Society showers the wunderkind with awe. Those who achieve excellence at a young age have done so without the assumed advantages that time gives their elders.
But sometimes a young person’s success is achievable by them alone ― achievable only by way of their exuberance, their questions, their shock, their pain and the resulting art conjured from all of these.
At age 24, Tomi Adeyemi is a prime example. Adeyemi earned widespread acclaim in 2017 when she secured a multimillion-dollar publishing and movie deal based on her then-still-unreleased YA book, Children of Blood and Bone. The deal was reportedly one of the largest ever offered to the author of a debut novel.
Children of Blood and Bone, set in a fictional West African land, invokes magic and African folklore to make broader arguments about race, gender, tradition and social justice in America. The story’s central character, Zélie Adebola, seeks to unleash the storied magic of her ancestors in the nation of Orïsha. After years of repression, the maji must rely on Zélie to restore their mystic history and revolt against a strict caste system.
Since its release in March, Children of Blood and Bone has peaked at No. 1 on a New York Times best-seller list and earned its author frequent comparisons to J.K. Rowling, the titanic author of the Harry Potter franchise.
But simply put, Adeyemi can go places that J.K. Rowling cannot.
Children of Blood and Bone is fictional, yes, but it is also an amalgamation of the lived experiences of a young black woman in America, pieced together into a fantastic mosaic. It is the work of an author forging profound art in the crucible that has been the past decade in the U.S., navigating the predominantly white suburbs of Illinois during her childhood, earning admission into the hallowed halls of Harvard, and yet still coping with the limitations of a world rife with race-based injustice.
Adeyemi talked with HuffPost about the social justice themes in Children of Blood and Bone and the pressure in writing what many are calling the black Harry Potter.
Can you tell us what was the motivation behind writing Children of Blood and Bone? Where was your head at that time?
I’d committed myself to it really aggressively for such a long time that I could no longer deny that writing this was what I wanted to do ― because I was working another job and I was spending anywhere from four to six hours after that job every day trying to get the book done. So I knew this was what I wanted to do, which meant I had to write.
I was like, “Yeah, this first book isn’t going anywhere — nor should it. But if you want to go somewhere, you just have to write another book.” I was in this position where I was just going to keep writing for as long as I could, aggressively, until I got somewhere.
Where did your inspiration to create these characters come from?
Creatively, I had discovered the Orisha about nine months before I started writing, and the short way to explain them is that they’re West African gods and goddesses. It’s more complicated than that because it’s a religion, it’s a mythology, it’s spread throughout the world because of the slave trade. But I’m very inspired by visuals and when I saw it, I’d never seen black gods and goddesses before. I’d never seen people who were darker than me breathing fire and commanding oceans, so I instantly knew I wanted to do something with that.
But in the world, that was when I realized how bad police brutality was and how bad racism still was. And the reason I say it like that is because, for me, until I went to college, I’d just thought racism meant idiots judging me, and that that didn’t matter because … they’re idiots. [Laughs] I was like, “That’s not gonna have any bearing on my life.” But then, with Trayvon Martin and the not-guilty verdict in his case, it was like, “Oh, my gosh. Racism still kills.”
I feel as though a lot of people our age were coming into a certain consciousness around that time and there was some sort of optimism, prior to the Trayvon Martin verdict, that things would naturally right themselves. And for so many of us, that was the first time seeing just how wrong we were.
Exactly. We weren’t ignorant enough to say racism was over and we’re not going to have battles, but I think we thought the battles were institutional and we didn’t know things were still like the Jim Crow era, with lynchings and things like that. But then it started coming from the police, so it went from fearing civilians to being terrified by the cops, and then it became a thing where we realized, “Oh, it’s not something new that’s happening. We just have videos now.”
So it was just again, and again, and again finding myself in this place of being enraged, full of grief and terrified. The rage and the grief were obvious, but I didn’t think anybody was talking about the fear ― not just anybody in the news, but even in my conversations with other black people, we weren’t talking about our fear.
“I’d never seen black gods and goddesses before. I’d never seen people who were darker than me breathing fire and commanding oceans.”
I’ve been talking with some black visual artists and some writers as well about this new wave of Afrofuturism and how some of it seems escapist, but these texts still incorporate a lot of social themes we’ve seen centered over the last few years: social justice movements, castes and things like that.
I feel like because of “Black Panther,” a lot of people are lumping Children of Blood and Bone in with that and Afrofuturism. I think that’s sort of similar to us realizing police brutality wasn’t this new thing and that it was just a thing we were seeing more of. We’re seeing the same thing with black art and black stories in all media, because we’ve always been writing these stories — it’s just that nobody’s been listening to them. And I think that’s the one big difference — especially in genres like fantasy and sci-fi, which have always been about oppression. A lot of times, our popular stories are usually written by white authors imagining what it’s like to be black. [Laughs] It’s like, “Oh, what if he lived in space? What if these aliens needed to come to our planet but the evil dictator said no?”
[Laughs] “Racism! But in space now!”
