Welcome to The Black Experience, a month long blog series through February, in honour of Black History Month, which features Black bloggers, booktubers and authors. This project aims at highlighting Black stories and experiences both in real life and in publishing, as well as showing our individual and collective struggles.
In today’s post, I will be interviewing six debut authors. They include Celeste Harte, Namina Forna, Roseanne A. Brown, Faridah Àbíké Íyímídé, Ronni Davis & Reni K. Amayo.
Q: Hello everyone! Thank you all for taking the time to chat with me today. First, I’d like to congratulate you all on your releases. Can you briefly tell me about books?
Celeste: CONQUEST is about a girl named Jashi that finds herself in an arranged marriage to the Faresh of her country that she wants no part of, so to escape her engagement, she sides with her intended’s enemies when they offer her a way out. But as she gets to know him, she starts to wonder if she’s put her loyalties in the right place. Especially once she discovers he’s the only other person in the world that knows about abilities she’s kept secret her whole life. And can teach her how to use them.
Namina: My book is called THE GILDED ONES. It’s set in a world where every 16 year old girl must go through a ritual to determine whether they are “pure.” Red blood is pure, gold is not. When 16-year-old Deka is found to be impure, she’s given a choice: Die in the village temple, or fight the monsters invading her country. Deka chooses to fight, and embarks on a journey that threatens to upend everything she knows and loves.
Roseanne: Thank you so much for having me! My debut YA Fantasy novel A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN will be out on June 2 with Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. Set in a world inspired primarily by the Trans-Saharan Trade region, it follows a young refugee who enters a competition to marry the princess he must kill in order to save his younger sister, not knowing that the princess is planning to sacrifice the winner of the competition in order to resurrect her dead mother. Or the much shorter pitch, What if Aladdin and Jasmine had to kill each other? ASOWAR is basically like that, but with even more swords and magic!
Faridah: Hi thank you for having me! My book ‘Ace of Spades’ is essentially Get Out meets Gossip Girl (but gayer). On the surface it is very much a fun story about high school – at first anyway – but underneath it all It’s about systemic power, race, class and whiteness as well as blackness.
Ronni: My book is WHEN THE STARS LEAD TO YOU, a story about Devon Kearney, an aspiring astrophysicist and hopeless romantic. She’d spent an amazing summer with the most amazing boy, and was devastated when he ghosted her. A year later, while Devon is preparing for an epic senior year at her exclusive private school, guess who shows up?
Reni: Thank you! Well, Daughters of Nri is a fantasy novel set in ancient Nigeria, specifically in igboland in the Kingdom of Nri (a very real and fascinating kingdom). It centres two girls – twins, separated at birth, goddesses who have no clue about their powers. After a gruesome war leaves the world without gods and magic, power is centred on the opportunistic Eze Ochichiri. Rumours start to swell about the king’s growing cruelty and the two girls are thrust on a path of self discovery as they embark on a journey that leads them back to one another.
Q: You all have really amazing books coming out or already out. Can you tell me tell me why you decided to write these books?
Celeste: Haha, the only other book I have coming out at the moment is the sequel in the DRAGON BONES series, which is tentatively called Rising.
Namina: I first came up with the idea for THE GILDED ONES in undergrad. I was going to Spelman college, and I was filled with anger and questioning things about what it meant to be a woman in a patriarchal world. What was my place? How would I carve out space? THE GILDED ONES is the result.
Roseanne: So I’m a huge sucker for huge, epic fantasies the bigger, the better. But almost every fantasy I loved to read took place in a European based society which I could not relate to as a Ghanaian immigrant. ASOWAR grew from that desire to tell a story on an epic scale using faces and cultures more along the lines of what I grew up with.
