Sugar Town Queens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sugar town queens never back down from a fight.”

Sugar Town Queens by Malla NunnAmandla Zenzile Harden is familiar with her mother’s strange visions and her difficult days. But even she is taken aback when, on the morning of her fifteenth birthday, her mother Annalisa tells Amandla that she has to wear a blue sheet as a dress to bring her father home. It’s been only Amandla and her mother for as long as Amandla can remember. She has never met her father. Wearing an ugly sheet isn’t going to change that.

Life in Sugar Town isn’t what anyone would call easy. Everyone has their struggles and their problems in the township near Durban, South Africa. Although their shack is shabby by some standards, it’s home and it’s always tidy thanks to Annalisa’s meticulous cleaning. But even in the township, Amandla and her mother stand out not just for Annalisa’s strange behavior and uneven memory but because Annalisa is white and Amandla is brown.

After years of trying to piece together the scraps of her mother’s fractured memories into something resembling a family history, Amandla is ready for answers. When she finds more cash than she’s ever seen in her mother’s purse along with an address, Amandla decides it’s a sign to find answers.

With help from her best friend Lil Bit and newer friend Goodness, Amandla follows the clues to the truth about herself, her mother, and old family secrets that will change Amandla’s understanding of family forever in Sugar Town Queens (2021) by Malla Nunn.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sugar Town Queens is Nunn’s first novel for young adults. Amandla is biracial (her mother is white and her father is described as Zulu in the narrative–one of the few things Amandla knows about him), Amandla’s friends and other township residents are Black.

Amandla’s first person narration is direct and to the point in the way of young people who have to grow up quickly because of hard circumstances. Amandla is well aware of the poverty she and her mom live with but, over the course of the novel, she also finds moments of lightness with Lil Bit and Goodness and even starts a romance with Goodness’s earnest brother. Although the romance is entirely age appropriate and sweet, I admit that I would be very happy to never hear another character describe someone’s lips as “juicy” ever again.

While friendship (and first love) are key parts of the story, the main focus here is family as Amandla literally stumbles upon her maternal grandmother after following the clues she has found. Learning more about her grandparents, Amandla realizes that a family reunion will not mend everything that has broken in her mother nor will it erase her grandfather’s racist opinions of his poor, biracial granddaughter. With new family and new relationships, however, Amandla does begin to understand that forgiveness can have its place as much as justice when more of Annalisa’s past is revealed.

With her grandmother’s declining health and Annalisa’s limited mental stability, the urgency is real to find answers before it’s too late making Sugar Town Queens a page turner as the novel builds to a striking finish. The contrast between the affluent Harden family and Amandla’s own upbringing in Sugar Town further highlights the inequalities that still exist in South Africa long after the end of Apartheid thanks to Nunn’s carefully detailed descriptions of both Sugar Town and Durban.

Sugar Town Queens is a fast-paced story about family, grief, and the power to be found in asking for–and accepting–help where themes of family and female friendship emphasize the importance of community and support systems.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Truth About White Lies by Olivia A. Cole, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Tiffany Sly Lives Here by Dana L. Davis, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds, The Means That Make Us Strangers by Christine Kindberg, We Are the Scribes by Randi Pink, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus: A non-fiction review

African Queen by Rachel HolmesThe Hottentot Venus exhibit–promising to present a rare African woman from the Hottentot region for public view–opened in London in 1810 to an expectant audience waiting to see the new curiosity otherwise known as Saartjie (“Saar-key”) Baartman. Saartjie’s skills as a performer combined with her particularly large buttocks and allusions to her supposedly extended labia only added to the exhibit’s appeal to rich (white) Londoners.

According to Rachel Holmes, author of African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus (2007), Saartjie Baartman is one of South Africa’s most widely known historical figures. Everyone in South Africa knows Saartjie’s name and story.

Born in 1789, Saartjie was illegally transported to England by her master Hendrik Cesars, a free black, and Cesar’s employer military doctor Alexander Dunlop. Once in London, Saartjie debuted as the Hottentot Venus. Singing and dancing and generally exhibiting herself in “tribal” attire before fashionable Londoners in the audience, Saartjie was, Holmes writes, “got up like a fetish and a showgirl.” It also helped that Lord Granville, a well-known politician of the time, had a large posterior similar to Saartjie’s. Thanks to this combination of otherness and entertainment disguised as scientific curiosity, Saartjie became England’s most well known black entertainer of her time.

Her fame covered the darker fact that Saartjie was “literally a scientific object,” Holmes said. This fact was painfully obvious after her death in 1815 when renowned French scientist Georges Cuvier supervised Saartjie’s dissection. Her skeleton, brain, genitals and full plaster casts of her body remained in the collection of Paris’ Museum of Natural History until 2002 when they were returned to South Africa for a proper burial.

In the 189 years between her death and burial, Holmes says, Saartjie became a “living ancestor” in South Africa, “a representative figure in the struggle for women’s equality in South Africa.” This book tells all of the story, the glamorous and dark aspects of Saartjie’s life. The prose flows well and is written simply, making the book a quick and informative read.

When Holmes came to Saartjie’s story she “literally had bare bones” and a variety of scientific documents from which to start her research. Unable to read or write, Saartjie was in many ways a slave during her years of performing. While many offered theories on how Saartjie must feel (abolitionists tried to persuade her to attend bible school and return to Africa; Saartjie refused in favor of promised wages and return passage at the end of six years abroad), “no one asked for her opinion.” Holmes does a good job here of imagining what Saartjie might have said if asked. The book includes a lot of inference on Holmes’ part, but not enough to make the story ring untrue.

African Queen is Holmes’ second biographical work (her first was Scanty Particulars, which tells the story of James Barry–a British doctor who was likely a woman, or hermaphrodite, living as a man). Holmes says that she chooses to write historical and biographical works because “truth is always more curious than fiction.”

She also felt compelled to tell the stories of those who did not have a hand in writing history, namely the people who were not privileged, literate or otherwise empowered during their lives. These ideas of fact and fiction converged when Apartheid ended in South Africa, giving citizens the opportunity to “uncover our history and unravel the fictions that were sold as reality,” Holmes says.

Writing African Queen took five years, including extensive research in South Africa and Europe. When asked how she found all of her material–describing the experiences of a woman who was never interviewed and who left behind no personal writings–Holmes said, “If you work hard enough you can go back two hundred years. You can find the information.”
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus