In Honey and Spice (Morrow, July), Babalola gives readers a music-infused love story set in a Black British university milieu.
What made you choose to write a campus novel?
In literature we haven’t really seen Black British people in this kind of setting. I wanted it to be an homage to all the high school rom-coms I love, but I also didn’t want it to be a high school story. I wanted it to be one that both young people and adult readers could relate to. And I also find the campus setting just so delicious; it’s such a concentrated hotbed of emotion. You have all these new adults trying to figure out their life and their way, within this mini-world of the university.
American readers might not be familiar with African Caribbean societies like the one at the center of the novel—can you talk a little bit about the role groups like this play for Black British university students?
If you have Black student unions there, it’s a similar dynamic. Often British universities are not particularly diverse, and a lot of us feel very displaced when we go to university. You might be one of five within your entire course. So the ACS can provide a safe space where you can talk about what you’re going through. But also they offer opportunities to celebrate culture, to cook food together and have cookouts and parties that create a sense of home.
Music plays such a central role in the novel, and certainly for Kiki music is inextricable from her feelings about love and relationships. Was there particular music that inspired you as you worked on the novel?
I’m always listening to soul, R&B, Afrobeats—they kind of create an atmosphere for writing. I don’t always listen to music while I write, but I’m always listening to music, and especially with R&B and soul—I’m very similar to Kiki in my tastes. Music really does affect how you view emotions, reflect on emotions around love, desire, and romance that you might not otherwise explore.
What draws you to writing about romance?
I don’t shy away from the romance label, though I think there’s the perception that it’s just one thing, where in reality it’s so broad. In a way love defines so much of our human experience: the yearning, the possession, the fear of it, the hope of finding it, and what it propels us to do. And as a writer, the process of falling in love, of two people finding each other in this chaotic world, is just such a gorgeous thing to explore and I’m so lucky I get to write it.