Tomi Adeyemi is the 24-year-old author of a new young adult novel that — in terms of pop culture blockbusters — could be on par with The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.
Adeyemi told Nerdette that part of her motivation to write the book — the first in a West African-inspired fantasy series — stemmed from racist reactions to The Hunger Games movies.
“There were people online being like, ‘Why’d they make Rue and Cinna black? Why’d they make all the good characters black? It wasn’t sad when Rue was speared to death because she was black,’” Adeyemi said.
“Seeing that level of racism applied in a fictional world heightened it for me. Because yes, The Hunger Games isn’t real, but the fact that someone could feel that strongly and have that much hatred for something that isn’t even real? I’m like, if that’s what you feel for fake things, then what do you feel about me?”
Adeyemi spoke with Nerdette host Greta Johnsen (and special guest-host Jenn White from Making Obama!) about how she came to write a fantasy novel that simultaneously depicted the modern black experience.
Hear this episode of Nerdette by clicking the “play” button above or by subscribing on Apple Podcasts (or wherever you get your podcasts).
How her book was shaped by high-profile cases of police brutality
Tomi Adeyemi: No black person will be like, “Oh, racism ended.” No one ever thought it was that far, but I think we were, or at least a portion of us was, under the belief that things like lynchings — that same terror of “because you are black, you are going to die” — I think we thought we were past that. We still have a lot of things — mass incarceration, wage inequality — we knew we had a lot of problems, but I know I didn’t think I could die for the color of my skin anymore. At least not here. Or at least not by police officers.
It started for me when I was a freshman in college with the Trayvon Martin case. That was a big awakening, but that case was still a civilian. And in the back of our heads, we still knew some kind of crazy civilian could act out like that. But then it started becoming police officers, and then six months after that it started becoming, “Oh, also, the police officers who are doing these things are getting paid leave and they’re not being found guilty.” So then it was like, “Oh, this is as systematic as it was 30, 50 years ago.”
So I think that was hard for a lot of people. It was really hard for me. And I was kind of in this dark place. Like I felt, “Why are we doing anything? Why am I going to do anything if I could wake up any day and find out that my dad or my brother is the next hashtag?” And then it happened to Sandra Bland, and I’m like, “Cool, so me and my mother and my sister, no one is safe.” No one is safe. And I was like, “Why are we doing anything at all if this is how it ends or how it could end?”
And I really wanted to — I guess I didn’t want to — I needed to work through that. Because it’s a very dark place to be in and a really bad place to be living in. And this book became an avenue for that.
Why it took Adeyemi so long to admit she wanted to write for a living
Adeyemi: I think this is a thing that humans just tend to do. You see what you want and you don’t want to say that out loud. Because once you say that out loud, either A) You have to go for it and that’s really scary, or B) You have to live your life knowing you’re not going for it, which is really kind of soul-crushing.
So as long as you lie about it — if you’re like, “Oh, you don’t know what you want” or “actually, you want this thing that you know you can attain, which you know is safe and stable” — then you’re like, “Oh, you’re doing good. You’re happy. You’re fulfilled.”
But sooner or later the truth comes out. And you have to decide: “Am I going to ignore it? Or am I just going to go for it?”
Homework: See Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time
Adeyemi: If you’ve already seen Black Panther and you’ve already seen it twice, go see A Wrinkle In Time. Go see both of them. And pay for both of them. Because then we can get more.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.