The thing I appreciated about “Black Panther” and Children of Blood and Bone is that sense of purpose. There’s a sincere reason the characters in both are acting as they are.
Yes, and not only a reason we can understand but something that is real. I think it’s something people can learn to do, but I think it’s something that marginalized creators are primed to do because of our lifetimes living through things like oppression or ICE raids or being a refugee. I think a lot of people from marginalized backgrounds can put that heart in a story in a way people have never felt before.
I do think the time we’re in affects what’s being created, but I think had there been a spotlight on these black artists and their stories, everyone wouldn’t be celebrating this “new wave of Afrofuturism.”
That’s fair. Just because we’re paying attention doesn’t mean we’re witnessing the advent of something.
Exactly. That happens all the time, and I’m not saying it comes from a bad place or anything, but actually, this stuff isn’t new. We’ve had Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor, so we’ve been doing this, but now people are finally listening.
You incorporate discussions about male privilege by featuring men who, at times, feel a masculine responsibility to care for the women in their lives. What inspired that?
It’s always complicated being a black woman because you’re dealing with stuff because you’re black, you’re dealing with stuff because you’re a woman, and you’re dealing with all sorts of other stuff because you’re a black woman. And with the book, I wanted to make that commentary, because we don’t just worry about being killed by the cops — we worry about being raped by the cops. And that’s part of oppression and the destructive power structure.
So with Tzain, I wanted to show masculinity in a positive way, because he and Zélie go at it but that’s just a sibling thing. I wanted to show more of that because we’re aware of toxic masculinity, but masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic.
I understand. And I think your book explores the ways men can offer support without being overbearing or intrusive, and it chronicles men learning to do that.
Yeah, and a lot of the characters — whether it be masculinity, oppression or privilege — every character is forced to learn and say, “Here are all the things that no one told me were incorrect, but I can’t dismiss what you’re telling me just because of everything I’ve been through.”
The book also chronicles people who begin as antagonists but evolve into something else. Many may read about some of these antagonists and relate them to white allies. Are you making an argument about these allies as well?
It’s frustrating that a lot of times black people have to find a way to be the bigger people, but I was like, “Logistically, you can’t shut out white people who want to help.” Because we’re still the minority. Even if we all mobilize — even if we all register to vote — even if we were efficient — even if we didn’t have Kanye running around doing what he’s doing — even if we were all together, we still wouldn’t have enough. So we have to include other people.
With Zélie and Amari, I wanted to show that. Amari wants to do the right thing, but she has to learn how to do the right thing and how to be the support system she wants to be. And Zélie doesn’t want Amari’s help at all, but she needs to learn that she can’t do it on her own.
“I was going to create something so good and so black that even their racist ass was going to see it.”
As one who comes from an academic background, what made you want to write a novel instead of historical nonfiction? You very clearly had the bona fides and the travel experience to write on these things in a different — albeit less creative — fashion.
No, I didn’t. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You don’t think so?
Definitely not. My knee-jerk response is that I hate research papers. But digging deeper, that’s just not the way that I learn. And if we’re being honest, the type of person who is going to sit down and read a thesis on race in America — the type of person who’s going to read “The New Jim Crow” or something like that — is most likely not the type of person who is our problem.
My political mission as a writer came after “The Hunger Games,” because I saw how angry people were that there were black people in that movie. I hadn’t even connected that to all of the problems we had. I was like, “That’s really fucked up.” To see people who were so distracted by the presence of blackness that it ruined the movie for them ― I was like, “OK, I’m gonna get you.” I was going to create something so good and so black that even their racist ass was going to see it. That was the dream: that it would be so good and so black and so dark. Not just black, but featuring dark-skinned black people in a way that questions Hollywood’s image of what black people must be and look like.
How are you handling the weight of that? That’s a responsibility black artists have endured since black art was created.
Someone once asked me, “What do you think the world would be like if Harry Potter was black?” And I had to sit down because oh my God. The boy who the entire world is obsessed with would be this little black boy. And if that was in the cultural conscience, would Tamir Rice have been shot? We don’t know, but I do think the world would be in a different place.
That’s a pretty profound thought experiment.
These things matter. Seeing black people matters. Seeing them in fantasy matters. Seeing them in plays matters. That’s all part of the fight to humanize ourselves before generations of people who’ve been taught to believe we’re not human.
“What if the white boy who reads this becomes a police officer, and what if reading this makes him hesitate in pulling the trigger when he pulls up to a black person?”
And how are you coping with the Harry Potter comparisons, specifically? That seems like a lot of pressure.
People have said, “She’s the next J.K. Rowling,” and I’m like, “Uhh, that’s stressful.” But then I thought about the impact of that. The Harry Potter generation was calling Trump “Voldemort,” because we know what it means when some big bad guy says you don’t belong here.
What if the white boy who reads this becomes a police officer, and what if reading this makes him hesitate in pulling the trigger when he pulls up to a black person? Not even adult books affect you the way your favorite childhood book does, so now I’m like, “Let’s do it. Let’s make this the next Harry Potter,” because I think about the impact of messages staying with someone and being a big part of who they are.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.