Oyeyemi's 'Opposite House'

Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi takes readers on a journey of magical realism in her new book, The Opposite House. The young writer talks about her work.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It's summer. Hopefully at some point, you'll be hitting the beach or the pool, with some sunscreen, towels, and a good book.

You're on your own with the sunblock, but for some reading material, stick around. Over the next few months, we'll be bringing you our summer reading series where we talk with authors about their new books.

Today, we talk with Helen Oyeyemi. Born in Nigeria and raised in London, the 22-year-old is turning quite a few heads in the publishing world. Her first novel, "The Icarus Girl," earned a good deal of praise and was short-listed for the 2006 Commonwealth Prize.

Now she's getting ready for grad school and has just released her second novel, "The Opposite House." Helen Oyeyemi joins me now in our Washington studios. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

Ms. HELEN OYEYEMI (Author, "The Opposite House"): Hello. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: "The Opposite House" is really two stories of two young women. But before we start, I want to ask about one young woman - yourself. Of course, we're all aflutter over the fact that you're such an accomplished writer at such a young age. I'd like to ask, when did you realize that you were a writer?

Ms. OYEYEMI: The way "The Icarus Girl" came about was by me just basically bragging it with a literary agent and telling him I'd written 150 pages when I'd only written 20. And I think it was when the agent e-mailed me back right the very next day after sending him the 20 pages and asking to see the other 130.

I was like, oh, my gosh, he actually wants to read more of what I have written. And then that was when I realized that I could actually, like, be affecting. And I guess that's when you first feel that you're a writer, when you know that people want to read what you're writing.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that you were working on "Icarus Girl" when you should have been studying for something called you're A-levels. We don't have those here, but they're very important senior high school exams.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Yes, very important. I would not recommend that behavior to anybody. No way.

MARTIN: A heck of a way to procrastinate. Some of us just do our nails.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you, you have a novel going there. Talk to me about "The Opposite House." Did you have an image, a character? How did you start?

Ms. OYEYEMI: I remember sitting in my friend's college room, and we were both just like in our sleeping bags. And I was like, I have an idea for the second novel but I think it's really stupid.

And then he was like, what is it? And I told him, I just keep thinking of this house and there are two doors and they're both L-shaped. One goes out into Lagos and the other goes into London.

And I just kind of looked at him tentatively, thinking he was in a burst at laughing. And he was like, no, I think that's really a good idea. And I was like, do you think I could write it? Do you think I can get away with it? And he was like, sure, but just, you know, have something else as well.

So I had to kind of work on a real life story alongside this kind of really fantastical story just so that the reader wouldn't get lost and completely baffled.

MARTIN: Did you think of it as science fiction?

Ms. OYEYEMI: No. I think most of the writers that I admire kind of, they kind of bust genre and, you know, they talk about all sorts of things and, like, to use all the equipment that they have to kind of make their point. And I feel more like that, like I feel like I can grab at realism, or magical realism and more, (unintelligible) like, whatever.

And I think that life is kind of like that. Stuff happens to us that we think has got to be supernatural, even when, you know, there were explanations for it.

MARTIN: When you use the term magical realism, of course that's a term a lot of people associate with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which it was kind of an alternate universe which existed alongside the one that we were all living in and the two kind of went back and forth, the people went back and forth between the worlds.

And in your case, you were born in Nigeria but raised in London. It's marvelous, like - one of the storylines is Maja, she's a young woman who is Afro-Cuban and who comes to live in London. Do you know why? Why is she Afro-Cuban?

Ms. OYEYEMI: In a way, I can kind of relate to her experience. I feel as if my experiences being removed from Nigerian and thus not particularly Nigerian, like I don't really consider myself Nigerian. I think it kind of tallies in with her whole feeling. Because she is twice removed, removed from West Africa, removed from Cuba, and now she's trying to kind of negotiate this placelessness. And so a lot of her feelings about being an immigrant are kind of things that I thought at certain points.

MARTIN: And the other storyline is about a young woman named Yemaya…

Ms. OYEYEMI: Yeah.

MARTIN: …Saramagua.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Yeah.

MARTIN: And she's an emissary from Santeria, which is a - what would I say, I religion. And she lives in a somewherehouse with two doors - one opening to London, the other to Lagos. First of all, talk to me what is a somewherehouse?

Ms. OYEYEMI: A somewherehouse. It's a place where where you're from doesn't matter. And everything drifts and everything is significant and at the same time quite silly. I'm thinking of, like, the attic and the spiders. And it's just this kind of casual chaos that Yemaya is kind of hiding in while she tries to figure out where her home is; she doesn't really know where she belongs. And, you know, as a goddess, she's not even sure if people believe in her anymore. So the somwherehouse is kind of - it's almost the physical expression of her, like the two doors that kind of go to different places.

