How to Pump in Positivity with Tomi Adeyemi
Author Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood and Bone, Children of Virtue and Vengeance) explores the impact of trauma and the importance of representation. “If you are not pumping in as much good, as much positive qualities, as much humanity, as much empathy into the young mind that you’re forming, you are letting all the toxicity of just existing in the world pump into them instead.”
[00:11] Hey, this is Tomi Adeyemi, and I’m on Good Kids: How Not to Raise an Asshole. So when I think about my own childhood and like, OK, what things, what positive things were pumped into me that are like foundations of my personality and identity now. What negative things were pumped into me that, you know, I’m working through to counteract. It’s definitely the work ethic and that hustle mentality, which is a kind of to me, a big trademark of Nigerian culture. Growing up, I was the only friend who was expected to get straight As. Like I remember — I remember specifically it was one subject and I was like, Dad, I got an A-minus and he was like, well, you can do better. And I was like, OK, dad, I got an A. And he’s like, you can do better.
[00:58] And I was like, Dad, I got an A-plus, you know? And I’m like, you know, that’s — that was my teenage mic drop. Like, what are you gonna say? What are you going to come back with? We’re literally talking about a hundred. And he’s like, yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I was like, I can’t win with you. And of course, as a teenage girl, there’s a lot of resentment and animosity. And, you know, like, he doesn’t get me. And none of my friends are expected — like, when this person’s mom, when she got to B, she was happy with that. And like, I’m bringing home and A-plus and you don’t even acknowledge me, you know?
[01:28] That is the — my teenage Tomi response to that. As an adult, I am a perfectionist, both to my detriment and to my strength. Because I know I do really good work, but I’m also never satisfied with that work because there’s always something in me that’s like it could be better. That sentence could be sharper. That character arc could be smoother. This description could be more imaginative. That’s how I look at my books. I never look at my book like this is good. I’m like, is every word of these 140,000 words the best that it can be? If so? Cool. If not, this is trash. Throw it in the fire. It took — I only know it was 88 weeks because The Children of Blood and Bone was on the bestsellers list for 88 weeks. But it was that week where I wrote in my diary and I’m like, you know what? I decided I’m OK. I could do better, but I did my best for the situation I was in. And so it’s like that’s that’s how I am. And that’s how I know it’s always going to be.
[02:33] It’s funny because I don’t have kids yet, but I have a Burmese mountain dog. And the act of just keeping something alive, literally keeping something alive, kind of put me in a parenting mindset that I’d never been in before. I understand humans so much better from raising a puppy, or trying to raise a happy puppy into not an asshole, literally, because, you know, some dogs are assholes. And I was like I don’t want my dog to be an asshole.
[03:02] So that has honestly really changed the way I look at this, because the thing that happened with my dog once that really made me think about humans in a new way is we moved. And we moved to a place that had a heavy front door. And so going into the front door, she clipped her tail once, and I could see how like — she was OK, but it was like a little jolt of pain. And I could see how jarring that was for her, because she never been in pain going in and out of the door. It happened one more time. And even though she had had dozens of successful in and outs in the door, the two times of experiencing like a form of trauma took three months to train out of. So she would always stop before she entered the front door. I had to literally build her trust with that door. And I was like, wow, it’s this easy to traumatize a dog. How much easier is it to traumatize a human? A lot of people have rescue dogs and sometimes they’ll be like, yo, I got this dog when it was four weeks old. It only had a month without me. But here are all the psychological issues it has. From that one month in which I don’t know what it experienced. So it completely made me look at just trauma a new way. Because again, it did not matter that she had gone in and out of that door dozens of times without any pain. Experiencing pain from it twice — again, three months of very slowly going in and out, of building up that trust.
