When Tomi Adeyemi finally received a copy of her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, in the mail she could not stop sobbing. "It's really beautiful," she wept as she turned the pages. "It's real."
We know the awe and disbelief on her face because she took a video of the moment and shared it on Twitter, where it quickly went viral, prompting writer Stephen King to sum up the general sentiment with the post: "How terrific is this???"
And it does all seem pretty terrific for Adeyemi right now. The 24-year-old sold her fantasy trilogy, Legacy of Orisha, to publishers for a rumoured seven figures, one of the biggest deals in young-adult fiction history ("We paid a spectacular advance for a spectacular novel unlike anything we've read," her editor, Tiffany Liao, told Vulture). Less than a week later, Fox 2000 acquired the film rights to the series for a sum that was reportedly similar. The producers behind blockbuster hits such as Twilight, Maze Runner and The Fault In Our Stars have backed the film, and the transformation from novel to script is already under way.
"On a lifestyle level I can get more Thai food now, but otherwise I am a low-key person so I would say it would be little alterations. It's like, 'I like that bracelet ... I can get that bracelet', but it's not like, 'oh, now I live in Prague'," Adeyemi says on the phone from San Diego.
Children of Blood and Bone is set in the land of Orisha, where the ruling, light-skinned monarchy has subjugated the country's dark-skinned "maggot" maji, eradicating magic from the realm. The novel opens with the chilling image of the corpse of a maji woman dangling from a tree, a victim of a genocide perpetrated against her people.
While the novel is set in a fantasy land, it was inspired by very real events. Adeyemi says the Black Lives Matter movement was at the forefront of her mind, and the violence in the novel corresponds with specific contemporary and historical moments of violence against African Americans.
"Fantasy is such a wonderful lens because every obstacle in the book is tied to an obstacle that black people are facing as recent as today or as recent as 30 years ago," Adeyemi says.
"No one in their right mind can justify any of the atrocities that happen in this book, which is then when I get to rip the mirror off and say, 'What are you going to do about what is happening in our real world?' This book is not just a fantasy."
The novel's teenage heroine, Zelie, is fierce (think other lady legends such as Katniss in Hunger Games) – and on a quest to restore magic to her people who have been pushed into ghettos, enslaved, subjected to police brutality and falsely imprisoned.
She is the black heroine that Adeyemi says was largely absent from the books she read as a child. An absence she only fully realised the significance of as an adult, and that hit home more recently when there were complaints about black actors being cast to play Rue, Thresh and Cinna in the film adaptation of Hunger Games.
"The worst part about it is that I didn't consciously think about it, but I subconsciously internalised it," she says, noting that even when she wrote short stories as a young child she never made her characters black.
"That's why I am so militant about representation now because I know all the self-esteem issues I went through and how I internalised that. I deeply believed that I wasn't worthy – that I couldn't be in the stories even I was creating. I don't want anyone else to feel like that."
"I deeply believed that I wasn’t worthy – that I couldn’t be in the stories even I was creating."
Adeyemi is optimistic that young African Americans now have more role models to look up to in film and literature. Children of Blood and Bone is one of the most highly anticipated youngadult novels of the year, and is part of a wave that features African American protagonists (including Dhonielle Clayton's The Belles). Black Panther, a Marvel film set in the African country of Wakanda and with a predominantly African American cast, recently opened to critical and box office success, and the film adaptation of Ava DuVernay's classic A Wrinkle in Time also has a racially diverse cast.
"We've never had anything like that," Adeyemi says. "I know this is going to be a very incredible thing for girls because they're not going to have to wonder if they can be a princess or a superhero or as magical as Hermione Granger. They are going to see it and they are going to know it."
While the novel taps into a contemporary moment, it also draws on Adeyemi's own Nigerian heritage, embracing elements of West African culture, mythology, language and religion.
"It is on every page in one way or another, whether it is a world-building detail that you can see and smell and feel or touch, or in the kind of way the characters interact with each other," she says.
While Adeyemi studied West African mythology in Salvador, Brazil, after graduating from an English degree at Harvard, many of the details included in the novel were a product of her subconscious rather than active research.
"I joke that my grandfather and grandmother were whispering to me as I was writing because there are certain things that were random for me to include but ended up being spot on."
Adeyemi was born in the United States after her parents migrated from Nigeria. Her father was a physician in Nigeria but in the initial years after the move found employment as a taxi driver while he waited to transfer his qualifications; her mother scrubbed toilets. Adeyemi grew up in Chicago, where money was a struggle, but one her parents tried hard to hide from her. It was only as an adult that she started to embrace her Nigerian heritage, and she has described her novel as a love letter to her culture.
"I didn't think too much of it and I think that is the kind of an experience of the first generation. You're just trying to fit in. You don't realise how cool your culture is until you get out of that phase of trying to fit in," she says.
Her parents uprooted their lives to give their children better opportunities, Adeyemi says, so she understands why they were hesitant when she announced her plans to reduce her hours at a Los Angeles film production company and write a book.
"I'm first-generation Nigerian so I came out of my mother's womb and I was supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer or engineer, and I was like 'oh hey, I'm quitting my very well-paying job at a very stable company that has many future job opportunities for me' ... I'm so lucky that my parents were like, 'obviously we're not crazy about this but we love you'."
Adeyemi had previously written a novel, but the feedback wasn't positive. She instead set herself a year to write another book, which became Children of Blood and Bone, that she entered into the competition Pitch Wars, a program in which emerging writers are matched with editors and authors to revise their work before they submit it to a literary agent.
"I just felt this insane sense of like inner peace and I didn't realise how noisy it had been in my head until that moment where it wasn't noisy and it just felt so clear," Adeyemi says of the moment she wrote her first sentence of Children of Blood and Bone.
"It was all the dots of my entire life were leading to this moment. Finally being able to see the thread that connected them was a very spiritual moment for me."
This perhaps goes a long way to explaining the tears when she held her published novel for the first time. While the success may seem sudden, it doesn't feel "overnight" for Adeyemi. Her blog, which has thousands of subscribers, is evidence of her perseverance. Over the years she has shared musings about writing and her inspirations, and provided tips and advice to other emerging writers.
"For people who look at what has happened and think 'this is crazy' they can look at me three years ago and see that I was dedicated to my dream even without all of this. I think it can help motivate people. It was already helping people, now it is an example to people," she says.
And if her parents were a little hesitant about the whole writing thing at first, they are certainly not any more. Her mum and dad have signed up to social media for the first time so they don't miss a single moment.
Children of Blood and Bone is published by Pan Macmillan at $16.99.