Bolu Babalola on Love as a Guiding Force That Illuminates Our Humanity

“I love romance very much. It's like the genre picked me.”

A Nigerian goddess who longs to be seen, a young business woman who makes leaps in her love life, an influential Ghanaian spokeswoman who must decide if she will be true to her heart—these are just some of the characters you’re set to encounter in Bolu Babalola’s debut short story collection, which is out now from William Morrow. Centering the folktales of West Africa, Babalola retells some of the most enduring mythologies with a refreshing, delicate, and resonant voice, keen to decolonize tropes ostensibly foundational to these stories. Love in Color is a celebration of love—its challenges and its sweet promise. Below, Babalola answers a few questions about her debut, daily practice of love, and writing process.

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Rasheeda Saka: I should start by saying I really loved your book. I’m so excited for it to come out in the US! So to begin, I’m curious to know what attracts you to romance and why you’ve decided to write about it.

Bolu Babalola: It wasn’t really an active decision like “I want to write romance.” As a child I was a voracious reader and from that, I guess it inspired and triggered my latent writerly attributes because I started making stories inspired by the stories that I read, making them up in my head. And as I got older, the stories that I was drawn to—first of all, I love joyful stories, I love stories about like friendships and connection—matured to romance. I love romance very much. I started writing my own stories when I was like 12, 13, 14: those were the stories that I was doing because I was replicating what I naturally born to. So it wasn’t even like an active decision like “Well, I want to pick a genre.” It’s like the genre picked me.

And I’m drawn to romance because romance and friendship is one of the clearest examples of what makes us human—the fear of exposure but also wanting to be seen, trying to be seen in a certain way. It really exposes us for who we are; romance is a great prism for us. So even writing Love in Color: I realized it’s bigger than romance actually; to love is the biggest prism with which to see ourselves as human. It really does make us human. That’s why I love the genre so much. It’s such a wide elastic genre.

RS: And on that note of genre, why write short stories in particular, instead of a novel?

BB: I mean, it wasn’t really, “I want to do an anthology.” I was already working on my novel that’s coming out next year. It was just the fact that short stories was a way to showcase different cultures at one time. And for me it was almost a mission statement of the stories that I want to tell because within that story, within romance, you have different genres. You have a kind of rom-com; you have a teen romance; you have action romance. And I’m paying homage to all these genres within the genre as well as different cultures. So it just seemed like the best form to fit it in. When I got the perfect idea of doing an anthology, it was just kind of a no brainer: that is the best form to do what I want to do in terms of showcasing culture and romance. And also showing different characters who all have similar traits but are also very different.

RS: To follow this question of structure and genre: what’s generative about myths for you and why return to myth in relation to romance?

BB: Well, what is culture? What are humans without love? What are humans without our stories and why is it that the mythologies perpetuated in the mainstream are whites and Europeans? We are nothing, if not our stories. And for me, it was capturing a) the universality of love and connection but also the fact that if we’re not seeing these stories with different cultures, what are we saying about who deserves love, you know, and who has access to love, and who is the face of love? So that was really my goal with that. And also because I’m African and in terms of reimagining them, yes, I was removing patriarchy and misogyny but it’s a very African thing to evolve stories. We come from oral storytelling backgrounds, right. And as time goes by these stories naturally evolve to fit with the times to be a reflection of the current time.

So even writing Love in Color: I realized it’s bigger than romance actually; to love is the biggest prism with which to see ourselves as human.

And so when writing these stories, I was kind of seeing it as paying homage to the roots, but also adapting them because a lot of them were very misogynist and obviously came from patriarchal worlds, naturally because they were sexist. And also, just to have a note there, so many of the fairytales that we know—Snow White, Cinderella—the original stories are all incredibly sexist and misogynistic. We know the Disney versions, but even the Disney versions are still very patriarchal so it’s a natural thing for these stories to evolve.

But I wanted these stories to be, to feel like mine as well. I was telling them and a lot of them felt very original because they are original. And I think that also speaks to the fact that anybody can relate to any story because we’re all humans. Some of these stories are from Chinese backgrounds, Middle Eastern backgrounds; there’s only one that’s directly from my tribe and my ethnicity in Nigeria. My point in making them original was the fact that these stories are so malleable to the human experience. And our culture, yes, it adds color to our life and it makes us so interesting, but also there are universal things within that—we all go through the same things.

