Being haunted seems like it might be an occupational hazard for Helen Oyeyemi. Her books are re-worked fairy tales, the gruesome kind, with beheadings and wicked stepmothers and ghosts and death, death, and more death (though, once dead, her characters don't always stay that way).
The first time I met her, it was in a bar so dark that all I could see were her eyes and very white teeth. Cheshire cat-like, she reminded me of a line from her fourth novel, Mr. Fox: "There's something ghostlike about this girl ... she will appear at certain times and in certain places, and at other times she will recede into a disinterested dark." She's talking quietly but with great concentration about elephants, which she says are her spirit animals.
The next day, we sit in a quiet restaurant on the Upper West Side. One-on-one, in bright light, she solidifies, densifies, and even becomes a little bit loud. When she laughs, it has the force of an unleashing — harsh, wild, almost a cackle.
We have come from a media lunch, at one of those restaurants where, when you order ravioli, they give you exactly four pieces arranged tastefully on a plate. Anthony Weiner walked by, face set and nostrils flared. ("That," Oyeyemi said later, "was not a good omen.")
She lives in Prague, but her publisher has flown her to New York for a three-day publicity blitz, which has left her looking drained and a little bit hunted. Her fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, is coming out in March. She consents to pose with a cardboard mockup of the book cover, but she holds it up so it covers everything except her eyes.
Oyeyemi was something of a child literary star, having written her first book at 18 "instead of studying for A-levels." But now that she's almost 30 and on her 5th book, the label is beginning to chafe. "It's getting embarrassing because I'm getting older and older. I'm 29. I just have to brush it off now," she says. "Otherwise it's going to stop me from doing what I want to do. I want to get better. I want to write things. I'm seeing this as a long game — I want to write as many books as I'm allowed to publish."
Elephants are just one aspect of her intricate personal symbology. She keeps talismans — keys that don't open anything, teapots, certain scents. And she's a spiritual magpie as well. She is Catholic but "in it for the mysticism," and she says she's afraid of cats because she can't account for their intentions. Monsters are real. Magic is real. "The way that people feel changes everything," she says. "Feelings are forces. They cause us to time travel. And to leave ourselves, to leave our bodies." She adds, "I would be that kind of psychologist who says 'You're absolutely right — there are monsters under the bed."
"And," she smiles nervously, "sometimes I feel weird about time. Sometimes I feel that it doesn't go in the order we perceive it. There are ... repetitions that maybe we decide not to notice because it is simpler. I like to pick up on those moments."
Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi grew up in Lewisham, South London. Her father is a substitute teacher and her mother works for the London Underground. "I was always at the library," she says, "since we didn't have many fiction books at home." Reading Little Women as a child "turned me into a writer," she says. "I had so many problems with it. I was so upset with Beth dying, with Jo and Laurie not getting married. So I just crossed out all those things and wrote new endings. Then I went from there to writing my own things and never really looked back."
In her latest book, Boy, Snow, Bird, three women with strange names reenact the Snow White myth in 1950s New England. Boy, a runaway from New York City, marries Arturo, and they have a child Bird. But Bird's dark skin reveals reveals Arturo's secret: his family is a light-skinned black family "passing" as white. Boy grows to resent Snow, Arturo's beautiful blond daughter from a previous marriage, and sends her away to keep her away from her dark-skinned little sister.
Helen Oyeyemi's previous books include Mr. Fox and The Icarus Girl, written when she was still a student.
Piotr Cieplak/Penguin Group
Piotr Cieplak/Penguin Group
In Boy, Snow, Bird, beauty is treacherous; one character stops going to school because of the overwhelming attention from her classmates. Another is raped. Another's father tries to disfigure her to protect her from the curse of beauty. Oyeyemi says that in stories and in real life, beauty is a power that "is used against its holder."
She was struck by the story of Snow White, she says, because, "I found it so strange how she could be so mild and so sweet after everything she's gone through. She's thrown out of her house by her wicked stepmother. She has to live with these dwarves. There's so much front to it. And it started to scare me because I thought that beneath that front there must be so much suffering. Snow, in all her unexposed beauty, and being in a way public property of everyone who looks at her, goes through that. I find something so terrible about suffering in the open in public, with nobody seeing what's happening to you."
Oyeyemi says that she thinks of herself as "ugly but interesting," and she's happy with that. "It helps me to think more clearly, if that makes sense."
I ask why she thinks she 's ugly.
"Boys would come up and tell me," she says, matter-of-factly. "I'd be on the bus home, and they would say, "You're so ugly, do you know that?" And after a while, I would just say, "Yes, thank you." At first I would cry. But I after a while you just think 'Why does it matter so much?'"
