Q&A about Sugar with Edward Narain and Tarryn Phillips  

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Keenly observed and full of heart, Sugar is an intimate portrayal of grief, friendship, and culture clash that will prompt new ways of thinking about the world. Read the full Q&A about Sugar by the authors Edward Narain and Tarryn Phillips.

Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out? 

With a background in film and audio production, Edward always had a desire to create an ethnographic documentary portraying the cultural and racial dynamics of Fiji, where he grew up. Central to the story were going to be the dogs of Fiji, including cowering mongrel street dogs who seek shelter from the fireworks during Diwali celebrations; vicious Doberman guard dogs bred by Indian families specifically to be aggressive towards home intruders; and the pampered Labrador puppies of wealthy expat families. The film was going to unravel the history of migration to the Pacific, forgotten forms of slavery, and the contemporary politics of race and inequality in Fiji through a canine lens. Meanwhile, Tarryn was interested in writing a suspense novel that built on her research in Fiji. Eventually, we decided that an ethnographic novel was a perfect platform for us to achieve both of these aims. That’s how Sugar was born – and we made sure that all of those dogs appear in the story! 

We began writing the novel when we were living in Suva with our young family in 2017. As we explain in the supplementary chapter at the end of Sugar, we also experienced a break-in at around the same time, in which a bag containing our passports was stolen by being fished through the window. The passports were later found abandoned beside a nearby informal settlement. This experience taught us a lot about race and class in Fiji and inspired much of the story. 

Sugar: An Ethnographic Novel
By Edward Narain and Tarryn Phillips

Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?  

The ethnographic insights in Sugar largely stem from Edward’s lived experience having been a grandchild of indentured labourers, being born and raised in Fiji, and – after a period of time overseas – coming back to live and work in Suva as an adult. Like the character Rishika in this story, Edward has been on a journey of discovery about his family’s history, and over time has increasingly realized the impact of this colonial legacy on his family as well as the iTaukei and Indo-Fijian communities that raised him. Many of the elements in the story that took place in Rishika’s childhood are composite memories from Edward’s past – a minor example being the scene in which Rishika watches video-taped entire evenings of Australian TV. The story is also grounded in Tarryn’s medical anthropology research in Fiji, where she has worked for over ten years alongside iTaukei and Indo-Fijian communities on issues of diabetes, nutrition, and inequality. One of the things that was most surprising in all of this research was how grand injustices happening at the macro level in the global economy – and to a lesser extent in the development and aid sectors – play out in everyday ways for people in Fiji. The novel became a new kind of format in which to portray these issues, to resonate with readers more than a regular academic text.  

How did you come up with and flesh out the participants/characters? How are they important to the story? 

Our primary aim in writing Sugar was to write a good story. We did not want people to read it as though it was written by academics who were “trying to get research across in an innovative way”. Rather, we wanted people to become immersed in the world we created on the page, and for the characters to work their way into people’s hearts.  

We wrote the first draft of this book when we were living in Suva, with Edward working in a sound studio and Tarryn on maternity leave expecting our third child. Each night, we would craft the plot together, draw out and deepen the characters and their backstories, and read segments to each other. The process of co-authoring has been fascinating, wonderful, exhausting and life-affirming. We have amicably debated almost every single word of this book!  

Hannah, Isikeli, and Rishika are characters that embody some of Fiji’s dazzling contradictions. Like all of the other characters in this book, bar some of the more well-known historical figures, they are fictional. And yet, we feel we know them so well that they are a little bit like family. It was important to us – and to an accurate depiction of Fiji – that all of the main protagonists were just as endearing as they were flawed; and to show the rich, heartwarming and often funny side of culture clash in Fiji. This approach helps to emphasize that the social problems we outline in the book are systemic rather than to be blamed on any one person or group.  

We have been heartened to hear the way the book has resonated with readers so far, and can’t wait to see the life it takes on in the world.  

Read an excerpt of Sugar: An Ethnographic Novel by Edward Narain and Tarryn Phillips, here.


Subscribe to our newsletter to find out about new and forthcoming releases in your field, books for courses, and special discounts and promotions.

Featured Posts