[04:43] And so that’s how I look at humans, especially kids, because the world and just the nature of life itself is traumatizing. So if you are not literally pumping in as much good, as much positive qualities, as much humanity, as much empathy into the young mind that you’re forming, you are letting all the toxicity of just existing in the world pump into them instead. So that’s I guess what I realized. It’s not so much about you’re raising a good kid, or you’re cultivating a good kid, or cultivating a bad kid. I think it’s more about you have to cultivate a good kid or the world will cultivate a bad kid.
[05:28] It was just a realization that none of this happens by accident. No one is where they are by accident. I didn’t really know all the background about it until reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The premise of it is essentially the hate you give little infants fucks everybody. And he was more speaking from the perspective of the black community. It’s like if you pump trauma into black children then that trauma then is what they pump out. In general, I believe that is how humans work. We all have a door that has clipped us, whether it’s a friend, a family member, a spouse, a partner, a love interest, a teacher. For me, like a literary agent, someone I — you know, everyone — you can’t avoid trauma if you are alive. But it’s about how much love do you have underneath all of that. So if I’m 75 percent love and 25 percent trauma, I can bounce back and keep putting out love. If I’m 50/50 now it’s up in the air. You go a 100 percent trauma, then 100 percent trauma is going out. So I do think it really is that ratio when it comes specifically to trauma. And then I think that also applies to, again, other things. If you want a child to be empathetic, pump empathy-building activities, conversations, exercises into their life. You want them to be exposed to more people and comfortable with different types of people? Expose them to different types of people. It’s like we are just dogs. We’re just as simple. We just have thumbs, so we can give ourselves treats. But it’s like other than that, we operate very much the same way. We have a breaking point for trauma. We don’t have a breaking point for positive qualities. And if it goes in, that’s what’s going to come out. So that’s why I think it’s just so important to make sure you are pumping in as much positivity as possible because, you know, life is going to pump in trauma. You just know. Something eventually is going to happen. So it’s about how much good have you kind of baked in there to counteract that?
[08:49] If I think about the negative things that were pumped into me, I would say most of that was from the world. And a big part of that was representation. One reason I am so — I call it militant, because I know I’m like an aggressive person. I’m sensitive because I’m an artist, but I’m not, like, delicate. And so one reason I am so aggressive about it is cause in the first story I ever wrote — I wrote it when I was really young, like five or six. I could — I was still seeing myself in my imagination. And so I wrote the story — I wanted a horse, I wanted a twin. So I wrote this story. The characters were literally named Tomi and Tomi. I was also obsessed with The Parent Trap, so that’s where the twin came in. So they had to be on a horse farm and get their parents back together and — but I’m like, oh, I loved myself so much I put myself in a story twice. In every story I can find from that point until I was 18 years old, because 18 was when I realized I was doing this, all my characters were white or biracial. And it was really disheartening to me — and like, obviously problematic, but it really broke my heart because no one read my stories. I didn’t share my stories with anyone. So it wasn’t like someone at one point had told me, hey, black people can’t be in stories. I had literally looked around me at all the stories I loved, all the TV shows I loved, all the movies I loved, all the books I read. And because I never saw someone like me, I was like, oh, the world is sending a very clear message that I don’t belong here, which means I don’t belong in my own imagination.
[10:34] So I spent at least 10 years alone in my room writing these fantasies, these romances, and the magic and the adventure that I wanted to have for myself. But part of that fantasy was being white or being biracial. And I hadn’t even known I had severe self-esteem issues at that point. I knew I wasn’t in the healthiest situations because my high school had like 2,600 kids and like 16 of us were black. But, you know, I had good friends. I had the majority of good teachers, of course, with a ratio of that — sort of upper-middle class, predominantly white neighborhood — of course, I had experiences with racism, but because those were the vast minority, like, I would say maybe 1 percent, maybe 3 percent of my puberty years were negative encounters. I have 97 percent of positive encounters to go.
