One of my favourite books this year has been ‘The Comeback’ by Lily Chu. It’s a sweet, romantic comedy about a workaholic, corporate lawyer – Ariadne Hui – whose life is upended when her roommate invites her gorgeous cousin to stay in their small apartment. Unknown to Ari, the quiet, artistic South Korean guy loafing on her couch is one of the biggest k-pop musicians in the world.
Lily Chu has created two compelling, charming characters whose growing relationship propels them to liberate themselves from the expectations of others and discover what they really want from life. It’s a joyful, thrilling ride of a story that I whipped through in record time.
I’m on a mission to learn more about life in pre-colonial Africa. I’ve started with West Africa, specifically the Yoruba peoples and it is a fascinating journey so far. Here are three books I’ve been reading and how they come at the subject matter from different angles.
I haven’t read many books over the past few months. I’m not sure if my lack of motivation is down to the general busyness of life, the onslaught of one global crisis after another, the distracting influence of Korean dramas, or the general meh-ness that seems to have infected us all. Whatever the cause, I’ve found myself stuck in a silo, rereading my favourite authors and lacking the energy to try anything new.
It’s a cul-de-sac I’d like to escape. Like Whoopi, I’m ready to get back in the habit. To give myself a push I’ve selected 10 books that I’d like to read or listen to (hello audio books) in 2022. Since I’m obsessed with Black Joy, I’ve tried to choose titles that have more light than dark.
The interwebs tell me August was Romance Awareness Month. Since we’ve missed that delightful bus, I offer up this sparkly selection of romance novels because (1) we should celebrate romance every day, and (2) we’re going to need some tingly happiness to handle the annual slide from flip flops and ice cream to hot chocolate and rainy skies.
Give yourself an extra challenge and try an author you haven’t read before.
Seven Days in June – Tia Williams
Brooklynite, single mum and bestselling author Eva Mercy is not ready to run into her high school ex, Shane Hall, a reclusive, award-winning literary writer. But when he shows up in New York they find not only is the spark still there, bright as ever, so are all the demons that drove them apart. Can they get things right this time or will they mutually self-destruct?
It’s been three years since a I wrote a blog post lamenting the paucity of books with Black lead characters for tween boys. In that post I recounted how I’d tried and failed to find five books with a Black boy protagonist that wasn’t about police brutality, drugs, gangs, social injustice or any other trauma.
This summer a friend messaged me asking for book recommendations for her tween nephew so I decided to give the experiment another try. The offerings have grown slightly but it’s still an uphill struggle to find books with Black boy leads that aren’t centered on trauma.
I really hope the next time I run this experiment there is more fantasy in the mix. I’m longing for Black boy heroes wielding swords, casting spells, joining secret crime fighting organisations, travelling to space, inventing gadgets and other out-of-the-box fare. I want Black writers to write their truths, to reflect the many worlds Black boys live in, to be unapologetic. But I also want escapism and magic for all children, especially Black boys.
Here are 15 beautifully written books with Black boy heroes.
A slice of life novel about a young woman living in impoverished circumstances in the Ghanaian village of Ho, who gets the opportunity to marry into a wealthy family. Afi, the protagonist, is beautiful and smart but has done poorly in her secondary school exams and can’t Ghana’s public universities. Instead she faces a life playing seamstress to the unexciting women of Ho.
I remember the day I walked through Foyles bookshop in Tottenham Court Road and literally stopped in my tracks. I’d spotted Do You Dream of Terra Two? on a shelf in the distance and was trying to discern whether the cover truly featured a Black girl in an astronaut helmet. I ran over. No, I wasn’t hallucinating; she was really there. It sounds ridiculous, I’d read a million books set in space, but I’d never seen a Black girl on the cover of a space adventure before. I’d never seen not even close. My eyes zipped down to the author’s name. Temi Oh. My heart gave a leap of excitement. I was 98% sure the author was Nigerian.
I put Google straight to work and a few weeks later I was sitting in a West London coffee shop with Temi Oh, gushing over that arresting cover.
“You don’t really get a lot of control over the cover as a writer,” she’d admitted. “I told them I definitely want a Black woman. I was really happy especially as I spent a lot of time making up fantasy covers when I was younger.”
Temi Oh wore a floral dress that mirrored the cheerful spring weather, her hair was braided and her face wreathed in smiles. The coffee shop was noisy and busy but amid the bustle she talked affably about studying neuroscience, writing a book about six teens who travel into space and making her mother proud.
Temi Ochibodu grew up in Clapham, South East London, the eldest of four children. She was second generation British, her grandmother having moved to the UK on a British Council scholarship decades earlier. Her mother relocated to the UK aged nine, and her father came years later when he arrived to study for his masters.
She attended Bishop Thomas Grant secondary school in Streatham where she became known as Temi O, “there was another Temi in the year, she was Temi A and I was Temi O.” She earned a scholarship to do her A-levels at Emanuel School, an exclusive, 400-year-old educational establishment in Battersea. Nigerian parents are notoriously adverse to allowing their children to study arts subjects but Temi successfully negotiated one onto her schedule. “My mum was really lenient. She said you can have art if you do the other ones. You know, all three sciences.” She took A-levels in chemistry, biology, physics and art before applying for a degree in neuroscience.
I ask if she ever considered doing an arts degree. “I don’t think there’s any way I could have been like ‘I want to go into writing’. It’s not that our parents don’t value art. I guess they didn’t have a lot of money so they were like ‘I want you to be able to look after yourself.’”
She went off to Kings College London to start a BSci in Neuroscience. And while she studied, she began writing a novel about six teens training for a twenty-year journey to the far flung planet Terra Two where they hope to find an alternative for humans stuck on a dying earth.
