What makes an unputdownable summer read? It’s usually an indelible combination of compelling, complicated characters, a propulsive, suspenseful plot, a glamorous setting, a dash of romance and thorny themes that are sure to inspire frenzied debate. Yomi Adegoke’s new novel, The List—the prolific journalist and Vogue columnist’s first solo publication following the success of Slay in Your Lane, Loud Black Girls and The Offline Diaries, co-written with her friend Elizabeth Uviebinené—has all of that in spades, and is guaranteed to have you hooked from the first page.
At its heart is Ola, a British-Nigerian journalist with a reputation for breaking high-profile #MeToo stories who works for the hilariously named feminist magazine Womxxxn. (Its founder, her older, white editor Frankie, chose the title after seeing the word “womxn” on Twitter and thinking it looked cool.) Ola’s about to marry the British-Ghanaian Michael, a presenter who recently landed an impressive new job at a men’s digital content platform which had previously been cancelled for having no non-white members of staff.
After Michael and Ola’s engagement photo went viral, the pair became the poster children for #BlackLove—that is, until an anonymous list appears on social media naming Michael, alongside a slew of other public figures, as an abuser. Is Michael actually guilty or is he being framed? Has he been entirely truthful to Ola over the course of their relationship? Can Ola still bring herself to walk down the aisle in a month’s time? And regardless of the truth, will standing by her man destroy her career and credibility?
Flitting between Ola’s conflicted voice and Michael’s anguished one, the narrative takes you on a breathless ride through tense office meetings and raucous parties to dress fittings and legal consultations, as their wedding day approaches. When it finally arrives, that particular set piece is jaw dropping, as are the numerous twists scattered throughout, each and every one profoundly cinematic. It is no surprise then, that following an 11-way auction for the publishing rights, there was a 17-way battle for The List’s TV rights, which were eventually snapped up by A24, HBO Max and the BBC.
Adegoke, who has now begun work on penning and executive producing the upcoming series, is blown away to say the least. She had stumbled into writing almost by accident—while studying law, she took a year out and started a pop culture blog on a whim, which eventually led to her securing a series of grants that allowed her to create Birthday, a zine for young Black girls. A string of internships followed, after which she began working at ITN and later, Channel 4 News. Slay in Your Lane, envisioned as “Lean In, but for Black women”, changed her life, but The List is poised to take her literary fame to a whole new level.
To celebrate the book’s release, we spoke to the 31-year-old Londoner about dissecting cancel culture, her fears around The List being weaponised, the pressure to be “consistent” on social media, and the importance of exploring Black male mental health.
So, have you been wanting to write a novel since Slay in Your Lane?
I’d always wanted to write a book, but I never thought I’d write fiction. It requires a lot of time. But then, during lockdown, there wasn’t much to do. I can’t cook. I painted and taught myself to sculpt, but I eventually ran out of clay and canvas. I thought about doing something else. As a freelancer, work was quite precarious then and I was kind of miserable, so I thought writing fiction could be fun. I had very modest expectations with The List.
What was the genesis of the story?
I’d always wanted to write about whisper networks and anonymous online lists that made allegations of abuse, basically since 2017. That was when I first saw one—there were several different lists at that time that came out concurrently and affected different industries, from journalism to music. As a feminist, I was like, this is amazing and important and people are speaking truth to power. It means women can get their stories out there and protect other women, in a way that HR and the legal system often hasn’t when it comes to abuse in the workplace. Then, on the other hand, being a journalist—I used to work at Channel 4 News, so there are regulations and you’re very cautious of liability and you need the facts before you can report on something. So, I always felt really conflicted and uneasy about those lists. I thought I’d write a long read on it at first, but the issue felt a bit fraught. About a year later, I thought I’d write a play, but that didn’t really work. Then, I thought maybe if the story around it was fictionalised, it would create more fruitful conversations. There’s so much that went into this novel that might not have gone into a non-fiction piece.
Once you knew what form it would take, how difficult was the writing process?
It was hard, though it was definitely easier in lockdown. I was quarantining with my mum and sister and life was basically a blur of Lifetime movies, wine and writing the book. But then, when the lockdown was lifted, it was incredible and I couldn’t wait to see my friends again, but I had to be super disciplined about writing. Fiction was also new to me, so I went on this writing retreat in Devon. That revolutionised how I saw the book—it started out as something quite serious and I felt like there couldn’t be any levity in it. It’s like I wanted to be a Serious Female Author™ and so I had to write it in this particular way. But afterwards, I felt I had the freedom to write something more propulsive and interesting, while also exploring serious themes.
The book mainly toggles between two voices: Ola’s and Michael’s. Did one come to you first?
When I first started writing, it was just Ola. I was really fascinated with the ways in which we perceive women who are attached to men who are accused of abuse, whether they’re that person’s mother, daughter, partner, sister or friend. I feel like we think we know what we’d do in a situation like that, until we’re in that situation. We never see that side of things or hear that part of the conversation, so I was really interested in Ola as a character. I started writing the book, but it felt like something was missing and then Michael just emerged and became such an important part of the story. It’s funny because now, so many people who’ve read the book have split opinions on who the main character is. I honestly couldn’t say myself.
The book is about the wrongdoings of men being exposed, but also the perils of cancel culture. Were you ever worried about tackling topics that are so thorny?
