Malla Nunn and When the Ground is Hard

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

When the Ground is Hard (Allen & Unwin) is an original, ultimately empowering young adult novel.

Thank you for speaking to Paperbark blog, Malla.

Where are you based and why have you written a YA novel after a career writing crime fiction?

I live in a weatherboard house in Sydney and write from my kitchen table and the back porch.  After writing a series of four adult crime books, I was ready for a change. When my teenaged daughter finished a book, she’d send it my way to read. Some were YA novels and others were modern classics that I’d somehow overlooked. I’ll Give You the Sun, We Were Liars and The Fault in our Stars, all came my way. I was surprised by the wide range of subject matter tackled by YA novels; PTSD, death, sexual identity and friendship, to name a few. YA stories were sophisticated in tone and theme and incredibly engaging. I wanted to be part of that rich and diverse world. Jumping from crime to YA was difficult but worth the transition pains.

How have your own experiences and upbringing influenced your new novel, When the Ground is Hard?

When the Ground is Hard is based on my childhood in Swaziland (now Eswatini). Like my main characters, Adele and Lottie, I attended a Christian boarding school set up exclusively for mixed race children. I lived under the same pressures and the same harsh rules as the the girls in When the Ground is Hard.  I drew on my memories to write the story. I wrote from experience.

What is the significance of the title?

The full African proverb is, ‘When the ground is hard, the women dance.’ It means that female energy has the power to change the structure of the very earth that we stand on; not by war but by dancing. Female energy has magic. It makes change in creative and joyous ways. The proverb is an ode to the strength and grace of women and the power they have to re-create the world.

Could you introduce your two major protagonists to us? Is either girl more like you?

My two main girls are Adele and Lottie, and they are very different. Adele is the daughter of a mixed race woman and a white man who snatches time away from his white family to visit them. Thanks to her father’s money, Adele is in the top group of girls at Khezia Christian Academy, where the size of your parent’s bank accounts and their social standing, means everything. Despite her advantages, Adele is insecure. She’s uncertain of who she is and what she wants from life.

Lottie, on the other hand, is dirt poor and lives on a ‘native reserve’ with her single mother. Lottie has no money and no social ranking. She’s considered a trouble maker because she fights for what’s hers. Lottie has inner strength and power. She challenges Adele’s beliefs and makes Adele see the world through different eyes.

Growing up, I was definitely more like Adele. The pressure to conform at boarding school was immense. I wanted to fit in and be liked. Lottie is based on an aunt of mine, who was a troublemaker. She was talked to and talked about but she made her own path.

Could you explain the hierarchical society they live in? Which group is the most vulnerable in this society?

Adele and Lottie live in a close-knit community of ‘mixed-race’ people who follow British class rules. People with money and land are at the top of the heap and poor people with no money are at the very bottom. Light skin is preferable to dark skin and straight hair is better than kinky curls.

The most vulnerable group in society are the orphans who have no parents to protect them. They are given less of everything at Khezia; even food. The poor students are one step up and rich students are at the kings and queens who rule over everyone else.

What role does religion play?

God and the Bible are at the centre of school life. Adele and Lottie attend chapel three times a week. They memorised bible verses and never questioned ‘the word.’ Those who follow God’s word are saved and, those who don’t, are damned. Religion is woven into Khezia Academy’s DNA.

Darnell is a wonderful character. Could you explain his background and what makes him sad and happy?

Darnell is a farm boy who lives close to the school and has a history of running away. He is curious and sweet-natured and he’s not suited to the harsh learning environment at Khezia. Darnell is a ‘slow learner’ but full of joy at the natural world. Free-roaming the countryside makes him happy and being stuck in a classroom makes him sad. Lottie is Darnell’s only friend, and it’s through her, that Adele meets Darnell and gets to know him.

What impact does the classic novel Jane Eyre have on the girls?

Reading Jane Eyre brings Adele and Lottie closer together. Jane’s story opens up conversations between them about their lives and the plans they have for the future. Sharing Jane’s experiences of an English boarding school, makes Adele and Lottie feel less alone. Jane Eyre brings them into the international sisterhood of girls who want more from life than they are given.

Who do you hope reads this novel?

Everyone, I hope! When the Ground is Hard is suitable for readers twelve years and up. The story will speak to anyone who’s struggled to find their place in the world and longs for change.

What have you been reading and enjoying recently?

‘The Hate U Give,’ by Angie Thomas and Karen Foxlee’s, ‘Lenny’s Book of Everything,’ are both excellent reads that touch on big subjects with a firm but loving hand.  

Thank you for answering these questions, Malla, and all the very best with this memorable, inspiring novel.

Malla Nunn’s website is

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