“We are not all one thing, we are usually a lot of things. I like to create women who have flaws; regular women who do regular things. Women who can be bad, but are also good…” – Tomilola Coco Adeyemo
By Joy Chukwujindu
When one considers romance literature, one might recognise publishers like Harper Collins, Mills & Boon, and Harlequin, each offering an array of romance authors. For many teenagers who grew up gobbling up romance novels in Nigeria, the stories featured exotic tales of royalty, castles, cowboys, and New York billionaires. Yet, there was a noticeable absence of romance narratives written by African authors for Africans. Today, there is a burgeoning excitement for the romance genre, and it is even more thrilling that there is an emergence of African authors dedicated to telling romantic stories through unique African perspectives.
One author who fits this description is Tomilola Coco Adeyemo, known for writing heart-warming and groin-throbbing romance novels, with plots and characters with familiar Nigerian names, places, and experiences. From her first romance novel, Reunion published on Okadabooks in 2016, to her recent masterpieces — the 2022 six-part series, Efun’s Jazz published on Brittle Paper, and the 2023 erotic romance novel, Sugar Daddy’s Chronicles: Lewa — Adeyemo stands out not only as an accomplished romance author, but also as a screenwriter for Nollywood. Her storytelling prowess shines through in narratives that are both compelling and irresistibly page-turning. She is currently billed as a speaker at the upcoming 2023 Aké Arts and Book Festival — an esteemed annual literary and artistic event.
Adeyemo, who has previously provided valuable insights into the literary bias against the romance genre, shares, in this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, her journey to becoming a romance author, shedding light on the challenges faced in a literary landscape that sometimes underappreciates the romance genre.
Hello Tomilola, it is great to have you here with us again at Afrocritik. I find it interesting that your X (Twitter) bio reads “Beyoncé of Storytelling”. Could you tell us the story behind this self-title?
The full bio reads “Beyonce of Storytelling. Currently working on my magnum opus. PS: Shonda Rhimes will soon be proud of me.” I had seen something similar on someone’s profile where she stated she was the Beyonce of her craft and I liked that. And we all know Beyonce is the goat (greatest of all time).
The romance genre is often snubbed and referred to as “un-serious” by certain gatekeepers of literature, particularly because it is women’s fiction. Despite this snobbery, I am curious to know why you chose to narrow your writing to the genre.
The funny thing is that I never started out to write romance. I was just blogging and writing. I always wanted to be a screenwriter in Nollywood, so I started writing for 360nobs (a media and entertainment firm) where I used to write Coco’s Chronicles; exciting stories like a diary between me and my girls at the time. After a while, I decided to start writing fiction, then I found myself writing romance. I know that there is disrespect for romance writers, but I don’t really care for the disrespect. I have a steady audience.
The Aké Arts and Book Festival is one of the renowned literary events in Africa and being invited as a speaker is a privilege which you acknowledged on your social media. How does it feel to be recognised by this literary organisation?
The founder of the Aké Festival, Ms. Lola Shoneyin, had tweeted something about coffee, so I quoted her saying that I was going to buy it, and she responded that she was just talking to someone about my book. I was like, “What is going on here? This can’t be real.” It has been a year and a half since I have made efforts to be in the literary space and I will just say it is God. It is a great acknowledgement and I feel the industry is going in the right direction. Now there is a space for romance. I will be there at the festival, and I will be reading excerpts from Sugar Daddy Chronicles.
Your writing journey has taken you through different subgenres of the romance genre, with your 2023 dark erotica, Sugar Daddy Chronicles: Lewa, and exploring Yoruba spiritualism in Queen of the Fields and Efun’s Jazz. Could you share why you are interested in these subgenres? Are there any subgenres that have piqued your interest for future explorations?
The other day, I was speaking to Ms. Shoneyin and she said that it is obvious I loved to explore, and I think it is just that. I love to explore because I get bored easily. Also, I write in Nollywood, where people come to me as a writer for hire to write stories across different genres. I like to write depending on where my head is at that moment. Currently, my favourite subgenre to write about is dark and erotic romances. I feel that it is difficult to write happy sunshine stories in Nigeria because of what the country is currently facing. However, I am going to write a lot of happy themes with Yoruba spirituality.
While reading a few of your works, I noticed your leading ladies are quite dynamic – from a “sugar baby” in Sugar Daddy Chronicles: Lewa to a woman leaving her unfaithful husband in Efun’s Jazz. What is the story behind your perspective, considering that you are writing within an African society where patriarchal norms prevail?
