“I love romance,” Babalola tells xoNecole. “I’ve always consumed romance. I’ve always read romance. I’ve always written romance,” she says. “It wasn’t even a conscious decision, it’s just a part of me. It’s just what I enjoy reading.”
In her debut romance novel Honey & Spice, Babalola follows up her debut anthology Love in Colour by once again allowing her love for all things love to bloom into a world brimming with vibrant and lively characters. In Honey & Spice, we are introduced to the character of Kiki Banjo who Babalola describes as “the resident romantic adviser” at the university where Kiki also hosts a love advice radio show for Black women on campus called “Brown Sugar.” When a mysterious man arrives at the school and sows discord amongst the ladies, it threatens to undo the work that Kiki has put into trying to lead them all down the right path in their love lives. “A confrontation ensues, an entanglement ensues, and eventually they find themselves having to fake a relationship to save both of their reputations,” Babalola says.
Babalola says that creating Kiki allowed her to write about a Black female character that is flawed. “She is messy. And she is giving romantic advice to women at the university but she doesn’t have it figured out,” Babalola says. “And it was really freeing for me to write a young Black girl like that.”
Babalola is joining a recent wave of writers who are allowing audiences to embrace Black women to be their whole complicated and imperfect selves on screen and in books. Along with debut author Raven Lelani’s hit book Luster (that Babalola describes as one of the books that made her heart beat fast,) and Insecure’s Issa who Babalola describes as a “delight” and “messy.” “She’s so gorgeous, but she’s not exactly smooth,” Bablola says.
Of course, romance is one of the many genres that suffers from its share of anti-Blackness, both with who gets to write them and the kind of characters we constantly see being loved and desired. It’s the Julia Robertses and the Meg Ryans of the world who are seen as the kind of women that society deems to be worthy of affection. While those women as some of her fave on-screen leading ladies, she also cites Vivica A. Fox in Two Can Play That Game and multi-hyphenate entertainer and rom-com queen Queen Latifah who Babalola says is “beautiful, self-possessed, sexy, deep brown skinned, and fully aware of her beauty.”
During our conversation, I was reminded of when Toni Morrison famously said that she “wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” That was one of my favorite Toni Morrison quotes,” Babalola says when I brought it up to her. “It’s a compulsion. Maybe it’s a little bit narcissistic, but I love writing those stories for my younger self,” she says. More than just herself though, Babalola feels a sense of pride every time young Black girls tell her how much her work impacts them. “When they come up to me and say they felt seen, they felt held, ‘You made reconfigure my idea of romance, and gave me hope about it,’ that makes me really happy.”
Despite the cynicism that many critics have of the romance genre, Babalola says that she doesn’t let that impact her love for the genre. “I really believe that people who think love is a weak or frivolous thing are –” Babalola pauses for a second. “–I’m trying to say they’re dumb but in a nice way,” Babalola jokes. “They really don’t have an awareness of the kind of complexity that’s within that genre, what it takes to forensically explore emotions and human vulnerability.”
While binge-watching television when she was in university, she got the idea to expand her writing skills and her love of romance to the screen. Last year, the pilot for her 30-minute hangout comedy Big Age, aired on Channel 4 in the UK. It follows the life of a Black woman who quits her lucrative law job to pursue writing all the while juggling the prospects of a budding new romance and an old flame.
“I’m a storyteller,” she says when I ask her if screenwriting was always in her cards. “Books and novels were just the first things that I gravitated to because I read books so I’m gonna write books.”
Be it on screen or in a book, Babalola’s love for stories about love and messy Black girls will always find a platform.
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Featured image by Caleb Azumah Nelson