Tomi Adeyemi on Epic Adventures and Representation
If you’re not familiar with the name Tomi Adeyemi, you soon will be. Her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, hasn’t even hit shelves yet and has already been optioned for a movie, in a seven-figure deal that is almost unheard of for a new author, let alone one who is just 23.
I was fortunate enough to interview Tomi at San Diego Comic-Con this year, where we talked about the absence of African mythology in popular culture and the importance of representation and empathy. Check out our interview below!
THE GEEKIARY: Why don’t you tell me about [Children of Blood and Bone]?
TOMI ADEYEMI: Children of Blood and Bone is the first in a series, and it’s an epic young adult fantasy about a girl fighting to bring magic back to her people. I really love it for so many reasons, but one of the things I’m really excited about is the world. The world is built from my Nigerian culture so people ride around on giant lions and cheetahs, there’s a jungle, they’re traveling through deserts, they’re wearing dashikis, they’re eating jollof rice. The language they use for magic is Yoruba, which is the language I grew up speaking with my parents. I really love that this fantasy world is so much a part of my world growing up. I love the characters, and now I feel safe saying it, getting feedback from samplers and some excerpts being out in the world, but the three main characters, I’m really excited for people to meet them and kind of fall in love with them in this epic adventure to bring magic back or fight to keep it from coming back.
THE GEEKIARY: There’s an absence of African mythology in fantasy, and it’s very odd, because in fantasy you can do anything. Why do you think it’s not been really explored before?
TOMI ADEYEMI: I think it’s because people just don’t know it exists. That was my whole journey, discovering this African mythology – it’s called Orisha – and it’s equivalent to Roman, Greek gods and goddesses. There’s over 600 African gods and goddesses. They’re connected to natural elements; they’re also connected to human elements. It’s very robust, it’s very widespread, but a lot of people, at least in America, don’t know about it. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the world, because there are millions of people that do know about it, but there are millions that don’t. For me, I stumbled upon it in a gift shop. It was completely random. I was trying not to get kicked out of the gift shop because it was raining, and the owner was kicking people out who were just trying to avoid the rain, so I was like, “Okay, wide-eyed, look like you’re interested.” I’m just walking through, and I see a poster with nine of the gods and goddesses, and I literally looked at this and I went, “What is this? It looks like Africa: The Last Airbender!” That sent me down the rabbit hole, and I feel like it’s the same thing here. In pop culture, it’s coming up a little bit more, like when Beyoncé, I think it was her Grammy performance, when she dressed up as Oshun. People were like, “She’s this African goddess of love and fertility, and now she’s pregnant with twins!” I got to meet Gabrielle Union and we were talking about it, and she was like, “I just discovered the Orisha recently as well.” So I just think people don’t know it even exists, which is kind of crazy given how much we study Greek gods and Norse gods and Roman gods. That’s another thing I’m excited about is bringing people into this world that they can then go, “Oh, I didn’t know this was here, now let me go find out more.”
THE GEEKIARY: Did you feel a lot of pressure to do a really good job because of the absence of African mythology? Or were you more like, “I’m just gonna write this book”?
TOMI ADEYEMI: I would say, I feel a lot of pressure, but it’s just because I put a lot of pressure on myself. That’s just my Ravenclaw, type A personality. It’s everything from getting the world-building right to making the characters dynamic to looking at a line and going, “Should I use the word ‘it’ or ‘thing’? ‘It’ evokes this, ‘thing’ evokes this.” For me, the pressure I put on myself is just my perfectionist tendency, because a book lives forever. This book is such a personal story for me that I need all of it to be right. I wouldn’t say I feel pressured to represent it right, I feel like it’s my duty and honor to be someone putting it out in the world in that way. It means so much to me that I can build. I grew up in Harry Potter, I grew up with Chronicles of Narnia, The Hunger Games. I always wanted to see myself in these stories. Obviously, I could identify with Hermione’s bookworm-ness and Katniss’s aggression and all that stuff. But to be someone who is putting an African fantasy out in the world, and people look at the cover and see this beautiful Black warrior princess –
THE GEEKIARY: Oh, the cover is amazing.