RS: Thank you. That was a wonderful response that answered several questions I had [laughter]. I want to talk about two things now. Because, as you said, reaching for myths now necessarily means that we are thinking and talking about the present. So in that vein, what do you think these stories offer in terms of how we should think not only of modern dating but also just romance as a force and method to have more fruitful and impactful and happier relationships with one another? Because one thing I love about your collection is that, though it’s centered on romance, romance is not totalizing nor does it encompass all of a character’s being. There’s this kind of multiplicity—that we can move beyond the individual or the couple to talk about how love can be a force for a kind of community work.

BB: Yeah. Thank you so much for that. I think it goes back to like even how I wrote these stories, because I start with my girl and I figure out who they are, what their flaws are, what the attributes are. And then I figure out who the best partner is for that, like how they would chatting to each other and grow. And it was almost like approaching like a real relationship because I didn’t want it to be like a one size fit. All, you know, you see this charming dashing Prince in every single story with exactly the same traits. I wanted these to be flawed, complex full people, because that is how it is in reality. And then in doing that, I wanted to allow the grace for these flaws because none of these people have damning things wrong with them where you’re like, “Oh, what is she even doing with this guy?” They all make mistakes.

If we’re not seeing these stories with different cultures, what are we saying about who deserves love, and who has access to love, and who is the face of love?

But what I wanted to prove is that, you know, sometimes you need to see who a person is, see a person’s heart and understand where they’re coming from. And I also wanted it to be a journey of growth, for both characters, but also obviously mainly my main girl. I wanted her to learn something about herself. I wanted her to be elevated by the love she chooses to be in her life. And I wanted her to choose that, you know, I wanted her to be an active participant in her romance—choose rather than be chosen and then being like, “okay, I’m just going to go along with this guy.” I wanted love to be something that kind of accentuates her life, but doesn’t make her life and I wanted it to be a decision that makes sense.

I’ve done a lot of Q and As in schools with teenage girls. And I think the thing that means the most to me is when these young women say to me that they’ve learned standards, you know—what they should expect, the respect that they should get, what they should demand in a relationship, how they shouldn’t diminish themselves for a relationship, and also, ironically, how they shouldn’t just settle to be in a relationship just for the sake of being in a relationship. This book isn’t about romance for romance’s sake. I want it to make sense for the girls and everyone involved. And so that’s what I really want to talk about—love, and how it has to be worth it, and it has to serve you in the best way and nourish you. And I want to add that friends pop up in these stories and in real life, our friends are such a massive part of our romantic life. They bolster us, encourage us. They censor us sometimes when they feel you’re like by going with somebody who doesn’t deserve us. So it’s romantic, but also it’s about love itself.

RS: I suppose to branch outwards from the book, how do you practice love or a kind of mundane love on a day-by-day basis? And what do you think that means for the kind of times we’re living in? Or in other words, how do you negotiate keeping love alive in the everyday but also recognizing the other emotions and affects that are necessary to feel even though we can love at the same time?

BB: Totally. I mean, love doesn’t mean you allow yourself to be walked over, right? Love also encompasses love for yourself. And that’s why I say I don’t believe in niceness because you can be nice and not have love in your heart. Nice is just to appease somebody else. And is it very nice to let people do whatever they want to kind of appease everyone without being who you are? Eventually that’s going to blow up in your face, you know, and also it’s not going to be very fair because you’re going to be angry a person when you were the one who was dishonest with yourself and kind of diminishing yourself to make space for somebody else at the expense of yourself.

So I’m, you know, I’m very loud with my voice. I think for me, practicing love means grace and patience and understanding that not everybody’s coming from the same place that I’m coming from. I’m on the internet a lot. I’m a prolific tweeter. I tweet so much. And I think that that can do something to your mind negatively. Like as much as it has a benefit in my life, I’ve met so many amazing people; it’s branched out my network, especially with Black women—honestly I would not trade all the experiences I’ve gotten on the internet for the world because it really has helped build my own personal world. It can rewire your brain if you’re not careful—snapping at people and being reactionary.

