Ehigbor Okosun is the Austin, TX-based author of the fantasy novel Forged by Blood, a #1 Sunday Times bestselling debut inspired by Nigerian mythology.
Ehigbor Okosun or just Ehi, is an Austin-based author who writes speculative fiction, mystery thrillers, and contemporary novels for adult and YA audiences. Raised across four continents, she hopes to do justice to the myths and traditions she grew up steeped in, and to honor her large, multiracial and multiethnic family. No matter the genre, she centers complex, multi-faceted women of the Afro-diaspora in her work, and believes in their inherent joy and worthiness. Her debut novel, a Nigerian mythology epic fantasy, Forged By Blood, debuted from HarperVoyager on August 8, 2023, and has received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist as well as favourable reviews from Library Journal. A graduate of UT Austin with degrees in Plan II Honors, Neurolinguistics, English, Chemistry, and Pre-medical studies, Ehigbor enjoys reading, bullet journalling, baking, Shakespearean theatre, and spending time with her loved ones. Follow her website and on Instagram.
Chapter 1: Trust
“Please heal him,” the woman says, begging Mummy with tear-filled eyes. “Please.”
My mother grunts, but she takes the boy from the woman and sets him on our cot in the corner of the room.
This woman will get us killed, I know it.
But I waddle over, dragging the calabash behind me, its heavy wooden body leaning against
my legs like a cow about to give birth. When I reach the edge of the cot, I open the neck and pour palm wine into the cracked bowl lying next to it. Mummy pulls the boy’s eyelids up and peers at pale irises ringed with red cracks. Then she unbuttons his tunic and examines the network of bulging red veins spread across his pale skin.
“Dèmi?” she says.
“Okonkwo poisoning. It’s been at least six hours. He won’t last another,” I say.
She nods. “Good. How long will the recovery be?”
“If he is healed now, then at most a day. But the healer will be exhausted for three.”
She smiles, brushing a lock of my tightly coiled hair from my face, brown eyes shining with pride. Then she turns to the woman.
“Even if he’s healed, your son might still pay a price in the future. Are you prepared?”
The woman’s tearful face morphs so quickly into a mask of disgust that I fear I imagined her tears. She spits on the floor—our floor—before tossing a cloth bag on the ground. Several gold coins roll out, littering the mud like the kwasho bugs that crawl around in summertime. There is at least twenty lira, enough to feed us for two years, even with the extra trade taxes.
“Pure gold,” she sneers. “More than you’ve ever seen in your miserable lives. That should be enough. Or do you need more?”
I bristle. “Gold will not stop the spirits—”
Mummy shoots me a glance and I swallow my words. She straightens her back. We only have the small kerosene lantern to light our hut, but her skin—brown like fresh kola nuts—glows golden in that light. Her braided hair is a crown adorning her heart-shaped face. For a moment, I see her again as she used to be, before she was cast out, a princess of Ifé.
“Healing is a balance. Life for life. Your boy ingested a lot of poison. I can only ask the spirits for mercy. What they do is up to them,” she says, giving the woman a frosty look.
“You mean—you mean he might still die,” the woman says, her creamy face growing paler.
“Mummy is the best healer in all Oyo,” I say proudly. “She won’t let him die.”
The woman shrinks from my gaze, busying herself with loose threads on the waistline of her silk dress, arrogance driven away by fear. Turning back to Mummy, I hold out the cracked bowl without a word. I know what she would say, why she didn’t bother responding: just because we don’t understand others doesn’t mean they deserve our ridicule or hatred.
Never mind that we’re the only ones required to live by such a rule.
Mummy tilts the boy’s head up and pours the palm wine into his mouth. He gurgles feebly but drinks it all. She lays him back down, and I fetch the palm oil and salt from the cupboard. There are only a few drops left in a jar of palm oil that was supposed to last six months. Too many healing rituals.
Harmattan season is upon us, and its dry, sandy winds drive children into the forests like a traveling musician draws crowds. The Aziza come during Harmattan, guiding hunters through the thick underbrush, flying from tree to tree. One child they choose will have a wish granted, so even with the prevalence of okonkwo bushes near Aziza tree houses, children flock to them all the same.
I would, too, if I didn’t know better. Even the magic of the Aziza cannot call back the dead.
Mummy dips a finger in the oil and marks the boy’s face. For softness, to ease his journey in the Spirit Realm. Then she dabs some salt on his tongue. To remind him of the taste of human life. I stretch a hand over his chest, but she shakes her head.
“You will wear out. I don’t need half as much rest,” I insist.
“It’s too risky. My abilities are known, but yours—”
“What’s happening over there?” the woman asks, voice rising to a shriek. “What are you saying?”
I realize now that Mummy and I have slipped into our native tongue, Yoruba, a relic of the past kingdom outlawed in public.
