In the forthcoming YA fantasy trilogy The Gilded Ones, women bleed gold, a metaphor intended to represent the commodification of women. “We are seen as objects,” author Namina Forna told Unbothered. “It doesn’t matter where in the world we are.”
Forna’s debut — which snagged a six-figure deal within days of being submitted — tells the enthralling story of Deka, a “near-immortal” 16-year-old girl with “exceptional gifts.” When she finds herself at a ceremony during which it will be determined whether or not she and other girls are fit to become members of Otera’s patriarchal society, she’s met with an unforeseen obstacle.
That’s when an enigmatic visitor makes Deka aware of her endowments before presenting her with a life-altering decision. Will she join her fellow alaki in their fight for the Emperor, or succumb to the threat being placed upon her existence? A powerful tale of heroism, The Gilded Ones is slated to be one of Penguin Random House’s “buzziest books of 2020” and is definitely at the top of our reading list.
We recently spoke with Forna, who exclusively shared the cover of her compelling debut with us. Get into our conversation with Forna below. The Gilded Ones hits book shelves on May 26, 2020.
You graduated from Spelman College and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, you’ve worked in film and TV, and it looks like you were a pop culture writer/blogger at one time as well?
How did you come into writing YA novels, and was it something you always wanted to do?
“I decided at Spelman that I was gonna be a writer. I think I was 19 when I decided that, and I immediately started writing novels. In those days, it was really hard to break into the writing industry. A cousin of mine, at the time, went to NYU film school and I was like, ‘Wait a second! You can actually go to school for film?’ At this point, it was between law school and everything else [laughs]. I didn’t want to go to law school, so I applied to USC and I got in and I went.
I did not realize that breaking into film is just as hard as breaking into novel writing, so I decided in film school that I was gonna be a screenwriter while also working on novels. In fact, I wrote the first draft of The Gilded Ones the second year of film school, but at that time, the zeitgeist just wasn’t ready for something like this. I would get comments [like], ‘Does the character have to be of color?’ So I’d always reach a certain point but never quite go on.
I graduated from film school and I got a job, first as a producer in digital media and then I switched to blogging and writing clickbait. That was the time I got my agent and I’m like, ‘Hey, I have this book that needs a page one rewrite because I didn’t go hard enough. I needed to be bigger Blacker, more feminist than ever, and she was like, ‘I think that’s a great idea. Run with it.’ So I wrote it in like a month and a half, gave it to her, and the rest is history.”
That is amazing. That being said, there’s a lot of excitement brewing behind the scenes surrounding The Gilded Ones. Aside from having a fantastic plot line, it also received a six-figure deal just days after submission. When you began dreaming up this series, did you imagine that it would gain legs so quickly, especially considering that sometimes publishing entities may overlook or misunderstand Black stories?
“I will preface this by saying I was born and raised in West Africa and came here when I was 9, so I think that because of being an immigrant and also being unaware of certain truths about America, honestly, it took me a long time to understand racial dynamics in America. Because I had that ignorance, I was always like, ‘I’m gonna go for it, I’m gonna get it,’ and there was never a shadow of doubt in my mind. But also seeing my mom — and this is a typical immigrant story — my mom came here, got a degree as a lawyer, had to come back, went back to Georgetown, to get another degree just so she could work here. She couldn’t find a job, and then made her own law firm. So when I started getting rejections, I’d be sad, but I’d be like, ‘This is a rejection for today. It’s a no for today, but it’s not a no for tomorrow.’ And I just kept going.
It was really difficult, I’ll be 100 percent. It was so hard because the time I decided to be a writer and started writing novels to the time I got a deal took 12 years. In that time, I got hundreds of rejections, both on the film and the novelist side. For instance, I once got an offer from a manager on the film side to represent me, and I’m literally like going to his office to talk representation, it is the day of my graduation, and I get a call from his assistant like, ‘Oh, this person can’t meet you anymore. Bye.’
There’s been so much rejection, but I think the one thing that kept me going is [the fact that] I grew up in a war zone. I was able to sort of ignore what was happening around me because I read a lot. I watched a lot of TV, and disappearing in those worlds kept me sane. Even when I came to America, reading provided me a safe space. What I wanted was to do the same for children across the world. So they could disappear into my work for however long it takes and they’ll be safe while they’re there. And so it was never for me a question of giving up.”
You mentioned growing up in a war zone. Did you draw any inspiration for the novel from your own experience growing up in Sierra Leone?
“The Gilded Ones is a book of my anger about being a woman. Sierra Leone is very patriarchal. [Growing up], there were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl. I come to America and I’m like, ‘It’s gonna be different. America is like the shining beacon.’ It was the same old, same old, but just more polite. So it’s like, ‘damn, anywhere across the world, you can’t escape being a woman,’ and there’s things that happen because you’re a woman.
