“A surreal ride.” That’s how Tomi Adeyemi, a 26-year-old Nigerian-American author, describes the last few years. A young graduate of Harvard, she left her job at an established Los Angeles entertainment-industry company to pursue her dreams of writing. Her first book, one she calls an homage to Harry Potter, found no takers. She tried again with another fantasy book, this one making use of the stories of the Orisha, a pantheon of gods sacred to Nigeria’s Yoruba people. Published last year, The Children of Blood and Bone reportedly landed her a seven-figure book deal, one of the largest ever for a first-time young-adult novelist. The publisher’s confidence in the book was amply repaid when it made its debut at the top of The New York Times list of bestselling young-adult hardcovers, and it has remained among the top 10 since then. A film based on it is currently in development. A sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, came out in early December, and the pair currently sit at numbers 1 and 2 on the American list.
Do you like the comparisons to J.K. Rowling that have been made by, among others, Entertainment Weekly?
When I look at a visionary like J.K. Rowling, what I really admire is her skill at world-building. The way people get lost in Hogwarts is the way I want people to get lost in Orisha [her fictional world, named for the Yoruba belief system].
Was it her books that helped set you in motion here?
I am a child of Harry Potter for sure, but it was more [Pakistani-American writer] Sabaa Tahir’s book An Ember in the Ashes that got me going on this one, my second book. I remember being electrified as I read it in one sitting, dehydrated by the end. It had the most beautiful final line ever. Also, to have a fantasy that wasn’t coming out of a European tradition, to have people who looked a lot closer to me in it, it made me want to create – and I wrote The Children of Blood and Bone right after that.
I read that you wrote a story with a black girl as the main character when you were little, but then you stopped writing stories with black characters for a long time.
Yes, I had internalized that black characters couldn't be in stories. It was the messaging of the world. I'd erased myself, people like me, from my imagination for years.
What helped change that for you?
At Harvard, I read black literature for the first time. We studied W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. I was both captivated by it, the beauty and power, the timelessness of this book [published in 1903], but then horrified at how many things felt the same. Though we’ve made so much progress.
Your work features often brutal crackdowns by a royal militia on a minority and was written during a time when there were widely reported cases of police shootings of black youths in America. Can you speak to how real-life events have bled into your fiction?
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I had experiences with racism, but they were small scale. As these cases with the police were reported, as I met people, I learned it could be a matter of life and death. Most black teenagers in America know this; they know when they get their drivers’ licences what it means. This all was on my heart, but I thought I had two books in me, one on police brutality set in the contemporary world, and another, a fantasy set in this mythical world. My boyfriend suggested they were the same book, and after I worked on it, I realized that was right. I had one pile of Legos over here, another over there, and when I put them together, I realized I could build a really cool tower.
What did you want readers to take away from the book on these issues?
If they cried for the characters brutalized in the book, I wanted them to cry for innocent children like Jordan Edwards and Tamir Rice. … I met a little girl in the Netherlands who’d read it, who wanted to fight police brutality. That was sweet. These incidents weren’t in her country, and the police there don’t have guns. But it’s that heart that inspires me. Sometimes, black readers tell me, “You know I couldn’t read it all at once because it really hurt.” I say, “I understand. You shouldn’t subject yourself to that.”
How did you come to learn about the Nigerian myth cycle, the Orisha, and to use that here?
I was on a fellowship to Brazil and I was supposed to go to a museum of slavery. It was under repairs – and so that wasn’t great. It was raining, so I went into the gift shop. It had a postcard of these figurines used in the worship of Orisha. The people brought it with them when they were taken here as slaves. I asked my parents, “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” They brought us up Christian. They said they didn’t teach us about Islam either, even though that was the faith my mother grew up in. I am careful when I use it in the books, because it’s sacred. I was lucky to find something so rich, but also so personally meaningful to me.
How did the work come together?
Fast. From blank Word document to seeing it on the bookshelves, that was a year and a half. I was pushing myself really hard, and even harder on the second book. I was writing morning, afternoon, night and when I wasn’t I was thinking about how I wasn’t writing it. The stress of that mentally, physically and emotionally was a lot. It wasn’t until I turned in Book 2 that I realized how rough my process was, how there was little balance, not that much quality of life, little sleep.
The relationship between your teenage protagonists and their parents are immensely strong, not always positive, but with a vitality that survives the deaths of the parents.
Familial bonds are, I think, in a lot of non-Western cultures extremely important. With Nigerians, you always have to honour the elder – even if someone was on the Earth a day before you. And so that really resonates with me, and made its way into the books.
You dedicate the first book to your parents.
They made a lot of sacrifices for us. When they came here, my father, who trained as a doctor, worked as a courier, delivering packages, and my mother cleaned toilets at McDonald’s.
How have they responded to your success to date?
Each week, my dad texts me with the first book’s place on The New York Times list. I told him, “You need to stop checking the list. You’re going to be disappointed.” He was like, “Hogwash.”
And for you, what's it been like?
It’s been bananas. It’s been insanity. I’m such a perfectionist that last week, when it had been 88 weeks on the list, I wrote in my diary, “I’m finally satisfied.” Note, I didn’t write “happy” – I always want to be better, to be the best I can be.