Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Adeyemi (@tomi_adeyemi) about the book, a bestseller that has been optioned for a film.
On what the book means to Adeyemi’s readers and fans
“When you’re writing for young adults, they take this seriously, and the stories they love, they will defend those stories. So it’s really an honor to write for such a passionate and engaged group.
“I think the other part is being black and doing something to really show black people that they can be the heroes, that they can ride the giant lion, that they can have that epic adventure and love story. There’s a collective ‘we’ in that identity, because when one black person wins, we feel like we all win, because we know what we’re fighting against.”
On how “The Hunger Games” influenced her writing
“My mission as a writer started after ‘The Hunger Games,’ after seeing the backlash against characters in the adaptation, just because they were black. It was like, ‘Oh, OK, well I’m going to write something so good and so black that even racists have to see it.’
“There’s always an intense backlash when a character that people, that at least was historically white, is played by an actress of color. But in this case, [the character is] explicitly black on the page. Yet, a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, why’d they make all the good characters black?’ ‘Oh, it wasn’t sad when Rue died, because she was black.’ And these were direct quotes being said. They weren’t people hiding with anonymous avatars, like it was their face, it was their name.
“So, part of it was the horror that people could feel this way, especially about fictional characters. But the other part was that they didn’t feel the need to hide. And that was also equally scary. Obviously, I’d encountered racism in my life, but it’d been the one-off events and a lot of times had been hidden. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t think she deserved to get into that school,’ but to my face, they’ll say congrats. But this was people saying horrible things and not feeling any shame or any need to hide, and that was really scary back then. And of course, it’s only gotten worse now.”
On the challenge of writing a book about oppression without white people
“So that’s the instinct conundrum I created for myself … I wanted to write a story about black people, and I wanted to write a story about the black experience, and the black experience has a lot to do with black pain and that has a lot to do with white people. But I wanted to write a story with all black people, so I’m already coming up against myself in doing that.
“I also want to talk about colorism but I wanted to also not perpetuate all the things I see often in media because of colorism — which is an elevation of light-skinned black people over dark-skinned black people. And so, it’s complicated, and I won’t even go as far as to say that I did it perfectly, because, inherently, the things I wanted to do were directly in opposition of each other. But I was OK with everything not coming together perfectly, because the story has to come first. And so what had to be perfect to me was the story.”
On the entrenched behavior of white-washing while reading, assuming that characters are white
“It is easy to start whitewashing, because that’s what we’re used to. We’re still used to thousands of years of literature with just straight white people. So, that’s another reason why I had to be deliberate about describing the tones and describing them again and again, because your mind starts to just automatically do what it’s been more than trained to do.”
On the prevalence of metaphors for racism in her book, and the use of the word “maggot” to describe a group of characters in the novel
“I was very heavy-handed, and I think part of that comes from being an English major and always being very frustrated when they were like, ‘Pull a thesis out of these weak metaphors,’ and I’m like, ‘This isn’t what the author intended.’ So, for me, it’s very clear to see what I intended, like ‘maggot’ is very similar to a slur used against black people. Having stark white hair, yeah, like, you’re not going to hide then in a room. A black person can never hide that they’re black in a room.”
On the violence perpetrated against people of color in her book, as well as its existence today and in history
“That’s the funny thing, when [the book] first came out, I kept getting a lot [of], ‘Oh, it’s so violent, it’s so violent,’ and I was like, ‘You know every piece of conflict in this is based off of things that are happening today or things that have happened to black people as recently as 30 years ago, right?’ That’s part of the reason I put an author’s note at the back. I knew if I didn’t explicitly stay within the texts of the book that, ‘Hey, all of this is based off things that are happening to real black people today,’ that it would fly over a lot of people’s heads, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, I felt so bad for Zélie in Chapter One,’ but they won’t feel bad for the actual girl it happened to in Florida.
“It was very important for me to make it this big adventure but to make all of it tied to reality so that people could, when they left the book, hopefully think about our world differently and be spurred to do something about it.”
by Tomi Adeyemi
It’s all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from the morning heat or from my heart slamming against my chest. Moon after moon I’ve been passed over.
Today can’t be the same.
I tuck a lock of snow-white hair behind my ear and do my best to sit still. As always, Mama Agba makes the selection grueling, staring at each girl just long enough to make us squirm.
Her brows knit in concentration, deepening the creases in her shaved head. With her dark brown skin and muted kaftan, Mama Agba looks like any other elder in the village. You would never guess a woman her age could be so lethal.
“Ahem.” Yemi clears her throat at the front of the ahéré, a not-so-subtle reminder that she’s already passed this test. She smirks at us as she twirls her hand-carved staff, eager to see which one of us she gets to defeat in our graduation match. Most girls cower at the prospect of facing Yemi, but today I crave it. I’ve been practicing and I’m ready.
I know I can win. “Zélie.”
Mama Agba’s weathered voice breaks through the silence. A collective exhale echoes from the fifteen other girls who weren’t chosen. The name bounces around the woven walls of the reed ahéré until I realize Mama Agba’s called me.
Mama Agba smacks her lips. “I can choose someone else—” “No!” I scramble to my feet and bow quickly. “Thank you, Mama. I’m ready.”
The sea of brown faces parts as I move through the crowd. With each step, I focus on the way my bare feet drag against the woven reeds of Mama Agba’s floor, testing the friction I’ll need to win this match and finally graduate.
