April 2024

Faridah Abiké-Iyimidé takes us where secrets lie

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Following the massive success of her debut novel, Ace of Spades, the author plunges readers into the halls of an ominous boarding school in her sophomore offering.
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British writer Faridah Abiké-Iyimidé knows architecture is a significant part of what makes boarding school novels so compelling. Readers long to read about unsettling towers, rumor-filled halls and hidden entrances leading to dangerous secrets—and they’ll find all these at Alfred Nobel Academy, the elite and foreboding boarding school that forms the setting of Abiké-Iyimidé’s sophomore young adult novel, Where Sleeping Girls Lie.

Abiké-Iyimidé has long held a fascination with old buildings. “Schools in the U.K. are very strange, because even if your school is literally one of the worst in the country, it might just happen to be also in a castle,” she says, on a Zoom call from her home in London. “My school is now shut down because of how bad it was. People were failing all the time, the teachers weren’t great.”

Despite this, her school’s stunning campus, which was built several centuries ago, provided inspiration for Where Sleeping Girls Lie. In the basement was the school shop, where students could buy uniforms and supplies. “I would always notice random doors there,” Abiké-Iyimidé recalls. One day, she found out that the doors led to tunnels from one of the World Wars, which the nuns (she attended a Catholic school, but is Muslim) would walk through to get to the town center. Abiké-Iyimidé wondered how anyone could be sure that there wasn’t someone hiding in the tunnels all the time.

Later, Abiké-Iyimidé attended the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, founded in 1495. There, she was able to walk through picturesque halls “built at a time I can’t even conceive of in my head” as well as observe superstitions and traditions of the kind that lend a distinct, fascinating atmosphere to the dark academia subgenre. “I love when a specific institution has its own code like, ‘On Fridays, we do this.’ When I got to university, I was told . . . if you walk on the grass, you will fail your final year. I remember seeing someone just jump on the grass because they didn’t believe it. I always wanted to check in with them to see what happened in the end.”

Tradition is key at Alfred Nobel Academy, a boarding school where students wear stiff uniforms that resemble “funeral attire” and get sorted into eight houses. “I’ve always grown up wanting to go to [boarding school]. Never could convince my mom to go and enroll me or anything,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. “With Where Sleeping Girls Lie, it’s almost like my fantasy of experiencing boarding school, while bad things are happening in the background. I want readers to feel like they want to attend this school. Obviously, not during this timeline. Because it’s a terrible timeline.”

Indeed, misfortune strikes almost as soon as protagonist Sade Hussein steps foot on Alfred Nobel’s campus, and not just because the school matron is snippy over the fact that the death of Sade’s father led her to show up four weeks late. Sade is befriended quickly by her new roommate and house sister, Elizabeth Wang, who is kind but seems distracted. Then Elizabeth goes missing, a mystery no one seems invested in solving—except Sade and Elizabeth’s best friend, pink-haired Baz. In her struggle to unearth the intricate circumstances behind Elizabeth’s disappearance, Sade finds herself surrounded by a captivating cast that includes three “popular for being pretty” girls nicknamed the “Unholy Trinity,” as well the boys of Hawking House, where infamous parties take place. Every one of these characters, whether friendly or hostile, carries their own secrets.

Part of the appeal of a school setting, according to Abiké-Iyimidé, is that “it’s a rare time in your life where your friends and community are always there. The idea of not having to go home—you can literally live with your friends—just sounds like the dream.”

Growing up, Abiké-Iyimidé was a fan of shows featuring boarding schools like “Zoey 101” and “House of Anubis,” which “make you feel like you can get away with a lot of things because adults feel less present in your life.” Such circumstances are ripe for “found families built from being forced to get to know people intimately and live with them.”

“The stories I’ve enjoyed growing up are the ones where I fall in love with the characters,”  Abiké-Iyimidé says. Even when writing thrillers, she takes care “to stand still sometimes and . . . look at these people as human beings—their interactions, the things they’re interested in and the things that make them who they are.”

Abiké-Iyimidé’s debut novel, Ace of Spades, was an international bestseller, and won the 2022 NAACP Image Award Winner for Outstanding Literary Work in the Youth/Teens category—all of which is made even more remarkable by the fact that Abiké-Iyimidé wrote the young adult thriller when she was 19. “Now I’m 25. . . . I’ve got a fully developed prefrontal cortex and everything.” Although she’s proud of her debut, “I’m definitely not the same person. I always kind of joke that the person that wrote Ace of Spades is kind of dead.”

