Even before submitting it for publication, YA author Natasha Bowen knew that Skin of the Sea (Random House), her West African take on “The Little Mermaid”, which landed on the New York Times bestseller list in its first week, was a story she needed to tell. “I think you know when you’ve got the idea for you,” Bowen says, noting that she knows she’s found the one “when I go to bed thinking of it and I wake up thinking of it.”
Born in Cambridge, England, and of Nigerian and Welsh descent, Bowen developed a love of stories at an early age. “First and foremost,” she recalls, “the thing that motivated me was being a reader.” Due to dyslexia, Bowen’s mother grew up without the comfort of books, but she ensured that Bowen, who was also diagnosed with dyslexia, was surrounded by them. Bowen says of her mother reading aloud, “I can remember being around four and her skipping over some of the words, so I learned to sound them out. Quickly, I was reading to her, instead of her reading to me.”
Bowen grew up on a council estate (i.e., public housing) with little money and scant exposure to literary characters who looked like her. “When I was a teenager in the early 1990s, there weren’t really many young adult books,” she says—aside from ubiquitous series like Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High. “So I skipped from children’s books to Stephen King.”
Once a voracious story writer, young Bowen found her passion guttered in school, because she wasn’t able to see representation of other Black and Black-mixed people in the stories she was assigned to read. “I think you need to see yourself in at least a few stories,” she explains.
One British Caribbean writer reawakened Bowen’s excitement for relatable storytelling when she was in her late teens. “His name’s Courttia Newland,” Bowen says, “and it was his book The Scholar.” The cover featured a Black boy in front of a council estate, reminiscent of where Bowen was raised. “I think this was the first time I saw a book and thought, ‘I could see myself in this; I could see my friends.’ That spurred me on.”
Skin of the Sea was the culmination of a 20-year search for a story that inspired her. “I was writing on and off since university, trying different things, starting things and not finishing,” Bowen recalls. “It’s that persistence that comes if you love it. If you love it, you don’t ever really stop.”
Bowen fit in writing Skin of the Sea during lunch breaks and teacher assemblies, while teaching full-time in East London and juggling care of her three children. Her students were enthusiastic supporters of her writing endeavors.
After participating in the Twitter-based pitch event #PitMad, Bowen struck gold at #DVPit, a similar event centering
marginalized writers, garnering interest from multiple agents. Bowen ultimately signed with Jodi Reamer at Writers House. “We just really clicked,” Bowen says.
Her debut work sold first in the U.S., and then in the U.K., both to Penguin Random House imprints. “I’m grinning all the time,” Bowen says, “because none of it ever feels real.”
Bowen says she is elated by the reader reception to her book, noting, “There’ve been people who are so excited to read the book because they feel seen.” As when she was young, there remains a relative paucity of Black characters and cultures represented in fantasy—specifically mermaids and West African culture, as featured in Bowen’s book.
Bowen had specific intentions in setting her debut in West Africa at the dawn of the Atlantic slave trade. “When you learn or hear about Africa, and I think this is intentional, it’s like its history only starts with slavery,” Bowen says. “There’s never anything about how it was before.” Bowen spent a month immersed in Africa’s oft-untold mathematical and technological achievements. “When the Portuguese rocked up in West Africa, having used North African strategies to improve their ships, they were amazed to see street lamps.” Bowen noted how that aspect of history is almost never presented, and is one which she wanted to showcase.
“This story was burning inside me and I had to write it,” Bowen says. “Everything else that came with it was a bonus.”
She hopes to expand the world she’s built within Skin of the Sea through companion works, including a sequel due out next year. Then, given the opportunity, Bowen says, “I’d love to put together a collection of stories about the myths surrounding mermaids from around the world.” She’d also like to try her hand at a realistic contemporary YA novel, inspired by her own teenagers.
Bowen hopes her debut will encourage readers to learn more history. “I want to say that Africa’s history and brilliance is there, and I want to say that Black people can be magical and fantastical creatures, as well as anything else.”