Tomi Adeyemi

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Tomi Adeyemi: “Black Panther does not overwrite a century of whitewashed stories”

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Yomi Adegoke speaks to the author of international bestseller Children Of Blood And Bone

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By Yomi Adegoke on

At just 23 years old, Tomi Adeyemi became the very definition of a publishing sensation. She landed a seven-figure book deal for her critically acclaimed fantasy debut, Children Of Blood And Bone, and as she attempted to wrap her head around the dizzying heights of her newfound success, a film deal was already in the works just a few days later. All this before the first book of the trilogy had even been released.

Now, aged 25, Adeyemi’s rollercoaster ride is still yet to reach its summit. Children Of Blood And Bone has been dubbed Harry Potter for the Black Lives Matter generation and the film adaption has already been tipped for the same success as Fox 2000’s other YA franchises, Twilight and The Maze Runner. But the waves it is making in the mainstream are nothing compared with what it means to black readers. Informed by both her Nigerian and African-American identity, the book tells the story of a dark-skinned teenager, Zélie Adebola, who takes on an empire 10 years after the murder of her mother.

It transports colourism, slavery, police brutality and other unapologetically black conversations and themes into the world of fantasy, where they rarely take place. In this genre, just about anything is usually able to exist, bar black people – an idea Adeyemi not only challenges, but completely dismantles. We spoke to the internationally bestselling author about the importance of representation, Nigerian folklore and what the publishing industry needs to do next.  

The Pool: At what age did you start writing and what led to you writing Children Of Blood And Bone?

I’ve always written since I was a little girl and, deep down, I knew I always wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t admit it to myself until I was working my first job after college and desperately trying to get my book published every day after work ended.

I wanted to write Children Of Blood And Bone after seeing two images. I saw an image of the orisha, sacred spirits from West African religion and mythology, in Brazil and it captured my imagination. I had never seen black people depicted in such a magical and sacred way, so I knew it would be in a story I wrote one day. Several months later, I saw a picture of a magical black girl with bright green hair and it lit my imagination on fire. As I daydreamed about what that girl’s world was like, the pieces of CBB starting falling in place. Zélie’s hair obviously isn’t bright green, but again, seeing someone like me in a setting I’d never got to experience really got my creative juices flowing.

The Pool: You were 23 years old when you first secured both your book and movie deal, which is huge. Was that a lot to take on at such a young age? How did you remain so grounded?

It was a lot to take on! But I have been able to keep it all in perspective and keep grounded thanks to my family and friends; they would definitely keep in me check if my head ever got too big. My little sister especially. I could be Oprah and she would still put me in my place.

The Pool: The world that Children Of Blood And Bone exists in is expansive and detailed. What is your approach to world-building? What was your process?

My Nigerian heritage influenced my worldbuilding by becoming the world of the story. The kingdom the story takes place in is named after the orisha, the West African spirits from the Yoruba religion. Seas and mountain ranges are named after my late grandparents. The characters wear dashikis, geles and headdresses as they eat jollof rice and fried plantain. My heritage was the foundation for which the world of this story was built and that was really gratifying for me, because I got to make magic out of the wonderful culture I was born into.

The Pool: When writing the book, did you always imagine it as an epic fantasy series? Or was it at one point going stop at the first book?

I knew the story for the first book, but, when I was pitching it to my brother, he thought my pitch for book one sounded like a book two, so, through debating with him, I figured out what the actual story of book two and book three would be, but I only had a vague notion of what the stories would be until I got the chance to work on them.

I wanted kids of colour and especially black kids to have this exciting change to see themselves as the hero and heroines 

The Pool: One of the most incredible things about the book is how, in a genre that usually alienates black people, the magical system is now centered on black people. Power is marked by the characters’ skin getting darker and their hair getting kinkier – was this an intentional script-flip within the genre?

My desire was for this story to show people who’ve never seen themselves in stories that they are worthy of being in these epic adventures, whether little girls or little boys. I wanted kids of colour and especially black kids to have this exciting change to see themselves as the hero and heroines because of CBB. And for people who are used to seeing themselves, I wanted them to fall in love with people who come from a completely different world and background in hopes of building empathy.  

The Pool: A fantasy novel starring a black girl written by a black woman is particularly groundbreaking. How much pressure was there to not just get it right but perfect, as the “one and only”?

Honestly, I didn’t feel that much outside pressure because this was just something I felt I had to write after the years we’ve had with all the police brutality. The only pressure I felt was from myself to tell this story correctly and I’m Nigerian, so I’ve been raised to put an insane amount of pressure on myself at all times.

The Pool: In the same vein, there are huge expectations of the film adaption of Children Of Blood And Bone. The casting of Amandla Stenberg as the protagonist of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give has sparked complaints from readers who felt the character was written as darker-skinned. Do you have any thoughts about who should be cast in your film adaption? Have you any concerns about it being got “right”?

I have incredible respect and admiration for both Angie Thomas and Amandla Stenberg. Both are instrumental to where I am today. After seeing how people responded to Amandla as Rue in The Hunger Games, I became motivated to write adventures that centered powerful black women. When I was struggling at my job and looking for hope, the story of Angie’s publishing and movie deal allowed me to know that I could pursue this dream to the level I wanted to pursue it. I’m extremely excited for The Hate U Give to come out and I know it’s going to continue the change on the screen that its book has inspired.

When it came to my movie rights, I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to let this movie go to any person who I thought would pervert any aspect of my story and I am extremely pleased to say that Fox 2000 and Temple Hill have handled it with so much care, respect and passion. I am not worried about them getting them right – I am just excited to keep working with them to bring this movie to life!

The Pool: Despite the book being fantasy, it is largely inspired by current events. Why did you choose to do this? Is the book more about escapism, highlighting real life issues or a combination?

It’s a combination! This book was written from a place of pain for me because of racism and police brutality. I wanted to say something about it, so, rather than just make up obstacles, I chose to tie the obstacles the characters face to things real people of colour have faced or are facing today. It made the book a very emotional experience for me, but I’m glad I did it because now people can learn things about our real world as they’re experiencing the epic adventure in the story.

The Pool: Yoruba folklore and traditional religion heavily informs the book. How did you go about researching these traditions? What has the reaction been from practitioners?

My research was a mix of on the ground interaction, anthropological write-ups and consultations with/sensitivity reads from a santería priest. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet two readers who practised the santería tradition and they were both incredibly enthusiastic to see their beautiful culture and beliefs portrayed on the page. It was a really fulfilling experience to hear their happiness, because I wanted to make sure that, even though this is a fantasy, it honours everything they believe.

The Pool: With the popularity of your book and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, there appears to be a shift in publishing. But with films like Black Panther and reams of black stars gracing September issues, it seems to be a change taking place across industries. What do you think is behind that shift and do you think it will it last?

I think we’re making great strides, but it’s extremely important that we don’t get complacent. Black Panther does not overwrite a century of whitewashed stories. The Hate U Give and Children Of Blood And Bone do not make up for thousands of years of literature without people of colour and diverse experiences.

I do believe we are on the precipice and movies like ours and To All The Boys I’ve Loved are moving in the right direction, but so many people are still being told no because their characters aren’t white, straight or cisgendered. We all have a lot of work to do to make sure that the stories we’re seeing in all mediums reflect the real world around us.

@yomiadegoke

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