[11:31] So I thought I was doing a lot better with myself. And I was like, nope, in your imagination, in your dream, in your biggest fantasy, it’s not just about having magic. It’s not just about writing a dragon. It’s not just about this epic romance. It’s also about, oh, and I can be white here. How magical is that? And so that was for me a big turning point where I realized, OK, I need to write stories with predominantly black characters as an exercise of self-love. Like I need to learn how to do this and that’s going to help me love myself more because stories are my love language. So this was my love language to myself. We fast forward a year or so, The Hunger Games adaptation comes out. There is this Internet backlash against the black characters in the book and film adaptation — like Amandla Sternberg, Lenny Kravitz. And Amandla was like 11 at this point or something. She was literally a child.
[12:25] And I was so heartbroken by that. Because there was all these things like, oh, why are all the good characters black? It wasn’t sad when Rue died because she was black. These weren’t even people using like a frog meme, like these were people with their names, with their faces tweeting this bullshit into the internet.
[12:44] And it broke my heart because I’m like, I didn’t even realize there were black people in here because I’m so — first of all, it’s a very captivating story, so I’m not really looking at what people look like. But second of all, I was like I didn’t even recognize that I was actually in this one. And for some of you, it was so distracting that it not only took you out of this narrative, you’re legitimately mad about it. So that broke my heart. I remember I saw that movie three times in theaters. And the second time the scene where Rue is dying, I was sobbing. Because I was like, oh, people literally watch this and didn’t care, or they were angry to watch this little black girl die. And if you hate this fictional black girl so much, how much do you hate me? And this was also the year with Trayvon Martin getting shot. I thought at that point that racism was the substitute teacher who picked on me, or like the geometry teacher who told me I was going to work at McDonald’s. I thought it was like the isolated incidents of ignorance with people who didn’t matter. Because even at that age, I was just like you’re not even worth my time and you’re an asshole, so I don’t care about your opinion. But when I was like, oh, this is still a life-threatening thing, this is still a big hatred, I was like, OK, what I’m doing for myself — writing these black characters for myself — I need to do for the world. Because we need a Hunger Games where everyone’s black.
[14:08] And so even when people are mad, they still want to see it because everyone’s talking about it, and it’s an exciting story. And we all have exciting stories. I loved magic and fantasy since my first Harry Potter book. I’m always looking at these images. I love anime. Like I’m surrounded by magic. But I saw a picture of the Orisha in a gift shop in Brazil. And then I saw a picture of this beautiful black girl with like luminescent green hair. So about a thousand pages — a thousand pages came from two pictures. These are isolated incidents, but all of this has spanned from that.
[14:49] And so that’s why I’m so aggressive about the need for representation. Because I’m like, if it just kind of took like these four incidents — seeing people like Kerry Washington in Scandal, Lupita after 12 Years a Slave, it took like basically less than 10 things for all of this to happen, imagine what the next generation is going to be — fueled on Black Panther, fueled on Children of Blood and Bone, fueled on this stuff. And I’m only talking from one representation. We have Crazy Rich Asians. We have Transparent. Stories matter because that’s how we connect. That’s how we identify with other people. That’s how we see ourselves. And people matter because you’re always looking at the person who looks like you to figure out like, oh, what can I do? Well, you’re doing this, so I can do this logically. But if I don’t see you doing this, then I can’t do this. Again, we’re simple. We’re just big dogs. So it’s like, it’s complicated, but it’s just simple. You need to see it to believe it. And especially if you’re not from that identity, you need to see it to understand it, or it’s always going to be foreign to you. There’s always gonna be an empathy gap because you’re like, oh, you’re human, too. You’re scared of your mother-in-law, too. Oh, you love your grandma, too. You like food, too. Again, we’re simple.
[16:14] Hey, this is Tomi Adeyemi, and you can find me on Instagram @TomiAdeyemi, on Twitter @Tomi_Adeyemi, on my website at TomiAdeyemi.com, or on my book tour for book two, Children of Virtue and Vengeance. So you can catch me on any of those places.
[16:34] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard share, rate, review, say great things about us.