By Adriana Colón AB '12
In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
Tomi Adeyemi AB '15, a Harvardwood 101 alumna, is a Nigerian-American writer and creative writing coach based in San Diego, California. Her debut West African YA Fantasy novel is Children of Blood and Bone (Holt Books for Young Readers/Macmillan). The Children of Blood and Bone movie is in development at Fox 2000/Temple Hill Productions with Karen Rosenfelt and Wyck Godfrey (Twilight, Maze Runner, The Fault In Our Stars) producing!
Q. You share a wealth of information online with aspiring writers about yourself and your process. So I’m curious: do you see yourself as a teacher or as a leader in the community? Does that fuel your writing practice at all?
A. I actually started that blog when I was a junior in college, because I was told having a blog—having a platform—would help me get published. “I’d do anything to help me get published. Getting published is really hard!” Blogging doesn’t help you get published for writing fiction—it’s all about the book, I didn’t know that then—but I was getting a sense of gratification. Knowing that things I had worked hard to learn I was making accessible to other people to understand.
At that time, I was working on my first book, and that whole process from starting from a blank page to being rejected enough to know that book wasn’t going to get me published was three and a half years. It’s really long, looking at the thing over and over again. Whereas with writing a blog post, it’s a lot shorter and it’s something I could check off my list. It was helping me feel that I was moving forward and it was helping other people and that was making me feel good.
When you fast-forward two years: my platform was growing. I was learning that this is something I could do more furiously and this could be a source of income for me if I keep the blog as-is, but create a masterclass for the people who want the nitty-gritty on how to write a book.
I’m a proud Slytherclaw [reference to two houses in Harry Potter, Slytherin and Raven—known for their ambition and intelligence, respectively]. I liked to study people, so when I decided I wanted to do this, I would take an author whose career I’d like to have, and I studied everything about them. And with my blog, you can go back three years and see when I am in my dorm room.
Sometimes you see someone doing what you want and it feels so unattainable, and it's because you don’t get to see everything beforehand. And even the blog is a snippet because I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been able to write. So a lot of people will be, like, “Oh, what happened to her?” Go back—you can look! It doesn’t happen overnight. You can read about how I was rejected, writing the sequel... it takes a lot.
Q. I’m glad that you’ve mentioned that it’s part of your personal journey from starting your blog and figuring out how to get published to finding your own voice, analyzing your own work and the function of writing, and that community engagement kept the gears turning when other things were cooking in the background. You know, I’ll read your Charleston post now and –
A. People said, “You planned this.” I’m not an oracle. What I am is fueled and I had a plan. Always know what’s possible. I know I can do it. That’ the thing: seeing the power.
Whenever I’m talking to aspiring authors or other people, I think it’s important to know: it’s possible. I can do it. And now what seemed impossible is possible. That’s why the blog is still so important to me. I did not have prior connections. All of this was the way thousands of writers try to get published a year. It’s possible.
Q. You seem to be very rooted in your sense of purpose.
A. Ava DuVernay said, “If your dream doesn’t include other people, it’s way too small.” You look at an athlete like Colin Kaepernick, who basically gave up his NFL career to say something to people that shouldn’t need to be said. And it doesn’t even have to be something like that. Purpose is important. There’s not enough to fuel you if you just want fame or to get published. This is my chance to help the world. This is the kids who are going to see themselves and see that they are beautiful and worthy and maybe skip 10 years of self-esteem issues that I went through. I didn’t see dark skin as beautiful; I didn’t see natural hair as beautiful.
Q. I’m a fellow curly, so I’m going to give you a high-five on that.
A. We’re told to keep it straight! To relax it. I remember I was working at a production studio in Hollywood. One day, I thought, “I should just wear my natural hair—I should wear my ‘fro to work. Would that be unprofessional? Is that okay?” And that day, while I’m still pondering whether to do this, this girl walks in with blue hair! Who am I to be questioning whether the way my hair grows out of my head is okay for work, when someone can dye their hair electric blue and not have that question cross their mind. I want as many people as possible to not feel like I did. With the message of the book, it’s to teach empathy. This is how bad it is, how scary it is. If the world had more empathy, we wouldn’t be in half the problems we’re currently in.
Q. I’m glad you brought up your book, because I wanted to ask you about Zélie’s magic. She’s learning to wield her powers, or come to terms with her powers. How does that translate to your life or to the lesson you want readers to learn? Is self-acceptance a big part of the equation?
A. The book is about living in a world that teaches you to hate what makes you beautiful. It isn’t even a metaphor for the Black experience—it is the Black experience. It is the experience of many minorities and marginalized identities.
She is hated not for having magic, but for her capacity to have magic, which I also think is the Black experience. The revolution is happening now with Black Panther and Children of Blood and Bone. This is the first time we’re in people’s faces, like, “Yeah, we’re f*ckin’ awesome.” It wasn’t like that before. It was like, “I’m just trying to live and you see fit to constantly attack us.” I do feel like it’s this untapped magic we have. Now I will whip my locks back and forth.