Faridah: So I study Anthropology at University and Anthropology is the study of society. I am very fascinated by it and love reading material that critiques it directly. I believe all literature is political, we don’t write inside a vacuum and so politics and society always influences aspects of our works. So other than my love of analysing society and the people in it, I love puzzles and allegory. I read Animal Farm by George Orwell years ago and was so amazed at how he was able to create a story that seemed like something else on the surface but really was directly about politics. The last thing that influenced me was my move to Scotland. I grew up in a really black area in London, and moving to the north of Scotland was not only a culture shock but taught me what it is like to be suffocated by whiteness. I remember one day on campus I was walking and everyone just stopped and stared at me. I wondered… are they talking about me? Why is that? Are they planning on murdering me? A bit dramatic but I’m an anxious ball of a human. That experience really inspired the emotions and paranoia my characters have throughout the book.
Ronni: I wanted to write a book about a biracial/Black girl falling in love. I’m a sucker for love stories and romances and I only recently am I seeing more of it for girls of color, but especially Black girls. In addition, I wanted to have a conversation about mental illness, which plays heavily in this book as well.
Reni: Love and boredom. I love writing, I always have. I remember one time in primary school when we were given an assignment over the Christmas holidays to write a story about Ebenezer Scrooge, and I ended up spending my entire break penning down a 20 page nonsensical novella, which my teacher ticked blindly through before giving me a gold star (no doubt for effort, even back then I knew she couldn’t possibly have read it). As I grew older, so did my love for stories. I spent countless hours dreaming up new stories and scenarios. Soon enough, I grew up and landed myself a decent job alongside a pile of stress, boredom and pressure. Not a lot of fun. So I ended up turning to what I loved – writing! Luckily, I had a story in my head that I really wanted to read, I wanted to read it so badly that I eventually started to jot it down, and 5 years later it became a reality.
Q: Namina and Roseanne, your books have been part of my most anticipated books of this year since they got announced. Mostly because they are West African inspired (yes, I admit to my bias) and also HAVE YOU SEEN THOSE COVERS?!
I’m quite curious, West African lore is rich and diverse, but why did you base your books on lore from this region? And what tribes lore do you think is most the magic system of your stories?
Namina: I was born and raised in Sierra Leone, and I’m a daughter of the Temne tribe. When I started writing TGO, I was reminded of all the stories my father had told me about the history and culture of our tribe, so I decided to use a little sprinkle of it to build the world. The magic systems, not so much, but the philosophy behind it is very Temne.
Roseanne: So I was actually born in Kumasi, Ghana, and I immigrated to the US when I was very young. My parents thought it very important that I never lost my heritage, so I grew up speaking Twi and immsersed in Ghanaian arts and stories, chief among these the Anansi stories. I always felt like the old legends of folktales or West Africa let themselves so well to epi fantasy–after all, the old stories were already full of enough action, trickery, heartbreak, and warfare to make Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme! Thus when I was designing the ASOWAR world, I intentionally made it feel like a place where any of the old folktales might take place rather than a direct copy of any one African culture today. Sonande, the continent where ASOWAR takes place, is by and of stories in every sense of the word.
As for tribes lore, I drew a lot from Akan lore, my mothers people, in designing the magic system. In ASOWAR, the day of the week you’re born decides what kind of magic you have, similar to how many Akan people have a special name for the day of the week they’re born.
Q: Reni, your book The Daughters Of Nri, while also being a West African inspired story is based on your culture. What parts of The Daughters of Nri did you enjoy writing the most?
Reni: I loved creating the world because it allowed me to dig into my culture and my ancestry in a way that I had never done before. I quizzed my parents about traditional clothes, festivals, plants, day-to-day activities and it resulted in so many beautiful stories and tales about my great great grandparents who had lived such amazing and colourful lives. Marrying that information with my imagination was so fun, leaning on the ancient mythology to create new magical plants, light systems and creatures was by far the best thing about writing this book.
Q: Multiple themes can be seen in books, readers usually have those that stand out for them, I believe that authors also have some that are important to them too? What themes can be found in your books? And which of these themes is/are important to you?
Celeste: I think arranged marriage is a theme in mine, so is enemies-to-lovers, and rediscovering a love for your own identity or culture, and the last one is the most important to me, as I feel like it’s very important for this day and time to be comfortable with who you are and not apologizing for it.
