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Exclusive Q&A with British-Nigerian Author, Bolu Babalola

Renowned author of Honey&Spice and Love in Colour, Bolu Babalola, infuses her characters with depth drawn from her lived experience. We caught up with her in Cape Town during The Franschhoek Literary Festival

Glamour: Firstly, I love your work! How has your background shaped your perspective as a writer?

Bolu: Thank you! In the UK, it's generally straightforward - if your parents are from a place, you're considered to be from there too so I’m considered British. However, it's a bit more complex for me. I feel deeply connected to Nigeria in many ways because my parents made a conscious effort to ensure that I didn't feel like a stranger when I visited. I've been going there since I was seven, have a vibrant social life there, and we even have a house. So, I truly feel like I grew up in both places, and that influences a lot of who I am. When I started writing, I naturally infused a lot of myself into it, especially since my identity is so specific and meaningful to me. Growing up, I realized that while themes like love are universal, the representation I saw in books often didn't reflect my experiences. I consumed a lot of literature by white authors, and I had a desire to see myself reflected in the genres I loved. This desire inspired me to draw from my own experiences when I write.

Glamour: This affirms that representation matters. What kind of conversations have emanated from your books?

Bolu: Toni Morrison once said that she writes books that she wanted to read, and I think for Honey & Spice, it was definitely the case for me. I was 19 years old when I wrote a novel in university, and even though it's very different from this book, I could see the beginnings, the embryonic version of Honey & Spice in that. So, it definitely is fair, because it was a reflection of what I wanted as a black Brit, and as a Nigerian. It became like a reflection of what so many women like me wanted. I did a festival in Nigeria in December, and sometimes I feel a bit sensitive about the fact that maybe they wouldn't think I’m Nigerian enough. Sometimes that's a critique of a lot of Africans in the Diaspora. It's like they try so hard, and I think this is just me, it’s not an effort I'm putting into being more Nigerian.

Glamour: I love that! Let’s explore what it means for others to see themselves reflected in your work in an authentic way?

Bolu: I think the representation thing is really powerful but also just seeing perspectives of other black people in the Diaspora. And I think there’s also a unity that people feel with that as well. A young white woman actually approached me and nervously shared that this was the first time she's ever read a romantic author of black origin, and she was like, “how does it feel? How did you think white people would perceive it?” The truth is, I'm not thinking about that when I'm writing. Secondly, when I read Jane Austen, I wasn't thinking, Oh, my God, I can't relate because I'm black. It was, I really love these characters and the story they're telling, and I think that's the power of storytelling in general.

Glamour: That’s profound. Circling back to Honey & Spice… It's in a university setting. How do you believe this environment enhances the exploration of romance and other themes within this story?

Bolu: That's a really wonderful question. One of my all-time favorite things was when I was giving a high school talk, and a young reader approached me. She said, "this book has made me more romantic, but it's also made me more discerning of dates. I asked why that is, "the book taught me that there's nothing wrong with standards. You know what I want? Somebody who likes me. I want to be friends with someone. I want somebody who respects me,“ she added.

Asserting that if she looks around and can’t identify what she’s looking for, she would be willing to wait. And that's the best thing that any young woman can give to me, because I think that there’s an expectation that you must be in a romantic relationship by default when you come of age. It’s for this reason that a lot of women feel frantic if they're not in that situation when they come of age. I want them to know that it's not worth settling for. It's not very romantic...romance for romance's sake. You must interact with your desires, who you are, what makes you feel safe, and what makes you feel seen. I don't think it's unrealistic.

Image: Franschhoek Literary Festival

Glamour: I'm here for your level of self-awareness and I’m wondering what it speaks to?

Bolu: I think because I was single when I wrote Honey & Spice, and I was always reminding myself. We always have to remind ourselves that we can have standards but they may slip. But you have to remind yourself what you want and what you deserve. So it's not even me teaching or scolding. It's all about reminding yourself.

Glamour: Let's talk about the protagonist, Amina, who is a well-developed character in her own right. What influenced your decision to give her such depth compared to any other characters from literature or film that inspired you?

Bolu: Well, thank you! I'm inspired by what I like to read, and I love romance where the best friends are the true love of their life, they are everything to the main protagonist. And I always thought, “why does it have to end when she finds romance? Why can't they still be very much a part of her life and almost guide her?” So I think that’s where the inspiration really came from... I just like friendships, even more than romantic relationships. They're just so fascinating!

I think even in romantic relationships, you always wonder what the people closest to them are like, or what they're doing. So I just wanted to write a book that was, again, just what I liked to read. But also I wanted to just honor those friendships that I had when I was younger. I would die for my best friend, and I think it was important to reflect that in a book, especially when so many romances are about just the romantic relationship. I think there's a power in saying, a romantic relationship is important, but it's not the most important relationship.

Glamour: Absolutely! That's so beautiful. Still on the topic of friendship, let's delve into your personal inspiration behind Honey & Spice. Can you share any experiences that really informed the narrative of the characters?

Bolu: My writing is a conviction to write the world I know and to see it, to document my experiences. I was always going to write and it would always be about Black women. When I was younger, I loved romance, watching movies and reading books. But, it was always quite a white narrative. The white protagonists and white people are lovely, and I've said this before, I love The Notebook and Bridget Jones' Diary. But they're not like me. I just always wanted to see myself in those roles, and I always thought, well, if I'm not going to see it, then I'm going to have to make it. So I think that was definitely a part of it.

Image: Supplied

I just wanted to write a book where it was the pursuit of love, but it wasn't the be all and end all, rather a way to get to know yourself. I also just wanted to make romance more fun, and a bit less like, "I can't live without you." And more like, "You're fun, I like being around you." And I think those were the main drivers. But also, just my love for African literature.

Glamour: I think that comes through really well in your work. And then, just to wrap up, what message or feeling do you hope readers will take away from Honey & Spice?

Bolu: I just want them to know that they are seen, they are loved, and they are worthy. And I just wanted them to laugh, to have fun, and that they've lived this love story. I also want to remind them that it's okay to have standards, it's okay to want what you want, and to deserve what you want. And just to feel hopeful, really. I think a lot of the best messages I get from readers are that they just feel hopeful after reading the book, and I think that's all you can hope for.

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