Q. You’ll be unapologetic.
A. Not even unapologetic! I’ll be in your face. I feel like I’m living through my Lemonade moment. I feel like it’s a whole journey. You start out running away from it, wanting to hide—“I hope no one notices I’m black.” That’s what the world teaches you to do: shrink yourself and fit in so they don’t know that you’re different. We’re finally at the point where what makes you different is incredible. Not just beautiful. It’s awesome.
Jada Pinkett Smith said something during press for Girls Trip: “That Black spirit, that Black energy—we are survivors and we are not only survivors, [but] we have thrived in a situation that should have completely erased us, permanently broken us.” And we’re still being broken across the country. I can’t be on social media without seeing three stories a day about how people like me are being mistreated and being attacked. It’s not over. But it’s having Black Panther, which may be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, in the face of that. It’s having a book like The Hate U Give about a black teen girl, Black Lives Matter, anti-police brutality, and having that be on the bestsellers list for 51 weeks. It’s pushing through that that is the Black spirit.
Q. After Harvard, you actually went to Brazil on a fellowship to study West African Mythology and Culture –
A. I actually went to study their slave trade, so discovering the Orisha was a complete accident. It was fate. I discovered it while I was there.
Q. Wow, that is such a turn to go from the slave trade—that oppression and the economics—to the very storytelling of Black people and their culture. Going even further back—throughout your Harvard experience, what lessons stuck with you from that time?
A. For the positive ones, I got to take exactly two classes on Young Adult Literature: one with Prof. Tatar—Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature—and a junior seminar. Analyzing stories that I loved from a different perspective began opening up the journey for me. I wrote my Junior Seminar paper on gender identity in the Hunger Games. And I turned in a hundred pages of a fantasy book for my final project, and Prof. Tatar said, “Oh, you have to do this!”
The experience that really stuck with me was this *sshole teacher who taught the fiction seminar. I applied for five semesters; he rejected me each time. When I went to his office hours for feedback, he was just pointing out—“Oh, this punctuation mark shouldn’t be there and this shouldn’t be in all caps…”—all this surface-level bullsh*t. And I recognized that in the moment and said, “Thank you for your feedback. Do you have anything related to the content?” “Oh well, if you’re already making mistakes like this, I can’t teach you how to write.” That fueled me. “I will show you. You’re damn right you can’t teach me how to write.” Even then I didn’t know I would be a writer, but I knew I would prove him wrong in a big way.
Q. Those can be such formative experiences for a young mind, having to see through the reasons he was giving you.
A. I was talking to a teacher, and she said, “I’m so happy you had that response and not the response you’d expect someone to have in that situation.” “Nah, I’m a vindictive person. You f*ck with me, I will get you back. I don’t care if it takes five years.”
Q. You said that back then, you didn’t know you wanted to be a writer?
A. I didn’t. I did Expressions Dance Company. I was on the business board of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. That’s what I did. I was always writing on my own, but I never shared what I wrote. In junior year, I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, that had to change. I’d say at that point, less than five people knew I wrote.
Q. What motivated you to write during the shy years?
A. It’s just been in me. It was for fun, but it was a very specific thing for fun. Would I still write if no one ever saw? Of course; that’s been most of my life. With creative things, people will try and say, “It’s time to grow up. It’s time to not do this anymore.” You can’t push it away from you. You can’t stop it. You can take a break for a year or two years, maybe five—but it’s a part of you and you can’t exist that long without doing it.
Q. And that ties back into what you were saying about knowing what’s possible. For those people, they think—“It’s not possible, I have to put it away”— when instead, they could be embracing that and making it into their life purpose or their mission.
A. I agree. One of my favorite things is when I meet teen readers who say, “I want to be an author.” I am like, “You are so f*ckin’ awesome. You are brave.” I’m 24. I ran away from this for at least 21 years. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning things and training for it, but I wouldn’t have uttered that because if you don’t say it out loud, you don’t have to disappoint yourself when you don’t achieve it. I started going crazy with my writing and trying to get published after college because I was really unhappy with what I was doing during the day. So then I would spend six hours after work writing.
I eventually had to say, “You know what? You aren’t doing this because you want to publish a book one day. You’re doing this because you secretly want to be doing this all the time.” And once you acknowledge it, you can’t go backwards—which means you have to take action. It looks like things moved quickly for me, but I’ve been writing my whole life. I also learned everything I needed to know through my first book. I thought my first book was a failure at the time because I’d spent three and a half years on it and I had nothing concrete to show for it. But once I started making moves to do what I wanted to do, everything was so much faster. Because I knew how to write a story now. I knew how publishing works. I knew why my first book didn’t work, because I’d actually put it out there but I’d gotten some feedback. Feedback that was easy for me to apply to my next story.