The Gilded Ones is a powerful exploration of what it is to be feminist in a deeply patriarchal kingdom. Set in the fantasy world of Otera, a West African inspired world, where a woman’s worth is only as good as her proven purity. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Namina Forna about her impressive debut novel....
There is a strong sense of ancient traditions in your writing – how easy was it to use these /research them as a basis of your story? Was there any sense you were not welcome to use them?
I grew up in Sierra Leone, West Africa, so I have a deep understanding of my country's culture and traditions. Since I already had the real life experience, I didn’t do any more research, traditions-wise, especially as I made up most of the traditions in the book myself. I did, however, base the Ritual of Purity in my book off Bondo, a secret society of women in Sierra Leone that practice female genital mutilation (FGM) or genital cutting. About 90% of women in Sierra Leone have had this done to them, often when they’re very young and have limited understanding of what’s about to happen. But Sierra Leone is not the only place where FGM happens. It happens all across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and even Europe and America.
With the Ritual of Purity I wanted to talk about how traditions like these, which brutalize and emotionally and physically scar women worldwide, are fed to girls as beautiful ceremonies to make them “pure.” Bondo is a taboo subject in Sierra Leone, so I knew that there would be lots of people who weren’t necessarily pleased by any references to FGM, but I think it’s important to talk about. All across the world, girls are being forced to undergo this horrific ritual, and it’s usually their mothers, grandmothers and aunts convincing or even forcing them to go.
Your aim was to create a feminist take on a patriarchal society – I am not surprised you feel that things are not that different in the treatment you have received in the US. Do you have any knowledge of any country where things are better today? What are they legislating that others are not?
Hmm, this is a difficult question to answer. I think the fight for gender equality is always in flux—one step forward, two steps back. That beings said, there are some countries that stand out when it comes to gender equity. New Zealand, for one. Their prime minister Jacinda Ardern always seems to put her money where her mouth is. Before her, I’d never seen a baby at the UN General Assembly, not to mention a head of state handling one before giving a speech to the entire world. Just her doing it was revolutionary. I was like, wow, she’s really changing things.
The Nordic countries as well, Finland and Sweden for example, keep making tremendous strides. Another country I want to point out is Rwanda, whose parliament is 62% women. I’d note this with a grain of salt, however, because that progressiveness in governance doesn’t seem to have really made strides for the everyday woman.
I’d also like to highlight my own country, Sierra Leone, because while gender dynamics are atrocious, there is a growing feminist movement. I can even point out women like Freetown’s mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, who seem to be be breaking the mold. But we still have a long, long, looooooooooong way to go.
Did you have any misgivings depicting the violence both of society and war situations in your book – especially as it is aimed at teenagers?
Not in the least. First, literally any movie or TV show is equally or a thousand times more violent. Secondly, censoring violence ignores the reality that many teenagers across the world live with. The violence that happens in The Gilded Ones (TGO) is fantastical, true, but it reflects the very real violence that many children and teens across the world face. Finally, all the violence in TGO has a point. I’m not having torture scenes because I think they’re cool—each one always illustrates a point that is central to the narrative. In the world of TGO, the violence always has a point.
The Deathshrieks are terrifying as enemies – are they based on a traditional entity or how did you come up with such an apparent monster?
I did not base the deathshrieks on anything. I’m an avid daydreamer, and I oftentimes just sit there, imagining horrific things to entertain myself. (I’m morbid like that.) The deathshrieks are one of the many horrors I’ve envisioned.
Have you taken a specific legend to use as your basis or is this an amalgam of several legends from different periods?
The Gilded Ones isn’t based on any legends. It is, however, based on a dream. When I was in college, I’d dream about a girl in golden armor walking slow motion onto a battlefield. The dream never went further, but the girl’s story did. It became The Gilded Ones.
How did you prepare to write your novel? Has it been a long project?
The Gilded Ones is a project that took nearly a decade, in terms of planning and brainstorming. I started having dreams about Deka, my main character, in undergrad, but they never went anywhere. Then, one day in film school, a sentence popped into my head: “I was nine years old when first I learned I could not die.”
Those words spiraled into a story—a girl in a patriarchal society finds out she’s a monster, and then trains to defeat other monsters.
From then, I had to brainstorm my world—what would it look like, who were the people who occupied it? I spent a couple of months thinking about it, and then, I went to work. I wrote the first draft of TGO in 2012, but that didn’t go anywhere, so I tossed it out. Then, in 2018, I rewrote the entire novel from scratch, and that’s the story that’s on the pages today.
Did you find aspects of yourself - or your family & friends - appearing in The Gilded Ones?
Yes, very much so. I grew up during Sierra Leone’s civil war, so I have a very good understanding of trauma and its effects, which shows up in all the girls in the book. In this way, TGO was a difficult—almost painful— book to write.
Audio books are so popular now - have you joined the audio book movement?
Nothing can replace the smell of a physical book for me. Nothing. Old school books all the way.
.....And who would you choose to narrate The Gilded Ones?
Shayna Small. She does an amazing job on the audiobook.
What are you currently reading and what books are in your to-read pile?
I’m currently reading Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, and Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis, both thoroughly excellent books. I’m about to read Red Tigress by Amelie Wen Zhao.
One in three of all books sold is a children's book yet children's books only get 4% of review space in the media. Why do you think this is - and what can be done?
I think this is because people assume two things: 1. Children don’t read reviews. 2. Only children read children’s books.
Both assumptions are false, (although, I will admit not all children enjoy reviews) and so to what can be done, honestly, I don’t know. I think children’s literature is generally not regarded as serious literature, and therefore not handled with the same gravitas. But children’s books make up a sizable portion of the market. It is a conundrum…
What does LoveReading4Kids mean to you?
It means a fun and easy way to find books for any child—any age group, any interest. I just like to scroll through the website and look for books that catch my fancy.