News: In Conversation With Namina Forna

Namina Forna is a young adult novelist based in Los Angeles, and the author of the New York Times bestselling epic fantasy novel, The Gilded Ones. Originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, she moved to the US when she was nine and has been travelling back and forth ever since. Namina loves telling stories with fierce female leads and works as a screenwriter in LA.

When did you first realise you were a writer?

I think on some level I’ve always known. I was a bookish child – always daydreaming and imagining things. I would make up these elaborate worlds in my head full of characters who had distinct personalities and got into fights with each other. Either I was crazy, or I was a writer. I chose to be a writer. I didn’t realise, however, that you could get paid to write until J. K. Rowling came on the scene. That’s when I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do!’

What was the first book that made you feel seen?

Untouchable by Talia Hibbert. I cried when I read it. I’d never seen a neurotic, no-nonsense Sierra Leonean immigrant depicted in a book before. And she got her man at the end! It was beautiful.

Are there any writers that inspire you?

My hero is Michaela Coel. I May Destroy You shook me to the core.

Do you have any daily or regular practice that helps refine your writing?

Very simply – writing. I write every day, usually starting at 6am, but if I’m busy or on deadline, I start anywhere around 2–4am. It’s a reflex for me now. Wake up. Write. Maybe have breakfast. That’s my schedule.

In a recent interview, you talked about writing as your path and your service. (I personally loved what you said about using fantasy as a safe space to address familiar realities and building community with other Black women writers!) Can you tell us a little more about your journey and your spiritual relationship to your craft?

Writing for me is spiritual. It is one of the most spiritual things I do. When I was growing up, I lived in very unstable circumstances and I was a scared and vulnerable child. To cope, I read. Reading provided a safe space for me that I didn’t really have. And that’s what I want to do for other children, which is why I write in the young adult and middle grade space. I recognise that children and teens have a lot they’re dealing with, and I want to say to them, here is a space you can be until it’s safe to go out again.

What lessons have resonated most with you on your journey to getting The Gilded Ones published?

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. When I was younger, I wanted so much to have all these things now, now, now! But that’s not realistic or wise. If I’d gotten The Gilded Ones published in 2012 when I initially wrote it, would it be getting the reception it’s getting right now? I honestly don’t know, but what I do know is that I’m now in a better position mentally and emotionally to deal with it.

What inspired you to tell this story? Why is it important to you?

Life experience. I grew up knowing that I was seen as lesser, that other people viewed my body as a playground for themselves. This is the experience of most, if not every woman growing up in this world. There’s always a point at which you realise it.

That’s why I wrote the book, because I had so much rage about being a woman, particularly a Black woman. There’s this indignity, in only being seen as the sum of your parts, and not as an autonomous and feeling and thinking human being. I wrote this book to call all those things out.

What advice would you give to new writers about world-building, character development and entering into publishing?

Wow, that’s a doozy of a question. For world-building, read widely, and read things that are not in your genre. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is read articles to stretch my mind and to see if there’s anything that piques my interest I can save for later. Also, watch documentaries. I love the Blue Planet series and I feel that Netflix’s speculative doc series Alien Worlds is a masterclass on how to create worlds. Watch it, learn how they use practical science rules to then build different worlds.

For character development, lived experience is best. I’m an affirmed people watcher. I take walks every day and, before the pandemic, I used to love to go to coffee shops just to see what people would do there. I don’t drink coffee, by the way. Also, watch YouTube shows like The Take that break down characters, and finally, watch lots and lots and lots of TV. I watch obscene amounts of it myself.

The biggest thing I tell people entering publishing is to join Twitter. Your people are there. You can find critique partners there, and really, you’re only as good as your critique partners. Writing is not a solitary pursuit. Find people who encourage you and help you make your work better.

What message would you give your younger self?

Be gentle with yourself. Love and honour yourself, because the world will not.

What is next for you?

Lots of more books, hopefully!