I actually came up with the idea for The Gilded Ones at Spelman College. It’s just this idea that women, we are seen as objects. It doesn’t matter where in the world we are. That’s why women in my book literally bleed gold. If someone bleeds gold, then you can use that as a basic value, so that’s that metaphor right there."
Writing can be such a vulnerable experience. Did you encounter any moments of uneasiness during the writing process?
"There were certain parts of the book that were deeply difficult to write because this book is about female trauma. There were certain points where these girls are so traumatized and I felt like I was writing my rage out or my fear out, and it was a deeply uncomfortable process. I do recall when I was writing it, I was always kind of on edge because it’s painful to write certain things.”
Absolutely. And I love that you were able to put yourself in a place to do that because it’s so important for us to see ourselves and our experiences represented at a young age. It’s especially impactful when your book is coming out considering how powerful of a moment this year has been for Black women and art, from Solange’s album at the top of this year, to Lena Waithe’s forthcoming Queen & Slim, to Megan Thee Stallion trademarking her Hot Girl movement.
“I am so glad that she did that because you know people be tryna profit— anyway, sorry.”
[Laughs] No, it’s okay! I feel you! Tell me more about this series. What drew you to fantasy in particular?
“It’s a couple of things. I think fantasy is way for people to socially examine things. That’s why in times of deep distress people run to fantasy. Because you can talk about things but in a way that it’s like, ‘Oh it’s not real.’ But also, for me, growing up as a Black person, I could never see myself in a fantasy book. And the thing is like, fantasy, these are the heroic tales of people of culture, so how you position your culture’s fantasy dictates how you see yourself as a culture. And the fact that I could not see Black people [represented] on the scale of like Lord of the Rings, I was like, ‘Oh no, we need to fix this.’
The Gilded Ones, I think it’s important because fantasy allows us to ask questions that I as a teenage girl was asking. There were all these questions that I wanted to understand about life: about what it means to be a woman, about religion, about all of these things. And I think with The Gilded Ones, there’s that safety of examining things through the lens of fantasy. There’s that remove.”
Who are some of your influences, both inside and outside of the genre?
“Of course I love J.K. Rowling. The guys who wrote Avatar: The Last Air Bender, I think they’re amazing writers. I love John Mortimer. I love Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison, for me, it was the first time that I saw someone address issues in the way that she did. It’s weird. It was almost like fantastical but not, and I love that. Actually, I think my biggest influence is my grandmother. When I was growing up, we would sit [outside] and she’d tell me all these stories, like all this native mythology and things of that nature. I remember so deeply believing everything that she said, and so it’s from her that I think I got my love of story.
That’s beautiful. And I love that you mentioned Toni because she definitely made it her mission to write stories for and about us, and I’m getting that Toni energy from you. You’ve set out to write stories for and about a particular audience for a very particular reason and that’s kept you motivated.
“Oh yeah. I want The Gilded Ones to be the fighting book for 2020. We’ve already been through all the BS from like 2016 and all this stuff, and I want for next year for girls and women to read my book and be like ‘F this!’”
Aside from finishing the series, where do you see yourself in the next few years as an author?
As an author, I want to build up the biggest fantasy franchises there are. I have some stuff in the backlog, and I’m also doing some very exciting film and TV projects that I can’t talk about yet, but I hope that in a couple of years I’m basically like the queen of fantasy.”
I believe it will happen. I’m claiming it for you.
“Thank you, girl!”
Did your screenwriting experience help your novel writing? How did those two worlds intersect throughout this process?
“Oh definitely! When I was first starting out, I overwrote everything, but screenwriting forces you to pare back and get to the essentials, and it also forces you to crop things out and see things in a movie type way. All my novels are very sort of cinematic and have that movie structure, so when you’re reading it you can see it as a movie and what have you, and that’s because of my screenwriting background. Also, the other thing is that screenwriting gave me the discipline to write. I typically wake up at 6 in the morning and by like 8 or 9 o’clock I have like 20 pages.”
That’s so Toni as well. She preferred writing in the morning.
“Oh yeah! I’ll wake up anywhere form like 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. to write. I believe that in the morning my mind is freshest, and I get up and I do my stuff. I think for a lot of novelists there’s this whole thing of, ‘Oh, I’m a novelist and therefore I sit in a room in a cottage with the curtains billowing and then my story can come,’ and for me it’s like, ‘Nah, girl. You wake up every morning, write your pages and keep it going.’ [Laughs] That’s what having a background in screenwriting taught me. Also, writing clickbait. That’s what that taught me. It sort of removed the romanticism from it and it’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s go to work.’”
I respect that so much. Is there anything else you want the Unbothered audience to know?
Yeah! I want them to know that I am here and I am going to show you the next big world. Please let ‘em know I’m coming.