I wanted to shatter the perception of what a woman should be. I wanted to show that a woman can be worthy of love and that she can do bad, too. Much like how male characters can be loved regardless of what they are, I wanted that too. We are not all one thing, we are usually a lot of things. I like to create women who have flaws; regular women who do regular things. Women who can be bad, but are also good. I did not want to create two-dimensional or just one-way characters. I wanted people to say that they can relate to this woman. You will not find my characters the same way at the end as at the beginning. I also like to write about women who find happiness regardless of their social status. I like telling romance stories, but I didn’t want my female characters to be goody-two-shoes waiting to be rescued.
What aspects of writing contemporary romance novels do you find the most personally rewarding and fulfilling?
What I find most fulfilling is writing and being lost in that world. It makes me happy, and it was one of the reasons that I did not feel the need to get published in the traditional route because I wanted to get better at it and be good enough for everyone to see. I always say when I write things that I do not enjoy then I can’t convince others to enjoy it.
Some believe that writers sometimes make their works an extension of themselves and their experiences. To what extent do you infuse your own experiences and emotions into your novels?
My works are very authentic. Even when it comes to sex scenes or scenes that are sexually charged, if I don’t feel them, then they won’t fly. A lot of times, I work in layers because a lot of emotions go into it. Sometimes, I switch to a certain type of music, old R&B and Hip-Hop. Efun’s Jazz is probably one of the most authentic pieces I ever wrote in my life. It borrows from the realities of women in my family. It is a very big “what-if” — that is, what if things played out differently with the women in my family?
Which romance authors have inspired your works the most?
I am quite unconventional with this. It is difficult to say which romance author influences me. I am a writer in film, and I have been influenced by different media. I love people’s works for different reasons. I love Pam Godwin, an American author of dark romance. I am directly influenced by Amaka Igwe, a foremost filmmaker in Nollywood. Also, I am heavily influenced by my mentor, Chris Ihidero, a writer, producer, and director. Being a very spiritual person, I always go back to Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet. Also, I am influenced by the grandmother of Western romance writing, Jane Austen. I love Sefi Atta’s work too.
Some of your romance e-books have been bestsellers in Bambooks and Okadabooks, and in 2022, you were recognised by Brittle Paper as the writer for the month of August. You have managed to do all that as an independent writer. Could you share why you chose independent publishing?
I did not purposely start to be an independent writer. I started as a writer in Nollywood, and I always thought that the literary community would be more accepting. So, I wanted to get better at my craft. In 2014, Okadabooks reached out to me to put my writing up on their site for free, and then I uploaded Reunion. That was how I started my indie publishing. It is quite hectic and one of the reasons I haven’t taken the route of going paperback by myself is because it is not exactly the easiest thing. I work in digital marketing, and I understand how marketing works.
In Efun’s Jazz you explored forbidden love between Laja and Nicole, and in your romance novel, That ‘99 Love, we saw the bad-boy-meets-good-girl trope. Do you have a favourite romance trope that you love to portray in your works?
I think it is forbidden love. It is very interesting to write about.
Looking at the cover art of Efun’s Jazz, one is immediately struck by the compelling presence of the blue-toned couple which I believe serves as a symbolic representation of the spirituality that pervades as a central theme throughout the series. What do you consider to be the role of cover art in portraying the central theme in your novels?
Cover art is very important and Brittle Paper “snapped” with that cover art. Yes, blue is a colour of most goddesses in Yoruba spirituality. That cover was one of the things that delayed the publication of Efun’s Jazz. I remember the necklace on the cover for Sugar Daddy Chronicles had nothing to do with the story, so I went back to rewrite and the necklace became an important part of the story. Symbolism is very important, and I want a case where whenever my audience reads my work, it is an experience.
You have been a writer for MTV Shuga and Hush, to mention a few. Do you see yourself taking on more screenwriting projects in the future?
Absolutely, I wrote the second season of the (upcoming) Netflix drama series, Ololade. I have written two other shows, and I am currently writing for a producer. I am always writing and screenwriting is my core.
What insights would you share with a writer working on their first novel to help them navigate their creative journey?
Find what makes you, you. Experiences are very important. Open your heart and mind to art in different forms. Be careful of what you ingest because your subconscious is a very wild thing and it will always play back in your work. For example, when I wrote Sugar Daddy Chronicles I was in a very dark place, and I wrote it so easily because I needed an outlet to let it go somewhere. For me, I wanted to learn, and I kept going to places where I could learn. Keep writing to get better to get connected to your audience and fame will find you.
Your most recent work, Sugar Daddy Chronicles: Lewa, was published last July, should your readers expect another smutty romance novel from you?
You can always expect smutty romance from me because sex is very important in my work. I have not been able to write in a while which is very unusual, but I am writing something, and I am hoping to put it out in December. But after it goes through an editor, it might take longer. It may come out in January or February 2024. Imagine a Christmas romance in the Valentine’s season! My readers will come for me.
Joy Chukwujindu is a Nigerian lawyer. When she is not lawyering, she doubles as an art and culture writer for Afrocritik.