“She’s preparing for the ritual,” I say quickly in Ceorn, offering the woman an apologetic smile. “She wants to make sure everything goes well.”
The woman narrows her eyes. “If anything happens to him, I’ll make sure you rot in meascan prison, where you belong.”
I draw in a breath, feeling as though I’ve been slapped. You should be first to die, then, for letting your child fall ill in the first place.
I want to scream in her face. The woman spits again. and it takes everything I have to hold myself still. Meascan. Adalu. It’s times like these, when these insults wash over me, that I drown in a well of anger. There are so many words for what we are, words sung over me like a lullaby of curses since my birth. The message is the same: We are not human. We are tainted. Tools to be used and discarded.
It never changes, this ugly dance. This woman no doubt came here for the winter festival—perhaps to meet a friend she hadn’t seen in many moons, or even a lover. Wealthy Eingardians like her flock to Oyo like crows settling on a corpse. Celebrations here are cheaper; the people willing to bow when they see a light-skinned face; they are ready to worship, and Eingardians crave worship. When they run into trouble, they look to Mummy and me. They’re willing to pay so dearly for illegal magical help, from curing boils to saving an infected leg. But after, when it’s time for drinking and dancing, they remind us we will never sit at the same table—we are deadwood, cut down for the fire that warms their cold hearts and hateful faces, whittled into the benches they sit on. They beat us, insult us, and expect us to keep serving without complaint.
So Mummy and I make bitter leaf pastes for blemishes and pain, draw fever from hot skin, and exhaustion from weary bones. And when the soldiers come, purple-and-gold tunics flecked with traces of dried blood and iron swords like mirrors reflecting our terror, our patrons will be long gone, their needs met. It will be just Mummy and me then, trading coin for the privilege of survival, until the next rush.
Gathering the abandoned coins, I shove them at the woman. “Take it.”
She backs away. “I’ve already paid. Don’t go back on your word,” she says, but her bottom lip quivers as she speaks, fearing we might do exactly that.
Adapted from FORGED BY BLOOD by Ehigbor Okosun, published by Harper Voyager. Copyright © 2023 by Ehigbor Shultz. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers Forged by Blood
This interview was conducted between Jae Nichelle and Ehigbor Okosun on November 17, 2023.
The world of Forged By Blood is inspired by Nigerian mythology. The main character, Dèmi, has her own magical abilities and also interacts with the spirits and the land around her. There are so many complexities to creating a fantastical world that simultaneously feels very grounded. How and where did you begin building the world of this story?
Demi’s world started with a family that encouraged their young daughter—me--to dream. My family really protected my imagination as best as they could, and I am forever grateful for that. When I write, I often start with character first, and I like to say that the world itself is a character too, one that imposes its will on the other characters and is shaped by those characters in turn. The Kingdom of Ife began with a recurring dream I kept having about Demi, one where I saw a young woman standing before a river staring at me. In the reflection of the water, I saw her image in these fractured pieces, but her fists were clenched so tight, so intensely, that I wondered whether she would let those pieces of herself be swallowed up by the river. Then, she spoke. In short, the story, the magic, the world itself, began with Demi’s voice.
In your essay “Myth and Magic, Seen and Unseen,” you wrote “I am real, and the magic of the stories in my heart must be too.” In this essay, you mention telling stories since you were a child. At what point in your life did you begin to call yourself a storyteller? How did you decide that you would write and share these stories—if it even felt like a decision?
I come from a long line of storytellers, many of whom were forced to leave one continent for another in search of homes. The people in my family held onto themselves and their ancestral knowledge through stories, tales filled with wonder and delight. But I didn’t think of myself as a storyteller for a long time because I didn’t think my ambitions mattered.
I was raised to survive, and to care for those around me. My parents had done the same. My grandparents before them. The generation before that. We’d survived wars, colonization, famine, and poverty on multiple continents. So, my childhood was one were stories were a precious escape, and all the more magical for it. Everyone believed, because I started reading at two, and showed early interest in both the sciences and arts, that I’d be a great medical doctor who wrote as a hobby. Medicine, after all, was a career my parents could understand as traditionally successful—one that would honour the sacrifices that secured me the opportunity for me to even exist.
To call myself a storyteller though, to get to a place where I had to decide to do this, I had to believe that I had stories worth telling, that I could consider writing as something other than a hobby. I made that decision at seventeen, when I came home for winter break during my first year at uni. Funnily enough, my dad is the one who opened Pandora’s Box. I was feeling generally frustrated about my uni experience and out of sorts. My dad encouraged me to just sit down and write. He knew it was something I did that helped me recalibrate and dream for a little bit. In those two weeks, I wrote a full length urban gothic fantasy novel centering a young girl who survives a magical event only she can remember. I did nothing but write for fourteen hours a day—I didn’t even eat, much to my mum’s chagrin. It was really from there that I decided I had to try. For the next several years, I kept dancing to the medical track, kept preparing for another career entirely. But the stories, the characters, the voices would not leave me. They clung to me like hungry ghosts desperate to survive. So, I did the craziest thing a twenty something could decide to do and decided to pursue a career in writing, no take backs.