When I reach the black mat that marks the arena, Yemi is the first to bow. She waits for me to do the same, but her gaze only stokes the fire in my core. There’s no respect in her stance, no promise of a proper fight. She thinks because I’m a divîner, I’m beneath her.
She thinks I’m going to lose.
“Bow, Zélie.” Though the warning is evident in Mama Agba’s voice, I can’t bring myself to move. This close to Yemi, the only thing I see is her luscious black hair, her coconut-brown skin, so much lighter than my own. Her complexion carries the soft brown of Orïshans who’ve never spent a day laboring in the sun. A privileged life funded by hush coin from a father she never met, a noble who banished his bastard daughter to our village in shame.
I push my shoulders back and thrust my chest forward, straightening though I need to bend. Yemi’s features stand out in the crowd of divîners adorned with snow-white hair. Ones who’ve been forced to bow to those who look like her time and time again.
“Zélie, do not make me repeat myself.” “But Mama—”
“Bow or leave the ring! You’re wasting everyone’s time.”
With no other choice, I clench my jaw and bow, making Yemi’s insufferable smirk blossom. “Was that so hard?” Yemi bows again for good measure. “If you’re going to lose, do it with pride.”
Muffled giggles break out among the girls, quickly silenced by a sharp wave of Mama Agba’s hand. I shoot them a glare before focusing on my opponent.
We’ll see who’s giggling when I win.
We back up to the edge of the mat and kick our staffs up from the ground. Yemi’s sneer disappears as her eyes narrow; her killer instinct emerges.
We stare each other down, waiting for the signal to begin. I worry Mama Agba’ll drag this out forever when at last she shouts.
And instantly I’m on the defensive.
Before I can even think of striking, Yemi whips around with the speed of a cheetanaire. Her staff swings over her head one moment and at my neck the next. Though the girls behind me gasp, I don’t miss a beat.
Yemi may be fast, but I can be faster.
When her staff nears, I arch as far as my back will bend, dodging her attack. I’m still arched when Yemi strikes again, this time slamming her weapon down with the force of a girl twice her size.
I throw myself to the side, rolling across the mat as her staff smacks against its reeds. Yemi rears back to strike again as I struggle to find my footing.
“Zélie,” Mama Agba warns, but I don’t need her help. In one smooth motion, I roll to my feet and thrust my shaft upward, blocking Yemi’s next blow.
Our staffs collide with a loud crack. The reed walls shudder. My weapon is still reverberating from the blow when Yemi pivots to strike at my knees.
I push off my front leg and swing my arms for momentum, cartwheeling in midair. As I flip over her outstretched staff, I see my first opening—my chance to be on the offensive.
“Huh!” I grunt, using the momentum of the aerial to land a strike of my own. Come on—
Yemi’s staff smacks against mine, stopping my attack before it even starts.
“Patience, Zélie,” Mama Agba calls out. “It is not your time to attack. Observe, react—wait for your opponent to strike.”
I stifle my groan but nod, stepping back with my staff. You’ll have your chance, I coach myself. Just wait your tur—
“That’s right, Zél.” Yemi’s voice dips, so low only I can hear it. “Listen to Mama Agba. Be a good little maggot.”
And there it is. That word.
That miserable, degrading slur.
Whispered with no regard. Wrapped in that insufferable smirk.
Before I can stop myself, I thrust my staff forward, only a hair from Yemi’s gut. I’ll take one of Mama Agba’s infamous beatings for this later, but the fear in Yemi’s eyes is more than worth it.
“Hey!” Though Yemi turns to Mama Agba to intervene, she doesn’t have time to complain. I twirl my staff with a speed that makes her eyes widen before launching into another attack.
“This isn’t the exercise!” Yemi shrieks, jumping to evade my strike at her knees. “Mama—”
“Must she fight your battles for you?” I laugh. “Come on, Yem. If you’re going to lose, do it with pride!”
Rage flashes in Yemi’s eyes like a bull-horned lionaire ready to pounce. She clenches her staff with a vengeance.
Now the real fight begins.
The walls of Mama Agba’s ahéré hum as our staffs smack again and again. We trade blow for blow in search of an opening, a chance to land that crucial strike. I see an opportunity when—
I stumble back and hunch over, wheezing as nausea climbs up my throat. For a moment I worry she’s crushed my ribs, but the ache in my abdomen quells that fear.
“No!” I interrupt Mama Agba, voice hoarse. I force air into my lungs and use my staff to stand up straight. “I’m okay.”
I’m not done yet.
“Zélie—” Mama starts, but Yemi doesn’t wait for her to finish. She speeds toward me hot with fury, her staff only a finger’s breadth from my head. As she rears back to attack, I spin out of her range. Before she can pivot, I whip around, ramming my staff into her sternum.
“Ah!” Yemi gasps. Her face contorts in pain and shock as she reels backward from my blow. No one’s ever struck her in one of Mama Agba’s battles. She doesn’t know how it feels.
Before she can recover, I spin and thrust my staff into her stomach. I’m about to deliver the final blow when the russet sheets covering the ahéré’s entrance fly open.
Bisi stands in the doorway, her small chest heaving up and down.
“What is it?” Mama asks.
Tears gather in Bisi’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whimpers, “I fell asleep, I—I wasn’t—”
“Spit it out, child!”
“They’re coming!” Bisi finally exclaims. “They’re close, they’re almost here!”
For a moment I can’t breathe. I don’t think anyone can. Fear paralyzes every inch of our beings.
Then the will to survive takes over.
From CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE © 2018 by Tomi Adeyemi. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, a division of Holtzbrink Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership. All rights reserved.
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