An Interview with O.O. Sangoyomi

Last Updated on June 26, 2024

O.O. Sangoyomi is set to dazzle the literary world with Masquerade in July. A story that is tender and slow just as much as it is dark and thrilling, the novel weaves historical West Africa with that of myth. The novel focuses on betrayal and politics, so it is a great fit for us at Grimdark Magazine. It was great to chat with her about debuting, complex relationships and power ahead of the book’s publication.

Masquerade[GdM] Congratulations on your debut novel, Masquerade. Can you introduce Masquerade in a sentence or two for our readers?

[OOS] Masquerade is a historical fiction novel in which a young Yorùbá woman climbs through the ranks of a Medieval West African warrior society. Loosely based on the myth of Persephone, the novel explores the cost of power and the lengths people will go to secure it.

[GdM] I’d love to know more about the inspiration for Masquerade. The story of Hades and Persephone for one, the Yoruba traditions another. How do you see yourself in the storytelling tradition(s)?

[OOS] I wrote Masquerade my sophomore year of college. It stemmed from my frustration about being unable to find classes related to Africa at my school, especially classes about pre-colonial Africa. I was born to Nigerian immigrants, so I’m passionate about the history of West Africa in particular. That interest inspired me to research Medieval West Africa in my own time. The more that I read about the richness of this historical era, the more inspired I became to write a story set within this time period. Especially because storytelling plays such an important role in Yorùbá culture in terms of preserving histories and memories, it was important to me to try fighting against the kind of death that comes when a culture or a history is no longer talked about.

[GdM] Can you talk a bit about the blacksmiths and why they occupy such a focal position in Masquerade?

[OOS] In Yorùbá culture, artisans are held in very high esteem. Not just blacksmiths, but also sculptors, weavers, carvers. In general, the act of creation is a revered endeavor. In regards to blacksmithing, that profession has always held a particular place of fascination in the imagination of the Yorùbá people. For a long time, the technicalities of blacksmithing were kept secret from the general public, making blacksmiths their own kind of closed guild. And because no one knew how they transformed metal, many people believed that the process was magical.

Historically, Yorùbá blacksmiths were men, and because of their abilities, they were highly respected in society. In Masquerade, I reimagined this position as one that is instead occupied by women. I wondered, if the same, seemingly mystical abilities of a blacksmith were in the hands of women, would it be as positively received? Probably not. Throughout history, witch-hunts have occurred in many parts of the world to whatever degree. They all derived from the same thing: the majority group in a society believing the minority group was becoming too powerful, and fearing how that power might be used against them. So it made sense to me that a group of women on whose abilities the empire is dependent would be highly resented.

[GdM] Òdòdó goes through a lot in Masquerade. Throughout, her resilience and cunning stand out. What do you hope the reader takes from her?

[OOS] Unlike most strong female protagonists, Òdódó has neither a fierce personality nor does she blatantly speak her mind. She tends to keep her cards close to her chest, and because of her quieter disposition, most characters who meet Òdódó in the book do not think much of her. Òdódó is aware of how people regard her, and she learns to use this against them. She does things like asking intrusive questions while knowing she can get away with it because no one believes her smart enough to use the information, and she is not afraid to lean into her perceived naivety if it helps her avoid suspicion. She is a fast learner, but she does not let on to just how much she has learned, and her enemies do not realize what a formidable opponent they have created in her until it is too late. So, if readers take anything from her, it can be that there is power to be had in being underestimated.

[GdM] I particularly enjoyed Òdòdó’s complicated relationships with her mother, as well as with the twins. What drew you to focus on these imbalances of power?

[OOS] A common theme in Masquerade is that of convoluted love. Òdódó has a complicated relationship with the king she is being forced to marry, but she also has a complicated relationship with her mother. I think the manner in which people love tends to be the same with how they conduct themselves in every other aspect of their lives. So, as a pessimistic and brutally honest person, Òdódó’s mother cannot help but love Òdódó in a way that seems quite negative and almost more like hatred. It was interesting to explore the concept of a love that, as twisted as it is, is at the same time deep and genuine.