I was so worried [laughs]. It felt like walking a tightrope. My absolute nightmare would be that a high-profile man is accused of abuse and we’re going to have receipts that show very clearly that he did it, and people are going to go, “Oh, hang on, you guys have read The List right? #NotAllMen.” I’m so terrified of my book being weaponised in that way or like cited on Reddit as evidence. Despite that fear, though, I wanted to write it because we obviously live in a very polarised time, but I also feel like there are certain conversations that are really crucial for progressive people to be having, because they are foundational to left wing thinking but have been commandeered by the right. So, like the idea of being innocent until proven guilty, or free speech—these issues have a bit of a PR problem right now. I think my politics are quite clear and I want to encourage us progressive people to have conversations that aren’t necessarily comfortable. Social media pushes us into these black and white ways of thinking, but I’ve always been a grey area kind of person.
The List is, in many ways, a social media novel, and it looks at the idea of people, and women especially, feeling pressure to be “consistent” online. Why was that something you wanted to explore?
It’s probably easier to call it a cancel culture novel, or say it’s about #MeToo or feminism, but, first and foremost, it’s a book about the Internet. This “consistency” thing is so interesting—with your personal life, political views and opinions, we all leave this digital trail and everything you do becomes a receipt. If you do one thing on Tuesday and another on Wednesday, people immediately take that as evidence that you’re not exactly who you say you are, when the reality is that people are multifaceted and complicated.
I have a friend and we both used to say that our biggest fear was being turned into memes, but now, it’s being cancelled. I thought, I’m afraid of this because I’m a public-facing writer, but now, we’re all public-facing figures in a way. And in trying to be consistent, I’m quite unlike Ola—I’m unapologetically an inconsistent person. For example, I’m Nigerian and from the Yoruba tribe, and culturally, men in the Yoruba community tend to pay for things instead of women. I love that [laughs]. I’ve never tried to frame it as a feminist practice, because it’s not. It’s like trying to put a feminist slant on misogynistic elements of hip hop. I’m like, it is just misogynistic, but it’s okay that you still like it. That’s not to say we should embrace hypocrisy, but we should embrace being flawed people. At the moment, I feel like we’re sleepwalking into this incredibly severe mental health crisis.
Mental health is also something you delve into in a lot of detail, particularly as it pertains to Black men, which I think is still quite rarely explored?
I’ve had my own stuff with mental health—I took a year out of uni because I was depressed, so I connect to Michael, even though the immediate parallels between me and Ola might be more obvious, in terms of her being a feminist journalist from south London. A lot of the stuff in those more emotionally intimate Michael chapters are things I’ve experienced in some way. I also wanted to look at how those things can affect men and women differently. Ola is going through a lot, but she’s emotionally supported by her friends and family, whereas Michael’s friends check in on him but don’t really do the emotions thing. He feels like maybe he doesn’t have permission to be as emotional as he wants to be.
That was interesting for me to explore because I grew up with sisters and have an almost entirely female friendship group, so my understanding of him was built through conversations with the very few male friends I do have. Not to generalise, but I think many men don’t feel like they can be as emotional as they’d like to be with their male friends, so when you’re a guy’s only female friend, you see a totally different side to them. I’m desperate to hear from more men who’ve read the book because I’m so interested in their perspective.
So, once you’d finished the book, what was it like to see it become the subject of this intense bidding war?
I’m not a particularly coy person, I’m quite confident, but I really didn’t see all of this coming with The List. The first offer I actually got for the book was substantially lower than what I got for Slay in Your Lane. My expectations weren’t high but I was kind of bummed, but the next offer I got was exactly 10 times the amount of the first [laughs]. I was shocked. And then, the TV stuff came through and that was so surreal. I started having all these meetings with American production companies, and it was like seven in the evening and I’m at home in pyjama bottoms talking to someone from Disney. It was crazy.
When you read the book you realise what an addictively binge-able TV show it would make. I know you’re creating and executive producing the series. What’s that been like so far?
Bizarre [laughs]. I literally never wanted to do TV again—I had a really difficult experience a couple of years ago with TV, but A24 were so encouraging and supportive and wanted me to be involved. It’s really early days now, but it’s been so exciting discussing it and making a start.
I’m sure those leading roles will be really sought after. I saw that Sheila Atim and Arinzé Kene are narrating the audio book?
They’re incredible. So, Sheila and I share a best friend so I’ve known her for years. I’d had her in mind for Ola, specifically for the audio book, basically forever and I’d been meaning to ask her but then she announced she’d be in The Woman King [laughs]. I was like, oh god, her life’s changed and now I’m never going to be able to ask her. Then, I saw her at an event and asked her in passing—I didn’t even finish what I was saying, and she said, “Yomi, I’ll do it.” She’s excellent—her impressions of Frankie, Ola’s boss, are exceptional [laughs]. And Arinzé—[his play] Misty was amazing. I couldn’t stop speaking about it for like two years.
Could we see them in the show, or do you have other actors in mind?
I’d like to do a Normal People-esque Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones type thing—I want to find people who’re incredible and not that famous. Sheila’s too famous and Arinzé has an MBE [laughs]. I haven’t asked yet, but I’d love to involve them in some way because they’re phenomenal, but I really want to launch two new actors, too, and then maybe get someone more established to play Frankie or their parents or something.
And finally, I know you’re also working on your next novel now. What can you tell us about it?
Honestly, I think the second book is actually more controversial than the first [laughs]. It’s been really difficult to write. It explores motherhood and identity—I can’t say much yet, I’m only a couple chapters in at the moment, but I’m having a lot of fun.