Namina Forna’s Feminist Fantasy Novel "The Gilded Ones" Shines A Spotlight On Femme Oppression
"Because I grew up in a time of violence, where aggression against women was especially brutal, I had all these questions about what it meant to be female, or to present as female, and why women were so often marginalized and then told that it was for our own good."
The Gilded Ones is a debut YA novel by New York Times bestselling epic fantasy author Namina Forna that released earlier this year. Filled with pulse-pounding action, female heroes, brilliant worldbuilding, and feminism at its forefront, The Gilded Ones has continued to both excite and intrigue readers. We had the opportunity to chat with Namina and discuss her novel in depth, including how her life experiences shaped this novel and her long journey to publication.
Farrah Penn: Hi, Namina! This is Farrah with BuzzFeed. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m so excited we could make this happen. How are you doing?
Namina Forna: I'm great, super excited to chat with you!
FP: Same! I’m thrilled to be discussing your debut YA novel, The Gilded Ones. This is a powerful, African-inspired, action-packed dystopian/fantasy where villages turn on young girls whose blood runs gold, casting them out as impure. Our protagonist Deka ends up facing the consequences of this when, deep down, she desperately wants to be accepted. What inspired you to write this story?
NF: Basically, I spent my childhood and teenage years questioning and rebelling against gender norms: Why was I expected to do certain things just because I was a girl? It wasn’t fair, I thought. Then I went to college and took women’s studies classes there. That’s when I discovered that all the things I’d had issues with were part of a system. So, I decided to write a book about it. I wanted to explain in a fun and kickass way what a patriarchal system looks like, and what happens when you live in one. As for Deka, she came from a dream I used to have about a girl in golden armor. When I decided to tell the story of The Gilded Ones, I knew the girl from my dream had to be the protagonist.
FP: I love that your dream showed you this character that demanded to be written! I think Deka’s evolution throughout the book is really special. We first see her as this delicate, almost fragile girl and watch her grow into someone who knows her strength, even if she still struggles to understand it. Did you find Deka’s character difficult to write, or was it a voice that came naturally?
NF: Hmm, a mixture of both. When I first started writing Deka, I imagined her as a Buffy-like character, already questioning and powerful from the womb. But that didn’t feel true to her circumstances. It felt like a trope, rather than a character. So I had to start over. Once I did, she came through easier. I will say, however, that she was painful to write. In the book, Deka is told she’s a demon because she bleeds gold and is faster and stronger. Even though she’s this powerful semi-immortal being, she’s put through a lot of trauma and has to suffer the repercussions of this. It took a lot to write Deka’s mental state truthfully without being sensational or exploitative.
FP: Yes, I can see how that could take a lot out of you. You created this honest, complex character who is going through so much, who has taken on all this trauma. I’d love to hear you talk about the significance of gold in this book. In the beginning, it’s introduced to us as this very negative experience — having gold blood.
NF: The Gilded Ones is very much a feminist book, and one of the things it talks about is the commodification of women, i.e., the way women and femme people are often looked at as objects with commercial value rather than human beings. I wanted to show this in a very simple way, which is why the immortal girls in my book bleed gold. Not only are they sent out to fight monsters, they’re being bled for the gold in their veins. I think this says a lot about the state of women across the world. Women, girls, and femmes in general have their bodies monetized and commercialized, it’s very distressing.
FP: It's terribly distressing! You handle a lot of heavy themes in this book in a sensitive way, but there's also joyful moments. Personally, one of my favorite parts to read about was Deka’s friendship with Britta. She is such a wholesome character, and their friendship is *everything.* Deka and Britta really come to rely on each other. What character and/or relationship was the most fun for you to create?
NF: That one exactly! Britta is one of my favorite characters because she lifts every scene she’s in. When I wrote Deka, Britta just sort of emerged. I hadn’t planned her, but she was the perfect foil for Deka. For me, Deka and Britta’s relationship is actually the central one in the book, because we sometimes forget that friendships are romances. They’re platonic, sure, but the romance is still there. I mean, think about Deka and Britta’s meet-cute. I had such fun writing that.
