Debut Author and Industry Darling Tomi Adeyemi on How Much Representation Matters, The Magical Powers of Fantasy, and Why Angie Thomas is Everything
The author of "Children of Blood and Bone," the hottest YA debut of the season, talked to us in the weeks leading up to launch and discussed what it's like to be part of a cultural movement.By Sonja ColeMar 16, 2018 12:17 PM
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For months before its March launch, the captivating cover of Children of Blood and Bone has been peppering social media and stopping folks as they scroll through their feeds. As buzz grew about just how good the epic YA fantasy actually is (the publishing deal was one of the largest ever for the genre and it’s been optioned for a movie), readers and industry vets alike became enamored with its charming 23-year-old author, Tomi Adeyemi, who enthusiastically soaked in the moment of having her debut novel embraced by just about one and all.
Her spectacular fantasy, the first in a planned trilogy based on West African mythology and set in a fictional African world where magic once existed, is narrated by Bahni Turpin, who also voiced The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, the publication of which marked a major moment for Adeyemi’s evolution as a writer. When she sat down with Audible Kids and YA editor Sonja Cole to talk about the inspiration for her unique and timely tale, it didn’t take much for her to unabashedly fangirl out over Thomas, who has been both inspiration and literary godmother to Adeyemi. The on-the-rise writer also had plenty to say about this pivotal moment in publishing and her place in it.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Sonja Cole:Children of Blood and Bone just floored me. I am thrilled to say it totally lives up to the hype. Can you talk about your inspiration for the book?
Tomi Adeyemi:Children of Blood and Bone is kind of this collision of a bunch of different inspirations, both creative and from my personal life in the real world.
From a purely creative standpoint, I got to do this brief fellowship in Brazil, in, I think, the summer of 2015. I was originally going to Brazil to study the parallels between the Brazilian slave trade and the American slave trade, and see how those differences and similarities kind of led to the African American identity and the Afro-Brazilian identity that’s emerging today. So I thought I was going to write this kind of epic Toni Morrison [type of tale of] two sisters separated from the slave trade—one to Brazil, one in America.
And then once I was there, I’m like, “I’m definitely not going to write this story. I could never write that… I’m not that kind of author, I couldn’t pull it off.” But the one museum that was going to be the crux of my research ended up being closed for renovations, and so I was feeling really like, “What? How is this possible? I kind of came to Brazil for this museum and it’s closed.”
And it was raining that day so I ducked into a gift shop because I was trying not to get my hair wet. And I saw the gift shop owner was taking out people who were clearly just there to avoid the rain, so I was like, “Okay, look interested.” So I’m looking around and I see this one big poster with nine different images and it was of these African gods and goddesses. And I remember being like, “Oh my god, this looks like an African The Last Airbender. What is this? This is so cool.”
So that’s when I first discovered the Orisha [the spirits of the Yoruba religion], and that was sort of the turning point in my fellowship. Because I was only in Brazil for, I believe it was two weeks, but I went from trying to study all these things about their slave trade, to studying everything I could about the Orisha and seeing plays and doing new research and talking to people. And so I discovered this religion that I’d never known about.
And it was surprising to me because you don’t realize what you’ve never had, or what you’ve never seen, until you see it. So you don’t realize that growing up we’re surrounded by images of sacred beings, but they’re always white. So it’s like obviously you could point to any picture of Jesus or something, but when you think of Zeus or Poseidon or any… they’re always depicted as these majestic, sacred, white beings. And so when I saw black people depicted in that way for the first time, I’m like, “Oh, this is incredible. I have to do something with this.” But I didn’t have the story idea. So I just put it in my little mental creative file for, “Okay, one day you’ll figure out how to use this.”
Almost a year later, March or April of 2016, I stumbled across this picture. It was this digital illustration of this black girl with luminescent green hair. It was beautiful and so captivating. I remember I couldn’t stop looking at it. And I remember going into work and I was like, “Guys, look at this photo, look at this photo.” And everyone was like, “Oh cool, did you draw this?” And I’m like “No.” And they’re like, “Well, do you know who drew this?” And I was like, “No.” And they were like, “Okay, get back to work.” And I’m like, “But it’s so cool, how can anybody work? This photo is so cool!” And I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’m usually inspired by pictures. I usually get story idea from pictures, but this is the first time I’d seen a character picture and suddenly I wanted to know everything about her. And I was like, “Wow, what does her world look like? What does her family look like? What does a day in her life look like?”
