Spring 2021 Flying Starts: Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

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Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, whose debut novel, Ace of Spades (Feiwel and Friends), landed on bestseller lists after its first week of publication, did not grow up believing she could be a professional writer. She began university studying Chinese, anthropology, and English before settling on English in her third year, and graduated only days before her book was set for release in the U.K.

Billed as Get Out meets Gossip Girl, Ace of Spades tells the story of Chiamaka Adebayo and Devon Richards, the only two Black students at the prestigious Niveus Academy, who find their promising futures jeopardized by the machinations of an anonymous texter known only as Aces. Àbíké-Íyímídé credits her formative high school and university experiences, in South London and Scotland, respectively, with inspiring the novel.

Àbíké-Íyímídé, who hails from Croydon, London, and is of Nigerian descent, says that her hometown is known for its diversity. “My high school was like 90% Black, so I’ve always had that environment. I didn’t really get microaggressions the same way that people usually spoke about growing up. For university, I went to Scotland and it was the complete opposite.”

There, Àbíké-Íyímídé was subject to unsolicited touching in public, racist remarks from her white peers, and a refusal by white commuters to even sit beside her on public transport. “I was struggling a lot just because I was surrounded by people who treated me like a zoo animal, essentially,” she says. “They were staring at me all the time.”

Despite the fact that Àbíké-Íyímídé’s high school was majority Black, “most of our teachers were white. There was a weird power dynamic and they knew, and they would abuse that a lot. When I was young, I would notice, but I wouldn’t have the language to describe what was happening and why it was wrong.” It took reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X for her to understand “why things are the way they are.” With her novel, she hopes to give other Black kids the words to articulate similar experiences.

Prior to selling Ace of Spades, Àbíké-Íyímídé unsuccessfully queried two other novels to agents. “The first book had so many rejections,” she says. “My second book had better responses, but it still wasn’t working.”

When university proved more isolating than expected, Àbíké-Íyímídé took refuge in writing. “I don’t drink because I’m a Muslim and drinking is huge in Scotland,” she says. “So if you don’t drink, you don’t really get to make friends.”

To fill her free hours, she watched Gossip Girl for the first time. “I wanted to write something that was as fun and interesting as the world of Gossip Girl, but make it darker,” she says. “I started writing Ace of Spades, and I finished it in the beginning of my second semester, in February or March. I queried it until July when I got my first agent,” who then sold it to Usborne in the U.K. Àbíké-Íyímídé and her book were subsequently signed by Zoë Plant of the Bent Agency, who submitted it to U.S publishers.

Foyinsi Adegbonmire, recently promoted to associate editor at Feiwel and Friends, was an early champion of Ace of Spades. She was the editorial assistant responsible for reading submissions for associate publisher Liz Szabla when the book was submitted. Àbíké-Íyímídé recalls, “I got an email one day, after we got the offer, saying that Liz loved the book, but especially that the editorial assistant loved the book so much and she wants to speak to you.”

Àbíké-Íyímídé was excited for the meeting as she recognized Foyinsi’s name as being Nigerian like her own.“Foyinsi was so enthusiastic. Just speaking to her was amazing. It got better when I was working with her, during edits.” Àbíké-Íyímídé notes that Adegbonmire “understood everything” she was attempting to convey in her YA thriller, particularly references “no one would get if they weren’t Nigerian.”

Ace of Spades is filled with representation related to race and ethnicity, sexuality, and economic status. “People act like having so much representation in the book is unrealistic, but really, people are grappling and dealing with so many things at once,” she says. “I wanted to try and represent fully as many people as I could. I wanted to write this story for young Black queer kids—for them to be in these stories in a way that is cool and not entirely traumatic, just interesting, and as messy and dramatic as other [books] where you have white heterosexual people.” She also wanted to demonstrate that Black people are “full people, worthy of our own distinct narratives and happy endings.”

Though she’d like to “write everything” at some point, Àbíké-Íyímídé also hopes to work behind the scenes in publishing someday. “I like the idea of being a marketing person,” she notes.

In the meantime, she says, she’s busy writing her second book—a standalone boarding school mystery “that’s about friendship, and it’s also queer. The protagonist is Black and Muslim like me, so I’m excited for that. I’m also writing a lot of dark middle grade with ghosts.”

A version of this article appeared in the 06/28/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Children’s Flying Starts

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