Oyeyemi clearly still carries wounds from her teenage years: "I was suicidal for a long time in my teens and I was so unhappy," she says. "It was the kind of unhappiness that you know everyone else is feeling, but you don't care because you've dehumanized them, because they're all monsters and demons and beasts who are out to kill you, so you become a beast and a monster yourself. I regret so much."
Her fairy tales are not of the happily-ever-after variety: "Sometimes people ask me what I write and I say that I retell fairy tales, and they say, 'Oh, children's books!' And that makes me laugh. People say things like 'I want a fairy tale existence.' The Brothers Grimm would be looking at them in this astonished way, like 'So you would like your whole family to be murdered and then eaten in a pie?'" She laughs delightedly.
"People think they're soft because they're these perfect examples of narrative order. There is an ending that is usually happy, and a beginning, middle, and end ... In this era where everyone is kind of postmodern and meta, we dissociate in a lot of ways from our circumstance. So I think there's that sense that they're so ordered, and therefore orderly, but actually, they're just completely chaotic."
And fairy tales teach lessons, she says. Lessons like "Everything that you see is not necessarily what it is. You have to find another way to know things. You have to find another way to know things. There is inner vision. And then there's exterior vision. There are levels of seeing."
They reveal "some of the hardest and harshest truths about the ways that we live and the ways that we've always lived." She cites a story she found in a book of Czech fairy tales. A princess is being courted by a magician, but she refuses him. In punishment, the magician turns her into a black woman. As Oyeyemi read it, she started crying. "It was awful ... The worst thing that the teller of this tale can imagine is being black." In Boy, Snow, Bird, she writes, "it's not whiteness that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness." She tells me, "I feel as if we're still in that era. There are still lots of ways in which it is horrific not to be the norm."
Boy, Snow, Bird is her "quiet book," Oyeyemi says. All of her books have personalities: Her first book, The Icarus Girl, which she wrote at age 18 instead of studying for those A-levels, is "startled, wide-eyed."
"I was a baby," she says. "I had no idea what I was doing. I was just 18 and writing this novel instead of doing my homework. I don't think I understood that it was going to be read. So that has a kind of — not innocence — but a kind of unworldliness to it. I don't think I could ever write like that again."
Her second novel is, (and here her voice deepens, and she does a little regimental arm swing) "look at me! I can write sentences!" She laughs. Her third, White Is for Witching, "has a sharp personality, and I think it's in a way an unlikeable book, because it talks about racism and eating disorders and hauntings. It's a book that doesn't want to be read, in some way."
"Mr. Fox is a kind of playful, romping around one." (Her idea of play clearly involves a lot of beheadings).
She talks about her books as though they are people, and as if she isn't particularly responsible for what they're like. She doesn't write: writing "comes upon" her. Plots run away from her, though she tries to contain them. She's a kind of beleaguered shepherd, trying to rein in her characters as they incline, inevitably, towards chaos. She says, "When I feel like my characters are staring to disobey is when I feel like they're alive and something is starting to happen." When I point out that she talks as though she's just a vessel for her stories, she laughs. "It's a great way of abdicating responsibility."
Critics like to call Oyeyemi's books "magical realism," but she hates that tag. "It's not what I write," she says, flinging her hands up in exasperation. "I don't have a style. I just try to write what the story demands."
She does have a style, a kind of jolly gruesomeness, though it isn't easy to categorize. In the way that a child might, without any real malice, pluck the legs off an insect and watch it squirm, Oyeyemi pins her subjects to the wall and makes them wriggle. It's a little wry, a little earnest, a little dangerous — weird and familiar at the same time.
Over the years, she's bounced around between Paris, Toronto, London, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, and Prague again. "I feel a need to choose a city, or have a feeling that it chooses me," she explains.
"I hit something in eastern Europe. There's something so strange about it that ties in with my psychology. There's a kind of volatility. When the changes happen they're fantastical changes, like in Prague just recently, the festival of light. There's a tower on a hill, and they transformed it into a lighthouse and the hill into waves. So when the city changes it's a big shift. Cities like New York and London change in increments. Places open and close. Places like Prague and Budapest, they change. Nights in Budapest are so dark, maybe because the street lighting is so terrible, but the nights seems darker and full of shadows."
"Don't you get lonely, moving alone?" I ask. "I have enough friends," she says. "I don't need any more, unless one dies and then I can replace them." She laughs her abrupt laugh.
The hardest thing about moving, Oyeyemi says, is moving her books. "And my teapots. I have eleven teapots now. I think I need to stop. They're fragile. I always get so nervous, like, My god, am I going to make it through with my teapots? My most recent one I got in Moscow with a firebird on it, a creature from Russian mythology.
"The way I live now is that I only write, which means that I'm very poor but very happy," she says. "Everything in my life is the way I want it to be."