When it came to her debut novel, “The List,” the British author Yomi Adegoke “definitely didn’t play it safe,” she said in a recent interview.
Out Tuesday in the United States from Harper Collins, the book chronicles the disintegration of a Black British couple’s relationship after the boyfriend’s name is included in an anonymous online spreadsheet naming sexual abusers and predators.
It was inspired by several real-life lists, including a 2017 crowdsourced spreadsheet in which people anonymously accused men in the U.S. media industry of sexual misconduct, and a raft of similar crowdsourced documents that surfaced in Britain around the same time.
“I know it’s a nuanced, knotty subject, which makes it slightly uncomfortable to read,” Adegoke said. But she added that she wanted to provoke a discussion about how to handle sexual assault claims in the internet era, and how best to protect women from abusive men.
The first time Adegoke, now 32, saw one of these lists was in 2018, when she was working for the now-defunct online women’s magazine The Pool. At first, she said, she was glad the list was circulating among friends and colleagues. “I’m a feminist, and we’re now holding people accountable,” she recalled thinking. “Men have been able to get away with systemic abuses for years.”
But the more she read and saw, the more her skepticism grew.
She wondered whether anonymous lists shared online were “the best route,” she said, given “how easy it is to weaponize anonymity” on the internet.
This skepticism is baked into “The List,” which became a best seller in Britain when it was released there in July, and is being developed for TV by HBO Max, the BBC and A24.
The novel follows Ola, a feminist journalist, and Michael, a podcaster, in the lead-up to their wedding. Michael’s name appears on an online spreadsheet of “abusers,” and although he insists he is innocent, Ola is left to make sense of the accusation. But the book isn’t just about the culpability of one man. It asks questions about how other people — especially Black women — can be mistreated if nobody protects victims of sexual abuse.
In 2018, Adegoke started research for a long-form article or nonfiction book on the subject of online lists and sexual misconduct scandals, she said, but she soon turned to fiction, where she felt there was more room to explore ambiguities. “I was genuinely looking for answers myself, and didn’t have them,” Adegoke said.
The #MeToo movement changed how the public thinks about and responds to sexual assault accusations and how cases are handled, and the impact is ongoing: Men including Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. faced public reckonings, and prominent figures continue to be accused of sexual assault or misconduct, most recently, in Britain, the comedian Russell Brand.
While she was writing the book, Adegoke said, she worried about how people would react to it, but as it moved toward publication, she became more confident in its purpose. “I feel like understanding that a movement can absolutely have the greatest aims and simultaneously be weaponized by bad actors, isn’t undermining that movement,” she said. “It’s asking important questions about ethics.” So far, most British critics have responded warmly.
In a decade-long career in journalism, Adegoke’s writing has explored the complexities of issues around sexism, feminism and race in popular culture and politics. She is currently a columnist for British Vogue, and The Guardian. In 2018 she published “Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible,” a nonfiction guide, with her friend Elizabeth Uviebinené.
Uviebinené said Adegoke had “a very interesting way of seeing the world,” that was “always full of nuance and empathy.”
Adegoke grew up in a British Nigerian household in the south London borough of Croydon, which has one of the largest populations of young Black people in Britain, yet when a reader described her novel as “Black to the bone,” Adegoke recalled, she was surprised. Until publication, she hadn’t realized how culturally specific the novel was.
“The List” is set in a second-generation, upwardly mobile Black British milieu, and it captures the glamour of British Nigerian and Ghanaian weddings (as well as the overbearing aunties) and the fast-paced, slang-filled patter of South London.
Adegoke said she had thought about how sexual assault allegations can play out differently for Black men. “The racial dynamic changes the experience, and there is that presumed guilt,” she said. “They’re seen as hypersexualized and inherently deviant,” she added, mentioning the cases of Emmett Till, the “Scottsboro Boys” and, in Britain, “the Cardiff Five” — a group of five Black and mixed-race men wrongfully convicted of murdering a young white woman in 1988.
Adegoke’s second novel is already in the works, she said, and it will touch on privilege, class and motherhood. In that book, she will also follow her interest in complicating narratives, and making people empathize with characters in unexpected ways, she said.
“Because I’m a Libra,” she added, laughing, “I’m always seeking balance.”