When you go into a fantasy lens, you give a person a chance to experience and see what you’re trying to talk about without them bringing all their preconceived notions into it.
I was just laying in bed that night and I was like, “What if she was a fisherman or a fisherman’s daughter, and she was just like in the markets of trade one day and this princess runs up to her and says ‘you gotta get me outta here.’” And I was like, “Huh.” And I was talking to my boyfriend on the phone and I was just like, “Hey, is that interesting/fun? It sounds interesting/fun.” He was like, “Yeah, that’s interesting/fun.” And I was like, “Okay.” That was all the validation I needed and that just went off from there. So the story creatively exploded.
Around that point, the first book I tried to get published had failed… or I shouldn’t say failed because it wasn’t a failure. It taught me everything I needed to know. But from the way I was judging it, I was like, “Okay, this book isn’t going to get me an agent. This book isn’t going to be published.” So I considered it a failure and I felt bad about it, too, because I’d spent three and a half to four years throughout the entire process. So it felt like, “Oh, here’s four years down the drain.” But really, those four years taught me so much about stories so that when I had a better idea for a story, I knew all these things I didn’t know before. So I was able to figure out what happened in the story faster, I was able to write it faster, I was able to revise it faster. And so creatively it really, really just exploded.
And then in my personal life, I’d gotten to a point where I realized what I wanted to do was writing and I couldn’t run away from that anymore. So that sort of led me to really put my all into it. I left my job, my full-time job, and I went to a part-time job so that I could really throw everything into this book.
And then just within the state of the world, all the police brutality headlines. It was really, really, really weighing on me, as I knew it was weighing on basically every black person. And it’s a weight that’s hard to explain because obviously everyone can agree that, “Oh, this is bad, and when this happens it’s bad, and these hashtags. That people were unjustly killed, they’re all really sad…” But I wasn’t hearing or seeing any conversation about the weight, the fear, kind of the constant state of fear that it puts on you.
SC: That leads me to a question about Children of Blood and Bone. It takes place in a stunningly original fantasy world incorporating larger themes that feel very true to life like the racism, the oppression, the abuse of power. Why did you choose to write these themes in a fantasy setting, rather than the real world?
TA: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I think for me at heart, I love fantasy. I’ve actually never written a contemporary novel. I guess the first one I ever wrote was contemporary, but that was because I hadn’t experienced Harry Potter yet. So it was like my fantasy horse farm where I gave myself a twin. But very quickly, as soon as I discovered magic, everything I wrote had magic in it because it just spoke to my soul and my imagination. And so one reason was that I am a fantasy writer.
For as much as there are some people who need to see an allegory of the modern black experience through a fantasy lens, there are also all the kids like me who just need to see themselves in what they love.
The other was that it had, I think… so okay, so you take a blockbuster hit like The Hate U Give. When you say this story is about Black Lives Matter, for some reason people have decided that is a polarizing statement. You know, some view it as like, “Okay, but all lives matter.” You say it and for some reason it’s so easy for people to take that out of context and twist it. It’s literally just the statement saying, “Please don’t kill me.” It has become a political statement. I think that reflects a lot on humanity, but it is what it is. It’s like some people will take that and they have all these blocks up, so that statement isn’t going to penetrate the way it needs to. And regardless of the fact that you can have a brilliantly crafted story like The Hate U Give, there are some people who will say, “Oh no, it’s the Black Lives Matter stuff.” Not a lot of people, because it sold over like 500,000 copies, but there are still some people who will put up their blinds and say, “No, this isn’t for me,” or “this is a book about hating cops.” There are people who will twist the original meaning.
When you go into a fantasy lens, you give a person a chance to experience and see what you’re trying to talk about without them bringing all their preconceived notions into it. I don’t know how people do this, but people will see videos of police brutality and twist it. So when you see that happening in my fantasy setting, you can’t twist it. You know it is undeniably wrong. And so I think that the fantasy lens gives people a chance to interact with it in a way that they might not if the lens was taken away.
On the other hand, too, is we get… people say millennials, I say the Harry Potter generation, because I look at people and I go, “Okay, you’re Ravenclaw, you’re Slytherin, or you’re Gryffindor, you’re Hufflepuff.” That helps me sort people and interact with people. I think it’s just we love to dream, we love seeing… we’re so excited for Black Panther. We love magic and we love Game of Thrones, we love big, epic adventures and we can get invested in those in a different way than we can get invested in a movie like Twelve Years a Slave or something. It’s just a different level. Something about the fantasy world, we want all parts of it. We want to live in it, we want to be sorted, we want to go to Diagon Alley and buy candy. So I think the fun of fantasy, too, allows people to really, really get into a world and love it and dream.
