Namina Forna is breaking into the Young Adult Fantasy world in an explosive way! Her debut novel, The Gilded Ones, will be released on February 9 and has already been compared to The Children of Blood and Bone and Black Panther.
In The Gilded Ones we meet Deka, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. On the day of the ceremony, Deka's greatest fear becomes real -- and she knows she will face a consequence worse than death. Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she's ever known. As she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be--not even Deka herself.
I had the pleasure of being gifted an advanced copy of The Gilded Ones, and not only that, Namina was gracious enough to answer some questions for me! After reading both...I have only two words. One for The Gilded Ones - phenomenal, and one for Namina - thoughtful.
Reading Deka and the other girls' stories was such a cathartic experience for me that I had to take several breaks while reading. In her debut novel Namina examine the ills of patriarchy and we see that even though these girls are so young, only in their teen years, they've had such strugglesome lives. At times the story gets quite gruesome as Namina uses physical acts of violence as a metaphor for how brutal and depraved patriarchal ideology can become. The saving grace for these girls, and one of the most important themes in story, is sisterhood -- the love between sisters. I highly recommend this book for any woman on earth from the age of 16 and up! I feel it is that impactful. Namina not only is able to tap into our deepest emotions, she also does an amazing job of describing these fantastical creatures and epic battles and rich cultures that fantasy readers will not be disappointed!
I sent several questions to Namina, and her responses left me just as blown away as her book did. Namina is a gem in every sense of the word, and the one take away from her responses is how truly thoughtful she is. I am now a huge fan of Namina Forna and I can't wait to see what she births into the world next. In our interview we discuss several topics from the "angry Black woman" stereotype, advice for parents as well as other young Black creatives, and even some further reading for our young Black men on the subject of patriarchy. Enjoy!
Hello Namina! You were born in Sierra Leone (a country in western Africa) and moved to Georgia, in the United States, at 9 years of age. What are some differences you've noticed between the youth culture in Sierra Leone / western Africa compared to the youth culture in the United States?
- I think the biggest difference is that American youth culture is much more screen based while Sierra Leone’s is not as much. In Sierra Leone, teens don’t have as much reliable access to technology so you’ll see more of them out and about than in America, where teens spend a lot of time indoors and online, watching YouTube, etc.
- The one commonality is that both cultures love social media, though.
I have to be honest and say that while I absolutely love watching science fiction and fantasy, I rarely read it. But I'm so happy that I went outside my norm and read The Gilded Ones! This book completely wrecked me -- in the most beautiful, best possible way! I, myself, had to take several breaks while reading it because I was so overcome with emotion. I can't even imagine how it must have felt writing it. At times the book felt very angry, very charged and in the book that type of display of emotions from women went against the teachings of Deka's (the main character) culture. What would you say to young girls about the "b word" stereotype, particularly the "angry Black woman" stereotype?
- I have several feelings about this. The first is that I truly believe that anger is a positive emotion. It tells you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. The problem with anger is when it’s misdirected or expressed wrongly, but that’s a whole other conversation.
- Girls are often taught that just feeling anger is a problem, so we grow up sublimating the emotion until it turns to a more acceptable manifestation like—sadness or depression. As they say, depression is anger turned inwards. My hope is that girls learn to listen to their anger, and to treasure it, because it is a protective emotion.
- As far as the “b word” stereotype, to me, that’s one of the ways that patriarchal systems traps girls. Any time a girl does anything that goes against the acceptable “norm,” she’s called that word as punishment. That’s why I only use the word a few times in the book, to show the insidiousness of the word.
- Finally, the “angry black woman” stereotype is similar to the “b word” in that it’s another trap, except one with profoundly racist implications. To be an angry black woman is to be a loud, aggressive and unfeminine person, and, ironically, you don’t have to have any of these characteristics to be labeled an angry black woman. All you have to do is be black, female, and exist, and you will be seen as this. I know this from personal experience.
- The angry black woman stereotype is a way of keeping black women in our place, of keeping us from reaching for anything, because the excuse can always be that we were angry and that’s why we didn’t get the thing we set out for.
- I especially hate this stereotype because I want to claim my anger as a woman, but I can’t fully do so because I’ll be an “angry black woman.” There’s really no way to win here.
What is a book(s) that you would suggest to young Black men to help them learn more about patriarchy and how it's affected Black women?
- Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson, and Sula and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
In the book sisterhood, sisterly love, platonic love is one of the most important themes. It's talked about in the book as perhaps being more important than romantic love. For you, how important have those types of relationships been?
- Monumentally important. I have a wonderful group of female friends, and they’re the ones who kept me going through thick and thin, when I wasn’t sure I’d ever even get the chance to sell a book. They’re the ones who always told me to continue. I think for women, our female friendships are the backbone our lives rest on, and that’s why I wanted to acknowledge that in this book.
In previous interviews you've spoken about how while your parents are supportive now, in the beginnings of your career they weren't quite as supportive and that there was a time when you even had to distance yourself from your family in order to be able to persevere with what you truly believed in. I'm a parent, and as a children's bookstore owner, much of my audience are parents. What is some advice that you would give us in terms of supporting our little ones in their endeavors?
- I would say 1) truly listen to your children when they tell you what they want 2) learn not to live in fear, and 3) accept that your children’s lives are theirs, not yours.
- I think my parents were hard on me about my career choice because not only did they not understand it, they couldn’t guide me through it in the way they could other jobs. My parents knew no one in publishing, didn’t even understand the industry, and knew, just from looking from the outside that this was an industry that would not be friendly to me as a young black woman. So they tried to dissuade me based on their (very real) fears for me. But if I’d gone down the path they’d chosen, I would have been miserable and would have resented them forever.
- To parents, I say, move past your fear. What’s more important, ensuring your child does the safe thing, or ensuring that they at least try towards their passion? When you start feeling uncomfortable, remember it’s not your life, it’s theirs and they need to try while they’re young. They can always course correct later. People change careers all the time.
I've also heard you speak about your goal of wanting to create an entire fantasy world. I am now a huge fan of yours and I can't wait to see what's next in this world that you've introduced us all to. What is some advice that you could give to young Black creatives also looking to make a career in the fantasy genre?
- Read everything you can. In order to be a writer, you first have to be a reader. Understand the conventions of the genre, watch all the film and TV shows. Consume everything. Then, when you’ve done that, dissect everything. I find things like TVTropes.com, or The Take on YouTube or Ending Explained particularly useful, because they allow me to think about stories in a different light.
- Once you’ve done all that, and you’re read all the books on writing like Save The Cat, join writing Twitter and follow hashtags like #amwriting or #amediting, try to get into competitions like #pitmad, and make friends along the way. Remember, you’re only as good as your critique partners.
Forgive me if this is a cheesy question to ask a film school graduate, but what's your favorite movie(s)?
- Attack the Block. No question about it.