So for me, it’s kind of loved training. As much as I can preach about love, I still have to be actively aware of it. And so that means being patient. Sometimes it’s not replying when, you know, even when you know your right, sometimes it’s better to just like not reply and not ruin someone’s day. Just move on. So that’s something that I’m learning and I’m actually learning and love like love is an active emotion. You can’t just say you move in love and that’s it; it has to be something that you practice and that’s something that I’m always trying to do. And sometimes I fail, sometimes we all fail, but as long as it’s in the forefront of our minds, I think that’s a very positive step.

One of my favorite books is of course all about love by bell hooks. I re-read it and it teaches me that love is something that we need to be practicing every single day in all forms of a life, even to the most minute, granular gestures, you know? It’s grace and patience because that is one of my flaws. Impatience is one of my massive flaws. So I think patience is particularly where I take active strides to practice love.

RS: Wow, thank you. I want to shift gears to talk about your process. Which story took you the longest to write and why? What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

BB: I honestly can’t remember which story took me the longest because it was so sporadic. Some stories I wrote a whole other story in the beginning and it just wasn’t working for me. And I took like two weeks to write that and then I guttered it and started all over again. But then it took me two days to write. So sometimes the process works like that. It took a lot of restructuring and figuring things out. I think with each story, I became a better writer because with the form of a short story, I had to build a full and rich world and make and let people come in, without it branching into a novel and feeling incomplete.

And I think the thing that means the most to me is when these young women say to me that they’ve learned standards, you know—what they should expect, the respect that they should get, what they should demand in a relationship.

I approached each story like I approached my women in the story, which is that they’re all individual characters of their own. And sometimes it took longer than others, but it was, for me, not getting impatient with myself and letting the story to speak to me. I did have deadlines, but sometimes I just had to be like, you know what, I’m going to sit on this for a few days and literally just think about the story, think about the origins of story, thinking about like the setting and the world. And then once I did that for a few days, the story came very easily to me and I wrote it in like a day, you know? So it was different processes for different stories.

RS: What are some of your favorite romance books?

BB: I love Pride and Prejudice. I love Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Oh my gosh. So many. I really love Jasmine Guillory books. I love Alyssa Cole books. I obviously love all of Meg Cabot’s adult books. I love books that have humor in it and have really strong women, with strong voices and partners that complement them. My favorite TV romance is Nick and Jess from New Girl, and I love friendship based romances and romances where, they make space for who each other is and they’re not trying to force anything on the other person. I really love Brown Sugar. Those are the kinds of things I love, obviously everything that I love mostly is infused with humor because I think romance and humor really go hand in hand. It’s really hard for me actually to write something straight without humor, you know?

RS: Along that note, what are you reading now that you’d recommend to readers of this interview?

BB: I’ve just finished reading an Alyssa Cole romance, what was it, How to Catch a Queen? But the book that I just finished reading that is romantic—another novel—is Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson and that’s about Black British Londoners, 20-something, falling in love over a summer. And it’s just so beautiful and poetic and lyrical. I haven’t really seen Black love in that prism, that prism being Black British love and Black British Londoners. It’s very gorgeous, and it talks about blackness, and falling in love within blackness, and what that all means.

RS: And what is some advice that you’d offer to young writers?

BB: It would literally be what I say all the time: read and write. Which sounds very simple, but it isn’t—you really need to be reading things. Read widely, first of all. But also read the things that you want to see and take inspiration from that. The hardest thing is writing the first sentence, and I know it’s hard and I know you’re scared, but writing takes some bravery to put your voice out there—that takes some bravery and honestly you need to do it.

I don’t want to hear—I’m very kind of cut throat about it [laughter]. I don’t want to hear whining unless you’re writing. Like I really don’t because to be a writer, you just have to write, you know. And write till you’re good and it’s not always going to be good, but writing is always going to be necessary to be good. I’ve written so many things constantly from when I was younger, and I have seen my writing style and my tone grow and that’s because I had to be dedicated to the craft. And being dedicated to the craft is also reading. You know, you have to take in other people’s voices and also you need to live life. You need to have experiences because writing fiction in particular is about capturing the human experience. And you can’t do that if you don’t know it, you know?

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Bolu Babalola, Love in Color

Love in Color by Bolu Babalola is available now via William Morrow & Company.

Rasheeda Saka
Rasheeda Saka
Rasheeda Saka was Literary Hub's 2020 fall-winter editorial fellow. In 2018, she was named one of Epiphany Magazine's Breakout 8 writers for her short story "The Killers' Den." Her work has appeared in Alta Online, Literary Hub, and TriQuarterly.





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