MARTIN: So much of the novel focuses on identity and that feeling of being caught between two cultures. There's a passage I'd like you to read. And in this passage, Maja's father is talking about whether he misses his homeland to Maja's partner. Aaron is a white Jewish man who grew up in Ghana. I'm going to ask you to read that passage.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Okay.

But days later, Poppy phoned and asked to speak to Aaron. He answered the question belatedly, the way people do if they think too much. He told him, no, I don't miss Cuba. I'm not sure that I knew what it was when I lived there. I know now from the outside. Aaron was holding the phone between us, and he and I shook our heads with each other because that didn't sound honest to either of us. Aaron said to Poppy, I don't get it. Poppy said, of course you get it - a white man in Ghana. The entire time you lived there, you had one foot outside its borders. Aaron said firmly, I really think you're wrong to say that one. I am Ghanaian. I was born there.

MARTIN: There's layer upon layer of complexity in that conversation. How did it come to you? What do you think you're saying here?

Ms. OYEYEMI: Maja, I mean, alongside loving her boyfriend, I think she feels very angry because he kind of keeps on insisting that he's something that he appears not be. His outsides and his insides are completely different. I mean, he keeps saying he's Ghanaian, but actually he's a white man and he has, like, white man's advantages. And she just, like, feels so angry about that. And also she feels angry that he has a place that he feels he belongs in.

I mean, so many times I've encountered people who are just kind of like, yeah, Nigeria and, you know, thump their chest and seem very sure of, like, being Nigerian. And I'm just kind of, like, I wish I could be that sure. And also I get kind of really insecure and upset about it. And then I just have to think, well, maybe I'm just not anything in particular and that's okay. So it's kind of coming to terms with that feeling, which is what Maja tries to do through the novel.

MARTIN: Do you think that people of color are just never to feel at home or a sense of belonging?

Ms. OYEYEMI: I do feel as if it's kind of impossible to go back. I mean, it's quite sad. I think it's impossible to go back to, like, this original sense of belonging that happened before, a kind of going back before the whole slavery phenomenon. (Unintelligible) deals with the slaves being taken to Cuba just before everyone just became mixed together. But then, the mixing together is quite cool as well. And, you know, as you see with, like, Maja's best friend being a (unintelligible) English person and she's got her Ghanaian and Jewish boyfriend. And it's all cool, but it's also confusing and unsettling. So I think good sides and bad sides.

MARTIN: And also I was intrigued by your very kind of close treatment of the issue of being hysterical as a girl, as a woman…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I wanted you to read this passage on page 29. Yeah, if you would read that.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Yeah.

Like every girl, I only need to look up and look off to the right of me to see the hysteria that belongs to me, the one that hangs on a hook like an empty jacket and flushes with disappoint that I cannot wear her all the time. I call her my hysteric, and this personal hysteric of mine is designer made, though I'm not sure who made her. Flattering and comfortable, attractive even, if you're around people who likes that sort of thing. She's not anyone, my hysteric. She is blank, electricity dancing around the filament, singing to kill. It's not that there are two Maja's; there's only one. But she can disappear into her intention and may one day never come back.

MARTIN: I don't know why I love this so much, but I think - well I guess I wanted to ask you: Why does Maja have a hysteric? Does she have a hysteric because she's so out of place in the world? Does she have a hysteric because she's a young woman and it's just not that easy being a young woman in the world these days?

Ms. OYEYEMI: Yeah. I think it's the young woman thing very much. I feel that very much as well. And it's just this whole kind of almost a pressure to appear and not to be, as if there are parts of yourself that you need to tuck away. And, I mean, this is the whole expression of anger, for example, and like raising your voice and stuff. That's actually quite an interest thing that my sister and I were recently talking on, and we realized that we both talk quite quietly. People are always asking us to speak up and stuff. And we realized it's because, when we were younger, our dad used to say stop shouting when we were just talking at normal pitch of voice. And we were like, we're not even shouting.

And I think my dad had ideas about, like, the way that, like, women should speak, that they should speak, like, more quietly. And with my brother, he doesn't regulate him at all. And, you know, I think it happens all the time around us that we're kind of, like, being told to just kind of reduce ourselves to kind of a 2-D images of lovely femininity and stuff. And it's kind of a reaction against that. That's what I think the hysteric is. It's kind of aaah. Let me be messy and screamy and shouty, just for once.

MARTIN: You're heading off to grad school in the fall at Columbia.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Excited about it?

Ms. OYEYEMI: Very. New York, gosh.

MARTIN: And what are you going to study?

Ms. OYEYEMI: An MFA in creative writing.

MARTIN: Okay. One would think you might be teaching it, but…

Ms. OYEYEMI: Oh I do want to eventually, which is why I need to get the MFA.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Helen Oyeyemi is the author of the new novel, "The Opposite House." She joined us here in our studio. Helen, thank you so much for coming.

Ms. OYEYEMI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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