Tomi Adeyemi: How racism in­spired my hit fan­tasy novel

Weekly Trust - - Weekend - Sarah Hughes Culled from The Guardian UK

Nige­rian-Amer­i­can au­thor Tomi Adeyemi, 24, was in­spired by west African mythol­ogy. Her de­but has been called the big­gest fan­tasy de­but novel of 2018, draw­ing com­par­isons with ev­ery­thing from Game of Thrones to Black Pan­ther, and has net­ted a movie deal re­ported to be worth seven fig­ures.

But Tomi Adeyemi, the 24-yearold Nige­rian-Amer­i­can au­thor of Chil­dren of Blood and Bone, says that such suc­cess was the last thing on her mind when she sat down to write her epic tale of an op­pres­sive world where magic has been out­lawed.

“For the past 10 months I’ve spent a lot of time think­ing, is this for real?” she says. “I had a lot of dif­fer­ent rea­sons for writ­ing the book but at its core was the de­sire to write for black teenage girls grow­ing up read­ing books they were ab­sent from. That was my ex­pe­ri­ence as a child. Chil­dren of Blood and Bone is a chance to ad­dress that. To say you are seen.”

Adeyemi is the mid­dle child of three - her brother is a mu­si­cian and her younger sis­ter still at col­lege. Her fa­ther is a doc­tor, while her mother runs a group of hos­pices out­side Chicago. She stud­ied English lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard be­fore head­ing to Brazil on a fel­low­ship to study west African cul­ture and mythol­ogy. It was in South Amer­ica that the seeds of Chil­dren of Blood and Bone, the first in a tril­ogy, were sown.

“I was in a gift shop there and the African gods and god­desses were de­picted in such a beau­ti­ful and sa­cred way … it re­ally made me think about all the beau­ti­ful im­ages we never see fea­tur­ing black peo­ple.”

She de­scribes the story - which fol­lows fish­er­man’s daugh­ter Zélie and an un­likely band of al­lies and en­e­mies on a quest to reawaken magic in the coun­try of Orïsha - as “an al­le­gory for the mod­ern black ex­pe­ri­ence”. It draws in­spi­ra­tion from both west African mythol­ogy and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

“Ev­ery mo­ment of vi­o­lence in the book is based on real footage,” she says, ex­plain­ing that an early scene in which Zélie is at­tacked by a guard was in­spired by the no­to­ri­ous video of a po­lice of­fi­cer push­ing a teenage girl to the ground at a pool party in Texas. “It’s not my in­ten­tion to be gra­tu­itous but I want peo­ple to be aware that these things are hap­pen­ing and that the ac­tual videos are much worse.”

Adeyemi is not the only young au­thor us­ing fan­tasy to meld per­sonal sto­ries with po­lit­i­cal themes. Justina Ire­land’s hugely an­tic­i­pated Dread Na­tion, an al­ter­na­tive US civil war story with added zom­bies, is pub­lished in the US next month. Dhonielle Clay­ton’s The Belles, a dark story of beauty, ob­ses­sion and magic, came out in the UK in Fe­bru­ary.

Mean­while, the con­clu­sion to Daniel José Older’s ac­claimed Shad­ow­shaper tril­ogy, which fol­lows a di­verse group of Brook­lyn teens as they fight dark forces, both mag­i­cal and hu­man, is ex­pected next year.

“In my per­fect world, we’d have one black girl fan­tasy book ev­ery month,” says Adeyemi. “We need them, and we need fan­tasy sto­ries about black boys as well.”

Does she feel that Chil­dren of Blood and Bone is a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive, given how white much cur­rent fan­tasy is? “Oh yes,” she says with a laugh. “That does make my blood boil - the idea that it’s to­tally fine to have a queen of the dragons but you can’t pos­si­bly have a black per­son.

“That’s why the suc­cess of [the re­cent Marvel movie] Black Pan­ther has been so sig­nif­i­cant black and marginalised au­di­ences have the chance to see them­selves as he­roes de­picted in a beau­ti­ful and em­pow­er­ing way, and white au­di­ences get to see new sto­ries told, and it be­comes eas­ier for them to pic­ture a black su­per­hero. Imag­i­na­tion is a funny thing - we some­times need to see some­thing be­fore we can truly pic­ture it.”

She is clear that the film ver­sion of Chil­dren of Blood and Bone, which has been cho­sen as a Water­stones book of the month for March, must have a black di­rec­tor: “It’s a deeply, deeply per­sonal thing - there are parts of the book that black peo­ple get in­stantly be­cause they’ve lived it.” But, she warns, it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple don’t use young adult fic­tion as a quick-fix cure-all.

“We can’t Obama this, where we have a black pres­i­dent, so sud­denly racism is cured, and then eight years later Nazis are march­ing and peo­ple start say­ing, ‘Maybe we have a race prob­lem’,” she says. “Our books aren’t there to magically fix pub­lish­ing but maybe they’ll start the changes mov­ing so that in six months we’ll have even more great sto­ries, where we see our­selves and are heard.”

She is clear that the film ver­sion of Chil­dren of Blood and Bone, which has been cho­sen as a Water­stones book of the month for March, must have a black di­rec­tor The au­thor of red-hot book, ‘Chil­dren of Blood and Bone’, says her de­but novel was a re­sponse to genre fic­tion in which the char­ac­ters were al­ways white.

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