West African Culture Meets Feminist Magic in Debut YA Fantasy

Posted by Sharon on February 1, 2021
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The idea for The Gilded Ones came to author Namina Forna in a dream. The recurring image was one of a young girl in armor walking up a battlefield. It wasn’t until a couple of years later while in grad school that Forna started to bring 16-year-old Deka and the magical world she inhabits to life on the page.
In this world, girls bleed gold instead of red, become trained warriors, and band together to fight back against an oppressive society. As Forna makes clear in a note to her readers, at its heart, the book is an examination of patriarchy: “How does it form? What supports it? How do women survive under it? And what about people who don’t fall into the binary? Who thrives and who doesn’t?” More widely, The Gilded Ones is about sisterhood, identity, and the monsters we face in our daily lives.
Thanks in large part to Forna’s screenwriting background, the novel is cinematic in its scope (when asked if she’d want to see The Gilded Ones turned into a series or film, she responded with an enthusiastic “Of course!”) and draws inspiration from her Sierra Leone upbringing and West African culture. It’s an engrossing fantasy debut filled with diverse and vivid characters that will leave readers both wanting more and motivated to take down the powers that be (or at least to question them). 
Forna spoke to Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about that stunning cover, how her screenwriting background influenced the novel, and why she prefers to write in the middle of the night. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: The release date for The Gilded Ones was pushed back by a year. What’s it been like bringing a book into the world during a pandemic?

Namina Forna: Since this is my debut, I can't really compare, but what I do know is that I'm sad to not be out and about meeting people, specifically fans and people who have read the book. That’s always been my biggest dream when writing books—to have people who read it because they wanted to and not because I cornered them and they were my family, which is what I often do. But otherwise it's been OK; we’re finding that we're able to do stuff on social media, and that's been really good.

GR: I wanted to ask about the cover, which is stunning and, of course, one of the first things readers see. Do you have any say in who’s chosen to create the artwork? What does that process look like?

NF: No, I do not; this is actually the second cover that we tried. The first one wasn't quite what we wanted, but then my editor follows this artist on Instagram called Johnny Tarajosu, who is astounding and amazing, and she was like, "Don't worry about it, he's got it." And I was like OK...and the next thing you know, I see the cover and I fall in love. I think it's the most beautiful cover I've seen. I'm so happy [with it].

GR: Is there an open line of communication then? Are you able to give feedback?

NF: You can to an extent, but not really. I was able to note small things like change this here, this here, but otherwise no, not really.

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GR: On Twitter you mentioned that the book is like if the Dora Milaje from Black Panther were stuck in The Handmaid’s Tale and got fed up, which I think is perfect. How did the premise for the book come about?

NF: Back when I was at Spelman College, I took a lot of women's studies classes because I had a lot of questions about feminism and femininity. Around that time, I started having recurring dreams of this girl who's in golden armor walking slow motion up a battlefield. And I was like, "I don't know what she's about, but she seems awesome."
It took me a couple of years later to finally find the story to fit the girl. I was sitting in class—this time I'm in grad school—and the words just started tumbling from my head, and it was almost like magic. I was shaking, like, "Oh my gosh, I've got it: There's this girl, she can't die, but people want her to die, and she bleeds gold." It was an amazing thing, but it was actually something that had been building in my mind for a long time, I think mainly because I had all of these questions since I've only ever grown up in patriarchal societies—and really, what society isn't patriarchal in this world? I wanted to answer them and take people on a journey to answer these questions in a way that was simple and accessible for everybody.

GR: Did you write it in anticipation of it becoming a series, or did that happen after the fact?

NF: It was always meant to be a series. I sort of had the arc of what all three books would be.

GR: The book is influenced by your West African heritage. What kind of research, if any, did you do for it?

NF: I'm from Sierra Leone, West Africa, born and raised, and came [to the U.S.] when I was nine. And I'm from the Temne tribe. I always had The Gilded Ones world in my head, and in my head I thought that this was a world where a great West African nation had conquered the rest of the world, instead of vice versa. So, what does that look like? When it came down to the nitty gritty, the words and the symbols and all of these things, I didn't want to go to another culture to find those. So I decided to use things from the Temne language, and even certain symbols, because I just felt like that was something that I had more access to, so I went about it from there. [For example], the word alaki is a pretty common word in Sierra Leone, I'm not sure of its origin, and indeed does mean useless.

GR: You also have a background in screenwriting. What was it like switching from writing for films/TV to writing novels, and how does one influence the other?

NF: I've always written novels. In fact, I went to film school because I was like, "Oh, this novel thing isn't working out, so let me find a job that's somewhat tangential." Little did I know that the film industry was like the publishing industry. [Laughs.] But I'm really grateful that I went, because I do think that both things influence each other. For instance, when I'm writing a book, I don't read other books like it; I watch other movies like it. So when I was writing The Gilded Ones, the things that I was referencing mentally were 300 and Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which would explain the tone.

