The British-Nigerian author smashes the patriarchy of the classic folk tale in her new short-story collection.

By Alamin Yohannes
April 12, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT
Love in Color by Bolu Babalola
Bolu Babalola
| Credit: Folaju Oyegbesan; William Morrow

To Bolu Babalola, romance is elastic. Or rather, it should be.

The British-Nigerian author sees how, off the page, the concept of love is wholly universal: It can stretch itself to encompass all types of people and meanings. In print, however, the romance genre often doesn't reflect that diversity — so she wrote a book to change that. "The concept of love," she says, "is so much bigger than the narrow idea that we see in the mainstream."

Love in Color pulls ancient myths and folklore from across the globe and transforms them into powerful (and current) female-led love stories. Babalola dove deep into cultural references for her adaptations; she pulls from everything from A Thousand and One Nights to the Greek mythology of Eros and Psyche to Ancient Egypt's Nefertiti. She modernized the origin stories by removing the patriarchal elements — like the damsel in distress — that are often embedded in tales that go back generations.

Taking inspiration from the tales from cultures meant modernizing them while paying homage to the cultures where the stories originate. Babalola sought out stories about valor, sacrifice, and other themes she could make her own. "I wanted to make it sacrifice without a woman sacrificing herself. It's more about the power of love," she say.

The title character in the story "Siya," for example, was inspired by the legends of an ancient African civilization in what is present-day Mali. In the old tales, Siya was depicted as one such damsel, betrothed to the warrior Maadi. As Babalola writes her, Siya becomes the leader of the Soninke people's insurrection, fighting alongside her army commander: "They seek to save each other, rather than the man seeking to save the woman," she explains of Siya and Maadi.

While the myths and folklore are from across the globe, it was essential for Babalola to center African stories. "In the universal world of fairy tales, we're so used to these European ideals of romances and heroines," she says. "For Black and African women, I wanted to center us in stories that were empowering but also embrace our softness and sweetness. I wanted to emphasize how those two things sit together."

Babalola sees the universality of love, so incorporating diverse love stories was never a question. "I don't have the experience to write about all the diversity of love, but I can do it to the capacity of my experience. Romance is an elastic genre," she says. "Siya" is about a woman whose power is something her person loves about her. "Nefertiti" is a queer love story delving into issues including political injustice, and "Naelill" explores privilege while telling the story of a woman who has vitiligo. "The skin condition is something she goes through and not something that diminishes her," Babalola says.

"There are so many different ways that love is explored in this book, and it also shows how love allows us to grow and develop," she adds.

Babalola also weaves in her own parables for three entirely original short stories. "I just wanted to freestyle," she shares. After spending time living in the worlds of myths, the original tales allow her to showcase her voice. As an African storyteller, Babalola knows that old stories about ancestors are passed down to future generations and then are built upon as time goes on. "So with Love in Color, I told stories of some of our ancestors then continued that tradition my way by telling my own stories," she explains.

One of the originals, "Alagomeji," is based on the romantic history of her parents. Traveling to Lagos as a child, Babalola's parents would show her where they grew up. Pointing out corner stories and other neighborhood touchstones is something Babalola sees as incredibly precious in adulthood. "It was really special for me to share and protect that story within my books," she says. "Alagomeji" shows Black and Africa love positively, without focusing on strife and suffering. "Without their love for me and their love for each other," she says, "I wouldn't be able to keep up my love of romance."

Babalola is continuing to tell her own stories with her first novel, Honey and Spice. The college-campus-based tale centers on a girl who doesn't date and a guy who loves romance a little too much. Babalola is excited about the tale's exploration of romantic love and love for community. The self-proclaimed romcomoisseur has no plans to stop stretching the scope of the stories being told about love.

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