Children of Blood and Bone
Adeyemi’s ashe or power as a writer is expressed in the success of her debut novel Children of Blood and Bone. She was awarded a groundbreaking seven figure YA book contract and a movie deal, at 23 years old. The book has been well received, note the numerous reviews and the NY Times Best Sellers listing for over 34 weeks (presently). So, what new could another reviewer say about this work?
Not many can assess its representation of African Yoruba Orisha culture, history, diaspora and modernity. Thus, since I am a scholar, children’s book author, and priest of the Orisha (Yoruba and Africa), it’s fair that I chime in. My own questions about this book upon its March 2018 launch were: 1. How does it represent Africa and the African Diaspora? 2. How does it represent the Orisha (Orisa) and Yoruba? 3. Is this book appropriate for my elementary school-aged children and/or their library?
Adeyemi’s work has flow, excitement, and notable motives. She skillfully weaves in aspects of African historical and modern politics, culture, and spirituality. The main character Zelie, and her diviner class have been persecuted, most violently by the tyrant King Saran. He kills the maji class (adult diviners) including Zelie’s mother. The teens go on a quest to return magic so diviners can become maji and discover their own ashe. The story, in part, explores the meaning, responsibility and controversies of having ashe (an authentic Yoruba concept).
Genuine Yoruba language and cultural references are used throughout the book. The cities of Ilorin, Sokoto, Ibadan and Lagos are all real Yoruba cities. However, their geographical locations do not match reality, and Adeyemi creates a fictive map of these and the other cities as the land of Orisha. The author intentionally added diaspora perspectives, which is laudable. For instance, Chandomble is not a real city, but it is the actual religion of the Yoruba/Orisha in Brazil. Adeyemi discovered Orisha in Brazil, although they are the Gods of her own parents’ homeland. Ibeji is a desert city to the south, when in reality Ibeji is not a city. Ibeji is the Yoruba word for twins, and an Orisha.
The deities and domains of the Orisha clans are refreshingly similar to reality. Several major media reviewers seem to have missed the fact that, in this new millennium, millions of people around the world worship the Orisha (deities) as a living tradition (not a dead mythology). Adeyemi is aware and respects this. The prominent Orisha in this first book (of an intended trilogy) are: Oya who rules the domain of life and death and Ori who rules the mind and dreams. Yemoja (water), Sango (fire), Ogun (metal), Orunmila (time/wisdom) and Babaluaye (disease healing) are also present and all part of the ten Orisha clans listed. In reality, the Yoruba profess 400+1 Gods named Orisha/Orisa, with between 16 and 28 major ones; so the author had plenty to choose from.
Creative license is taken with various Yoruba and Orisha references. For instance, the term mamalawo as a female priest is the author’s clever spinoff of the actual Yoruba term babalawo for a male priest of Orunmila (Ifa). The female version of a babalawo in reality is an iyanifa. The idea that blood sacrifice comes from self-harm is not what actual Orisha practitioners do. Given the negative images people have of African based religions, clarification must be stated. Additionally, while the actual Yoruba concept of alafia is peace, the author’s hint that alafia is analogous to the Christian idea of heaven does not correlate with the realms of the afterlife that Yoruba Orisha devotees subscribe to.
Unfortunately, readers constantly engage some of the worst aspects of African realities, including: malevolent dictators, civil war, corrupt soldiers, genocide, poverty, hunger, sexual violence, bandits, abusive caretakers, orphans, slavery, refugeeism, extortion, and various long-term impacts of European colonization (such as skin-lightening). It is debatable if the emphasis on these terrible aspects of Africa is part of the centuries’ old stereotyping that the Western media still consistently uses to present Africa as a helpless place with hopeless people.
The author does not intend to present Africans as a hopeless people though. Hopeful circumstances show up just enough in the text to indicate this, and to keep the reader interested. The characters typically have small, and occasional large wins in this dark, bleak, cruel fictional Africanized world of Orisha. Adeyemi also provides in-depth insights into the character’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Furthermore, strong family bonds and honesty abound. So while the worst images of Africa are resonant, African people as humans who are competent and resilient are also present in this traumatic tale.
Children of Blood and Bone learn to fight as a main strategy for manifesting ashe. While the diviner-maji sometimes use their spiritual powers for good, they are more often forced to be destructive. This correlates with periods of African diaspora history, especially enslavement and colonization. However, this is where historical realities depart from the missions and mandates of actual Orisha practitioners today. These missions include addressing portrayals of Orisha communities as misguided, confused or heinous.
The levels of violence contained within this book are difficult to swallow, even for some seasoned adults. The scores of bloody murders–told in gruesome detail–make this an inappropriate read for elementary students. Ages 14 and up can deal with this material. There are several massacres. There are individual killings (and remembrances thereof) in a majority of scenes. Characters are repeatedly on the brink of death.
Digesting volumes of brutal and downtrodden images can be dangerous. It can lead to despair, paralysis, and/or self-fulfilling prophecies of further demise. Millions of people are ordinarily numb to the fact that hyper-violence and wretched Africanized worlds are hallmarks of modern media (esp. Hollywood), and accept it wholesale. Remarkably though, Adeyemi inserts a critical lifeline into this abyss–the concept that the Gods of one’s own ancestors (in this case the Orisha) provide salvation unlike any other.
Reviewed by: Jaye Winmilawe, Ph.D.
Published in Africa Access Review (November 8, 2018)
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