When I was a child, I was what you would call a JRR Tolkien fangirl. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I traipsed around the countryside, imagining it was Middle-earth. With just a flight of imagination, I could be snug in the Shire, exploring the mines of Moria, or even flitting through the woods of Lothlórien.
When the first Lord of the Rings movie was finally released, I was 14 and so excited to see it. But immediately, I noticed something distressing: no one on screen looked like me. The darkest characters on screen, the orcs, were all male. Even as a monster, it seemed, there was no place for people who looked like me in Tolkien’s world.
Thankfully, I had my own to work with. I grew up in Sierra Leone, a place I consider the most fantastical in the world. Magic was everywhere I looked. It was in my family’s massive library, where there were so many books that I would make fortresses of them and crawl inside. It was in the ocean just beyond my veranda, where, if I squinted hard enough, I would sometimes see whales breaching. It was in the trees, the people, the land itself. It was always there.
Fantasy was a lifesaver. When I was born, in the late 1980s, Sierra Leone was on the brink of civil war. The country was in chaos; people were suffering and dying. To distract me, my father and grandmother would tell me stories about the magic of Africa, some of them rooted in real history. Mami Wata, the goddess of all waters, slept in the salt marsh beyond our house that fed into the Atlantic ocean. In the Dahomey kingdom (now Benin), an all-female military force called the N’Nonmiton, or Dahomey Amazons, hunted elephants for their king. The Dogon tribe of Mali, our ancestral home, had mapped the stars without telescopes.
When I moved to the US in 1996, war was suddenly no longer a part of my life. But neither was the magic. Instead of goddesses and Amazons, there was now the legacy of slavery, civil rights and racial struggle. I was told that I was a Black person, and that Blackness came with a particular history and set of expectations, most of which I’d never heard of before. I’d only ever been Temne, my tribe in Sierra Leone. How was I supposed to understand this new identity?
Worse, there were no more epics. Growing up, my father had explained to me that epics – especially fantasy epics – are the mythos of a culture: they determine how a people see themselves. But in the US, it seemed Black people weren’t afforded the privilege of crafting our own narrative in the fantastical sense. In every book, every film, every advertisement, Black people struggled. We were poor, we were uneducated, on drugs or the drug dealers. We were baby mamas, gangsters and prisoners. We were perpetual victims or perpetual predators, lurking on the fringes of society.
But this didn’t make any sense to me. I knew my history. Yes, some Black people had been slaves, but others had been queens, kings, adventurers, tricksters, country folk. Yes, there were huts and slave cabins, but there were also castles in Ethiopia, towering walls and streetlights in Benin, libraries in Timbuktu and fortresses in Great Zimbabwe. The richest man to ever exist, Mansa Musa, was African. The N’Nonmiton, the female warriors my father and grandmother had told me tales about when I was young, were African. There was more to Blackness than struggle.
But in every Black book that won a medal, or every Black film that won an Oscar, there was always a Black person struggling against racial oppression. There are consequences to only lauding such portrayals. Perpetually tying the narrative of Black people and Blackness to slavery, colonisation and oppression meant that Black people – Black children especially – were denied the chance to see ourselves as heroes with agency over our worlds. And non-Black people were denied the chance to root for us, only feeling pity and, of course, relief that they were not Black.
This is the reason I became a writer. I wanted to create a fantasy world on par with the ones in my favourite books from childhood: The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. I wanted to put Black and brown people at the forefront of this world; and women, who have so often been pushed to the periphery of fantasy, at the very centre. In the tradition of my favourite Black female authors, such as Toni Morrison, Octavia E Butler and Zora Neale Hurston, I wanted to create spaces where I could hold up Black people, especially Black and brown women, to ensure that they too were seen through the lens of the fantastic, that they too could be fairies, mermaids or creatures of myth.
My debut novel The Gilded Ones is set in Otera, an African-inspired fantasy world. It follows a group of girls who are deemed demons by society because they are Alaki, near-immortal beings who are faster and stronger than regular humans. When actual demons invade, the girls are given a choice: fight them or die.
It is a work of feminism, and it is a work of hope: it is the kind of book I wished I’d had earlier. One that offers a space not only to people who look like me, but to everyone. And as my book is published worldwide, I’m happy to say I don’t need to pretend I’m in Middle-earth any more. While Tolkien’s world allowed me a safe space as a child, it also showed something more important: how to create one of my own. With The Gilded Ones, I think I finally have.