Tomi Adeyemi: "The Book Is Fantasy--The Pain Is Real"

photo: Elena Seibert

In Children of Blood and Bone (Holt, March 2018), the first in an explosive debut trilogy (with a movie deal already in the works), 23-year-old Nigerian American author Tomi Adeyemi builds an astonishing West African-inspired world of magi pitted against monarchy, complete with epic battles, star-crossed love and profound soul-searching. Shelf Awareness recently talked with Adeyemi about the book's parallels to the current world, the power of words and Adeyemi's fierce passion for getting books with characters of color into the hands of young readers.

Children of Blood and Bone is packed with mythology, characters, culture and language. How much was from your imagination and how much from your own heritage as a Nigerian American?

It's a healthy combination of both! My Nigerian heritage acted as the foundation for the world of CBB, so it was kind of like taking a blank page and using my culture to draw the map. I got to name characters, cities, mountains and oceans after all the different members of my family. Instead of a magic system based on Greek and Roman gods, I created a magic system based on the Orïsha, godlike figures in West African mythology and religion. My favorite part was creating magic spells out of Yoruba, the dialect my parents grew up speaking. I even shaped the kingdom of Orïsha after the continent of Africa, so I literally drew a map from my heritage.

With its themes of racism, oppression and power, Children of Blood and Bone has clear parallels to current (and historic) world events. How intentional is this?

This was 100% intentional. Every obstacle the characters face throughout the story is tied to a real obstacle that black people are facing today or have faced within the past 30 to 50 years. I wanted to write a compelling adventure that sucks readers in, but I also wanted to connect everything to the real world because, while the book is fantasy, the pain inside it is real.

The use of the derogatory "maggots" to describe divîners and maji is evocative, with a degrading, sneering bite. How did you come up with that word?

I went to one of the most hurtful words in the English language and worked backward. It was important for me to show readers how language can be just as abusive, degrading and oppressive as a physical attack.

I know several black people, myself included, who have been called a n****r by a white person whom they considered a friend or by a complete stranger. The hatred and venom people can spread is awful. It's hard not to internalize that word and that hatred, and it's easy for that venom to carve into your being.

I knew I couldn't write an effective allegory about the black experience without having a word used in the same degrading way that the N-word has been used and continues to be used today.

Skin and hair color play a powerful role in Orïsha. What are you hoping to get across to your readers?

That black is beautiful!

Growing up, I was made to feel that dark skin wasn't beautiful and the way my hair naturally grows out of my head wasn't "acceptable." Though I've grown to love my skin and my natural hair, those same voices that told me I shouldn't when I was young are still shouting those lies today.

For that reason, it's extremely important to me that I shout over them so that young boys and girls don't think that the color of their skin and the texture of their hair isn't beautiful. I want to be one of the voices drowning out the lies.

You're barely a year out of college. Most people your age are not brokering movie deals and waiting for their first epic fantasy novel to come out. Are your family and close friends surprised at where you are... or not at all?

LOL! The scale of this book and movie deal is definitely a surprise. But several of them said things along the lines of "I can't believe it... like, I can, because it's you, but I can't." So in a way, they also weren't surprised.

I'm the child of Nigerian immigrants, and that means I've been working my butt off for as long as I can remember. My friends and family know that by now, and it's helped me achieve great things, so when I applied that work ethic to this publishing dream, they believed in me and believed it would happen. I did, too. But none of us expected it to go like this!

When you were growing up, how important was it for you to find characters of color in books?

It wasn't even an option. I've been an avid reader my entire life, and I didn't get to see a prominent person of color in a book until I was in college. The only person of color I can remember from my childhood was Dean Thomas in Harry Potter.

That complete erasure from something I love so much is why I feel so aggressive about giving kids the opportunity to see themselves. I didn't grasp 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.

That's simply not okay, and I'm proud to be writing in a wave of authors that's 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.

Have you already plotted out Books 2 and 3? Do you know how it all will end?

I know about 23% of Book 2 and 30% of Book 3, but I do know how both stories start and end so I'm sure the middle will come eventually! --Emilie Coulter

Powered by: Xtenit