By Alyssa Vreeken
Namina Forna’s literary debut hit the shelves in February. With my thesis handed in and birthday around the corner, it seemed like perfect timing — except that my favourite bookstore was closed due to Covid, and also wasn’t receiving recent publications for their click and collect due to Brexit. In other words, this book needed to perform well online, which is where I encountered and bought it. It is unsurprising, however, that the online marketing was going well. The Gilded Ones, the first book in the Deathless trilogy, received an impressive six-figure publication deal mere days after Forna submitted her final draft. Plus, it was revealed soon after that the book also received a film deal, with Forna set to write the script herself.
This might make it sound like getting her story from manuscript to bestseller has been a straightforward process, but there is more to it. Forna started writing The Gilded Ones in her second year at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2012, but at the time her work was met with questions such as if it was necessary for her main character to be a person of colour. Forna struggled with her identity as an immigrant woman living in America: “In Sierra Leone, it was clear cut. I was a woman, and therefore inferior… But America, I had found, was just as brutal, albeit better at masking the signs of patriarchy.”
Fast forward to 2017. Forna noticed significant promotion for cultural productions featuring people of colour in leading rolls: “[m]ovies like Black Panther and books like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give have ushered in a renaissance of Black art and culture.” After meeting with an agent, Forna decided to start anew, rewriting The Gilded Ones from scratch within two months; this new version immediately received significant attention in the publishing industry and beyond.
The story is set in Otera, a fictional world inspired by West African culture and folklore, with “ultra-patriarchal” values at the core of society: women wear masks that cover the top half of their faces, they are not allowed to leave their houses without a male escort, and aren’t allowed to run, drink, join the army, or even receive education. But most importantly, all girls are expected to prove their purity at the age of sixteen.
During this Ritual of Purity, all sixteen-year-old girls have to prove that they bleed red rather than gold. Girls who bleed gold are referred to as alaki, meaning unwanted and worthless. They are said to be the descendants of the Gilded Ones, who folklore dictates were the four original demons who were inherently female. Bleeding gold thus marks them as impure and demonic, which is not a good or safe thing to be in a world that is plagued by demonic monsters called deathshrieks. If gold runs through a young girl’s veins, they are given the Death Mandate, until death sticks.
Deka’s death does not stick. Moments before she is set to take part in the Ritual of Purity, a group of deathshrieks flood into town. Against her better judgment, Deka attempts to protect her father by vehemently urging the deathshrieks to stop. Unfortunately, in doing so, she displays unusual abilities: the deathshrieks obey her command. But this society does not appreciate people who are different. It is clear that anything that is ‘irregular’ is perceived as dangerous; as a result, Deka is sentenced to death by her community, including her ‘loving’ father.
From birth, Deka has wished to be pure and unnoticeable, which becomes impossible as soon as she receives the Death Mandate. The town Elders try everything to find her final death: decapitation, bleeding her dry to sell the gold, dismemberment; they even have her father kill her, but nothing works. Nine attempts later, Deka is still blinded by the misogynistic messages of her culture, and still wishes for nothing more than to be forgiven and become pure in the eyes of their God, Oyomo.
I feel for her – which is the point, of course. Deka has tried so hard all her life, and yet she is still deemed not good enough. Not based on her behaviour or actions, but based on something that is out of her control. Despite our differences, this is something I, as well as other readers, can relate to.
Fortunately, Deka’s perception of herself and the ultra-patriarchal society of Otera start to slowly change after she is picked up by White Hands, a female emissary of the emperor, who takes her to the capital. Here she and the other enlisted alaki will be trained to fight and kill deathshrieks, alongside all-male soldiers – although alaki aren’t considered women anymore, the emperor uses the soldiers to keep an eye on them.
Deka is continuously confronted with these views, while also being asked to do the very things she was never allowed to do, such as run and fight. She receives training and education, and learns how to make armour out of her own golden blood. Running – something I try my best to avoid at any cost, even when I desperately need to catch a bus or train – all of a sudden seems like such a luxury.
After a couple of months, Deka starts to wonder whether the restrictions she faced as a girl – justified by religious traditions, put on all girls up to sixteen, still enforced on pure women afterwards – were never meant to protect and prepare her for a happy life, but formed a cage to contain her: “[o]ur whole lives, we’ve been taught to make ourselves smaller, weaker than men. That’s what the Infinite Wisdoms teach – that being a girl means perpetual submission.”
Deka’s development as a character – as well as that of the secondary characters, alaki and soldiers alike – goes hand in hand with her understanding of the misogynistic society she lives in: “[t]ill our empire is free from those monsters … What was she referring to with those words? Was it the deathshrieks … or the men who send us out to battle them?” This growing comprehension of her society results in her and her friends finding strength in numbers, rebelling against the system that has thus far not only suppressed them, but made them feel insignificant, unnatural, not worthy of life. The focus is not only on fighting the patriarchal order and their traditions, but on creating an equal society in which men and women can enjoy the same freedoms.
This is an extremely important message, especially in light of the many contemporary discussions and criticisms about feminism. Sure, it is supposed to serve women, but what about intersectionality? What about people who identify as men but are still oppressed due to skin colour, class, or sexuality? This book speaks to these issues in a way that is accessible to young readers, who might – like myself and many others – turn to books to try and make sense of the world around them. The Gilded Ones promotes community over division, compassion over animosity, and most importantly, it recognises that patriarchal structures are problematic and oppressive for (almost) everyone.
It is clear that, for Forna, it was important to communicate what she had learned living in Sierra Leone and in America, stating that The Gilded Ones is a feminist work: “it is the kind of book I wished I’d had earlier. One that offers a space not only to people who look like me, but to everyone.”
Learning that Forna is currently also working as a screenwriter in L.A. was unsurprising after having read The Gilded Ones. The way in which she plays with descriptions – meaning physical appearances (of human and non-human alike), nature, the towns and cities, objects, and so on – indicates that she has experience with screenwriting: the reader is immediately immersed in the world she has created.
Furthermore, Forna does not linger in her writing, does not show the reader everything, and leaves room for imagination. She holds a pace in accordance with Deka’s development, providing the reader with summaries akin to cinematic montages. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Forna has in store for us with the remaining two books in the Deathless series, as well as the film adaptation. She will surely impress.
Alyssa Vreeken has just concluded her Master’s degree in Literature Today, but is still working hard at finishing her Master’s degree in Comparative Literary Studies. She specialises in Young Adult literature (how it is read and the affect these narratives (can) have on its target audience), and is particularly interested in Perpetrator Studies, Feminist Theory, and Adaptation Theory (especially in relation to fairy tales and mythology). While reading, writing, and editing at Paratext take up the majority of her time, she also likes to dabble in photography, which is evident by her Bookstagram account: @wandaheartian.
Photo by Alyssa Vreeken
Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones. Delacorte Press, 2021.
—. “As a Black Lord of the Rings Fan, I Felt Left Out of Fantasy Worlds. So I Created My Own.” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/feb/22/namina-forna-lord-of-the-rings-jrr-tolkien-fan-the-guilded-ones.
—. “The Gilded Ones Author Namina Forna On Fleeing Sierra Leone And Confronting the American Dream.” Elle, 4 Feb. 2021, https://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/a35409028/the-gilde