Interview with Tomi Adeyemi on YA Fantasy Book ‘Children Of Virtue And Vengeance’: Code Switch: NPR
This week, the Code Switch team is sharing conversations with some of our favorite authors about the books we’re starting the decade with. First, editor Leah Donnella talks to Tomi Adeyemi about Children of virtue and vengeance, the second volume of his fantastic YA trilogy.
For a book for young adults, Children of virtue and vengeance is quite heavy. It takes place in fantastic Nigeria and is full of betrayal and loneliness, death and disorder. And, unlike the first volume in the series, this one leaves readers with the feeling that there may not be a happy ending in sight.
The story follows teenage Zélie and her best friend (well, more of an enemy) Amari as they navigate disaster after disaster. Watching these characters sink into endless conflict is exhausting at times. They deal with the destruction of shelters, the death of friends and family, and the realization that loved ones have lied to them. But in the midst of all misfortune and darkness, Children of virtue and vengeance forces its young readers to confront real questions about the world: what distinguishes people from their enemies? Can Friendships Overcome Race and Class Differences? Is the outcome of war ever worth it?
I asked Adeyemi why she chose to get so dark in this sequel and why she trusted her young readers to handle it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity (and, be warned, it does include a few spoilers for the first book.)
Zélie and Amari are both teenagers. And they are very well written as a teenager. They are also both on the cusp of being two of the most powerful people in their community. How did you balance the fact that these are very young people facing huge social issues like starvation, structural racism and war?
I always wrote the story I wanted to write. The youth of today are not immune to anything. They practice shooting exercises at school. They have the Internet. They see Australia on fire. They see that we are on the brink of war with Iran. They know everything. They see everything. They are more educated and globalized than probably any company that came before them.
Now, if all of this education is positive, it’s like a separate discussion. But they face a lot more and they are exposed to a lot more. So there is no need to filter this out of the stories. On the contrary, it makes it even more important to manage these things in a kind of safe setting that they can separate, reflect and discuss, because they are faced with a lot of these things in their real life.
We all live in the same world. And we always have been, but we have this desire, I think, to shelter young people, even if the world as a whole has not sheltered young people. But I think it’s been broken or it breaks more and more every year, because it’s like, I can’t tell you are so innocent and you don’t know the evils of the world and also have you practice shooting practice at school.
Children of blood and bones, the first book in the series, was obviously a very heavy book. But there are also moments of lightness: people who fall in love, deep friendships that are formed, a beautiful relationship between a sister and a brother.
Then Children of virtue and vengeance – it was more difficult reading for me. Friendships are torn apart and people have to make unimaginable decisions. I had a lot more of a feeling that it might not have a happy ending. It might not be resolved.
Volume 2 deals with war.
My whole thing with these books is like, they have to be real.
The first book was real, or at least I tried to make it as real as possible from a personal struggle, which was, you know, black identity, marginalization, and police brutality. Book Two is still real, it’s just not issues that I have experienced, but issues that a lot of people are experiencing around the world. Therefore, I do not become more frivolous.
I think the average American doesn’t feel a real fear of what would happen in a war because we are not used to seeing war unfold in our territory. So we’re not used to seeing the complete erasure and devastation of cities in a matter of moments. I read a lot of firsthand accounts like, what the UK bomb alarm looked like [during World War II]? And it sounded like death. It sounded terrifying.
What was it like running to this refuge? What was it like to fight here? What was it like growing up here? I read a lot of first person testimonials and I’m like, my God, this is dark. And it is awful. And there is no happy ending. I was like, wow, all about war is how many people can I kill? Who can kill the most people the fastest? This is war. It is literally the game. And Zelie and Amari have to learn this lesson, but they also attack people who have already been fighting this war for a long time.
The older I get and the more I learn about the world, the more I say to myself, oh, okay. So it’s not that we don’t know the issues. It’s not that we don’t have the resources to fix them. It is that we have century-old institutions built on the creation of these problems, because they take advantage of them. And even if you work your whole life, your lifespan is not long enough to accumulate enough power and wealth to overthrow institutions that have been around for centuries and have been fortified for centuries.
Both fantasy and science fiction are based on extremely white space and deal with issues of “race”, but in terms of interactions between people and other species, or people and aliens. In this story, almost all of the characters are black, and the conflict is between groups of people, not between different species. What made you decide on this framing?
I started writing when I was very young, around six years old. And in the first story I ever wrote, it was like The Parent Trap fan fiction. So I got myself a twin. And it was on a horse farm because I really wanted a horse, because I read books about these girls on horseback. I had no problem seeing myself in a story. I loved myself enough to do it twice.
But in every story I could find from that age, so around 6 to 18, my protagonists that I would write were all white or biracial. And I never showed anyone my stories. So it wasn’t like I had someone to point out to that said, you can’t have black people in the stories. I had internalized very young that black people could not be in the stories. And it has become, black people cannot be in your imagination. I couldn’t exist in my own imagination.
When I realized I was doing this, I was about 18 years old. That’s when I started a personal assignment from, OK, I’m going to write these stories that I love to write, but with black protagonists, because I obviously have a high self-esteem issues, and I understood them by writing, so I can try to heal them by writing.
As I kept writing these fantasies I started to realize that, hmm, all of these fantastic stories are about oppression, but oppression is as fictional as dragons. So it’s like, oh, what if there is racism and magic? And I’m like, alright, but there is racism.
It’s one thing to be erased, but to be like, no, you’re literally telling our stories without us. And it is real. Like, we don’t have to imagine oppression. It’s real. We don’t have to imagine what it would be like to be a refugee. There are refugees. Fantasy and science fiction, these are all oppressive tales, but largely erase the people in our contemporary society who are actively oppressed. So I’m going to do what fantasy and science fiction have always done. But this time, I’m going to do it from a very personal place. It’s not like, oh, what if there was a giant magical lion and oh, what if the ruling police were abusing a certain part of the population? You know, it’s like, no. It’s real.
How did it feel to finally start rewriting yourself and other black characters in stories?
It was kind of like trying a new exercise for the first time, where it was awkward and awkward. But that’s because I hadn’t done it since I was 6 years old.
I’m 26 now, so I’ve spent eight years writing stories with people who look like me. But I spent twelve years erasing myself from my imagination. So I’m still catching up on my own story.
Writing is all description. You describe everything. You describe what someone looks like, the action, the emotion, the setting. And it was very easy for me to be like, oh, well she had, you know, your pale white skin and long luscious red hair. It’s very easy. It hasn’t always been easy for me to be like, oh, well, she’s got night skin and her hair – OK, what can I use to describe 4C hair knowing that I can’t tell 4C hair? I don’t have many examples of this.
I’m like, OK, I guess it’s kinda like wool. Or maybe it’s like clouds, you know, it was floating on his shoulders like a bunch of clouds. Or maybe he stood tall like a crown. I always joke with people that my life would be so much easier if I could say oh, she was Fenty shade 450. Because you want to get all the shades of brown without using food.
But being obliged to describe myself, and find ways to do it, then find uplifting ways of doing it, was definitely a curative thing for me.