Bolu Babalola is bringing new life to ancient folklore in “Love In Color”
Bolu Babalola knows all about love.
The Nigerian-British television writer, novelist and Twitter mastermind spoke to CBS News about today’s American release of her first book, “Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold.” The collection of short stories features colorful and whimsical depictions of some of the world’s most famous folklore.
“Love In Color” takes both well-known and long-ignored myths from around the world and transforms them into full-bodied stories that center women’s agency and people of color — an exploration, Babalola says, paid homage to origins that people might be less familiar with and allowed her to creatively emphasize the depths of the romance genre. The characters are plucked out of ancient tales like Ghana’s “The Princess’s Wedding, Lesotho’s “How Khosi Chose a Wife,” and China’s “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl,” and dropped directly into modern worlds.
On the day of the interview, she spoke from her childhood bedroom in Lagos, Nigeria, surrounded by the books that she spent each summer reading. Each book has her name and the date inscribed carefully on the front cover: “Bolu Babalola ’05” and “Bolu Babalola ’06.” Except now, the authors on the wall aren’t just major inspirations for her work, they’re her peers.
“[These authors] were a massive inspiration, because I got to read really funny, smart girls who met boys that liked them for who they were,” said Babalola. “And it was never about the girl tucking herself into herself to make space for their relationship. They were fully formed.”
Since the age of 14, Babalola has considered herself to be a fiction writer. While she can’t remember the first story she ever wrote, she has fond memories of school assignments that she would get top marks on. A voracious reader, she recalls taking romance books from her mother’s shelf and spending her time making up her own stories in her head, even writing a column on her family computer. Nearly 15 years later, she’s a member of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list and a Sunday Times bestselling author.
She knew she always wanted to be a writer but still followed in her father’s footsteps and received a bachelor’s degree in law and a master’s in American politics and history. Her focus on African American history and feminism helped shape her love for well-rounded female characters as well as the language she uses in her work.
Babalola says her ability to visualize her stories has only made her a better writer. While working on her debut novel, her first published short story “Netflix and Chill” was shortlisted in 2016 for the 4th Estate B4ME prize and she was approached to write a romance anthology with her own twist. Thus: “Love in Color” was born.
Babalola describes her book as an unapologetic celebration of desire and love itself, something she believes has affirmed her female readers to be confident in their desire for true love and prioritize a relationship that actually adds value to their life rather than having romance for the sake of having romance.
“I think it’s just giving them the validation to say I can feel this and I can be successful at the same time.’ And it’s not frivolous or weak to want these things,” said Babalola. “I think it’s an unapologetic kind of statement and manifesto on love and romance and female desire.”
To her Twitter followers, Babalola is a welcome voice, discussing everything from favorite authors to the most loveable television crushes — Nick Miller from “New Girl” holds this crown for the foreseeable future. While Babalola is still surprised by how her inner thoughts resonate so loudly for others, she is decidedly grateful for the community she has found online.
“They really embraced me for who I am,” Babalola explained. “It’s kind of very humbling. I’m just being myself, and I think it’s because I talk about things I love. I think when you do that, you just attract people who also like those things, especially when it comes to romance and things that have been derided for being frivolous. I think about them very deeply. I can break them down, dissect them, analyze why they work well and mean so much to us. It’s helped me find my voice.”
Babalola’s work is by definition a romance anthology, but she’s not concerned by those who consider her work “not serious.” She considers love and matters of the heart to be some of the most serious and significant things you can write about.
“Romance and love is one of the most vigorous subjects,” said Babalola. “Wars have been started because of love, religions are based on it. It is an enduring subject in media because we are always trying to get our hands on this mystical thing, and actually, it takes a lot of thinking and intellectual vigor to explore it, the nuances of it, the dimensions of our connections and how we grow and can become deeper, more capacious people because of love and romance. It is far from a weak subject.”
Babalola believes those who look down on romance books do so from a place of misogyny, especially as many of the greatest works in the genre center around the female desire for connection. She points to a quote from “All About Love” by bell hooks: “Male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape.” For Babalola, her work is designed to push back on that idea. “Our fantasy can also be our reality,” she said.
Nowhere is that reality more poignant and touching than Babalola’s last story in “Love In Color.” While the others place myths front and center, “Alagomeji” draws its central couple from one of Babalola’s favorite love stories of all time: her parents.
She said it was “almost a no-brainer” to include their meeting and eventual marriage as the closing story in the book, as their relationship was not only the kind that she wanted but the kind of relationships she felt should be celebrated.
“That’s why I felt like it was kind of serendipitous that my first book was an anthology rather than my novel because they are what has inspired me and what has kind of drawn me to this genre and exploration throughout my career,” said Babalola. “My parents were a massive part of that journey, in their encouragement of me, but also in their relationship. They are an example to me of what a healthy partnership should look like.”
That partnership is an underlying theme in “Love In Color,” threading each decolonized myth with a sprinkle of truth and reality. This focus on trust, emotions, and people of color getting to find their happy endings made “Love In Color ” a Sunday Times bestseller, a shortlist for Waterstones book of the year, and one of the U.K.’s must-read books in 2020.
As a Black female author during the midst of one of publishing’s biggest racial reckonings, Babalola was told her book was”of the moment.” However, she has and continues to push back firmly against the idea that any kind of racial justice or representation in literature has its specific time.
“Black people and Black women and Black personhood is not just a moment,” said Babalola. “It is our life.”
Her first novel, “Honey and Spice,” which she worked on for four years, will be published in 2022. She said she hopes the U.S. release of “Love In Color” will open doors for books that center the agency of Black women.
“I just wanted women to be able to see themselves. And I think it’s sad that that doesn’t exist very often. I feel like my anthology is not a novel concept. It’s women falling in love, you know? And if that’s the case, that it’ll make it easier for others, I would be very, very pleased.”