Bolu Babalola has long been an undisputed authority on romance — a “Romcomoisseur™,” if you will. People have been DM’ing the 31-year-old author for romantic advice for almost as long as she’s been on Twitter, and she grew up on a hearty diet of romance novels (the sort she was too young to be reading), rom-com golden-era films, and gossip sessions with her mother. “My mum has always been very open about relationships and romance,” Babalola says. “She is quite wise, and growing up with that, I had an insight into relationships — and was emotionally mature when it came to relationships — quite early on.”
(By the way, if you spend any time at all on Twitter, you’ve probably seen Babalola’s many viral tweets, from her thread of spookily accurate pop-culture predictions to the obviously edited photo with Michael B. Jordan that led to an IRL meeting.)
It only makes sense that she grew up to be a romance author. You may know her as the writer of Love in Colour, the popular short-story collection of modern romance vignettes based on historical love stories and myths. Now, she has followed it up with her debut romance novel, Honey & Spice, a delicious page-turner that takes place on a college (or, as the Brits say, uni) campus. It’s got all the juiciest, most satisfying romance tropes (enemies to lovers, a fake relationship that’s actually real, a playboy with a heart of gold), but in Babalola’s capable hands, the story feels fresh and unique and avoids the sexism these tropes can sometimes convey.
You have helped bring romance back as a genre that deserves value and attention. Why has it been so overlooked?
I think it’s because it’s so aligned with femininity — and femininity is seen as weaker because of patriarchy and misogyny. Anything that connects to women, or that women connect to, is seen as frivolous and silly and lacking gravitas. Romance contends with human connection. It takes a great emotional intelligence, and intelligence generally, to capture that. So I’ve always found it fascinating when people say that romance is silly, because you really need to do a lot of internal work to create something that is romantic and connects to people in that way and speaks to our emotions.
And on the other side of that, why is romance such a powerful genre? At its best, what can it do?
Romance gives us a space to feel and explore that and also look into ourselves and examine our desires. At its best, romance can inspire joy and hope. Going away from my favorite rom-coms — whenever I finish watching Harry Met Sally or 10 Things I Hate About You — I always go away feeling really invigorated, and full of hope and lightness. The world is so full of darkness. Romance homes in on the joy that you can feel when you connect with somebody. It’s such a special thing to see something in somebody else that you’re drawn to and for somebody else to see you.
You’ve talked about how your parents’ relationship has been a guiding romance in your life. Can you talk about how they’ve helped motivate your work?
I always thought I was going to be a writer. I’d be, like, an assistant at a PR job, just writing scraps during my lunch break, thinking I’m gonna be a writer one day. There was no physical evidence to say that I was gonna be a published writer. That confidence and inner belief in my vision — and also my skill, because no one told me that I was good at writing — I just felt like, I think I am. I think that came from my parents. They were like, “Oh, you want to be a writer? Okay, you will be a writer. If that’s what’s in your heart, that’s what you’re gonna be.” The day I got signed by my agent, my mum was really happy but relatively chill, and I was losing my mind, and I was like, “Why are you chill?” And she was like, “This is not surprising to me.” Like, of course. That’s the kind of supportive home I grew up in. A lot of my confidence came from that.
I love the way you built a world within a world in Honey & Spice — the sort of safe-haven Blackwell community within the really unwelcoming Whitewell campus. Even the friendships feel like love stories.
For me, that was crucial because it’s frustrating when I’m reading or watching romance and I’m like, But who are her friends? Like, where’s your support system? We can really get to know a character through her friends. I like to see characters being held to account by people who love them, so it’s done with love. It was really important for me to draw a Black sisterhood as well next to the romance, because Black love is all-encompassing and it’s not just romantic love. It’s also platonic; it’s our sisterhood, and it’s our community. I also wanted to portray a safe haven that we find in university when we’re thrown up against an institutionally white world.
Whatever race, you’re trying to find yourself and find your family. And then it’s harder when you’re a Black person or a minority because you’re not in the mainstream, and you’re not welcome, which is something that I experienced when I was in university. I found solace in the African Caribbean Society, which is where I met a lot of my best friends, and I wanted to home in on the joy of that. And also, the things that we experience in romance don’t happen in isolation. While Kiki was learning to open up with Malakai, she was also learning to open up with her girls. We don’t grow in isolation.
I remember seeing somewhere that Honey & Spice was your sort of passion project, which you started on before writing Love in Color.
Yeah, Honey & Spice is my baby.
Did the process of writing and publishing Love in Color change your approach to Honey & Spice at all?
Honey & Spice was meant to be my first book out, I was so determined to the point that when I first got asked, “Do you want to write an anthology?,” I said no. My focus was on Honey & Spice. That’s how single minded I was about it. And then my mum was like, “Get over yourself; it’s a book deal.” Looking back at it, I could not ask for a better first book, because Love in Colour is kind of like a mission statement. Not only did I get to write love stories, I got to pay respect to the genre of romance. It set the tone.
Of course, the priority when you’re writing a story is to write the story, but are you thinking about ways that you push back on gender roles and other stereotypes?
It’s not something I’m really conscious of because I don’t like to have naysayers in my head. I don’t have anything to say to people who hate romance; I’m not writing for them. My art isn’t a response to them. But I’m thinking about the things that I would want in a relationship, like respect and balance. It comes very naturally because I am a feminist, so I don’t want an imbalance. With Malakai, I did want him to just be very openly besotted with her.
I wanted it to be clear why these people liked each other and why they get on and why they’re good for each other. And it’s not just about seamlessly getting along; it’s about challenging each other, encouraging each other. I really wanted it to be not just the attraction and fire, which I think is really fun to read and is important, but also the more stable thing, like, I feel safe with you, you know?
Honey & Spice is such a pleasant world to be in.
I really, really love Honey & Spice, like, so much. I loved writing it, and I love Kiki and Malakai. They’re my babies — I lived in their world for so long. This story went through five iterations, and Kiki and Malakai stayed the same, and their connection stayed the same. I just hope that people take away some hope and some joy from it. I got loads of hope and joy from it. It actually got me through a breakup. I was almost creating my own hope because I was like, No, it can exist. I hope that it lifts people up. I hope it’s a balm for people.
Is there anything we can look forward to?
It might not be the end for Kiki and Malakai … I don’t want to leave them.