Namina: I would say the most important theme of this book is claiming yourself as an individual. People can define you in so many ways, and if you live in an extremely patriarchal culture, there’s an added layer of harshness to this definition. The whole point of TGO is you get to define yourself, figure out who you want to be, rather than who people tell you you are.
Also, it’s ok to fight, to make yourself heard.
Roseanne: I’m not sure if this counts as a theme per say, but I am very passionate about stories that puts Black folks front and center as not just sidekicks or untouchable legends but as real, visceral, womderfully dynamic people. Another theme that comes to mind is the stigma of mental illness in the Black community. I drew from my own experience with anxiety to write my main character Malik’s panic attacks and mental health episodes, and I wanted to show how cultural ignorance of the importance of mental health can often makes things worse for those of us living with MIs. And dismantling the stereotypes and dehumanizing depictions of Black girls is always my priority. My main character Karina is many things, and she intentionally defies stereotypes. Also I think depicting Black romance is so important, hence why the relationship between Karina and Malik is front and center (even if neither is willing to admit it!)
Faridah: So some themes in my book… poverty and how race influences that, queerness intersecting with blackness and loneliness. I have loads more themes but these really stand out to me, particularly the last one. I think loneliness is so interesting to explore. Both my characters are very lonely people. Chiamaka has spent her life in all-white communities, feeling like a zoo animal, having to make herself into an acceptable type of black person etc. Then there’s her physical loneliness, her friends are all awful but she keeps them around to stay popular, her parents are always working and she generally doesn’t like herself very much. Devon on the other hand seemingly feels lonelier than Chiamaka in the book because he relies a lot on the presence of others or affection from people to feel whole, but really I think Chiamaka is much lonelier.
Ronni: In my book, the love interest, Ashton, has severe depression and suicidal ideation. He believes he is utterly unlovable. And on that same note, in media, Black women and girls are often treated as unlovable. There is no reason why a Black girl can’t be loved fiercely in our books and on our screens. I really wanted to show both of these characters, who are either feeling unloved or often portrayed as unloved, being loved deeply.
Reni: Themes are a huge thing for me and it’s one of the reasons why I chose to make Daughters of Nri a series rather than a stand alone method. I wanted the first book to introduce the readers to the world and the broader themes, but I knew that the following books will take them on an epic journey as these themes flourished into something beyond their imaginations.
A principal theme in the book is power and control. I really wanted to explore what power does to people and societies, and how we as people grasp unto these concepts, usually at our detriment. The world of Nri is actually thrown into disarray because power has been stolen from the gods and transferred to the people. I also explore the power dynamics between women and men and how imbalances in power can result in a broken society.
Another major theme in the book is nature vs. synthetic systems. This comes to play in the two locations in the book: the cold, beautiful and decadent palace of Nri, which is full of wonders but also suffocating and ultimately limits the characters ability to grow, and the warm and wild Furuefu forest, which encourages deep connections and allows characters to flourish. This theme also feeds into the magic system. The natural god-given magic that derives from the black realm, which is abundant and tied closely to love (sidenote: I specifically used black to signify power in Nri, I’m so tired of black and darkness being associated with evil so I’ve tried to step out of that for the book). Conversely, the artificial magic, ọbara (blood) magic, is powerful but detrimental and tied to death.
I could go on and on…but I think I’ll let you read the book!
Q: Books generally have highs and lows, what parts of your books did you find hardest to write?
Celeste: Definitely the middle. It’s always hard making sure you got your pacing right and there was so much character development that had to happen for Jashi that it was a challenge balancing her journey with the development of the plot at the same time.
Namina: TGO, at its heart, is a book about trauma. Specifically, female trauma. What does it mean to be a woman, to be seen as an object and treated accordingly? It was always hardest and most gut-wrenching for me whenever I wrote scenes where characters dealt with the aftereffects of this. I would to take a couple of hours or so to recover and process, because man, those scenes can be brutal.
