Stylist sits down with author Tomi Adeyemi to talk about never seeing yourself in books, the importance of writing with intention and carving out spaces for young black readers.
Much of my childhood and young teen years were spent curled up in corners of my parents’ home reading the likes of Judy Blume, Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson. I’d get caught up in the vibrant characters and their tumultuous lives, fierce first crushes and relatable frustrations with parents.
However, as much as I’d lose myself in the narrative, descriptions of strawberry blonde hair and pale skin would always unsettle me. At the time I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand why. I now know that it’s because those stories and adventures were never written with someone like me – an adventurous and spirited black girl – in mind. Enter Tomi Adeyemi.
Adeyemi is the New York Times-bestselling author of Children of Blood and Bone, a book that has set the literary world on fire. The fantasy novel, released in March 2018 and with a sequel out later this year, is aimed at young adults and masterfully pulls together Nigerian magic and mythology, laced with Yoruba language. Readers find themselves in the kingdom of Orïsha, cheering on our protagonist Zélie as she attempts to bring back magic to the subjugated maji people before it’s too late.
Much like myself, Adeyemi struggled with never reading about characters who looked like her in young adult books, especially within fantasy settings, when growing up: “It’s way more common to see a talking animal or a dragon than it is to see a person of colour or another marginalised identity. I’m now realising the detrimental effect that had on me - loving something so intensely when I never saw myself.”
A storyteller from the age of six, Adeyemi had no problem seeing herself in her stories - she wistfully remembers naming the characters of her first ever story Tomi and Toni - and she was writing the adventures that she wanted to have. But, her protagonists were always white or biracial. “Deep down, that’s what I wanted to be because I was taught by society subconsciously that that’s okay, that’s what is accepted,” says Adeyemi. “I had taught myself that I couldn’t be in my own imagination.”
Over the years, Adeyemi began to use her writing privately as a vehicle for her own healing, and unpicking shame and guilt around her blackness. However, this changed for her around 2011 with the racist outrage around the casting for the film adaption of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. “There was an uproar that a segment of the internet had about Rue and Cinna being black and I hadn’t even processed that. It wasn’t like ‘Oh cool, there’s black people in this, what an exciting story’, it was more ‘kids are dying in this story, how are you focusing on that?’ But not only could people focus on it, they were angered by it. You had people saying that it wasn’t sad when Rue died because she was black.”
This marked a significant moment for Adeyemi. Writing stories with black characters was something she was doing for herself as an active lesson in self-love, but it also became something she felt the world needed: “I knew that it was important not only to do it, but to do it well. I wanted to make sure that I did it in a way that the people who haven’t gotten to see themselves, see themselves.
“I also wanted the people who haven’t got to see us, to see us, but not only see us but empathise with us, relate to us, love us, cry with us and be angry with us. Those are the things that stories can do especially because reading a book is so intimate. If you can get someone there, you can really do incredible emotional work and the idea is that hopefully that emotional work will carry over into the real world.”
It is clear that within her writing and the stories that she tells, Adeyemi always writes with intention and purpose, particularly when it comes to the identities of her characters. “There’s a certain character that I’ve gotten a lot of question about whether they are bisexual,” she says. “My response is always to say that I’m not going to answer that because you’ll find your answers on the page. There can’t be any guess work and it can’t be something you find in an author interview. It either has to be there or it isn’t because anything else is a slap in the face.”
For the author, when it comes to representation that we’ve never seen before on the page, ambiguity is an impossibility, especially as we step into an age where more writers from marginalised identities and backgrounds are entering the young adult space. “A lot of us as authors are writing to save ourselves,” Adeyemi tells Stylist. “We can’t save ourselves from the past but we try and heal from the wounds that we have from that period, as well as try and save those coming after us.”
One of the ways Adeyemi does this is through reminding her readers just how black her characters are, a direct challenge to having grown up reading books where whiteness is always assumed unless stated otherwise. “There was a point when we got down to the nitty gritty and my editor was like, ‘oh I don’t think you need to mention the skin colour here’ and I was like, ‘I do’. The reason I do is because we’re reworking 2,000 years of literature that, at least in the Western world, has been just about white people and I will whitewash my characters if I’m not constantly reminded about their dark skin.” She believes it’s not enough to just have Zélie on the cover - it also needs to be in the text. “If I could, there’d be a little hologram that popped up every five pages that said, ‘just remember: black!’ But when you can’t do that, it’s like okay, well let’s talk about the exact shade of black her skin is. Those are the things I have to do and I know I have to do it right.”
Throughout the book, Yoruba is used as the powerful language of magic, often without direct translation. The statement it makes is a powerful one, another stark reminder that this book is unadulterated and unfiltered in its Africanness, but also that not everything is meant for everyone.
“People have asked me why I haven’t given direct translations and it’s like, I’m telling you a story and I want you to that story and, in real life, you don’t always understand everything,” says Adeyemi.
A relatable reason as to why she uses Yoruba the way she does in Children of Blood and Bone is because her parents didn’t teach her the language: “They wanted to talk about me, my brother and sister while we were in the room and I was like, ‘you could’ve just talked quietly’.”
But above all, Adeyemi sees it as a love letter to both her Yoruba people and her heritage. “Even if it’s a global story, there’s only a percentage of people who will understand every word of it and that’s okay. This is magic and Yoruba, this specific African language, is what makes it magical. It’s also powerful to me because magic normally comes from Latin or made up things that are still based around Western languages. Someone actually asked me if I had made it up and I was like, I’m glad you think I’m smart enough to make up a language but no, this is very real and very beautiful.”
The last year has been a whirlwind for Adeyemi: she’s won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Fiction and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. This year will only bring more of the same with the release of her sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, and a Fox 2000 adaptation of the first book in the works.
Despite all the big things, it’s the intimate moments when she meets young fans that mean the most to Adeyemi: “My biggest and most impactful moment happened in Bristol last year and was when this little girl named Ava came up to tell me about a story she had written. It’s burned into my heart forever because I see a younger me in her and Ava knows she too can write these stories and not only that, but she can write them to great success.
“This is what fuels me. It’s the quiet moments where you’re like, okay, you’re really doing this and you’re doing good. Those are the things that stick with me and keep me going.”
Images: Ronke Champion / Alena Seibert / Pan Macmillan