“Uni is really intense during term time, but half of it is not term time. You have really long holidays. So I wrote a lot during the holidays.”
She makes it sound easy but anybody who’s ever held down a part-time job while studying for a degree knows it’s a fierce juggling act. For three years she successfully shuttled between her two loves, science and art, but as her BSci drew to an end she hit a crisis point. Her mother – a scientist in her own right having earned a PhD in biochemistry at only 24-years-old – advised her to apply for a Masters in science.
“I remember thinking, ‘what if I’m just on this path that’s going to take me further and further away from being a writer?’ I had basically finished my book. I didn’t know if it would get published or anything, but I didn’t want to close doors. If I did a Masters or PhD I‘d just be really focused on that and years might pass. I thought, ‘I have to make a move that says I want to be a writer’.”
Art trumps science
She decided to be bold and applied for a Masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh university. She won a place on the program and found a part time job in the gift shop of a zoo to help with living expenses while she redrafted her novel. Six months later “after we had our last lectures and we were supposed to start working on our dissertations” she began sending her manuscript to agents. She’d decided to follow writer lore and send it off in batches. She sent it to five agents and got five rejections. The disappointment was palpable.
“It felt like a punch in the stomach every time I got one. It’s a really horrible time for anyone who’s going through it. It would ruin my day.”
Concerned there might be a flaw with the manuscript, she decided to make some changes before resending. A friend on her Masters course read it and told her the opening needed to be more engaging.
“I sat in my living room, took off my shelf all the books that had really interesting beginnings, read them and then wrote down what made the beginning interesting. I came up with bullet points then tried to put all of them in the beginning of my mine. And then I sent it off again.”
This time she got two requests for her full manuscript. Which quickly led to two agent offers. She chose the agent who said the book needed improvements.
“She said: ‘I like your book but there are all these changes that I want to make and I think we need to change the ending.’ That made me want to go with her because I felt that it needed some changes.”
Together they worked on three deep rewrites. At last it was ready and her agent sent it out to editors, a process called, ‘being on submission’. A month later Temi was at work when she got an email from her agent saying ‘possible offer’. Simon and Schuster were considering buying her book.
“There was this nook near the fire escape where I was standing, near my office when she told me. Now whenever I walk past it I feel this shiver of gladness. I’m like, ‘that’s the place I became a writer!’”
The dream becomes reality
Since scoring her book deal, Temi’s life has changed in some pleasant ways. For instance, now when she tells friends and family she’s writing they take it seriously.
“I always felt like writing was my job but nobody believed me. You’d say, ‘I can’t answer the phone because I’m writing and people would say, ‘oh okay then, ignore me’[cocky sarcasm]. But now they’re like: Oh okay, you’re writing, good job!’ [reverent tone]”
Though she’d like more time to write, she’s not aiming for a career where she writes full time.
“Because I’m kind of extroverted I get really lonely when I’m at home all day so I’m trying to figure out what’s the right balance. I’m working part time now but whenever I have writing days I always feel really happy when I get back to the office and I see people. I don’t think I could ever do it full time. I’d get too lonely.”
Do You Dream of Terra Two? was an NPR favourite book of 2019 and won the American Library Association’s Alex Award in 2020. It looks set to be a book with longevity. Temi is pleased to part of the change that’s happening to science fiction.
“There are loads of male, science fiction authors in the canon that I love who are really technical and who spend a lot of time talking about the technical side of space. Back when I was working in Waterstones I thought it’d be nice to read more of these books about space that have female point-of-view characters. I didn’t come across that for years.”
If you hop over to Temi’s Instagram you’ll see that she recently finished her second novel. When I spoke with her it was still a work in progress. The upside of my tardiness for you is once you finish reading Do You Dream of Terra Two? she might well have released book two.
Find more of Temi Oh’s work:
She wrote the foreword and contributed to this anthology that brings a fresh perspective to topics that range from dystopia, apocalypse and gene-splicing to cloning and colonization: Black Sci-Fi Short Stories
In September 2020 Lisa Bent released her debut novel, Symona’s Still Single, the story of a 37-year old Jamaican British woman looking for Mr. Right while trying not to panic at the loud ticking of her biological clock. Symona’s Still Single was launched by indie publisher, Jacaranda as part of their ground-breaking #Twentyin2020 initiative whereby they would publish 20 Black British authors in one year. It’s a funny, charming romance made richer with stories of female friendship. Lisa’s counselling degree and belief in the power of continuous self-reflection colour her writing and are visible in the experiences and adventures of Symona as she searches for love.
I put 10 questions to Lisa and she provided some fascinating answers.
1. How did you hit upon this idea for a book?
I was a social commentator on Facebook. From politics, bus antics to social issues and dating trials and tribulations, I made my opinion known. My dating posts always created the most interest, but it wasn’t until December 2017 that I realised I was onto something.
My encounter with MR TK Maxx, caused a stir and this was the trigger that pushed me to write the book. The beginnings of this encounter appear in chapter 22. The real life story has been embellished for fiction.
2. Why is it important to see Black women in love in art?
Pain and trauma is part of the human condition, but for some reason it appears firmly attached to our narratives. Joy, empowerment, wealth, happiness and love exists for us too and it is vital these stories are told. Not just for Black women, but for Black men too.
In a prejudiced society, the love we have for ourselves and those who look like us is necessary to continue healthy connections and unions. The term Black love is relevant today and art, in its many mediums, should work to rebalance the negative stereotypes. Who we are, is not what we have been told. Reshaping, retelling, redefining the narrative from our truth, is our responsibility.