What does it take to build a world? For Namina Forma, it took drawing on both her experiences growing up in Sierra Leone and America to help create the world of her first YA fantasy novel, The Gilded Ones (Penguin Random House).
“I personally think it’s like a transportive fantasy, in that it takes you to this magical world where there are girls who are like, you know, each one a Wonder Woman, each one a Dora Milaje,” she tells us during this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “But at the same time, what I really wanted to examine with this book—or rather, what my intent in writing this book was, I wanted to explain to people what a patriarchal society looks like. I wanted to explain who benefits, what system support it, who suffers under it...everything always had a cause that could always sort of be tied back to the theme of understanding what it is that happens to women’s bodies—but not only women’s bodies, but basically anybody who doesn’t fit into the norm in a system like that.”
The Gilded Ones was an instant New York Times bestseller when it was published this February, with Forna earning accolades that included Refinery29 forecasting her as “the Toni Morrison of YA Fantasy.” While that’s a title she’s not interested in claiming (after all, there can only be one Toni Morrison), with the second installment in her trilogy, The Merciless Ones, due out next year and The Gilded Ones due to the screen, Forna, a Spelman alum, is undoubtedly proving to be a literary force; one who can also deeply steep her readers in Pan-African history.
“I always knew I wanted to be a world builder; that was what I set out to do,” she tells us. “You know, from the time I was small and I was reading my dad’s little history books and I was reading about the walls of Benin and the castles in Ethiopia, and the libraries of Timbuktu, I was like, ‘I want to talk about this,’ right? So with the world building, for me to construct a believable world, I have to do a lot of research. I feel like you have to have a solid basis and a firm footing in reality in order to just say, ‘All right, cool, I got it. And like, lift off into fantasy, right? So I spent years reading like all these dry, dusty textbooks about all the ancient, different cultures and civilizations across Africa. And I read it enough so that it would sort of sink in deep so that I could then create my own thing, right?” she continues. “And that’s the whole thing about world building, is you take what is real and you put your own twist on it and then it becomes something else. And that’s sort of the joy; it’s the part of fantasy that makes you lift off.”
Hear more from world-builder Namina Forna in Episode 54 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Creating Worlds, With Namina Forna, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public.