TOMI ADEYEMI: I am so obsessed with the cover. I’m obsessed with the creator. I don’t think he understands how brilliant it is. I love it, but I also love that a little girl who looks like me is going to go in the bookstore and see that. I didn’t start seeing Black girls on the covers of books until The Hate You Give, and that came out this year. For the pressure to get it right, it’s more like it’s a duty and honor to put this new perspective in there for everyone: people of color and white audiences.
THE GEEKIARY: You’ve already gotten a movie deal.
TOMY ADEYEMI: Yeah.
THE GEEKIARY: And such a big deal! Do you think that represents a shift in the stories that we tell in media? Or do you hope that it represents a shift?
TOMI ADEYEMI: Yes? I don’t know if this is proprietary information, but I got to talk to one of the executives, and they said other studios had started buying African properties because of the sale of Children of Blood and Bone. To me, that’s what you want. Obviously there’s big pushes for diversity in all fields of entertainment. I’m cynical enough that I don’t always trust people to do the right thing, but I do trust them to follow the money. You look at Black Panther – [the trailer] got like 89 million views in 24 hours.
THE GEEKIARY: It’s an amazing trailer.
TOMI ADEYEMI: Yeah! Yes, there’s a push for diversity, but then they’re realizing, “Hey, these things are good, they make money, they’re exciting, they’re new and fresh because we haven’t had them,” and anything new and fresh in entertainment is something you want to go for. I think that’s going to be the trend. You have your good-hearted people who are pushing for it because it’s right, and then you’re going to have your people who are like, “Oh, this all Black movie is making a lot of money! Oh, Moonlight won an Oscar! Oh, Ava DuVernay is queen!” I don’t want to say that’s okay or that’s right, but I feel like that is the trail that’s being formed, and people are going to continue to build off of that, whether it’s for good reasons or not-so-good reasons.
THE GEEKIARY: Better to have it than not have it.
TOMI ADEYEMI: Either way, we’re pushing forward. But yes, I was really happy to know that was happening and that is the goal. It’s funny. I was actually watching Ava DuVernay’s ten rules of success – it’s just some YouTube video with clips of her – and one of her things is, “If your dream only includes yourself, it’s too small. Because at the end of the day, getting one award or getting that one promotion isn’t going to mean anything if it’s just sincerely about you.” That’s how I feel about all of this. I want to see a bunch of African fantasies. I want to see Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death HBO show. I want to see a bunch of those. I want to see a hundred Black Panthers. I’m just excited for these shows that are hopefully going to open up the door for shows and movies and more things to follow.
THE GEEKIARY: One last question, and you kind of touched on it a little bit, what do you hope that people get out of the series?
TOMI ADEYEMI: There’s a couple of things, I’ll try to narrow it down to two or three. The first thing is just an epic adventure. I love epic adventures, and that’s the primary goal of the story: to tell a great story. I want to hook each reader and take them all the way through until they’re like, “What happens next?” and then you’re like, “I don’t know, I haven’t written book two yet. But I’ll figure it out.” So I hope readers get this really epic adventure. Second thing is for readers of color – I touched on this before – I want to give them the opportunity to see themselves in a way I never got to when I was young. To see themselves celebrated and powerful and depicted in all their epic beauty, because I think a lot of growing up in this world is saying, “Hey, your natural hair is ugly. Hey, you’re too dark.” You get all of this from media, you get it from real life, and all that stuff piles up. To just have one middle finger to all of that – of hopefully epic proportions – I think that would be really great for me. The last thing is for all audiences; the book deals with a lot of themes of police brutality and I’m just hoping that by falling in love with these characters and seeing the things they go through and realizing what’s happening to them is exactly what’s happening to people today outside of the book, that can foster empathy and change. Epic adventure, representation, and empathy is what I want readers to get out of the book.
Thanks again, Tomi, for taking the time to speak with me!
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is published by Henry Holt & Co. and will be available March 6, 2018, wherever books are sold. It is currently available for pre-order.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from THE Ohio State University. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, and conventions in the NYC area.
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