Ten minutes before we speak about her new short story collection, Love in Colour, writer Bolu Babalola is tweeting. She posts a tweet detailing what kind of character she would be in a classic high school movie (someone who starts a book club but calls it a “literary salon”, and “100-percent has a jock boyfriend”.)
“Sometimes my writing muscle needs to be exercised and Twitter provides that,” Babalola, who also juggles a Dazed column and writing scripts for TV and film, tells me over the phone. “Though I am tweeting too much right now.”
Twitter is where Babalola solidified her brand as a self-titled “romcomoisseur”, analysing the very specific allure of Nick Miller from sitcom New Girl, proclaiming Heath Ledger as the ultimate “white heart-throb” and going viral for PhotoShopping a cute couple pic of herself and American actor, Michael B. Jordan.
If anyone knows about romance, it’s Babalola and her new book, Love in Colour, is further proof of this. The anthology of love stories spans countries and history – from Greek mythology to Nigerian folklore – each retold by Babalola in imaginative new ways. Among the 13 stories in the book, there are also three original tales written by Babalola.
Ahead of the release of Love in Colour, Babalola and I spoke about love, modern dating and, somehow, writing rom-coms in Comic Sans.
VICE: Hi Bolu! First of all, how have you been?
Bolu Babalola: Good. It’s been really hectic throughout all of it. I’m still doing my work which is writing, working on my show and my book and trying not to lose my mind.
Congratulations on Love in Colour. You tweeted pictures of you holding your book when it arrived at your home. How did that feel?
This is going to sound really arrogant but when you understand that I’m Nigerian and Yoruba, it makes sense. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and had always envisioned that moment. Even when I was 12, I was like, “I’m going to have a book out”. Now that it’s happened, it’s gratitude. I’m humbled by the fact that it’s happened but I’m not necessarily shocked or surprised. It’s surreal in that sense.
When did you start writing about romance?
When I was around 14 or 15, I used to use the family PC to write 15 page rom-coms in a massive font – Comic Sans, of course.
Not Comic Sans!
Comic Sans was the font I gravitated to, you know, something funky and cute. [Laughs.] They were called things like “Summer Lovin’” and “Two Can Play That Game”. They were all weirdly Americanised because those were the books that I read and when I told my friend about them she was like, “I want to read them”. So I brought them into class, she loved it and it went around the class, people started passing it on and they just became things I started to write regularly.
Do you think growing up reading those kinds of romantic young adult books skewed the way you saw relationships?
Not really. I mean, I grew up with my parents. There’s a story in the book based on their story, so I grew up with romance in that sense. It didn’t give me unrealistic expectations of love though, it just gave me hope for it. It’s allowed me to see love as something that’s hopeful and can bring light into reality.
Which story is based on your parents?
The last one, “Alagomeji”. I don’t want to say too much about it and spoil it, but it’s loosely based on their story. They’re best friends, that's the thing. They’re really just mates. They can be lovey dovey but it’s not cringe, it's more like roasting each other. So I think that’s why my love language is definitely humour, just being able to gently poke fun at somebody but with love at the centre of it.
That’s so cute. Did you grow up being told any of the stories you’ve now retold?
Obviously, I’m Yoruba so there’s a story based on Yoruba mythology in the book, but most of them I just researched on my own. In that research, I realised that there’s so much that I don’t know, not just about Nigerian or African culture but just generally. It was such a privilege to be able to explore that as well as Africa in general. I have a Ghanaian love story, I have a love story from Lesotho, I have a love story based on the ancient African civilisation of the Wagadou people, who are now split up across West Africa in places like Mali and Guinea. I just learned so much about the continent itself and how it's its own universe, but then I got sad over colonialism. Then had an existential crisis, like, “Oh my god, our history is so rich and I’ve barely scratched the surface”.
A lot of the original stories have violent, patriarchal elements to them. How did you manage to take that out of your retellings?
Some of it was a challenge but it was a really good exercise for me as a writer. I just sat down with them and distilled the character traits that I really admire and enjoy. For example, Siya’s story is based in ancient Wagadou. In that original story, Siya is basically – and this is word for word what I read – a “virgin damsel”. Maadi, a warrior and her betrothed, is meant to fight for her honour. So I was like, what if I make it so that Siya is the warrior and the story is about them saving each other? I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the prince wanting to save a princess, I think there’s a problem when it implies that the woman is powerless and everything depends on the man. I think there’s something beautiful about wanting to save someone that you love. So I thought, “OK, what if they both just love each other so much that they try to save each other?”
You’ve changed those elements, but it’s also really interesting to see that you’ve left in important parts from the original stories. In the original story of Ọṣun, she tricks another woman into cutting her own ear off. But in your retelling, she uses her power to block it instead.
Thank you so much for spotting that because I worked so hard to pay respect to the original and I really want people to know what I did! I really enjoy Ọṣun because she’s not nice. She’s not sweet or kind, she’s a bit petty. She blocks Oba's ear with water and obviously, Ọṣun is the river goddess, so I wanted to invoke her powers, while also referencing the original story. I didn’t want to make it grotesque and graphic, but something that doesn’t completely omit that side to her. She’s a petty queen.
You’ve written about old mythical tales, but what do you think of modern dating?
Ultimately, it hasn’t changed. Although social media has created a bit too much exposure and too much sensitivity because being in love, dating and romance is such a vulnerable thing anyway. Now, you’re texting someone and they’ve left you on read for, like, an hour. You’re on blue tick. Now you see them post up on Instagram and you’re like, “So you can post up on Instagram but you can’t reply to my text?” You’ve hyped it up in your mind because we’ve given ourselves leeway to create narratives in our head that aren’t conducive to healthy relationships. It just creates a false stress on top of the anxiety that already exists in romance and dating.
That being said, of course social media has made us more connected and I’m not saying it’s all bad – of course not. I’m tweeting far too much though. It’s great for connecting but I think there’s a balance.
Although you tweet a lot about relationships and dating, you aren’t necessarily a “dating influencer”. How do you feel about them?
I don’t make that my beat, but I have loads of young women messaging me online – it's just that I don’t talk about it on the timeline. They’ll be like, ‘This tweet made me realise my standards”.
My thing is I just really, really think it’s important – and I’m talking to just women right now – to understand their worth and not to diminish themselves for anybody, and to have an immutable standard of what they will and won’t accept. Once you have that, it is much easier to navigate relationships even when you’re moved by emotion. It isn’t anything novel that I’m saying. I think that’s the problem – don’t say what you’re saying as if it’s new. It’s just logic. But talk to yourself as if you’re talking to your friend. If you’re giving advice, think: if it was your friend would you tell them to stay in the situation? Being alone is better than being with someone who doesn’t treat you the way you want to be treated.
You open the book by saying that you “love love”. What is it that hooks you?
Well, what else galvanises us as humans? It’s at the core of everything and this isn’t just fluffy “live, love, laugh” sort of stuff. Love can be war and anger. Even in light of things like Black Lives Matter. For me, you cannot say that you love humanity and then ignore that this is happening. Love is tied to so many things and I think that it’s just something that fuels us and connects us as humans. It’s a lens for us to understand ourselves as well as in relation to other people.
In terms of romance, it’s so beautiful to be able to connect and click with someone, the alchemy of connection and timing and being able to be vulnerable with somebody is such a wonderful thing and it happens everyday. Because it happens everyday, I think we forget how magical it is, for want of another word. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we have this really powerful, magical thing within our fingertips and we should pay reverence and respect to that, and allow it to light up our lives as well.
Thanks for speaking with us, Bolu.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola is published on the 20th of August and currently available for preorder.