With my second book, I really wanted to do a lot more character work and take the time to make sure that the story felt like a place that was lived in.”

“Every author struggles with the fear of messing up your sophomore novel,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. When writing Where Sleeping Girls Lie, “I wanted to play with mixed media and interesting formats.” Where Sleeping Girls Lie pieces together standard narration, flashbacks, interview transcripts, diary snippets and more. She created tension through “playing with structure” and “having the reader be . . . only allowed in through these small windows of time.”

“Making the reader not trust you or the narrator is very exciting,” she says. But Abiké-Iyimidé also had concerns beyond successfully crafting a thrilling mystery:  “With my second book, I really wanted to do a lot more character work and take the time to make sure that the story felt like a place that was lived in.”

Like Where Sleeping Girls Lie, Ace of Spades, which took place at the similarly prestigious Niveus Private Academy, explores institutional discrimination. “When I was writing Ace of Spades, I had a lot less hope,” she says. “Even though I see the world as a lot more bleak now, I think that hope is almost what I need in order to feel happy and to feel like I can continue talking about these things. So I think Where Sleeping Girls Lie is a lot more hopeful than Ace of Spades, just because my perspective has had to shift in order to survive.”

“Since I was young, I loved reading about political issues, particularly those that I would relate to as a Black Muslim woman. . . . I’ve always been interested in discussions around feminism.” When Abiké-Iyimidé started attending university, the #MeToo story broke in Hollywood. “There was a [similar] thing happening in the UK across different universities as well, where we were seeing a lot of kind of gentleman’s group chats being unearthed,” she says.

Abiké-Iyimidé was particularly interested in the passive participants: those who only silently participated or solely commented. Having attended an all-girls secondary school, university was the first time where Abiké-Iyimidé made a lot of male friends. She was taken aback by some of the things they would tell her. “They were like, ‘Oh, my friend did this awful thing, but you know, I look down on him for that.’ But you know, you’re still getting drinks with him every night and hanging out and essentially cosigning his behavior by being in community with him.”

In Where Sleeping Girls Lie, Abiké-Iyimidé wanted to highlight how such individuals are still indirectly linked to the wrongs their peers commit, despite seeming “nice” or not actively participating. “Even though there is the more monstrous kind of man represented in the story, I want the quieter, [but still] complicit people to also be spotlighted.”

“I really love writing unlikable Black girls, and I hope to get to write them forever.”

This principle of applying a fresh perspective carries over to her female characters as well. She finds the mean girl archetype to be “deceptively simple.” “There’s more going on under the surface with the mean girl,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. Specifically, “I really love writing Black girls as mean because I think oftentimes we are depicted as mean anyway. Or people portray us or receive us as being mean.”

“I really love writing unlikable Black girls, and I hope to get to write them forever,” she says. “Rather than trying to prove to an imaginary white reader that we’re not awful people, I lean into it even more. I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re awful, actually. And you know, you should love us anyway.’” Having previously explored this in Ace of Spades with main character Chiamaka, who struggles with fitting in at her predominantly white institution, Abiké-Iyimidé continues in Where Sleeping Girls Lie to dissect “the idea of Black women having to strive to be the very best in order to get like, you know, even a small amount of recognition for their talents—and how that might develop into someone being very hard. And very not nice, or not appearing nice.” In Abiké-Iyimidé’s novels, Black “mean girls”—as well as characters of other races—often grapple with complex aspects of marginalization, sexuality and victimhood.

Another, more lighthearted common thread throughout Abiké-Iyimidé’s books is the reliable presence of a little animal character. Ace of Spades featured a cat named Bullshit who became a fan favorite, and Abiké-Iyimidé “thinks that I will always have those kinds of characters in my stories,” because she enjoys the “moments of levity” they provide.

But truthfully? “I am actually so afraid of animals in real life,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. It’s another way in which she’s “living out fantasies through my stories. . . .  I’m just so, so scared of them.”

Worry not, readers: As proof of Abiké-Iyimidé’s authorial powers, a very cute guinea pig named Muffin appears throughout Where Sleeping Girls Lie.

Photo of Faridah Abiké-Iyimidé by Joy Olugboyega.

Get the Book

Where Sleeping Girls Lie

Where Sleeping Girls Lie

By Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Feiwel & Friends
ISBN 9781250800848

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