Bolu Babalola always knew she'd be a writer. When she was younger, she used to tear pages out of books and eat them. Her father claims that this was when she'd found her calling, because words were delicious.
The self-proclaimed "romcomoisseur" and writer recently worked as an assistant producer at BBC Comedy. In 2016, she was shortlisted by the 4th Estate BAME Prize for her debut written article, Netflix and Chill. Now, at 29, the Nigerian wordsmith has published her first short story anthology: Love in Colour which features vibrant retellings of mythical tales from around the world. It has received widespread praise from fans and authors including Meg Cabot and Candice Carty-Williams.
The anthology features stories that capture the passion of love at first sight, self-love and Black female empowerment, with Bolu flipping stereotypes and patriarchal structures on their heads. She creates new stories that feature the true beauty of love and desire in diverse communities and cultures.
Ahead, we speak to Bolu about her stories, why she looks to her parents for inspiration and why she feels it's important to subvert the patriarchy when it comes to Black love.
Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Love in Colour. How do you feel now that your anthology is out in the world?
It just feels really surreal. When you spend so long working on a book, you do all the processing as you're working. At the moment, I can't believe it's out in the world. It's exciting but it's no different. I processed it ages ago as soon as I signed the deal. I just feel really grateful that people have access to it. Everyone has been so full of warmth and joy and the feedback has been great.
From the first page of the book, you make it really clear that you're a huge fan of love. Why did you start writing about romance and what drew you in?
Nothing really drew me in. I'm a writer and I love love, so it just happened. When I first started writing stories, it wasn't something I even thought about. I was really young and romance, hope and joy were things I naturally gravitated to. But nothing I write about is autobiographical at all. If a situation happens in my life, the story becomes embellished and exaggerated because you've taken inspiration from it. As a writer, you imbibe so much and take on so many emotions and sometimes you have to go through it. But mostly, I observe what my friends experience, what I see and what I want to see in the world.
A lot of the original stories featured women who had little consent and where men were predatory. Why did you decide to change that and make women the sole focus?
I felt these stories were so violent and romance was something we needed. It was all about a man's desire and I wasn't about that. It was about ownership. These men wanted to own these women. I thought, how lovely would it be to de-censor these women and make it empowering? Some of these men were actively predatory. I really wanted to erase that and rewrite it and build love as a healthy thing that in which both parties are supportive of each other. Their love is nothing about them, but everything to do about their relationship.
So many stories about Black couples focus on suffering. Would you like to see more stories focusing on Black love, and do you think Love in Colour hopes to change that narrative?
I think in recent years, a lot of the stories have been focusing on Black trauma. When I was growing up, I gravitated towards Black romcoms. We've regressed and dipped since then, but generally in the UK, we don't really have any of that. I have no idea if Love in Colour changes the narrative. I don't want to act like I'm doing a grand thing. But I know I want to tell stories about Black love because that's what I want to see more of in the world.
One of your stories, Alagomeji, is based on your parents' relationship, and you've said that they taught you love. What did you learn from them?
The friendship, the humour, the strong foundation of really liking each other. It's really important to fall in love and not just like them as a person or fall in love with the idea of them. You have to think: are they your bestie? Can you just sit and laugh about nothing? My parents have a really deep friendship. They met when they were young. They were romantic but mostly they built a solid friendship comprising of open communication. They are partners and support each other as a team, but mainly their friendship and humour has driven it.
What is it about love that you love, and specifically Black love?
My notion of love is that it's somebody who really sees you and wants to be with you, support and empower you. I read a quote somewhere that described love as friendship on fire. It's a connection that is really visceral, spiritual and empowering. Love at its best brings out the best in us. In romantic situations, but generally, I think love should make us better people towards each other. It's also about effort. I love this person so much and I want them to know it and feel it and know that there's a light they've given to my life. Black love to me is the same thing. We don't see that because our lives are meant to be mired and full of suffering and trauma and that's part of the dehumanisation of racism. We've disallowed the human necessity of love for each other. It goes back to colonialism and slavery, and mothers and their children, by dismantling Black love and weakening the spirit. Love emboldens the spirit.
You come across as a bit of a traditionalist, a hopeless romantic. What are your thoughts on modern dating? Do you have anyone special lined up for cuffing season?
Firstly, I'm not going to answer that last question [laughs]. When I'm married and engaged, I will just be on the TL and people will see me with a ring. Until then, I'm single and married to Jesus.
But no, I'm not a hopeless romantic, I'm more of a hopeful and pragmatic romantic. I'm really Nigerian and progressive in so many ways. I want a man to cherish me and be in awe of me, and also be empowered by my power. I want him to see that I'm on my shit, I'm on my boss woman shit. I want him to say, "yeah that's my girl", because it's a blessing to you that I'm on my shit. It should be a mutual respect in general. I don't know how traditional I am though; I love happy endings. I love a man who woos, who wines and dines you. But part of the romance is how desired you are to them.
People always assume that bride prices and dowries are sexist and upholding the patriarchy. It's not something we [Nigerians] do now, but all it means is that this woman is special; so precious, men can't just marry her, they have to know her worth. If they want her, they need to come correct. It's an acknowledgement of the woman's worth, her value and how special she is. It doesn't quite work in modern society, though.
What are you reading right now?
Luster by Raven Leilani. I just love it. It has really tight prose, amazing storytelling and is written by a Black woman. I just love a Black woman writing about sex and desire and keeping it true to the story.
What are your favourite romcoms?
When Harry Met Sally, My Best Friend's Wedding, (although that's not really a romcom because she doesn't end up with the guy, but I just love Julia Roberts!), Brown Sugar, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist because it depicts that initial spark when you first meet somebody. I also love Lovesick, and of course, New Girl. I love the romance, the warmth and friendship with Nick. He really is at the heart of that show. Especially when he realises his insecurities and he works on himself, not because of Jess and because he wants to be the kind of person she wants, but also for himself. It's the balance of both which I find really lovely. I also finished I May Destroy You which was brilliant.
What's next for you? Are there any new exciting projects in the pipeline?
I'm currently finishing my novel. My pilot is going out soon. I'm working with Tiger Aspect on loads of TV stuff that I can't really talk about. But I'm booked and busy! I do want to take a break though, I'm getting a bit ill. I want to take a staycation somewhere, like a stately home in Bath and stay in a mansion, like Jane Austen. Pride & Prejudice was one of the best books I've read, and I love the BBC adaptation...and Colin Firth. I just want to wear loads of cottagecore dresses and look really cute.