I think maybe we like fantasy, too, because we get to fill in so many of the spaces ourselves. Like I am obsessed with Avatar: The Last Airbender and I love looking at fan art. I love when people go, “Here’s who I think the third avatar would be.” Or like, “Oh here’s what happened to this one girl we saw in season one, episode two.” Like I think something about having a new world just gives people this feeling that they can create in it and that’s really exciting.
And then lastly, for people like me, we’re erased from Game of Thrones. We were kind of erased from Harry Potter. Like yes, we had Dean Thomas, but I saw the adorable Alfred Enoch like five times in my childhood. For as much as there are some people who need to see an allegory of the modern black experience through a fantasy lens, there are also all the kids like me who just need to see themselves in what they love. It’s very hard to be erased from something you love so much. And once you realize you’re erased from it, it does take the enjoyment away.
Even now when I go back, it’s hard for me to read books that don’t have people of color in them, or people of color in prominence because it’s like authors have given me that now so I can’t go back to not having that. So for me, it’s for all these reasons. Let’s give kids a chance to see themselves riding a giant lion and being in an epic Brave Heart battle and doing really incredible magic. Because we don’t have that and we deserve that.
Just this morning, I was really emotional. My boyfriend’s like, “Why are you so sweaty?” Because I had just gotten up and I was walking around and I was just like, “Oh, I’m just feeling so militant because everyone’s saying Black Panther is awesome and then A Wrinkle in Time is gonna be awesome and then The Hate U Give [movie] is gonna be awesome and then Children of Blood and Bone is gonna be awesome.” And I was just like so riled up because I was like all I had as a kid was a couple of Storm cameos in the X-Men movies and Dean Thomas. And I was like… and now today’s kids are gonna have so many adventures to be in and to cosplay. And so I was like, “I’m just excited and so I’m sweaty now.” And he’s like, “Okay.”
SC: You’ve written and spoken so eloquently about your obligation as a writer to bring readers to different points of view. Can you say more about the power of literature to erase bias and your role as a writer in that?
TA: Yeah, it’s funny because I, over the past year or so, I have become more and more and more sort of aggressive about the belief that books can actually save the world, and stories can actually save the world.
When I was writing this book I was like, “If just one person is changed by this, then I’ve already done something positive for the world.”
Because a lot of times when we talk to storytellers, whether people who write movies or create movies or books or television shows, a lot of times you talk to them and people will start by discounting it. They’re like, “Yeah, we’re not surgeons, we’re not saving hearts, we’re not saving…” But I’m like, “That’s actually not true because… okay yes, it is true that we’re not surgeons. But it’s not true that we’re not saving lives or doing something important.” Because when I was writing this book I was like, “If just one person is changed by this, then I’ve already done something positive for the world.” And I was like, “And if multiple people are changed by this, then there’s something.”
But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when the election was still happening and Donald Trump came on the scene that the Harry Potter generation was making Voldemort memes of him, because we grew up with a very clear villain that said, “Hey, you’re not like us, you don’t belong here.” So when we see that reflected in real life, it’s like, “Oh okay, yes.” We can make a joke of it and be like Photoshop his nose away because you’re like Voldemort. But underneath that joke, and underneath the memes, is at least the knowledge that I was taught at a young age that someone who says something like this is wrong and bad.
I remember the day after the election I was really despondent and I saw, though, these age maps of how different ages had voted and how the electoral college would’ve gone or went per age group. And I think the 18 to 25 age groups, the entire map was blue. We lost maybe Montana or Arkansas or something, but it was 503 electoral votes for Hillary and whatever the remaining was to Trump. And so to me, that’s what gave me hope because I was like, “Maybe we are outnumbered right now, but there are people who look at this and say ‘This is wrong and this shouldn’t be what it is.’”
So I think really this election, and kind of everything that’s happened since, has taught me that these things are important because if we can reach people when they’re young and teach them how to be a good human, then when they have voting power, when they’re adults, when they are in positions where their life affects other people, those are the lessons that are still with them. And that ideally that empathy is what will help them be empathetic in the world. And then ideally the world would be a better place. So I’m a pretty firm believer in that now. That it’s not just stories. It’s that, “No, this could actually change something.” Like a kid who picks up The Hate U Give might turn into that cop one day, and that cop is going to think about it differently than a cop who didn’t grow up with The Hate U Give. So that’s why I think literature is actually so important.
