— Love in Color: Mythical Tales From Around the World, Retold, by Bolu Babalola (Harper Collins (2021)
When you thumb through Bolu Babalola’s short story collection, Love in Color: Mythical Tales From Around the World, Retold, you’ll surely recognize some of the names that double as titles. Scheherazade, of the Arabian Nights; Nefertiti, a legendary ancient Egyptian queen; perhaps even Psyche, from the Greek story of Eros and Psyche. Many of the names may be unfamiliar, featuring myths from western and southern Africa, China, and Mesopotamia. But even if you know the original incarnations of these stories, Babalola’s versions will still feel entirely new.
Take Scheherazade, for instance. In the original version, a vengeful king takes a new virgin bride every night but beheads her the next morning. As the kingdom begins to run out of virgins, women are fearful and begin to flee. All except Scheherazade, a vizier’s daughter who offers herself as the king’s next bride. On their wedding night, after overhearing Scheherazade tell her sister a story that lasts until dawn, the king is so enraptured that he allows her to live an extra night, if only to finish her story. But as the nights go on, Scheherazade keeps the king hooked on the twists and turns in her tales — giving him time to fall in love with her, and ultimately saving herself (and the heads of the women in the kingdom).
Babalola’s version turns the original on its head, placing Scheherazade in a modern-day urban setting in which she confronts the ruthless politics inherent in her role as the city’s most prominent fixer. Her love interest is not a king she is trying to seduce with story, but an academic on the opposing side of the political divide. Instead of trying to keep herself alive, Baboloa’s Scheherzade finds herself telling the story of the thousand and one nights of their relationship, in order to keep her lover alive after his opponents arrange a car accident that nearly kills him: “They said I should talk to you every day, that it might get out of this indefinite state, that you may hear and come back to me – please come back to me – so I’ve been talking to you… 1,001 nights, but there has to be more. This is sacred. This is a love story.”
It is this idea of the indefinite state that underlies all the stories in this collection — the way that people without love are not quite complete, not quite whole. The women in these stories are powerful and empowered, but they have sacrificed to give that impression of themselves (a problem that has transcended the ages for women). As a result they never feel truly seen. Their power rests, at least in part, on artifice. As Nefertiti, the widow of a powerful gangster now running her own underground political revolution in the form of a night club, puts it: “Relationships were out of the question. I retained my power by my distance…emotionally, anyway.” And later, “everyone knows a part of who I am.” This would be unsettling to read if not for the conclusions of these stories, which show that with love it is possible to be both powerful and vulnerable, symbolic of a greater cause and authentic to oneself.
Babalola’s writing is lush and filled with sensory details, reflecting her characters themselves — especially the women, who in most cases are unabashedly sensual and sexual. Attem, for example, makes no secret of the fact that she used her body to seduce a king in order to save her family, nor does she feel shame that she continues to seduce men of her choosing so that she can feel some pleasure in her life despite her disgust for her elderly husband. And if they don’t start out that way, true love soon shows how they can feel empowered in their own bodies. It is love that makes them whole, able to embrace all aspects of themselves, regardless of whether they are pop stars or nerdy teens with vitiligo.
The stories of Love in Color are filled with love at first sight, love that transforms, all in unique settings that somehow feel completely realistic.
Danielle Johnson. Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson