When you talk with Tomi Adeyemi, it doesn’t take long for the term erasure to come up. That’s because for this Nigerian-American daughter of immigrants, the idea that people like her, people with dark skin and African heritage, should struggle to be seen, recognized and respected in popular culture is unacceptable.
For Tomi, as both an author and an avid reader of young adult (YA) fantasy fiction, erasure means that black characters, perspectives, and even black existence itself are simply left out of blockbusters like the Harry Potter series. When important black characters do find their way into successful fantasies, as they did in the Hunger Games movies, those characters are often attacked with vehement, racist hatred. “I saw this horrible Internet backlash against the black characters in that story, and seeing real hatred brought to a fictional universe so intensely shows you just how bad it still actually is,” she said in our interview. “Then there was Trayvon Martin and his murder, and the fact that George Zimmerman got off, and that was like, “Wait, you’re telling me I can still be killed because I’m black?”
“The sad thing about being erased is you don’t realize you’ve been erased until you finally see yourself.”
Fortunately, Tomi is a Rare Breed, so she didn’t take racism or the erasure of blacks in pop culture lying down. Instead, drawing on a love of writing that began when she was five years old, an honors degree in English from Harvard, and a fellowship-fueled passion for West African culture and mythology, she channeled her anger into a masterpiece: Children of Blood and Bone, the first book in the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy and an acclaimed bestseller that generated so much excitement in the publishing world that Fox bought the film rights for seven figures before the book even hit the shelves.
That’s heady stuff for a now-26-year-old, but Tomi has stayed grounded and humble about her success. Still, she acknowledges that hits like Angie Thomas’ novel The Hate U Give and Marvel’s blockbuster movie Black Panther lit a vengeful fire in her to write a story set in a world where everything revolves around proud, powerful, magical black characters. “I’m like a pleasantly spiteful child,” she says. “Even with the Hunger Games movie, at first I was heartbroken and sobbing about the hatred of the black characters, but then I was like, ‘Now I’m gonna get you back with a story that’s so good and so black.’ It’s not that I don’t feel it, it’s not that I don’t hurt, it’s not that I don’t cry, but after the tears are done comes that anger and that fire. I’m petty as fuck.”
Tomi is also an obsessive perfectionist about her writing, a trait common among Rare Breeds. When we asked about what inspired Children of Blood and Bone, she started off by waxing poetic about the genesis of the idea. “I saw a picture of the Orisha, which are basically African saints, African deities—they’re both mythological but also a religion that’s practiced worldwide,” she says. “And I had never seen black people depicted in such like a beautiful and magical way, so that really lit my imagination on fire.”
“When you are working for yourself it is 24/7 and it becomes very difficult to find boundaries.”
Nice. You can almost see the fiction author as a delicate creative flower, waiting for the perfect idea to land on it like a butterfly…uh, NO. No, no, no. Tomi crushed that nonsense by telling us about creating COBAB during an up-all-night writing endurance race that left her physically and psychically bruised. “For Children of Blood and Bone, it was all consuming,” she says. “The funny thing is when you tell someone that you’re a writer they’re like, ‘Oh, so you wake up at three, you make a gin and tonic, and you’re staring at the trees.’ And you’re like, ‘No, I go to bed at three because I’ve been up all night!’”
“I wanted to enter a competition with the book, and that competition was like 70 days after the book idea fully came together,” she continues. “So from the start of the book’s journey, I was putting myself in high pressure, impossible situations, and that only ratcheted up as it got closer to actually being published. I’m sweating profusely and I’m screaming at my computer. When you are working for yourself, it’s twenty-four seven, and it becomes very difficult to find the boundaries. But if you’re in this period where things are happening and you can see what it is you want to attain—it’s within your grasp—that just makes it even crazier, because you want to put every single second towards whatever that goal is. For me, that was the book. So it was seven days a week, so many hours in the day. It was a really wild experience. I’ve had to figure out kind of how to live sustainably for the second book.”
Anyone who’s paid a heavy price for their vision can probably relate, from startup founders to inventors to composers. Obsession comes with a cost, and Tomi has paid it in terms of her physical and mental health. “Book one was a lot of sacrifices,” she says. “I sacrificed my mental health and my personal health to get it done, and so I’m trying to do the exact opposite with book two.” But even more notable is the way that her perfectionism still drives her anxiety about her work, even after reaching a level of success that most novelists can only dream of. It’s as though that anxiety—that fear of not living up to the expectations that live inside your own head, is a safety net for Rare Breeds, keeping us from becoming complacent.
“That refusal to accept anything less than my best, which has driven me crazy, that’s also my personal downfall,” she Tomi says. “That’s why the process kills me, because I want every scene to come alive, and that means every single word and every sentence needs to work, and when you have 130,000 words, you are setting yourself up to fail.”
“But I think that’s what it what it takes to create something great,” she goes on. “When you have that mission, and when you have people close to you who not only believe in you but also believe in your mission to help kind of pick you back up when you fall down, I think that’s really necessary.”
So be obsessed. Let what you love consume you. Just have someone or something to pull you out of the fire before there’s nothing left—and like Tomi, understand that if you’re going to court greatness over the long term, you have to strike a balance between obsession and sustainability.
In this Rare Breed interview, Sunny and Ashleigh ask Tomi to share the truth about being an obsessed Rare Breed who refuses mediocrity and what it’s like as a neurotic human on a mission to disrupt the white-washed world of swords and sorcery.
If you’re inspired by this episode and ready to turn your vices into virtues, get your hands on a copy of our explosive new book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous and Different. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Target, and Audible.
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