Crime fiction is not my favourite genre. Just ask my friend Gas Wylde, whose novel based on the Wanda Beach murders I have been struggling to finish – just because I’m afraid it will get too grisly. I confess, I never really graduated from Agatha Christie.
I’m not averse to broadening my literary horizons though, which is why last year I joined a book club that some friends had started. I thought it was time I got out of my literary comfort zone (fantasy & non-fiction, and yes, I know those words sound odd together). We have read & discussed some great books, and the latest was – wait for it – crime fiction: African-Aussie Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die , set in South Africa in the fifties, not long after apartheid was made law.
Last week I was lucky enough to hear Malla Nunn talk about her books at the Sydney Writers Festival. She opened by talking about growing up ‘mixed race’ in South Africa. For years, she said, she lacked the courage to write, feeling she couldn’t write about white people because she wasn’t white, nor about black people because she wasn’t black. She was stuck in between, a kind of no man’s land. Luckily for Australian fiction, she overcame this mental block after returning to Swaziland to film a documetary about her mother. The trip enabled her to reconnect with the land she left as an 11 year old, and to remember that she had a ‘terrific’ family background and history.
This history included many family stories of life in the early years of apartheid, of a time when people suddenly had to contend with being classified as white, black or mixed race – sometimes in contradiction to how they had defined themselves; when the racial inequalites became entrenched by law; when love across racial boundaries became not merely illicit but illegal. I still find this hard to comprehend.
Mixed race or ‘coloured’ people occupied an uneasy space in this madly segregated culture. Nunn spoke of how they made everyone ‘uncomfortable’, because they were a reminder, indeed, proof, that people had sex, that desire existed in spite of the law. A Beautiful Place to Die is as much an exploration of these ‘illicit desires’ as the back-cover blurb would have it, as it is a story about crime. More than that, it exposes how the madness of apartheid distorted and tainted relationships; how even friendship or casual contact became fraught with tension, hypocrisy, fear and deceit. But also – on the plus side – how ‘people will be people’ and reach out for each other, no matter they are hedged about with prohibitions and judgement; how we strive to overcome the artificial barrier that racism places in the way of being close to other humans.
I found Nunn’s image of the kaffir paths a wonderful metaphor for these complexities. The paths weave through the book as they weave between the black, white and coloured worlds. Frequented in the night by white men who cannot be seen to be using them, they are a twighlight world of their own that holds surprises, secrets and danger. Nunn’s detective Emmanuel Cooper walks the kaffir paths to interview suspects and follow leads in his investigation of a white policeman’s murder. He claims the right of a policeman to go where he wants, but is always aware that any mistake could cost him dearly.
I guess crime fiction is usually the story of killers who are desperate to cover up their secret whatever the cost. In this book, however, just about everyone stands to lose if Cooper exposes the truth about the murder, because the truth is at odds with the entire social structure of fifties South Africa. With the exception of Black Constable Shabalala, no-one really wants him to find out what happened and why. They could lose face and social standing, lose their families, their freedom, their safety, their illusions, their power. Cooper himself comes very close to losing his life. Such is racism.
Nunn said she sometimes tries to imagine how a bunch of white men, sitting together in a room somewhere, could have seriously come up with the idea that they could create a white segregated society in the middle of a country full of black people – and that it would work! We laughed with her – it truly seems bizarre. But it happened. A Beautiful Place to Die skilfully portrays that savage absurdity.
Perhaps you can see why I liked this book – it touches on issues that are close to my heart. I’m glad Malla Nunn found her voice. I’m only sorry I couldn’t figure out, at her talk, how to frame the question I wanted to ask – or perhaps I was too shy. I wanted to ask her how being mixed had influenced her writing – or what kind of difference it made to her perspective – damn, still can’t get the words right! She had partly answered it in her talk, but I wanted more. Perhaps the book itself gives the answer.
A friend of mine reckons our mixed kids grow up with a foot in two worlds & that gives them a great ability to see more than one side of a story or an argument, and to negotiate between the two. I think Nunn is able to do that. Her writing has a wonderful clarity of perspective on the diverse characters and their interests, values and motivations. She writes from a position that encompasses possibilities, rather than a single perspective that ‘others’ those who are different to her, the author. I hope our kids do grow up to discover, as Nunn seems to have done, that the ‘in-between’ world of ‘mixed race’ is a place of strength; not in-between at all, but all-embracing.