Early in Tomi Adeyemi’s epic fantasy Children of Blood and Bone, her heroine Zelie is manhandled. Adeyemi wanted readers to reflect on real-life events. For example, when a white Texas police officer, responding to a report of a disturbance at a pool party, grabbed a 15-year-old black girl, pinned her under him and repeatedly slammed her face into the ground. A 2015 video of the officer and the girl was widely seen. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.
Adeyemi had a horrifyingly long list of headlines from which to draw. In another scene, a slur is carved into Zelie’s back. And here is how Adeyemi describes the death of a child attacked because he was different:
“’Salim!’ I scream, charging for the sweet boy I spun in my arms. A guard rides toward him on a rabid panthenaire. Salim raises his hands in surrender.
“He has no magic. No weapons. No way to fight.
“The guard doesn’t care.
“His sword slashes down.
“’No!’ I scream, insides aching at the sight. The blade rips straight through Salim’s small body.
“He dies before he even hits the ground.
“His dead eyes chill my blood. My heart. My bones.”
Adeyemi describes the kind of trauma that has brought her to tears. At one point, she told me, she found herself asking “why do anything? I’m just going to get shot. And I would die with the knowledge that the police officer wouldn’t be prosecuted.”
But she did act. She wove her despair, outrage and sense of helplessness into the kind of fiction that has long been seen as the purview of white men writing about Norse gods or bringing tropes of the American West to galactic frontiers. Adeyemi, a Nigerian-American who studied English literature at Harvard and the influence of West African mythology in Brazil, is among those bringing new voices, inspirations and concerns to science fiction and fantasy.
Children of Blood and Bone, published in March as the first of a planned trilogy, is a story of magic and heritage with enough separated siblings and misunderstandings to be a Shakespearean comedy – but it is as deadly and political as one of the bard’s tragedies. Adeyemi has infused it with West African culture as well as with her preoccupation with race relations and police brutality in the United States.
Adeyemi said she had too often seen Americans deny that race is a factor in the violence minorities face. She also has seen protests of that violence misunderstood.
“I don’t know how it’s possible to misconstrue the message when the message is, ‘Please stop killing us,’” she said.
Ayedemi, a fan of fantasy herself, hoped that by transferring events to a fictional world she could reach readers before they made assumptions based on racial attitudes.
“A reasonable human being would recognize that what happened to Zelie is wrong,” she said.
Adeyemi tells an intricate story. Nuanced characters move through a remarkably realized world. A fantasy fan could find escape in Children of Blood and Bone with little regard for subtext, or be nudged toward new understanding.
“I wanted to build empathy with this book,” Adeyemi said. “The power of empathy is really the entire foundation for facing all the problems we have in the world.”
In Children of Blood and Bone, Amari, a reluctant royal with a conscience, is forced into an alliance with Zelie. The two set out knowing little about either one another or the challenge ahead.
“I know you’re scared, girls, but I also know that you can do this,” the elder Mama Agba tells them.
Children of Blood and Bone is a young adult novel with a target audience that includes teen girls who need just such encouragement. And Adeyemi said the wisdom she had Mama Agba speak also keeps her going as a writer tackling tough topics with imagination and passion.
Adeyemi said readers’ reaction to her book has confirmed her faith in the power of literature to help us see the world through others’ eyes.
That “keeps me going moving forward,” she said. “And I hope it keeps others moving forward.”