#ALAMW19 Recap: Interviewing Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone, 2019 Morris Award Finalist

Tomi Adeyemi is a finalist for the 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award for her absorbing novel Children of Blood and Bone, published by Henry Holt Books, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

In Children of Blood and Bone, magic once ran in the bloodlines of the people of Orïsha. Diviners, children born with white hair, were destined to become maji in their teenage years, when they would develop abilities to control natural forces such as fire, water, and even life and death. These maji were an influential part of monarchy until King Saran eradicated magic through the slaughter of all adult maji. Those remaining–the diviner children and those of their bloodline–were subjugated under restrictive laws and made to suffer. Now seventeen, diviner Zélie remembers the night her mother was taken, and though she dreams of revenge and revolution, without magic her people are powerless. Then she meets runaway princess Amari, who fled King Saran with an ancient relic that she claims can restore magic. As they embark on a dangerous quest to unlock the relic’s potential, Amari’s conflicted brother Inan pursues them with his father’s soldiers.

Congratulations on your first novel being accepted as a finalist for the William C. Morris award for debut novel! I loved it and I’m eagerly waiting for the sequel. How did you first hear the news?

My publisher emailed me! I was thrilled and grateful to be included among such an amazing class of authors!

You’re also a creative writing coach. How did you get into that line of work, and what about it is most rewarding for you? Do you find helping others with their writing also helps your own?

It started by accident! I started a writing blog my senior year of college because someone told me it would help me get published (I didn’t know at the time that they were talking about non-fiction publishing)! But as I continued doing post I found that synthesizing what I learned about writing was not only helpful to me, but it was extremely rewarding to see how it helped others. Over the past few years I’ve continued to grow on my website, and while writing CBB and CVV has made it harder, I still enjoy helping others find and create their stories. It’s the best feeling in the world to meet my students at signings or get messages from them and learn how my classes have helped them finish their first book or get an agent or even get a publishing deal!

I’ve read that the setting of this book was heavily inspired by your research into West African culture and mythology. What was most challenging in adapting this culture to a fantasy setting?

The biggest challenge was weaving the reality and the fantasy together in a way that still honors the yoruba tradition and the various religions in a way that celebrates the orisha. However, it was also one of the most rewarding aspects because I also got to weave the reality of my Nigerian heritage into the world and make it the foundation that the story rests on. The kingdom is obviously named after the keisha, but seas and mountain ranges are named after my late grandparents. The characters wear dashikis, geles, and headdresses as they eat jollof rice and fried plantain. That was really gratifying for me because I got to make magic out of the wonderful culture I was born into.

What were some other important inspirations for this novel?

One very important inspiration was the real life problems that black people are facing all around the world. Every obstacle my characters face throughout the story—big or small—is tied to a real obstacle that black people are facing today, or have faced within the past 30-50 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. I think the world can move forward in a significant way if people learn to understand and empathize with that pain and those struggles.

You have three major viewpoint characters: Zélie, one of the oppressed maji; and Amari and her brother, Inan, the children of the king who drives this oppression. Each brings a valuable perspective to this story about the cycle of subjugation and violence. Will you speak a little about each character and what they represent?

As you noted, Zélie is giving a perspective from the point of view of the oppressed. She’s been a victim to the repeated tragedies her government has inflicted on her people, as she is trying to fight that, but she is also dealing with some very real PTSD and fear because of that.

Amari and Inan are the opposite and are both trying to be allies in their own way, but the difference is Amari has never been expected to make great change and has never expected it of herself. On the other hand, Inan has been carrying to weight of being Orïsha’s future king from the day he was born. Both of them are explorations of power and ally-ship.

Zélie learns to use and embrace powerful magic, yet she is still vulnerable and afraid. I’m thinking of one particular scene halfway through the book where she realizes that the cruelty she’s endured is something she will always carry. Was it important to you that Zélie have this realization and choose to continue to fight?

Yes, because that is the most real part of this book. I wrote that passage as a diary entry after the killings of Philando Castile and Eric Garner. That soul-crushing fear is very real and experienced regularly by marginalized identities all over the world. Climbing out of that, fighting through that, is one of the toughest challenges and I wanted to illustrate that through Zélie.

Amari and Tzain and Zélie and Inan both become tentative couples on their journey, with different results. The relationships spark a lot of tension between the two sets of siblings. Why did you choose to include the two romances and the contrast between them?  

I always joke that I’m a romance author masquerading as a fantasy author. Romances are the very first parts of a book that come to me, and they are the most fun and satisfying to write! As for the contrast – I think those are inherent as all four characters are very different and therefore they express love and romance differently. It gives me the unique ability to highlight both healthy and unhealthy aspects between both relationships.

As a white reviewer, I can’t claim to fully understand what the representation in your novel means to black readers, but when I read your blog post “Why I Write” I was struck by your determination back in 2015 to write a YA novel that would make people fall in love regardless of their personal experiences, to create empathy. Now that your debut is out in the world, what do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope first and foremost, every reader has an adventure! This story is about a lot of real things, but it’s a story first and the best compliment I can get is someone telling me how they disappeared into this world for a few days and had hard time climbing out.

For readers like me who have never seen themselves in these stories, I hope it shows them that they are worthy of the epic adventure and their melanin makes them magical.

For readers who are used to seeing themselves, I’m excited to introduce them to a whole new cast and world that has the potential to teach them about the deeper emotional realities of the black experience.

The next book in the Legacy of Orïsha series, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, comes out in June, and I can’t wait. Any hints you can give to your fans about what to expect?

All I’ll say is that I’m really excited for this story so I think the readers will be, too! It has the adventure and passion and characters you fell in love with in Book 1, but now we get to dive deeper into the magical kingdom of Orïsha and add some new members to the squad!

⏤Krista Hutley, currently reading Exit Strategy (Murderbot Diaries #4) by Martha Wells