Books are often some of the most formative objects in existence, and as readers, we often know what happens after they get published. But knowing the journey a book takes before it ends up in your hands is often valuable, not only for future authors but for people who want to work in the publishing industry.
Jordan Ifueko is a debut author and her first book, Raybearer, will be published on August 18th. With original plans to be published in April of 2020, the publication date of Raybearer was pushed to August with hopes of continuing her planned tour dates, rather than canceling the tour due to the pandemic.
Raybearer, the first book in a duology, follows Tarisai, who is compelled to compete to join the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If picked, she will be bonded to the Council, a promise that is irresistible to her. But, when her mother commands her to kill the Crown Prince, Tarisai has to find the strength to choose her own path.
In my YA fantasy novel, RAYBEARER, a love-starved Black prodigy is compelled by her mother to join the sacred council of the crown prince. Her mission? Earn his trust. Swear her love. And to her horror, someday…kill him.
Links: https://t.co/ZBaWSzy1TH #amplifyBlackvoices pic.twitter.com/2PpLVOOSHy
— Jordan Ifueko ✨ (@jifueko) June 3, 2020
For Ifueko, her journey towards becoming a published author began when she was thirteen. When discussing her original drafts, she talked about her past, stating, “I had been homeschooled until tenth grade and then that summer before tenth grade, my family moved up to Oregon from Los Angeles, or from California anyway, and I got my first opportunity to go to school.” After testing into tenth grade at thirteen, Ifueko found her first group of best friends at a small high school with a graduating class of seventeen people. “We spent a lot of time debating and learning all of these, like, social sciences and rhetoric and all this stuff. And so, I just started imagining what it would be like to have this group of children who were being groomed to rule an empire.” From there, the plot of Raybearer expanded as Ifueko began to ask herself, “What if they were sworn to each other for life and mentally bonded?”
Raybearer was the main project that Ifueko focused on through her writing career, though she wrote many short stories and toyed with other book ideas on the side. Even though it was her main focus, Ifueko added that “the nature of Raybearer changed so many times, it feels like I wrote a bunch of different books.” She described the difference of her original draft from the published book, noting that Raybearer originally happened 200 years after the draft that will be published, where the main character of Tarisai and her fellow Council members were ancestors that people treated as legends. The shift in the plot started when Ifueko realized that she wanted to write about the past rulers.
The fictional world of Aritsar also changed a lot through Ifueko’s different drafts. When I asked what she knew about the world of Aritsar before she began writing, she said that “even as a teenager, I didn’t want to write a Eurocentric empire.” In the beginning, she said that “it didn’t even occur to me that I could like make a world that was just like purely based in, like, West African tradition, all these non-white traditions. Instead, I tried to keep it really vague, like taking a little bit from all of these different cultures and everyone had these weird Afro-Latin-y names. And to be honest, it was a hot mess because the thing is what happens with, because eurocentricity is dominant in literature. If you are vague, people will automatically put in whiteness.”
“Just give yourself permission to be really bold about, you know, abandoning eurocentricity and things like that.”
For Ifueko, the world took shape when she decided towards the end of college that “I’m going to be specific. This part of the Empire is going to be based on the Yoruba, these people are going to be based on the Shona of East Africa. These people are going to be based on Joseon period Korea. Like, the moment I got specific, the world just blossomed into something really beautiful because there’s still lots of cultural exchange. It’s an empire.”
This tied into the pressures and irritations Ifueko felt being a diverse writer writing diverse characters. Ifueko stated that “one irritation is that, basically, if you write from the perspective of an underrepresented demographic, your work automatically and always gets compared to other people from that demographic, even if your stories have nothing in common.” For Raybearer, this often happens with Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, another YA West African fantasy, though that is where the similarities between the two books end.
“I think there’s also a pressure to over-represent your marginalized group,” Ifueko added. “There would be times I’d be writing Raybearer and just writing from my heart. And then I stop and think, like, ‘Oh, is this African enough?’ You know? Which is crazy because in terms of people and representation, like, I’m a composite of a lot of things, and so are most people.” She cited West African culture and folklore, as well as British culture and literature, both of which she gained from her Nigerian parents, as influences that she had on top of her American and Californian influences, as well as the Japanese influence she gained from watching Studio Ghibli movies and the influence that Bollywood movies had on her world view.
“It’s like there’s strong West African elements, but it’s a global fantasy ’cause I’m a global person.”
