Tolá Okogwu is a journalist, author and hair care educator.
TBB spoke to Tọlá in 2018 about Daddy Do My Hair here, a series of children’s books which opened u conversations about Black Afro hair. More recently, her rights to her book for older children, Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun is in production at Westbrook Studios and Yoruba Saxon for Netflix. The film will be executive produced by Tọlá Okogwu, Heather Washington (Westbrook Studios) and Jessica Oyelowo (Yoruba Saxon), with Will Smith, Jon Mone and David Oyelowo as producers.
We caught up with Tọlá Okogwu to discuss her writing and the news of a Netflix deal for children’s novel Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun.
Please introduce yourself…
Hi, my name is Tọlá Okogwu. I’m British-Nigerian and I am a Children’s Author.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
My life is blessed but very hectic right now…I’m literally taking each day as it comes.
Congratulations on the Netflix film adaptation deal of Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun with Westbrook Studios and Yoruba Saxon. You are an executive producer on the project. How have you found turning your hand to a different creative role?
Thank you. It’s still very early days on the project so I haven’t had much chance to explore this new role yet. I’m incredibly excited though and eager to learn as much as I can.
Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun hasn’t even been released yet! What are you hoping that young readers take away from the novel?
I hope when they discover Onyeka, they see their fears, hopes, weaknesses and strengths represented. I hope Black children especially see themselves reflected in a way that is positive and inspirational. A world where their Blackness is front and centre but isn’t the entirety of the story. Onyeka’s story is about finding your tribe. It’s about accepting what makes you different and owning the power that gives you. A truth I believe is universal no matter who you are or where you come from.
You write about the importance and beauty of Afro hair, as well as its power. In your upcoming novel, Onyeka discovers that her hair is literally a superpower. How have you enjoyed writing fantasy and futuristic fiction?
Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun is set in a near-future but alternate-history Nigeria that’s powered entirely by solar energy and uses other renewable technologies like virtual farming, rainwater harvesting and desert greening. It’s a powerful nation with advanced technology and I was excited by the challenge of re-imagining what Nigeria would be like if certain historical events were changed. The greatest challenge was making sure I properly represented the culture and people. I also really wanted to incorporate green and sustainable technology into the book as when I think about the future, I’d like to hope that’s the direction the world moves in. It was fun researching solar technology and exploring other tech like 3D virtual environments, augmented reality devices and high-speed transportation. I tried to take technology that currently exists and then push it a bit with a fantastical element. That’s the beauty of writing in the fantasy genre, you can run free with your imagination.
You’ve written books for various age groups of children. This is your first book aimed toward older children, how did writing Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun compare to your other writing projects?
In many ways, it was harder because it’s a much longer piece of work and the world and characters have to be fully fleshed out. The plot also needs to be strong enough to sustain the whole story. It’s easy to run out of steam. With younger fiction, the challenge is the opposite. You have very few words to convey a whole story narrative and create a connection between your reader and characters. That can also be incredibly challenging. Writing Onyeka stretched me as a writer and forced me to develop my skill as a storyteller. I enjoy them equally though and am so grateful I’m able to write in both categories.
We spoke to you in 2018 about the Daddy Do My Hair series for children. Conversations about Afro hair have entered the public discourse even more since then. Have you noticed anything about how these conversations have changed in both public discourse and in your own life?
In my own life, I’ve seen my children grow and blossom in their love for their hair and benefit from the work I do and the stories I write. In public discourse, having natural hair is far more normalised within the Black community and I see that having a ripple effect on how others outside it perceive it. I think there’s an improved awareness of how hair discrimination impacts the lives of Black children in schools and adults in the workplace.
You are also a blogger and hair care coach. What do you think is the most common misconception there is regarding looking after Afro hair?
I think the most common is that it’s hard or complicated. It’s only as complicated as you make it. The difficulty often comes from a lack of knowledge or from unhelpful comparisons to other hair types. Afro hair requires specific tools, techniques and consistency to thrive and once you have them it’s quite straightforward. If you’re stuck or confused, that’s where a hair coach can help. They’ll help you build a routine that’s bespoke to your hair and lifestyle.
In your last interview, you described yourself as an entrepreneur, and you have self-published your work in the past. How important do you think it is to pursue your interests despite the difficulties you may encounter?
I think it’s incredibly important. I was deeply unhappy when I worked a 9-5 job that held very little meaning or interest to me. There was always this sense that something was missing. It wasn’t until I stepped out and took a risk on the things that actually mattered to me that everything started to make sense and slot into place. My publishing journey has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. When I compare how I feel about my life now to before, it’s night and day.
You are incredibly busy, what are you most looking forward to this year?
I’m incredibly excited about Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun publishing in June and seeing how readers react to it. My hope is that readers fall in love with the story and characters the way I have. I’m also keen to see how the production of the film develops and to see the pieces fall into place.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A book you have to have in your collection?
Sadé and her Shadow Beasts by Rachel Faturoti
A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date
Jireh by Maverick City Music
A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly?
Robin Hood Men in Tights or Friends
The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)?
An open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’d studied it at school and seeing it performed live was exhilarating and made it so real for me.
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week?
I’m sad about the recent report that Black children continue to be over-policed in schools. I’m mad that the government seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it. But I’m glad when I see the many campaigners and activists fighting to make a change.
Onyeka and The Academy of the Sun Is expected to be released Thursday 9th June 2022
The film is currently in production at Westbrook Studios and Yoruba Saxon for Netflix.