Roseanne: This ties into my last answer, but Malik’s panic attacks were definitely the hardest scenes because they required accessing a very vulnerable headspace for me. Sometimes I’d write a few sentences and put the work away for hours in order to process. but I’m very proud of how they came out, and I hope readers who share this experience can see themselves in it!
Faridah: I found it really hard to write a certain scene I can’t speak about without spoiling the big twist in the plot. What I can say is, that scene was emotionally draining, both because I had been trying to make everything leading up to it perfect so it could pack a real punch, but also because it is a sad scene, and what’s even sadder about it is while this book is fiction it is very much a mirror. Everything that happens, the awful parts especially, happen in real life to Black people all over.
Ronni: There were a few scenes that were hard for me to write. One is a spoiler so I won’t go into it, but also, the ending was hard because I wanted it to end a different way!
Reni: Chapter 43: The Nzuzo Gardens. One of the first scenes that I imagined whilst conceptualising the book and so there was a lot of build up to that point. It still breaks my heart just thinking about it.
Q: This may very well be my brand but, if you could pitch your book in seven words, what would they be?
Celeste: Black King and Queen rediscover dragon-riding.
Namina: Black girls kicking ass and taking names.
Roseanne: Oh snap, this is hard! “Like Aladdin but with more deadly stabbing”!
Faridah: Messy black kids fighting the white patriarchy.
Ronni: Romantic stargazer makes tough choices about love.
Reni: Escape into a world created for black women.
MORE ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Celeste Harte is a Black American fantasy and sci-fi writer living abroad in Spain. She loves learning languages, and speaks Spanish, French, and is currently learning Korean. When she’s not buried in her own fantasy worlds, she’s either dancing, studying another language, or making homemade candies!
Namina Forna has a MFA in film and TV production from USC School of Cinematic Arts and a BA from Spelman College. She now works as a screenwriter in LA and loves telling stories with fierce female leads. THE GILDED ONES is her debut novel.
Roseanne “Rosie” A. Brown was born in Kumasi, Ghana and immigrated to the wild jungles of central Maryland as a child. Writing was her first love, and she knew from a young age that she wanted to use the power of writing—creative and otherwise—to connect the different cultures she called home. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and was also a teaching assistant for the school’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her journalistic work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets.
On the publishing side of things, she has worked as an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing. Rosie was a 2017 Pitch Wars mentee and 2018 Pitch Wars mentor. Never content to stay in any one place for too long, Rosie currently teaches in Japan, where in her free time she can usually be found exploring the local mountains, explaining memes to her students, or thinking about Star Wars.
Rosie is represented by Quressa Robinson of Nelson Literary Agency.
Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé is a writer from south London who has dreamt of writing books about black kids saving (or destroying) the world all her life. She is an avid tea drinker, and a lover of thrillers and mystery’s. She currently studies English, Chinese and Anthropology in the Scottish Highlands.
Her debut novel ACE OF SPADES will be published by Usborne in the UK (2021) with a second untitled novel – also published by Usborne – to follow.
Ronni Davis lives in Chicago with her husband Adam and her son Aidan. By day she copy edits everything from TV commercials to billboards, and by night she writes contemporary teen novels about brown girls falling in love.
Her debut novel, WHEN THE STARS LEAD TO YOU, is available now from Little Brown Books for Young Readers, and the anthology YOU TOO?, in which she is a contributor, is available now from Inkyard Press.
Reni K Amayo is a British Nigerian author and co-founder of Onwe Press, an independent publishing company focused on highlighting unique stories from diverse voices. Reni was born and raised in London to two Nigerian immigrant parents. She has spent many years studying the intricacies of different African and specifically Nigerian, cultures, mythology & anthropology to unearth a rich history that has been obscured and forgotten across the globe. Reni’s debut novel Daughters of Nri is set in ancient Igbo land and follows two twin goddesses who have been separated at birth on their epic journey of self discovery as they embark on a path back to one another.
Also its Celeste Harte’s book, Conquest, release date, and she holding a giveaway on her twitter. To win a copy of Conquest + another YA book, follow this link HERE