Ifueko’s process of querying isn’t one that most people are familiar with because she didn’t have to query Raybearer. Instead, she queried “Oshun, Inc.” which was published in Strange Horizons Magazine, a sci-fi and fantasy lit magazine. After her publication, the person who would become Ifueko’s agent reached out to her on Twitter after reading Ifueko’s short story and asked if she had representation or anything longer to show them. Luckily, Ifueko had a draft of Raybearer prepared. With that in mind, she added, “This is what I usually tell people: it’s like, even when you get strokes of luck like that, you have to be prepared. Because, if I didn’t have anything to show her, you know, like, I don’t know that she would have represented me on the strength of a short story. But, because I had these drafts of Raybearer, I was like ‘Okay, look. This isn’t finished because this is a book I keep rewriting, but I can polish up the first five chapters to send to you.'” From there, her agent liked Raybearer and Ifueko signed with her. The main difference for Ifueko in her query process was that “querying a short story is, like, way easier than querying a novel. I mean, the rejections are just as brutal, but in terms of writing a query letter because the object itself is so short.”
In response to what being an author meant to her, Ifueko told me, “You never feel like you’ve arrived. You just always, like there’s this permanent imposter syndrome. It’s like you think that… when you get a book deal, you’ll think you’ll feel like a real author, and then you’re like, ‘No, okay, I got the book deal. When I’m published, I’ll feel like a real author.’ It’s just there’s always higher and higher bars and it’ll drive you nuts if you try and keep setting them for yourself.”
In citing her author influences, Ifueko said “I think what got me into adventure, YA, and just like strong female lead YA, which is funny because she isn’t a YA writer, it was Gail Carson Levine, who writes middle-grade.” The author, most known for Ella Enchanted, also wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which was Ifueko’s favorite book throughout her middle-grade years. “I read several books a week at that point, but I reread Two Princesses of Bamarre and I still have my original copy. It’s falling apart, like all of the pages, like you have to hold it together with a scrunchie because I just read it until it fell apart.” She also added that a recent influence is NK Jemisin because “she is just legendary… there’s no way to put it in terms of the kind of world she builds in the details. And finally, the way she structures a story in that there’s usually always a twist.” Her final influence that was perhaps the most formative for Ifueko, in terms of word crafting, is Charlotte Brontë. In describing her love for the Brontë sisters, she said “I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was eleven and then probably reread it at least once a year until I was twenty, like, it’s just such a formative book for me. It’s just— it’s so lyrically and beautifully written and, I don’t know, just she has a way of expressing feeling and interacting with settings that I’ve never seen anybody else do the same way.”
Her favorite genres to read offered a very broad spectrum of books. “I love fantasy, obviously. I love alternate universe books. To me, an alternate universe book is our world, but something is fundamentally different which either changed the course of history or history is the same, it just looks wildly different.” She elaborated on its description and on her favorite genres, adding, “like, an alternate universe book I love is called MunMun by Jesse Andrews who wrote Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I like really well-told autobiographies. Two of my favorite books are I Am Malala, Malala [Yousafzai]’s autobiography, and Wild Swans, which is both a biography and an autobiography because it’s a Chinese woman telling the story of her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, and herself, living through four generations in China.” While she categorized those as her top three genres at this point, she also made sure to add that her favorites also include “bildungsroman. The like, the original sweeping coming of age book, but like Jane Eyre or… a lot of Romantic-era novels, like those kinds of mid to late 1800s, would fit that description.”
Her love of the Brontë sisters and of the bildungsroman style books also led to a preference she formed based on a book. “I’m a very colorful person, like I love bright colors in my wardrobe, obviously for my hair, things like that.”
Adding on to that, she said, “Whenever I see, like, just something really stark, like a starched white color and light gray linen dress, or just something that looks very, kind of severe and Victorian and plain, I just love it. I just think it looks so elegant, and the reason for that is because of Jane Eyre. I loved the book so much that I watched every adaptation there is and Jane always wears… these really beautiful, but very simple, sharp, clean whites, and grays, and blacks.”
Finally, in terms of advice she has for writers, Ifueko said, “Let yourself write badly. Like basically, the moment you overcome your fear of writing crap and just get something on the page, you have something to work with.” Her second piece of advice was “to write more short stories because that query process is easier and gets you some attention.”
There are not enough words that I have to thank Jordan Ifueko for being the first author I interviewed. And, if you can’t wait to get your hands on Raybearer, make sure to pre-order it and read the first three chapters online.