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Melanin is magical: Tomi Adeyemi on representing the black experience through magic and folklore

By October 18, 2018No Comments

Source : Times of India

24-year-old Nigerian-American author Tomi Adeyemi became an instant New York Times #1 bestseller moments after her debut novel hit the stores this year. Titled The Children of Blood and Bone, Adeyemi’s book is a delightful and mesmerizing adventure of a young black girl and her magical tribe. Drawing comparisons from Black Panther to Harry Potter, Adeyemi’s powerful fantasy fiction follows Zélie, a fisherman’s daughter, and her unlikely band of cronies who embark upon a quest to reawaken the magic of her tribe in the country of Orïsha, which has been described as “an allegory for the modern black experience”.

In an exclusive interview with TOI Books, bestselling author Tomi Adeyemi speaks of inclusivity, the importance of representation, and the power of magic!

1) Storytelling itself is a magical art. You have this world inside you and you want the other person to be immersed in it. What do you think makes for a better story — relatable characters or a fantastical plot?

Tomi: Easily, characters. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting dragons or doing taxes—if you don’t care about and feel invested in a character’s journey, then you’ll never get invested in the story. Character is actually something I have to work really hard at because the plot comes easily to me, but trying to make sure these big adventures are still grounded in a very human way is a struggle.

2) There is still a dearth of coloured characters in genres like YA and other forms of popular literature. You have turned the tables at a perfect time with a book that tackles race, gender and class. Do you think we are still represented by others with a sort of white supremacy? Or, is it a thing of the past?

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 color 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, cis-gendered, or able-bodied. 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.

3) Was choosing fantasy as a genre a conscious decision because of your background in West African mythology?

I actually never studied West African mythology in an academic setting. I discovered the orisha in a blessing that put me in the right fit shop in Salvador, Brazil at the right time, and from there I conducted my own research.

I chose fantasy because I love it. My favorite stories of all time have always had big magic and adventure, but they never had characters of colour until very recently (like the past 3 years or so).

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 color 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.

4) What was your reaction when you first saw your book as a New York Times Number One bestseller?

I don’t think I fully believed it, because whenever people try to get me to say it out loud, my throat kind of closes up! But I am extremely proud of this story, and to see it at the top of the list for so long has been incredible. For me, seeing CBB at #1 tells me to keep having hope — that despite the current climate, things are changing for the better. Last year when I saw The Hate U Give at #1, I took solace in the fact that thousands of people a week were reading Angie Thomas’s incredible story and learning not only to empathize with the black experience, but to mobilize against issues like police brutality. Through all the disturbing headlines and hashtags, THUG was a light for me. Now, seeing CBB and THUG right next to each other on the bestseller list makes me feel like we are not only speaking out against the evils in our world, but also making an impact on the children who will be our future.

5) The magic associated with the skin colour getting darker and the hair getting curlier — is there an African mythological significance to it?

Nope! It’s just my metaphorical representation of the fact that melanin is magical.

6) At just 24, you have created this fantastic magical universe with a girl in the lead, who’s trying to bring magic back to her people. How did you come up with this idea?

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 gotten to experience really got my creative juices flowing!

7) The film rights to your book have already been sold. When you wrote the book, did you have a movie adaptation in mind?

When I wrote it, I saw it as a movie in my head but thought that everything I was putting on the page was too wild to ever be adapted to the screen. Needless to say I was beyond surprise when Fox 2000 and Temple Hill said the exact opposite. The producers and executives on the CBB have been incredible to work with, and I’m so for us to bring this project to the big screen.

8) Your book effortlessly tackles race and culture while conversing with a very young generation. Did you feel like there was a need to create this space? Or, was it a more spontaneous outcome?

It was definitely not spontaneous. I feel so aggressive about giving kids the opportunity to see themselves that I never got. I didn’t realize how messed up I was from never seeing myself until I was 18 and realized all the stories I wrote had white or biracial protagonists. I wasn’t even creating black people in the books I wrote because I never saw myself in these settings, so I didn’t think that was an option.

That’s simply not okay, and I’m proud to be writing in a wave of authors that are working really hard to make sure kids of all races, sexualities, and religions see themselves and know they belong in stories, on covers, in tv shows, in movies, and in every aspect of life that’s previously been closed off to us.

9) Who has been your literary role model growing up?

I think I’m still growing up because my literary role models are Sabaa Tahir and Leigh Bardugo. But also storytellers like Shonda Rhimes and Issa Rae!

10) Could you tell us about your writing regime? What is your process like?

My life is honestly so hectic that my process is just to take it one step at a time. Creatively wise, I take about 3 weeks to just get inspired and outline the story. Then it’s to write the first draft. Write the second draft and here’s where my book actually comes together.

And then I revise 20-40 times until I’m happy with the 600-page monster I’ve created.

11) What can we expect after the Children of Blood and Bone Trilogy?

After Children of Blood and Bone I have plans to branch into other genres and story-telling mediums! I want to write books, but I also want to create animated shows and live-action series, possibly even other movies! I’m very excited for all the stories that I’m going to tell over the next few years, and I hope each one finds and audience as special and as passionate as CBB has

12) Do you believe in magic?

Of course! The fact that a country I’ve always admired for their incredible stories and culture now carries my book? The fact that we’re even doing this interview right now? If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

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