"Ace Of Spades" Is The YA Thriller You've Been Waiting For – Here's What Author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé Told Us Her Debut Novel
It's been described as Get Out meets Gossip Girl – don't if we do!
How would you describe Ace of Spades?
I would introduce it as Gossip Girl meets Get Out. It’s a book about self-discovery, coming of age as a Black teen, and also just a fun mystery that looks at deeper topics that aren’t always covered in thrillers.
The main characters, Chiamaka and Devon, are the only two Black students at Niveus Private Academy, how would you describe them?
I’d describe Chiamaka as a Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl or Regina George from Mean Girls type. She’s very layered and has a lot of walls up – at first you'll think of her as a typical high school mean girl, but there’s actually a lot more to her. And Devon, he’s kind of a wallflower who wants to blend in and not be the centre of attention. They're polar opposites – people who want different things from high school.
Each chapter alternates between both character’s points of view – which one did you relate to the most?
I relate to them both in a lot of different ways, but I think I relate to Devon more. We have a similar background in terms of coming from working-class families, having a lot of responsibility, and feeling like you almost have to be a parent figure in your own home – so I really relate to him on a socio-economic level.
What would you say the story's biggest themes are?
The biggest themes are dreams and hopes – Chiamaka and Devon are just trying to make it in a world that is built to be against them, and make it in a system that is basically built to stop them from succeeding.
Self-acceptance and loneliness are also big themes. When you’re a teenager, it’s really difficult to fully accept yourself when you’re trying to fit in, or you have other people telling you that something about yourself is wrong. Chiamaka’s also a child of immigrants, so I wanted to show that this can bring about pressures to live up to parental expectations, which can be isolating.
"When you’re a teenager, it’s really difficult to fully accept yourself when you’re trying to fit in, or you have other people telling you that something about yourself is wrong."
Queerness also runs throughout the story – how did you approach telling Chiamaka and Devon’s respective journeys authentically?
Something I’ve noticed is that queerness will be arbitrarily added as a point to sell a book or TV show, and isn’t actually for a queer audience. From the beginning of the book I wanted it to be about queer Black kids, so it was ingrained. I grew up in a very queer environment, and I've seen so many people from different backgrounds having different experiences. I really wanted to make sure a lot of people felt represented and it wasn’t just one story, because coming out and self-discovery can look different for different people.
With Chiamaka, I wanted it to be the case that she hadn’t really let herself think about what she truly wanted. When you’re in such a heteronormative society, so many people don’t even realise that they are queer until much later, because they’ve been conditioned to believe that any fondness they may have for someone of the same gender is just friendship. I saw that with a lot of my friends – they didn’t realise they were queer because they were brought up believing that it couldn’t exist for them. Especially if you’re a person of colour and you’ve only really seen white queer people in the media. So it was really important for me to represent that.
"I really wanted to make sure a lot of people felt represented and it wasn’t just one story, because coming out and self-discovery can look different for different people."
You’ve described Ace of Spades as “a love letter to queer Black teenagers who feel powerless and alone finally finding their voices” – what book empowered you as a teen?
I think that one book that made me feel like I could be a writer was Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. I saw the announcement for the book series when I was in sixth form and I was just so shocked because I’d never seen a Nigerian YA author have such a big platform before. That was one book that I felt really empowered by. Another one was Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. I read that when I was 15 or 16, and just seeing her take on real-world politics and history was so interesting to me. Seeing a Black woman be so successful writing dark-skinned characters really changed everything for me in terms of the way I saw myself, and my future in writing.
The location of the Niveus Academy seems quite ambiguous – some parts of it feel American, and some feel British. How did you go about shaping the setting and the world that Chiamaka and Devon live in?
When I started writing the book, I wanted it to be something that could apply to any place in the Global North, even though every culture has its own quirks. I tried to make the setting as neutral as possible so that the story could still ring true in any place where Black people are disenfranchised and minoritised.
I wanted to include the history of racism in America and some parts of the history of racism in Britain as a subtle way of teaching people, specifically Black kids, about the history of why things are the way they are. I learned so much from reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, and I wanted to create something that was fun and fictional that people would enjoy, but could also learn from.
The story is full of shocking surprises. Did you have all the twists and turns planned out before you started writing?
I definitely went on a journey. I’m really bad at knowing how to end stories, especially when it comes to stories set in the real world, and not fantasy – life is so continuous so it’s hard to make endings feel satisfying and realistic, so I had to really think about the ending constantly. I had to rewrite it a few times. I didn’t want it to be too dark because we’ve had enough darkness – I wanted it to be realistic and also to be hopeful, that was my priority in the end.
Speaking of darkness, Chiamaka and Devon go through a lot. There’s been quite a bit of talk recently about the exploitation of Black trauma in media – was this something you were mindful of when you were writing the story?
I was really conscious of this as I was writing, I would never want to do something that would leave people traumatised. I think a lot of people discuss Black pain and say that they’re tired of those stories, but I have a theory that they’re actually tired of the way that they’re being told – a lot of the time they can feel sensationalised, and almost harmful.
A lot of Black history is very traumatic and needs to be talked about, but I think it needs to be discussed in a way where we’re not re-traumatising people. I think Get Out did it really well – I remember watching it and just being so intrigued by Jordan Peele’s mind and all the choices he made.
I wanted to make sure that Ace of Spades was really fun and engaging. People might call the ending unrealistic, or say that it could have been more powerful if it was darker and more horrific, but I think you can get a point across without re-traumatising people. I think it’s actually more powerful to leave people with a good feeling, and the ability to think about what they’ve seen or read and understand racism more. I think Jordan Peele introduced a lot of people to white liberalism and performative allyship, and I think it’s more important to get those messages across than sensationalising the topics.
"People might call the ending unrealistic, or say that it could have been more powerful if it was darker and more horrific, but I think you can get a point across without re-traumatising people."
And finally, what do you want readers to take away from Ace of Spades?
I want them to think deeply about the systems that we are all involved and complicit in. We can go about life feeling neutral about things, but we’re all in a system and we’re all complicit in something. I want people to stop and think about the way we are, what is happening around us, and how we can dismantle these systems [of oppression]. But also, I want people to remember that despite the darkness that Black people have been plagued with, ultimately, we are deserving of happy endings, and we can achieve them.
Note: Some answers were edited for length and/or clarity.