The twins’ role in Masquerade was also interesting to explore. Throughout the novel, in order to get what she wants, Òdódó leans more and more into the strengths that women have and that men do not. She then takes that a step further by also including children in her schemes—which is another group that, like women, tend to have their intelligence and skills be overlooked. It is a mark of Òdódó’s patience and determination that she learns how to utilize the small but unique access that women and children each have to certain facets of life. Over time that gradual collection of power accumulates into a greater one that cannot be challenged, and it is all built on the strengths of underestimated groups.

[GdM] Can you talk a bit about your approach to disability and prosthetics in the story and how it connects to power?

[OOS] In the book, Òdódó is surrounded by powerful men who have, for the most part, obtained their repute through war. Because that is the most overt display of power, at first it seems that if Òdódó is to have any power herself, she must learn to fight like a man. But after Òdódó barely survives a situation that leaves her disabled, she begins to lean into methods of power other than physical fighting. She learns how to filter through gossip for valuable information, how to manipulate others with just her words, and how to use her beauty to win allies. In other words, she uses tactics that are typically dismissed or overlooked by men, but that end up getting her much further than brute strength would have. So ultimately, Òdódó learns that she does not need to learn how to fight like a man; it is much better to fight like a woman.

[GdM] Following on from that, I felt like the loneliness of power, the segregation it brings with it, was core to Masquerade. I’d love to hear more about your intentions in this regard.

[OOS] When Òdódó first arrives at the king’s residence, she is enchanted by the life of luxury that is to be found there. She takes everything in, not just the sights but the people as well, accepting every offer of friendship that comes her way. But what Òdódó learns the hard way is that she has just entered a world in which everyone has their own motives, and to them, Òdódó’s arrival is nothing more than a new opportunity to use her in advancing their individual plans. Throughout the novel, as Òdódó faces betrayal in different ways, she comes to realize that if she is going to make it to the top of the social ladder, she is going to have to play the same games that everyone else does. She learns that she can only put her faith in people, not based on friendship, but based on a partnership that is mutually beneficial. Ultimately, Òdódó comes to have a handful of people in her circle, but none whom she allows herself to trust implicitly again, and that is the sacrifice she makes to hold onto her power.

[GdM] One thing I particularly enjoyed about Masquerade is how the story dares to be slow. A lot happens, but to me, it felt like characters had time to develop rather than jumping from action to action. Was this a deliberate choice?

[OOS] Immersion was a priority for me while writing Masquerade. Especially because this is a time period with which many readers will likely be unfamiliar, it was important to me to paint a vivid picture of the richness this region of the world has had. Careful detail was paid toward building the setting, but also toward building the plot. In order to create a tension that only increases as the book goes on, the groundwork for multiple pieces needed to be firmly established and have room to develop. That way, when it all comes together at the end, it can do so at a fever pitch.

[GdM] With Masquerade so grounded in history, you must have done a lot of research. Can you talk about about the process and the challenges?

[OOS] In order to construct the world of Masquerade, I drew from the three most notable empires of Medieval West Africa: the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, and the Kingdom of Ghana. Elements of the Ọ̀yọ́ empire and Yorùbá history in general are also woven into the story. In terms of my approach to this, I would start out with a specific topic, such as the gold trade in 15th century West Africa, then branch out into similar topics from there. I read a number of sources, ranging from history books to written accounts by European explorers who visited the region at that time, and I was also able to speak with Nigerian scholars who could elaborate on aspects of Yorùbá culture.

Undoubtedly, the most frustrating part of my research process was the sheer lack of sources available about pre-colonial Africa. For every one source I was able to find, there were ten more available for a different part of the world during the same time period. And it does not escape me that, of what little information there is available, most of it comes from the pens of Europeans. It is devastating to think about how many details have been destroyed because a group of people have been prevented from preserving their own history.

[GdM] Do you have any (book) recommendations for readers who need to get over the emotional hangover caused by finishing Masquerade?

[OOS] For more historical fiction: The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham or The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope. For more feminist journeys that incorporate mythology: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel or Daughter of Fire by Sofia Robleda. For more stories rooted in West African culture: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko or The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna.

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.

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