FP: I love that she was a surprise to you while writing! Those unexpected moments are really special. And I love that you had such a great time creating this strong, central friendship. It shows! You've mentioned that you grew up in Sierra Leone during a time of war, immigrated to America, and later on would attend Spelman College. How did these life experiences play a role in shaping the world and system you created in The Gilded Ones?
NF: They were basically foundational to the book. Because I grew up in a time of violence, where aggression against women was especially brutal, I had all these questions about what it meant to be female, or to present as female, and why women were so often marginalized and then told that it was for our own good. When I went to Spelman, I got a lot of answers to those questions through my women’s studies classes, which is how I got the foundation I needed to write the book. I had the lived experience of the system, so, in that regard, it was easy to write. In terms of the world of The Gilded Ones, growing up, my dad and grandmother would tell me stories and histories of long-ago African civilizations. Not only that, my country itself seemed magical — mountainous tropical rainforest bordered by endless beaches. I could see whales sometimes from my veranda when I looked out, and there were always parrots at my house, and monkeys would sometimes swing by. So I grew up thinking that Sierra Leone, and Africa, by extension, was this magical place. And I wanted to reflect that in my work, which is why the world of TGO looks the way it does.
FP: That sounds so beautiful, and from your description, I can see how this influenced the world in The Gilded Ones. I'm sorry it was during such a violent time. Finding those bits of magic then feels so important. The Gilded Ones was originally supposed to debut in 2020 but was pushed to 2021. You've mentioned that your publishing journey was a long one, and this made it just a tad longer. But you made it! AND you’re a New York Times bestseller! What has been the most challenging and most rewarding part of it all?
NF: I still can’t believe it, honestly. But I’m so very, very grateful to be here. The best part of this journey has been connecting with fans. For so long, I would literally chase people to read my work, and now people are buying it. Feels like a dream. The worst part is the anxiety. I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough, reaching out enough. And I’m SUPER introverted, so this causes me even more stress. But I’m learning to be gentle with myself and learning boundaries. It's a process.
FP: The excited feedback from your fans and young readers who deeply connected with this book must be incredibly fulfilling! It's so impactful. But I can understand that it can be equally draining. I think practicing being kind to yourself is important for sure. Can we talk about your cover for a second? It is GORGEOUS. What was the process like? And what was your reaction when you first saw it?
NF: I absolutely LOVE my cover and was just stunned when I saw it. It was done by an amazing artist named Johnny Tarajosu. You can find his work on Instagram. I had very little to do with the cover. Basically, my editor told me she had an artist in mind who would do the cover justice. She shows me his Insta, and honestly, I hemmed and hawed because I thought the cover should be dark and ominous, and his work is not that. But I knew my editor knew what she was doing, so I said go ahead. Months later, she sends me the cover and it’s absolutely perfect. I made, like, one tiny note and that was it. I love it so much.
FP: Haha! Editors are the best. It's so cool that she just knew Johnny could bring it life. There is so much to love! One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about The Call. What happened when you found out your book sold?
NF: I fell to the floor and cried. I’d wanted this dream for so long. For over a decade, people told me to let it go, told me I’d never be a writer. And here it was — someone was buying my book. I was over the moon. I was also wearing a dragon onesie, which — very true to form. Good news tends to come when I’m wearing a ridiculous onesie.
FP: You were dressed and READY for that news! I am so glad you didn't give up your dream, and I am so sorry you were discouraged from pursuing it. I can only imagine the excitement you felt in that moment! I have one more question before I let you go! Have you received any writing advice over the years that really resonated with you?
NF: Yes — take breaks, treat yourself kindly, you’re not a machine. A lot of writers think they have to write every day and produce, produce, produce. Be gentle with yourself — remember you’re human, and humans, at the very least, need pee breaks. Just sayin'…
FP: That is very good advice. I do think the more pressure you put on yourself, the less inspiration tends to come. As you said, humans are not machines!
FP: Namina, thank you so much for your time and for this enriching conversation! It was such a pleasure chatting with you today!
NF: Same!! Thanks so much, have a wonderful rest of the day!!!