I do think they feed off each other because to me, all stories, and especially the type that I write, because I am definitely probably a fantasy writer, all of my stuff can be changed from one medium to another. I think that's what having film training gives me, is the ability to see how I can switch from here to here to here. If it doesn't work out, then eventually I can write it in another way or in another medium.

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GR: In screenwriting, you’re writing in anticipation of a scene coming to life visually in front of an audience, whereas a novel requires the reader to envision it themselves. What would you say is the key to writing, say, the fighting scenes, which are quite visual but also require some imagination on the readers' part?

NF: Don’t describe all the action! Fight scenes can get very involved, and usually the first instinct is to describe every punch, every kick. I find, however, that focusing on the emotional state of the participating characters really helps move things along. Once you have that, then you can describe in sort of large but vague swaths of action what’s happening. Two or three sentences of what the scene looks like really helps people paint in the details without getting overwhelmed by them.

GR: You mentioned that movies more than books influenced The Gilded Ones, but are there any books you would recommend to readers that are in the same fantasy theme?

NF: Yeah, I would recommend A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown.

I would also recommend All The Stars and Teeth by Adalyn GraceRaybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao, and Given by Nandi Taylor.

And another one that just came out is J. Elle’s book, Wings of Ebony.

GR: What are some books you’re currently reading and loving?

NF: The Black Kids by Christina Haymonds Reed. I also loved Unpregnant by Jenni Hendrix and Ted Caplan, and This Is My America by Kim Johnson. Those are the ones I've been reading and loving.

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GR: Are there any West African authors who might not be on our radar that you think more people should be reading?

NF: Hmm, that’s a difficult question, as I feel like West African authors are stepping into the spotlight right now.

My go-to authors right now are Roseanne Brown (A Song of Wraiths and Ruin), Jordan Ifueko (Raybearer), and Kwame Mbalia (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky).

I’m also really looking forward to Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm

GR: I read that you like to write really early in the morning, I’m always curious as to what people listen to when they write. Do you have a soundtrack, and does that change depending on the story at hand?

NF: Oh yeah, it's called silence. [Laughs.] I love writing when it's like two or three in the morning and there's nobody there, no emails, nobody can reach you because it's so early, and if they're reaching you, something's wrong. That's when I know I'm really in my groove. I forgot who said that the enemy of writing is interruption, and that's so true.

GR: How has the past year been for you writing-wise, and are you currently working on the next book in the Deathless series?

NF: If anybody is able to write during this time, I feel like it's a miracle. Whoever they are, I applaud them. But no, I am absolutely not focused, it is such a struggle writing, let's not even lie! If there is someone out there who is writing and everything is going smoothly, can you give me their number? Because I need to ask them their ways!
But I am working on my rewrites for book two, and I'm very excited about that, so we'll see how it goes. [Laughs.]

GR: What do you hope those reading The Gilded Onesyoung adults or otherwise—take away from the book?

NF: For me, one of the central messages of the book is examining the social structures around you and taking time to understand whether they serve you or not. So many times, people are defined by society, by other people, before they ever get a chance to define themselves. So I hope that people read the book and take the chance to think about who they are and what they want rather than just accept the definitions society gives them.
Also, I really hope people feel empowered after reading!
Namina Forna's The Gilded Ones will be available in the U.S. on February 9. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by David (new)

David Seeto Just read Namina's piece in the Guardian, where she rightly points out how so many of her favourite fantasy novels lack people of colour - The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, etc - and wondered if she'd ever read - and what she thought of - Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels.

message 2: by TMR (new)

TMR Interesting piece.

message 3: by Bill (new)

Bill At first I thought it said West Albanian culture, and my interest was instantly piqued.

message 4: by Anissa (new)

Anissa Great interview! And ever since I saw the cover image last year, it remains the most beautiful I've seen in a very long time.

message 5: by Laska A (new)

Laska A Fascinating interview. Excited to read this!

message 6: by Sarah (new)

Sarah This one is all over booktok - I've only heard great things and I can't wait to read it!

message 7: by bookcaked (new)

bookcaked It sounds so great!! Can’t wait to read!

message 8: by Gabriela (new)

Gabriela I really loved The Gilded Ones! Really enjoyed the interview as well. I have a review of it if anyone is interested - https://youtu.be/n-3-kU21lVY

message 9: by Poet (new)

Poet This is literally my favorite book of the past three years of my life. If there's another book in the series coming soon I'm going to preorder it at the first rumor. Applause!

message 10: by Célia (new)

Célia Cross Amazing book!!!

message 11: by Rhiea (new)

Rhiea This is an amazing book, I really love it!

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