When I was a kid, I was what you would call a JRR Tolkien fan. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over again. I walked through the field, imagining it was Middle Earth. With just a flight of imagination, you could be comfortable in the Shire, exploring the mines of Moria or even flitting through the forests of Lothlórien.
When the first Lord of the Rings movie finally came out, I was 14 years old and very excited to see it. But immediately, I noticed something distressing: no one on the screen looked like me. The darkest characters on the screen, the orcs, were all men. Even as a monster, apparently, there was no place for people who looked like me in Tolkien’s world.
Fortunately, I had my own to work with. I grew up in Sierra Leone, a place that I consider the most fantastic in the world. Magic was everywhere I looked. I was in my family’s huge library, where there were so many books that I became strongholds and got inside. I was in the ocean, beyond my deck, where, if I squinted long enough, I would sometimes see whales leaping. It was in the trees, the people, the land itself. It was always there.
Fantasy was a lifesaver. When I was born in the late 1980s, Sierra Leone was on the brink of civil war. The country was in chaos; people were suffering and dying. To distract me, my father and grandmother would tell me stories about the magic of Africa, some of them rooted in real history. Mami Wata, the goddess of all waters, slept in the marsh beyond our home that emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. In the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), an exclusively female military force called the N’Nonmiton, or Dahomey Amazons, hunted elephants for their king. The Dogon tribe of Mali, our ancestral home, had mapped the stars without telescopes.
When I moved to the United States in 1996, the war suddenly stopped being a part of my life. But neither did magic. Instead of goddesses and Amazons, there was now the legacy of slavery, civil rights, and racial strife. They told me I was a black person and that Blackness came up with a particular story and set of expectations, most of which I had never heard before. It had just been Temne, my tribe in Sierra Leone. How was he supposed to understand this new identity?
Worse still, there were no more epics. While growing up, my father had explained to me that epics, especially fantasy epics, are the myths of a culture: they determine how a people views themselves. But in the United States, it seemed that blacks did not have the privilege of creating our own narrative in a fantastic sense. In every book, every movie, every advertisement, blacks fought. We were poor, we had no education, we used drugs or drug dealers. We were baby moms, gangsters, and prisoners. We were perpetual victims or perpetual predators, lurking on the margins of society.
But this didn’t make any sense to me. He knew my story. Yes, some blacks had been slaves, but others had been queens, kings, adventurers, tricksters, country folk. Yes, there were slave huts and huts, but there were also castles in Ethiopia, towering walls and lampposts in Benin, libraries in Timbuktu, and fortresses in Great Zimbabwe. The richest man who ever lived, Mansa Musa, was an African. The N’Nonmitons, the warriors my father and grandmother had told me stories about when I was young, were African. Blackness was more than a fight.
But in every black book that won a medal, or in every noir movie that won an Oscar, there was always a black person fighting against racial oppression. There are consequences of just praising such representations. Perpetually linking the narrative of blacks and blackness to slavery, colonization and oppression meant that blacks, especially black children, were denied the opportunity to see ourselves as heroes with agency over our worlds. And non-black people were denied the opportunity to support us, only feeling sorry and of course relief for not being black.
This is why I became a writer. I wanted to create a fantasy world on par with my favorite childhood books: The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. I wanted to put black and brown people at the forefront of this world; and women, who have so many times been pushed to the periphery of fantasy, in the very center. In the tradition of my favorite black female authors, like Toni Morrison, Octavia E Butler, and Zora Neale Hurston, I wanted to create spaces where I could hold black people, especially black and brunette women, to make sure they too were seen. the lens of the fantastic, which could also be fairies, mermaids or creatures of myth.
My first novel The Gilded Ones is set in Otera, an African-inspired fantasy world. It follows a group of girls who are considered demons by society because they are Alaki, almost immortal beings who are faster and stronger than normal humans. When the real demons invade, the girls have a choice: fight them or die.
It is a work of feminism, and it is a work of hope: it is the kind of book I wish I had before. One that offers a space not only to people who look like me, but to everyone. And since my book is published all over the world, I am happy to say that I no longer need to pretend that I am in Middle Earth. While Tolkien’s world allowed me a safe space as a child, it also showed something more important: how to create your own. With The Gilded Ones, I think I finally did.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism