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Bolu Babalola on love, diversity and redefining romance

As she releases her literary debut, Love In Colour, writer BOLU BABALOLA talks to KATIE BERRINGTON about her long-time passion for writing romance, bringing ancient love stories into the present day and why the genre needs greater diversity

Lifestyle

Bolu Babalola is a self-proclaimed “lover of love”. She has been writing love stories since she was at school, when she would type them up on her family’s computer and distribute them among her classmates. She wrote her first full novel in sixth form – “it’s not good!” she insists with hindsight – and another while she was at university. “Love stories have always been ‘it’ for me,” determines the London-based writer, who pens pop-culture features as well as TV and film scripts (and refers to herself as a romcomoisseur).

It makes sense, then, that her literary debut, Love In Colour, is an anthology of brilliantly and beautifully reimagined love stories from history and mythology – including Greek legends, Nigerian folk tales and ancient stories from South Asia. A “celebration of romance in all its forms”, Babalola plays with genres, settings and narratives to re-center the focus of these tales.

When you’re writing a love story, you need to make sure the characters are not perfect. I want them to be relatable

“The thing is, a lot of love stories are often not love stories on their own – they are entangled with other-origin stories, [and] they’re entangled with war and creation stories,” she says of her elaborate research and writing process. “Obviously, these were created in very patriarchal, misogynistic contexts; a lot of them are very violent. And what they recognize as love isn’t necessarily anything that we recognize as romance and love – a lot of them are very creepy! It was about detangling the good things in them, and the character traits that I admire, and using that to build my own story.”

The first retelling she wrote was Osun – the story of “a high-born Nigerian goddess” who yearns to be truly seen – which came from the West African Yoruba myth and religion.

“That was the one that proved to me that I could actually do this, because I was terrified when I started the project,” she shares. “When I figured out who Osun was, everything kind of fell into place and [the story] flew out of me.

“When you’re writing a love story, you need to make sure the characters are not perfect. I want them to be relatable; Osun is not sweet or kind or your usual protagonist.” Babalola says writing the book allowed her “the grace to see people as fully fledged human beings [who] can’t – and shouldn’t – always adhere to our narratives”.

The breadth of the stories she retells is powerful and evocative, in both highlighting the universality of the human spirit and exploring how these intrinsic emotions are expressed and experienced in multidimensional ways. “Love is a humanizing thing, so we need to be able to see many different people experiencing love,” she says. And by paying homage to the origins of these tales, while bringing them into modern contexts, she hopes it will allow more people to access and appreciate them.

A “step towards decolonizing tropes of love”, the diversity of their origins is significant, too, because it gives rise to voices and perspectives that have often been overlooked and pigeonholed by the media.

If you’re not reading books in general by people of color and Black people, then your education is warped

“It’s important to be able to see Black people and people of color in love – and in these hopeful contexts that aren’t mired with darkness and strife. You know, a lot of the portrayals we have seen in mainstream media – if we do see Black people at all – is through the context of the burden of race, and I say [that] purposefully because race is seen to be a burden,” Babalola says. “Whereas the reality is that we’re just living our lives and we’re falling in love as Black people – it’s not something we’re fighting through to feel love and softness.”

In the momentum surrounding the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Babalola has been included in articles and on lists about supporting Black writers. She stresses that the events of the past few months don’t mean that the world has changed, but rather that “it’s just paying more attention to these issues” than it was before – and that the movement needs to go further.

“I think a lot of people, when they see, ‘read Black authors’, go straight to anti-racist texts, which are explicitly talking about race and privilege. And those are important, of course, but also that can’t be it. Because if you’re not reading books in general by people of color and Black people, then your education is warped. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, I’m about to read a book by a Black author.’ It should be a natural thing. If you like romance, you’ll like this book; it’s as simple as that.”

Babalola wants her book to “make people feel full” and for them to find “hope and joy” within it. “That’s the kind of media I consume – I love love, and I watch things that make me feel really hopeful about the world,” she considers. “The world is full of darkness and bleakness, so then I have something that can skew my view to a positive one and to remind me that there is joy [too]. Friendship and romance are things that allow us to access joy.”

Lockdown made me realize how much I need to be nourished by experiences. We’ve had Zoom parties, but it’s just not the same

Under the umbrella of romance, Babalola’s own preferences span the genre widely – recently, she has been re-watching New Girl, her favorite show, and reading All About Love by bell hooks. “It’s about the power of love and its many dimensions, how it grounds us as well as lifts us up, how it galvanizes us,” she enthuses about the volume by the feminist icon. “Especially reading it right now, in terms of all the racial strife and war of conflict, in the middle of that is if you love humanity, you will be angry. Love is a really galvanizing emotion.”

Lockdown for Babalola has been busy work-wise, her time mainly spent editing Love In Colour, but it has also had a profound impact on her understanding of what she finds to be motivating and nurturing in her work and life. “It’s made me realize how much I need to be nourished by experiences,” she determines. “I had one day recently, when I went to a friend’s house for a barbecue with a couple of close friends, and the elation and high that I felt was like I was on drugs! We’ve had Zoom parties, but it’s just not the same.”

If there is something that Babalola loves as much as love, it is writing. She has practiced it in many guises – from blogs and tweets to story-writing and scripts – “anywhere that I could get my voice out”. A key part of her career success, she believes, comes down to the fact she has always had “a tremendous amount of self-belief… I never really questioned being a writer”.

Combining her two great passions is still something of a dream come true, though. “I’m so grateful; it’s crazy to me that I love rom-coms so much – they’re what I consume – and I get to write [about romance]. I’m very privileged because of that.”

Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold is available to buy from August 20