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An African-inspired fantasy awaits

Isi Hendrix gives us a fantastic introduction to her fantasy novel Adia Kelbara...

Could you introduce us to the book and the world of Adia Kelabara? Set in an African-inspired fantasy world, this is the story of Aida, who's never quite fit in with her family. Convinced she's an ogbanje - a child cursed to bring misery and misfortune wherever she goes - Aida runs away from her backwater home to find a shaman who can help her, only to discover a shocking secret that will upend her destiny - and potentially lead to her kingdom's ruin or salvation.

How have your travels, and previous life and work as an anthropologist impacted on your writing of this story? While I don’t exactly include real stories from my days living and working in rainforests in this book, I do use the real emotions I went through during some of my more intense experiences. For example, I’ll think about the time I got lost at night in the Amazon because I forgot to charge my headlamp and tripped over a ten-foot-long bushmaster—the longest venomous viper in the world. I'll tap into that memory and that panic and create a whole river of snakes for Adia to navigate her way through called the Serpentine Pass. Or if Adia is being chased by something terrifying and needs to make a split-second decision to save herself, I’ll remember the time I had to swallow my fear and jump down a waterfall in the Gabonese rainforest to avoid being trampled by a herd of African forest elephants. And then I'll try to imbue a scene with that level of adrenaline and urgency. 


I’m a very quiet, introverted person, so the absurdity of my having lived such an adventurous life isn’t lost on me. And I think I’ve put that into Adia’s character too, in that she—a girl who just wants to read books and play with her cat— keeps ending up in the most absurd situations because she can't help her curiosity. So I play into that part of my life and amuse myself by writing ridiculous situations for poor Adia to have to think her way out of.

Who is Adia Kelbara, our protagonist? Did she have any particular inspiration, (does she represent something - or someone - to you specifically, is she like you for example)? Adia is a twelve-year-old orphan living with her aunt and uncle. She doesn’t fit in with her family or anyone in her village of the Swamplands, which is currently overrun by missionaries. The missionaries showed up years ago and told Adia’s people that everything they believed in was wrong, and that to be good, they had to follow the beliefs of the people behind the Sunless Mountains. But Adia isn’t buying any of this and won’t listen to the missionaries. She questions what she’s told a lot, but all of her questions tend to get her in trouble and make her such a pariah in her community that she’s declared a demon and has to run away from home.

I had some similarities to Adia as a child. I knew my own mind from a young age and I was a lone wolf too (and still am,) but I definitely wasn’t as outspoken as Adia is. She says out loud the things I kept to myself as sarcastic thoughts. But I was also around 12 when I put my foot down about going to church, same as Adia. My family's conservative religion (introduced to my tribe by Western missionaries) absolutely did not feel right to me. So it was important to me to write a story about a child who knows a religion or church isn’t right for them. I know it’s a hard conversation for parents and families to have, but I think children need to be listened to and treated with respect when conversations about religion (or leaving their religion) come up.


This book is a (probably not-so-subtle) metaphor about the role missionaries and religion played in the colonization of Nigeria and other parts of Africa. And, for me, Adia represents the strength of indigenous wisdom and the ancestral knowledge that’s woven into our DNA that no invader or colonizing force can ever erase.


Did your family have a strong reading culture when you were growing up? Were you a bookworm as a child? No one in my family read like I did. On average I read 5-10 books a week as a child. I slept with whatever book I was reading under my pillow. Reading was the last thing I did before falling asleep and the first thing I did when I woke up. The only time I ever got in trouble in school was when I was caught reading under my desk. In elementary school in particular I didn’t talk much so at lunch I would sit in a corner and read and it was honestly the highlight of my school day. Reading has always been the great joy of my life.


What would you tell your 11/12-year-old self? That things will get better.


Have you read anything amazing recently that you’d like to recommend to us? I’m in the middle of rereading one of my favourite middle grade novels, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. I avoided reading It for years because I didn’t see how it could live up to the source material and it absolutely does. If you haven’t read that book, I’m begging you to go read it.

Adia Kebara and its brand new companion story can both be found in all good bookshops. With thanks to Usborne for the books and Nina Douglas for helping this Blog happen!





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