I’m aware of how much I take after my parents and forebears. I have my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s cheeks, and there’s a slight wheeze in my laugh that comes straight from my dad. And yet, despite having Nigerian and Black American ancestry, I somehow managed to inherit a very weak hustle gene. Do I have the ambitious thinking? Absolutely. And the tendency to be an overachiever? Of course. But the hustle is lacking.
Despite my big thoughts and ideas, I would not say I think entrepreneurially or hyper-efficiently. Instead, the thought of hustling stresses me out. For instance, at the start of our COVID lockdown, after knowing I was materially secure and my family healthy and safe, I thought I would finally finish this novel I’ve been working on for years. But, since that would involve some hustle, that dream lasted for a few weeks before I decided I just wanted to watch TV instead.
Indeed, the lack of a hustling instinct becomes yet another avenue through which I inevitably question my identity. There have been many times where I have not felt “Black enough,” whether that meant being told I talk White or admit that I didn’t realize there was a Black Twitter until I accidentally stumbled across it. At the same time, I certainly have never felt “Nigerian enough”; I do not speak Igbo, and I think I’ve only eaten jollof rice twice.
Over the years, I have looked for ways big and small to connect with my Nigerian heritage. One of the biggest things was travelling to Nigeria for the first time a few years ago, but I like to think that small things count, too. Every fall during football season, I point at the TV and announce to my husband when I see Nigerian names on the back of jerseys. I want Yvonne Orji to have all the successes in life. I have seen every episode of Bob Hearts Abishola, mostly to see what they say about the Igbos.
So a few years back, when I saw Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone on the shelf while waiting for a friend at [a local bookstore], I knew I needed to buy the book. I flipped to the first pages where the main character, Zélie, remembers her late mother and how she smelled of jollof rice. It was just a paragraph of writing, but I knew it was beautiful. And despite my hardly-existent relationship with jollof rice, I still hoped something in the book would be familiar to me. Perhaps, I thought, I will recognize something in these pages. Or maybe something will see me, too.
And as I read the book, I did see something incredibly familiar. I realized that Tomi Adeyemi is a hardcore #Zutara shipper.
In other words, I could tell by her writing that she was obsessed with the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I recognized this because I am similarly obsessed with the show. I have watched the show’s three seasons several times through. Evangelizing to several friends (and some strangers) about the series, I hold encyclopedic knowledge about ATLA and spout off relevant quotes—because as far as I’m concerned, the show is always relevant—in casual conversations. I have artwork of the show’s made-up, fantasy locations hanging in my home. I posted images from this cartoon at my desk at my job even though I was 100% a real adult 100% in my 30s.
With my perspective, it was obvious to me that Adeyemi was enamored with the series—and I even knew which characters from the show she wanted to get together. From the way characters in the books held powerful and fantastical abilities to the seemingly evil prince trying to do his father’s bidding to the fact that this was a fantasy set in a non-White universe, I saw clear lines between how ATLA would have inspired her story. In addition to seeing it clearly, I deeply understood it as well. And all the while, I felt seen. Here was another Nigerian American who loved some of the same things that I did. Moreover, she felt empowered by these connections. It was as though something had seen me, too.
As our lockdown persisted last spring and bled into the summer, and I neglected writing for TV, I turned back to ATLA. Other nerds and I were excited; the show had returned to Netflix over the summer. A new, growing audience was discovering the show at a time when watching TV, a pandemic-safe activity, seemed like a critical strategy to remain safe. It felt like a moment, like an opportunity full of potential.
And something happened: my weak hustle gene stirred. I wondered: what if I helped others engage with ATLA as they watch it during the pandemic? What if I used my background and training as an educator to engage both the show and our current context? What if I made something?
I ended up creating an online class via newsletter on ATLA. I designed virtual lessons around the series, assigning episodes to watch and things to look for while viewing. While naming themes in the show, I created activities to go alongside them. I provided additional readings and resources for folks who might want to learn more about the connections I made in the lessons and what else they could explore.
Moreover, I told people about this project, asking friends and colleagues to check out my newsletter. Though new to hustling, I even managed to plug the newsletter to my dentist (who definitely signed up). I know someone with a stronger hustling game might have had thousands of subscribers, but for me, the fact that there were strangers who heard about my newsletter through word-of-mouth and decided to sign up for it was a huge accomplishment.
In an early issue of the newsletter course, I talked about Tomi Adeyemi’s books. I wrote about how her imagination had been shaped by the series and what she made possible with her inspiration and vision. Adeyemi’s work felt familiar to me in ways I did not expect. Moreover, her work became a point of affinity and empowerment for me, something that I admire and reference as a Nigerian American creating my own work.
By the way, I was right when I clocked Adeyemi as being obsessed with the ATLA. In her acknowledgements section, she specifically thanks the show creators. And I’ve never loved an acknowledgements section so much.