary line between faith in the Bible and Swazi ritual. Like Lottie, she adapts and finds a place between the lines, where race, class, and the old rules are suspended.


SLP: Your language is so vivid and your descriptions so focused. What is your writing relationship with details? With description?

MN: I have vivid, Kodachrome memories of my childhood. The rivers and hills of my Grandparents’ farm. The blue haze hanging over the mountain tops. Hot earth beneath my feet and the awkward feeling of being brown in a country divided between Black and White. My memories have worn a groove in my mind that I return to again and again. Nothing stirs me like the smell and the feel of Southern Africa. When I’m ‘in-country’ I swing between love and hate, and that unresolved tension keeps me tied to the past. I spend a lot of time in my edits, removing long-winded descriptions of dirt roads and breathtaking skies!


SLP: This is your first book for young adults. Can you talk a bit about what you learned making the transition from adult to young adult? Is there another young adult book on the horizon?

MN: The jump from writing adult crime to writing young adult books was harder than I expected. Crime has a clear structure; the crime, the investigation, and the end reveal of who did what. I had no idea where to start a young adult story. Without a crime to solve, I was lost. I did, in fact, write a terrible young adult fantasy/crime story that, not surprisingly, crashed under its own weight.

My agent, Catherine Drayton, suggested a story based on my experiences at a mixed-race boarding school in Swaziland. I wrote When the Ground is Hard fairly quickly but ran into trouble at the end, which I’d turned into an extended chase sequence. Both Catherine and my husband (an ex-editor) told me to calm down. To trust my characters. To give them time to grow; time to learn and to change.

Slowing down the action made me realize that a part of me was afraid to go deeper; that my own childhood experiences were waiting to pounce from the darkness and overwhelm me. I wrote through my fears with the strength of my female ancestors standing at my back.

I am in the last stages of my second young adult book, set in a present-day South African township.

Sara Lissa Paulson has been a public school librarian in NYC since 1998. A graduate of Pratt Institute, she is now adjunct professor at Queens College’s GSLIS Department, and has written reviews for SLJ for more than a decade.

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