Here’s the first thing you should know about Helen Oyeyemi: She’s got a soft spot for twisted fairy tales. Her widely acclaimed first novel, The Icarus Girl, drew from both African and Western mythology to tell the story of a biracial 8-year-old and her wicked secret friend.
Her next two books, The Opposite House and White Is for Witching, address Cuban mysticism and Gothic horror, respectively. Mr. Fox, which she penned in 2011, recasts the classic Bluebeard folktale as a story about an English writer with a nasty habit of murdering his female characters.
Here’s the second thing to know about Helen Oyeyemi: She wrote all four of those books before the age of 27.
The award-winning British novelist (and daughter of Nigerian immigrants) shows no signs of slowing down, having just published her fifth book, Boy, Snow, Bird, a sly retelling of Snow White.
Oyeyemi has particular sympathy for one type of literary scapegoat: the wicked stepmother, whom she believes gets a bad rap.
“I never really set out to rewrite fairy tales,” she told BookPage during a recent telephone conversation from her home in Prague (where she moved last year on a whim). “I just get really interested in them. Perhaps it’s because there’s something about the retelling that exposes the teller. You have this very old frame that’s been used by various other storytellers through the generations—an anchor, if you will. But there’s also room to show your own thoughts and feelings, to insert yourself into the narrative.”
Oyeyemi certainly brought her own experience and wild imagination to bear in Boy, Snow, Bird, which examines the trope of the notorious evil stepmother—but with a racial twist.
The novel begins in 1953 when the beautiful, troubled Boy Novak leaves her abusive father (a snarling, wild-eyed “rat-catcher”) for a small town in Massachusetts. There, she meets and marries a handsome widower, Arturo Whitman, whose daughter Snow is indisputably beautiful—the fairest in the land, if you will. As if Snow’s looks weren’t trouble enough, Boy soon gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, who is shockingly dark-skinned. Thus is uncovered the Whitmans’ deep, dark secret: They are a family of light-skinned blacks desperately trying to pass as white. Once this shame has been revealed, Boy banishes one child, while embracing the other—and all three characters are forced to confront their own identities.
What’s interesting though, is how unfixed the concept of identity becomes over the course of the book. Not only are characters repeatedly miscategorized (by race, by gender) and misnamed (“Boy” is a girl, the Whitmans are not “white men”), some of them aren’t even positive they actually exist. How else could Snow and Bird explain the fact that they generally don’t show up in mirrors? Or the fact that neither can recall meeting the other in person? Even Boy’s father, the abusive rat-catcher, isn’t what he initially seems, revealing himself to be neither completely bad, nor exactly Boy’s father.
If all this sounds confusing, fear not. As with her earlier novels, Oyeyemi’s prose can be cyclical and demanding—she’ll never be the type to spoon-feed takeaways or wrap things up in a pretty bow—but she’s also never out to full-on befuddle. If anything, she aims to please.
“I just want readers to care enough to turn the page,” she admits. In other words, she writes characters who may be complex, but are both relatable and sympathetic.
Oyeyemi has particular sympathy for one type of literary scapegoat: the archetypical wicked stepmother, whom she firmly believes gets an unfairly bad rap. “Wicked stepmothers disrupt the values of a story in a way that interests me,” she says. “They disrupt the notion that a woman should be dutiful or beautiful or sweetly tempered, and in that way, they become real people. In fact, the fairy-tale villain or wicked stepmother has a spark for life that a character like Snow White just will never have.”
"To be honest, I’ve always found Snow White to be quite menacing."
OK, you might concede, so maybe Snow White is a little boring. But surely Oyeyemi can’t deny her fundamental goodness, right? Wrong.
“To be honest,” she says, “I’ve always found Snow White to be quite menacing. She was always so placid and just accepted everything terrible that happened without any anger. I mean, she’s been thrown out of her home. She’s frightened. She has to go and live with these weird dwarves. And yet . . . she’s just this complacent blank slate. I find that much more terrifying than her wicked stepmother.”
Such irreverence is fundamental to Boy, Snow, Bird which, it’s worth noting, is often surreally funny; Even the nastiest characters have moments of levity (the rat-catcher certainly plays for laughs), and particularly harrowing scenes are tinged with lightness—as when a thick clump of hair is found in the cranberry sauce during an emotionally fraught Thanksgiving dinner.
But overall, Oyeyemi’s irreverence serves to disrupt fairy-tale convention, which typically relies on strict black-and-white dichotomy. No character, she seems to say, can be defined by race or gender, let alone moral good or evil.
“Sure, it’s easier if you stick to absolutes,” she admits. “This is a man. This is a woman. This is what a white person does. This is what a black person does. This is what a black person looks like. This is what a white person looks like. And so on. But what I wanted to do was create characters who connect on other levels, who overcome the obstacles that might otherwise make them enemies.”
Another absolute that drives Oyeyemi crazy is the concept of “happily ever after” or “closure,” both of which she resists in Boy, Snow, Bird. “What does ‘closure’ even mean?” she demands, laughing. “I don’t know if I should confess this, but I’ve been obsessed with this TV show called ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ and every episode it seems like somebody needs ‘closure.’ What psychobabble!” Then, with a hint of mischief: “The only real closure is death, right?”
This interplay between the funny and the grim, the refreshing banal and the fantastically unknowable is perhaps what makes Oyeyemi so likeable—both as a person and as a writer. She’s wise beyond her years, but never pompous or intimidating. She gushes about Lydia Davis’ new short story collection, but also admits to crying during trashy airplane movies. And then of course there’s her fiction, which is at times difficult and dense, but always full of humor, joy and good old-fashioned plotting.
About this balance, Oyeyemi is remarkably humble. “The things I write are so disobedient. I never know what they’ll turn out to be.”
OK, fine. But in that case: She’s one darn good disciplinarian.