It’s a bit chilly for August, but that doesn’t stop me from dumping a few ice cubes into a glass. Add a quarter of lime, a lug of gin, and a generous pour of tonic, and it’s a drink. I mean, it’s liquid in a glass, so I suppose that’s not a high mark to reach.
In any case, glass of liquid in hand, I saunter up to my computer and have a seat.
I take a sip from my glass.
“Ah.” Very refreshing.
I ponder the lime and ice floating in the clear liquid, and then look up at you, sitting on the other side.
“Let’s talk about allegory,” I say.
“I just finished Children of Blood and Bone. Like, literally, just finished. Well, at the time of the editing of this blog post, it’s been a couple of days. But still, fairly recent. So, it’s still fresh up in the ol’ Hannah-head. And I want to talk about it. Have you read it? The book, I mean?
If not, I’ll sum up quickly. Children of Blood and Bone is a YA novel, set in a fictional land called Orisha. The world-building that props up the story is heavily based in African culture (mythology, lore, religion, language, etc.). Even Orishan place names are shared with real-life present day cities, like Lagos (in Nigeria). In my mind, it’s rich source material and expertly handled by Tomi Adeyemi, a Nigerian-American and daughter of immigrants.
Anyway, on to the summary. In the story, main character Zelie is a member of a magical-capable people called maji. In Orisha, maji are oppressed by the kosidan nobles, to the point where their magic was stripped from them by the evil King Saran years earlier. On a chance encounter with a young noble, Zelie discovered the means to restore magic and end the oppression of her people. Now she just has to overcome all the obstacles in her way: a manic prince hell-bent on proving himself to his father the king, an army of malicious guards, learning to use magic she didn’t think existed anymore, crossing the desert, battling in a gruesome arena, dealing with bandits, betrayal, love, death— Yeah, a lot happens in this story. I mean, it’s 165,920 words!
So, now you have the summary. Let’s come back to what brought me to talk about this book: allegory.
Oh, but do you want me to explain allegory real quick?”
“No,” you say. “Pretty sure I have that one nailed down.”
“You sure? Not even a quick refresher?”
“Allegory is pretty simple,” you explain to me. “It’s when a story is a metaphor for another story or—”
“Story or real life events or circumstances,” I interrupt. “See, I told you that you needed a refresher. Anyway, back to the point at hand.
You see, this book, Children of Blood and Bone, is an allegory for power structures and race in the United States, specifically referring to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The author herself has spoken multiple times that her anger, hurt, fear, rage, and pain at seeing black people mistreated in her country fueled her to want to do something, to fight. And she wrote this book as her way of fighting.
Back to the story. I mentioned that army of guards earlier. They are a main antagonizing force in the novel, both the peacekeeping force in the many cities we visit and the military arm of King Saran. We see guards continually harassing our characters. Within the first few pages of the book, we learn Zelie’s beloved mother was killed by guards many years ago, when magic was taken. We see the guards harass her, touching her inappropriately, threatening or even inflicting violence on her and her family. And through all of this, while Zelie is a strong and capable character in her own right, she has no power to defend herself against the guards. They hurt, they take. And Zelie is stuck in this terrible existence, at least until the plot kicks in.
There’s a telling moment near the middle of the book, when Zelie is in a difficult position and a potential ally is trying to convince her to enlist the help of guards to save her brother. But Zelie is reluctant to agree. The ally says:
“You don’t have to be afraid—”
“I am always afraid!”
I don’t know what shocks me more—the power in my voice or the words themselves[…]
It’s a truth locked away years ago, a fact I fought hard to overcome. Because when it hits, I’m paralyzed.
I can’t breathe.
Does that last line ring any bells? Maybe you recall Eric Garner, a black man who died in police custody in 2017. His last words recorded on video were, “I can’t breathe.”
So, the parallels between what happens in this story and the modern experience of black people in the United States are clear. Orisha is a land ruled by a people with lighter colored skin who oppress another people who look and act different.
And so we come back to allegory, and why I want to discuss it. Because just saying this story is an allegory for the modern African-American experience isn’t especially meaningful in and of itself. I mean, there are a lot of ways to talk about oppression. There are a lot of ways to convey experience. Look at the memoir 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexei. Tomi Adeyemi could have just straight up told a memoir, exploring the fear she experiences in everyday life. She could have written a bio of one of the many, many people killed by police. She could have gone for the literary fiction route, which might have won her more respect from the literary or academic community.
But she didn’t.
Tomi Adeyemi chose to write a fantasy. And that really interests me because traditional fantasy (at least as we understand the genre in the United States) is often rooted in Western mythology. Think The Lord of the Rings, The Kingkiller Chronicles, or Game of Thrones. It’s a pretty Euro-centric genre, often written by people from that background. I’m not saying solely. Especially in modern fantasy, there are definitely fantasy worlds and authors that don’t fit this mold (read: lots and lots of others!). But, I think, when most people think of fantasy, they think of European-esque setting with dragons, white-bearded wizards, wands, castles, and (often) white characters. And it was this genre that Tomi Adeyemi chose to write her African-mythology/Black Lives Matter-inspired story.
And that, I think, was clever of her. Because really, the strength of allegory and fantasy is that they allow us to explore difficult topics and themes in a separate space. It provides some distance between me and what’s happening in the story. But, as many fantasy fans will know, that distance doesn’t obscure the meaning. If anything, it can clarify or enhance.
I think a lot about the Harry Potter books, and how the themes of death and losing loved ones helped me come to better terms with the death of someone I loved. And I think about reading this book, and how it makes me think of what it’s like to live an existence where you are constantly afraid and mistrustful of the people who are supposed to protect you, and how terrible that must be and how it has to change. A lot of people mistake fantasy for escapism. They relegate allegory to some cheap writing trick for people who can’t come up with their own story. But I think fantasy and allegory are powerful tools for teaching and healing. And I would have to guess the Tomi Adyemi does, too.
If you’re in need of a book to read in the last weeks of summer, I would highly recommend Children of Blood and Bone.