Do you have a favorite myth or tradition that you were raised with? What is it?
I have several myths and traditions I hold dear, but I’ll share just two small myths from different ends of the family that I think of often.
The first is of a tortoise who attends a godly feast and believes that he can cunningly steal a bowl of pottage from the kitchens. When Lion heads his way, Tortoise, shoves all the pottage into his cap and places it on his head. Then he faints, and everyone rushes over trying to figure out how to help him. They can’t figure out how to revive him until Antelope thinks to take off his cap. Naturally, he’s embarrassed when they find out why he fainted.
The second is of a woman who leaves the sky to visit earth and sea. When she lands, she takes off her robe and wades into the waters. A passing fisherman takes her robes and hides them. When she returns and is horrified to be without her robe, and thus her ability to fly, he offers to marry her. They go on to have children, but she still longs for the sky, and the wind. The tale either ends in tragedy or comeuppance depending on which end my grandfather felt like choosing on a particular day.
What would surprise your younger self about where you are right now?
My younger self would be absolutely surprised that we didn’t take the plunge sooner! She would also be proud of me, but she’d also tell me to chin up. She’d say that it’s okay to take breaks, and she’d ask me why I don’t do it more. She’d remind me that the dreams we held for so long are coming true day by day so we should at least slow down enough to savour them.
You have so many cool hobbies! Are you currently bullet journaling? What types of spreads do you use on a day to day?
I fell out of bullet journalling for a bit while writing so much in the last few months—I have another epic fantasy project on deck and a mystery thriller that is setting people’s tongues on fire (or so I’ve heard). But I’m back at it again now. Bullet journalling is such a meditative experience for me, and I create my own spreads. I have a colour system I made once I started the practice in 2015, and I’ve continued it faithfully to this day. When I get tired of the spreads I’m using, I just make new ones or I draw and give myself permission to be undefined for a bit. If you see a bunch of anatomical hearts with flowers in my journal, this is why.
You’re working on the sequel to Forged By Blood. So far, how has that process felt different from writing the first one?
Writing the second book has been difficult in part because once you’ve put out the first, once you’ve shared a piece of yourself with the world, you’re hyper aware of what it means to do it again. I was recently discussing this sophomore effect with a friend, a fellow writer who remarked that it feels as though second books are treated as spectres, ghostly lingerers begging to be treated with the excitement and novelty of the first book.
You see the same thing in music. Olivia Rodrigo puts out an emotive, powerful first album, Sour, that captures the excitement and disaffection of youth, and we all sit like vultures, taking bets as to whether, GUTS, her sophomore album, will be anywhere as good as the first. Olivia’s vocal prowess and witty lyricism aside, writing Book two was a LOT! But I’m happy to say that the thing that kept me going, that made it possible to finish, was focusing on the shape of my character’s voices and letting that guide the story.
Now, no matter how it’s received, I know I did them justice. I told their story with the space I was given. And that’s what matters.
You were raised across four continents and now reside in Austin. What are some hidden gems in Austin that you would recommend to visitors?
I always recommend the 360 Bridge to people! It holds a really special place in my heart. Let’s just say that the 360 Bridge is a magical place where you climb up a cliff face and see quite a lot of the Colorado river and Austin.
The Mansfield Dam is also beautiful and makes you feel as though you’re moored in the middle of an ocean. You can see by now that there’s a trend—I love overlooking vast bodies of water.
The Wildflower Center is gorgeous. You can easily spend hours there just looking at flowers and taking in the scenery.
Austin also has several greenbelts that are fun to hike in.
What songs do you have on repeat these days?
In The Heart of Stars by David Campbell
August by NIKI
Jericho by Iniko
Clip by Bolbbalgan4
How can people support you right now?
Buy the book! Add the next book to Goodreads. Recommend the book to others. Don’t let people peddle the narrative that our books are just for select people. Our books are for everyone to read. If I could fall in love with Enid Blyton’s stories when she never really wrote characters that resembled me, anyone could fall in love with my diverse fantasy. It’s as simple as that.
Name another Black woman writer people should read.
Kemi Ashing-Giwa is an Afro-Asian writer making waves in the science fiction universe. Also, you may not know her name yet, but Marve Michael Anson, is an up-and-coming Yoruba writer who will take you on fantastical journeys. Nicky Drayden is always a tried and true recommendation for amazing speculative fiction that will both soothe and terrify you. Desiree S. Evans and Saraciea J. Fennell have a horror anthology called The Black Girl Survives In This One coming out as well. I never get tired of shouting out women across the Afro-Diaspora.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.