And then the other thing is just feeling seen. Children of Blood and Bone has a dual purpose because yes, part of it is to teach and build empathy and make the world a better place. The other part is for kids like me who weren’t seen. I didn’t realize until I was an adult how not being seen really messed me up, and messed up the way I felt about myself and the way I viewed myself.
You can look at what someone’s doing and be like, “Damn, I wish I had that.” Or you can look at what they’re doing and be like, “So cool. I can do that too.” And with Angie, I was like, “Oh my god, I can do that too. And I can do that because of…”
And I mean seriously, because I’ve been writing stories for basically as long I could write. When we used to have those really big Windows desktops and floppy disks. That’s how long I’ve been writing. And my very first story was me, I wrote myself into that story, I gave myself a twin, I gave myself horses. I’d been watching this Bollywood movie over and over again, so I gave myself the really cool Bollywood outfit. And by the end of the story… the twins’ names were originally Marilyn and Carolyn, but by the end of the story, it was just, “And Tomi galloped across the plain, riding the black stallion into the storm to save him.” And I literally just wrote Tomi did this and then Tomi turned to her twin, Tomi and then… you know? So it was fully me.
And I don’t know when the shift happened, but that’s the only story I can find where I wrote myself in. Every other story from my past, the protagonist is white or they’re biracial because that was what I was told was okay. That was what was okay to be seen, that was what was okay to be in a story. And the underlying message in that was that was what it was okay to be. So I had been taught that being myself wasn’t okay, which meant I wasn’t writing myself in the story that I was writing alone in my room that no one was ever going to read. So that’s how you know how messed up it is. It was like I didn’t think a black person could be in a story because I’d never seen it. And when you pick apart all the different repercussions of that, and the self-esteem issues of that, it’s really ugly and it’s a lot to overcome.
So I feel so aggressive for really all children of color, but for especially black girls and black boys, to see themselves and be like, “Oh, I’m awesome and I belong in this story. I don’t just belong in Twelve Years a Slave. I belong in Game of Thrones, I belong in Harry Potter, I belong in Twilight. I feel very, very militant about that. I’m just militant, I’ll just take it. But yeah, I feel very aggressive about that because I know how much I went through because I didn’t have that.
SC: Are there any books, I mean other than Harry Potter, that meant something really important to you as a child?
TA: I think they meant something important to me for different reasons. So obviously, Harry Potter is still this world I love to disappear into. That was the first where I like, “Magic is real.” And it gave me this whole community of book lovers. Because I think that’s the other beautiful thing about books, is that there’s so much love and when you find someone who loves the same book as you, then you find… you feel like you’re finding your person. So yeah, definitely Harry Potter.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton will always be very special to me because that was the first book that made my cry. And I remember when I was in the third or fourth grade or something, and it was the reading period so you just had a book and you read it during the reading period. And I was reading The Outsiders and something sad happened in the story and I was crying. And I was like, “What’s going on?” I was so confused because I was sitting in class and I was like, “Why am I crying?” I really didn’t understand. I didn’t understand because I was like, “I don’t know what’s happening.” But I was like, for that moment, what was happening in that book was so real to me, and it was so devastating. And yeah, I’ll always remember that confusion and kind of just learning how beautiful books are because of that.
And then I also love the Magic Treehouse series like when I was really young. Those were really fun to read.
So those are the books I remember most from my childhood.
SC: And now the editors in the Audible office have so enjoyed following your Twitter conversations with Angie Thomas, and of course we’re all fans of The Hate U Give. Can you say what that friendship means to you personally and professionally?
TA: Personally… okay, it’s both personally and professionally. I am the ultimate Angie fan girl. I am the ultimate Angie fan girl, and the ultimate Sabaa Tahir fan girl. I am also the ultimate Daniel José Older fan girl, but Daniel and I will text about the stuff we’re doing now, so now I can be like, “Okay, we’re friends and I don’t have to freak…” I have to freak out a little bit.” But I was like, “Okay, I can at least be like you’re my friend and that’s cool.”
But with Angie, it’s like I think The Hate U Give, the news about it broke in February or March, a year before it came out, so in 2016. And it meant everything to me because I was getting to a point where I was realizing this is what I want to do, but there was still that question of “Can I do it?” And “Can I do it in the way I want to do it?” Because I’m not gonna lie and say, “Oh no, I wanted to publish a novel that not many people read.” Like no, I wanted people to read my novel, I wanted to be able to do this part-time. Of course, I dreamed of a film adaptation because every author secretly dreams of a film adaptation. But I didn’t think those things were possible, and I didn’t think those things could happen for me.
