My first thought was, well dang! That’s a HUGE compliment. My second, well dang. What a lot to live up to. Because if I think about my character Nena Knight. I don’t know if she’s better than Bond or any other guys in the club. What I know is she’s a woman. And she’s Black. And she’s an immigrant from a country no one would ever consider in a Bond-esque role. And yeah, that’s really badass. Isn’t it?
But why is that badass? Is Nena Knight different than every action hero of spy, espionage, and action you see and read? She’s not different than them. She’s their every match…and then some. Nena Knight is an “and then some.” Hopefully, that makes sense.
I have always been a lover of stories about women. I read across genres from romance to women’s fiction, historical fiction, and everything in between. However, I am also a voracious consumer of action, espionage, thriller, horror, suspense stories…if it maims, shoots, or kills, I was reading or watching it. But I found back in 2012 that the stories in the genres I was reading didn’t have women as the lead protagonist. The women were often the romantic interest. The damsel in distress. The Girl Friday. The super-smart doctor or researcher who shed light to crack the case and bolster the hero (usually white and male). I’m not saying there weren’t books of women in the same roles as Bond, Hunt, Ryan, Reacher, Borne, Wick, and Brian Mills from Taken. I’m sure there were. Only, I hadn’t found them. And I definitely hadn’t read any with Black women in those leads.
I was tired of reading about the fellas all the time, the ones who occupied the space in the genres typically held by white CIS males. The only way I figured I’d get the type of characters and stories I yearned to read about was to write these stories and characters myself. In a recent interview, I said that I wanted “my love of high-octane action and plot centered around a character who readers didn’t typically see in that genre, but absolutely should—a Black woman.” A character who is typically unseen, underrated, and overlooked. A woman of color. And to blow a few more minds, a woman from my Ghanaian culture.
Writing for me meant writing my ideal heroines with whom I could relate on the deepest levels, who were unapologetic and driven and also handled their business. They took chances. They took no prisoners (so to speak). They were not victims or damsels. They were survivors, saving themselves in whatever way they thought best for them. Writing for me meant creating a spot in a space that hadn’t made room for women who looked like me to do things like the men who didn’t look like me.
But melding my love of stories about women with propulsive stories meant adding another layer to these stories that were plot and action driven. Nena, who was already a badass and unapologetic assassin, needed a background, a story that drove her decisions, and a motive to which the reader could cling and relate. Revenge against monsters who killed one’s entire family? Hell yes! A journey of surviving and reclaiming lost power, identity, overcoming grief, and survivor’s guilt? Absolutely. How does one learn to live again? In these topics, the reader uncovers how and why Nena is the elite assassin of the African Tribal Council and how she became the woman we read on the pages of Her Name Is Knight. I joke and say that, like Shrek, Nena Knight is an onion with many layers that we must peel to understand to know who she is and why she is.
My stories are not meant to change minds but broaden them to things outside their worlds by blending lots of big bang entertainment with social issues. Those are the stories I devour. Ones that when you finish, you’re satisfied with the buffet of offerings it provided for you during the read. Those stories take me through a range of emotions. Have me talk to the character as if they can hear me and feel what the character feels as they go through the events in their lives. That is the book I wanted to read, and therefore the book I was determined to write.
In my Yasmin world, what makes an excellent, fulfilling read is combining a hard-hitting story involving a little thinking, a character the reader gets to know beyond cool fighting and outwitting the bad guy to save the day and…yeah, saving the day too. I think that’s what makes Nena badass. Because beyond the assassin and her cool as ice demeanor, we know Nena/Aninyeh. We know her. We’ve seen her strength and tenacity and her will to live. We were just told. We lived it with her. And living it with her hits a bit different because it makes her a complete person and true badass in every way possible.
While I wrote the character in the vein of who I wanted to read, I had strong writers and characters inspired along the way. I love the artful storytelling of Toni Morrison. I cherish how authors like Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, and LA Banks wrote about Black women in horror and sci-fi, where we rarely, if ever, saw them. And Eleanor Taylor Bland, who wrote a series about Marti MacAlister, a Black, single mother police detective, which is HUGE! Whenever I began to doubt what I was doing, if my story was going to work since it wasn’t the typical action thriller book, of how it would be received, and most of all…if readers who aren’t Black or women would allow themselves to connect with a character who was very different from them, it was those authors who renewed me with the courage and strength to continue on.
Just as Eleanor Taylor Bland did with Marti MacAlister, I pushed Nena Knight to “center stage” in all the areas where women like her are underrepresented. I hope that Nena and other diverse female characters become the norm. As writers of color, we no longer have to worry if the readers will connect with our stories.
Nena Knight is a complete package and as Ginger Rogers said about herself when asked to compare her talent to her male counterparts, Nena, “can do everything the men can do, only backward and in heels.”