Shade Lapite on building the world in Goddess Crown

And how she infused Nigerian culture into her story.


Goddess Crown started life as a 50,000 word story, pounded out in 30 days for the annual, global challenge, National Novel Writing Month. I’d attempted the challenge in previous years and found that the essential ingredient was a strong story premise. While casting around for ideas, I thought of one of my favourite films at the time, Elizabeth 1: The Golden Age, particularly the scene when Cate Blanchett stands in the middle of her royal court, surrounded by powerful men and confronts a foreign ambassador yelling: “I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!” How did Elizabeth evolve from the barely acknowledged daughter of a king – one who’d beheaded her mother for adultery – to the most powerful person in the country? That question became the foundation stone of the story.

In my first draft of the novel, the heroine was white – a red head, just like Elizabeth 1 – and Galla was a fantastical version of ye olde England. As years passed, I kept on returning to the story, fascinated by my central character, Kalothia and her journey to the throne. At some point I decided to make my protagonist Black. I had not grown up with many Black heroines in fiction books, and none who were action heroes, it required a paradigm shift in my own head. Once I made the change, I quickly realized I had to rethink the entire set up. Where were Kalothia’s people from? Was she a racial minority? Would I now have to consider the dynamics of race in a story that was about family, royal succession and courtly intrigue? I decided I didn’t want to write about race. Not even a little. So I shifted the entire story to West Africa and used Nigeria, my parents’ home country, as a template for the world of Galla.

I was born and raised in England, but I grew up eating Nigerian food, hearing Yoruba spoken at home, wearing Nigerian clothes for family events and visiting Nigeria on family trips. I tapped into all of this as I reconfigured Kalothia’s world. I clothed the characters in bright, patterned fabrics. I laid meal tables with my favourite Nigerian dishes such as, baked plantain, fried fish, pepper stew, steamed bean cakes, ground cassava, and more. I painted the landscape with red sand and waving palm trees, reminiscent of trips to see my grandmother in Abeocuta. I surrounded the big cities with the high-earthen defensive walls like those that once protected the ancient Kingdom of Benin. When Kalothia walks through the palace corridors passing sculptures of her ancestors, they are modelled on the famous Benin Bronzes. I marked important occasions at the royal court with the sound of drums, mimicking the drumming troupes deployed at Nigerian ceremonial events.

I infused many things I knew and enjoyed about Nigeria into Goddess Crown, but trying to write a story in a pre-industrial, pre-colonial West Africa really opened my eyes to how little I knew about African history. What crops had people grown? What had they done for work? How was government organised? What fabrics had they worn? What currency had they used? What religions had they followed? I discovered my knowledge of the Yoruba peoples I had descended from was extremely shallow. I started to fill in the gaps with research, but it was too big a question to answer while writing the book. Setting the story in a fantastical West Africa gave me a work-around and freedom to invent. I could combine real cultural elements from my research with imaginary ones.

I also borrowed ideas from other locations too. I merged elements of the Indian palaces I saw on a trip to Delhi and Agra with the ingenuity of Mali’s Great Mosque of Djenne when creating the royal palace. I had Kalothia seek safety in a trade caravan as she crossed the country, similar to the huge assemblies of people and camels that would journey back and forth across the Sahara to trade goods. The ranks of Galla’s high society remained patterned on the English aristocracy.

The end result of combining my imagination with West African culture and borrowing from elsewhere is potpourri that gives a richness to Kalothia’s world. It’s a world I hope readers enjoy discovering as much as I did building.

Goddess Crown by Shade Lapite is out Feb 1 (Walker Books).
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