And then Angie comes on the scene and just smashes all the domino pieces and it’s like a record-breaking amount of publishers in that. What felt to us like an instant green light, even though things happen a couple months before they’re announced. But it felt like massive auction, massive movie, already green lit. And like a black author writing about black people, writing about Black Lives Matter, writing about police brutality. If I had a Lifetime movie, the scene where I saw that story, there’d be like, I don’t know, yellow lights, yellow magical lights, you know? It’d be like getting my Hogwarts letter because that was the moment where I was like, “Oh my god, I can do this.”
You can look at what someone’s doing and be like, “Damn, I wish I had that.” Or you can look at what they’re doing and be like, “So cool. I can do that too.” And with Angie, I was like, “Oh my god, I can do that too. And I can do that because of…” There’s a Twitter and Instagram account called “Because of them, we can” and that’s literally what it was. Angie did the thing and she did it amazing and I was like, “Oh my god, I can do it. I can do it.” And I wasn’t… I didn’t necessarily go like, “Oh, I can write this book and it’ll do the exact same things.” I just knew I could make it as a writer, I knew I could write the things I wanted to write about, I knew I would find an audience.
I didn’t know it would to the scale that it’s kind of being presented as, but I knew it was possible because of her, which is another reason that these things matter so much. Kids need to see Ryan Coogler [director of Black Panther] and Ava DuVernay [director of A Wrinkle in Time]. I love Ava DuVernay’s Twitter bio right now. It’s like a girl from Compton who got to make a Disney movie. It’s something along those lines. People need that because if they see that, then they can be like, “Oh, I can do it.” And suddenly, they know there’s a future. They know there’s a path for them.
I’ve actually gotten a lot of messages and emails from black teen readers who are just like, “Hey, I just want to say when I read your story I cried and I was so overwhelmed because I’ve been writing this story and I didn’t think anyone would want to read it, and now I see your story and people like it and they’re excited.” And I know how they feel because that’s how Angie made me feel. And basically, I’m just eternally obsessed with Angie because she is one of my book fairy godmothers.
And she’s also an incredible author too. So it’s one thing to be an incredible, inspiring person, but just to be so amazing, so kind, … we could have a whole interview where it’d be like, “Okay, Tomi just talks about all the things she loves about Angie Thomas.” Because it’s pretty endless. Yeah, I just think she is the best person ever. So just to have her support, even just to have her know my name is like, “Oh my god, that’s so cool.” I feel like that’s Oprah who knows my name. But to actually have her support is just this otherworldly level of… even she was part of the reason, I think, the buzz for CBB got started because she tweeted about it when it was in a competition. And so many agents took note because of that. It’s been more than just inspiring me, she has literally helped me in so many ways. I just feel blessed. I just feel like Angie is an angel and I’ve been blessed by the angel Angie. Okay, I’ll stop before it becomes actually two hours of “Angie’s so amazing.”
SC: And we’re so excited for you. I mean, we’re so excited to see an African American woman secure one of the biggest YA publishing deals in history, and for an all-black character driven story, no less. And it’s so well deserved. Do you think that this signals a cultural shift in publishing?
TA: Yeah, I think it’s in entertainment. Some people are like, “Oh, are you worried that this is tokenization and that people are going to be like, ‘Oh, we have one, we’re good now.’” And I’m like, because of everything I’ve seen, I don’t necessarily believe in … I believe in youth, I believe young people are amazing and I think they’re going to save us. I don’t necessarily believe in adults. But I do believe in capitalism.
I believe there is a significant cultural shift, but I believe that capitalism is also going to keep it going because people want more. When you look at Love, Hate and Other Filters, the author Samira [Ahmed], she tweeted like, “In a time of maybe the most rampant Islamophobia, a book about a Muslim teenager debuted on the best seller’s list.” It’s just a miracle in that like, “Okay, humanity, we are doing something right.” But it’s also, to me, a sign. It’s like, “Yeah, we want these stories. We want these stories, we are going to pay for these stories.” And as a business, it is now in your bottom line, your P&L [Profit & Loss], it is now in your financial interest to give us these stories because this is what people want.
So yeah, I do, I sadly believe in youth and capitalism.
SC: Oh, Tomi Adeyemi, thank you so much for speaking with me. I am so excited for Children of Blood and Bone to come out and just take the world by storm. It’s been such a pleasure speaking with you.