ARUN RATH, HOST:
"Boy, Snow, Bird." This is a three-word title of Helen Oyeyemi's new novel. It's a version of the "Snow White" fairy tale told through the voices of three characters. Boy is the mother of a daughter named Bird and the wicked stepmother of another named Snow. Snow is white, Bird is black. Like the fairy tale, Helen Oyeyemi's story is about beauty, envy and identity. And like the fairy tale, mirrors are not to be trusted.
HELEN OYEYEMI: (Reading) Nobody ever warned me about mirrors. So for many years, I was fond of them and believed them to be trustworthy. I'd hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction - many, many mes. When I stood on tiptoe - we all stood on tiptoe - trying to see the first of us and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.
I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.
RATH: When I was a kid, I loved doing that infinity thing with the mirrors. I could never get enough of that for some reason.
OYEYEMI: I didn't discover that for ages.
RATH: So this is set in midcentury Massachusetts. I'm sure you've been asked this question. You're British, you were born in Nigeria. What inspired you to set this book about race in 1950s New England?
OYEYEMI: Reading the fairy tale, the way that it's so explicit that Snow White's beauty is tied into the whiteness of her skin, there seemed a very clear connection to me with the '50s and '60s in America when there was very much a debate over the rights of a human being based on the color of their skin. And so it was very interesting to me to place this very white-seeming girl in the middle of that historical context.
RATH: And there's a way in which this book kind of takes apart the perversity of that obsession over skin tones. Don't want to give too much away, but passing is a major feature of this one family. We should explain specifically this means African-Americans who passed as white. Can you talk about that in this family, what it meant for them?
OYEYEMI: It meant a boost in the social standing. It meant this curious thing where in order to be yourself and to have people leave you alone, you need to pretend to be something else. Like there's a scene in the book where Olivia is talking about her love of opera and just being in the opera house and how she was quite sure that if people knew that she was black they would look at her differently and wonder what she was doing there and what she was trying to be when really she just loved opera.
And it was a very sad thing that somebody could feel that they would have to go that far just to be able to enjoy the simple things that they like.
RATH: You mentioned Snow White and, of course, there are a lot of resonances with fairy tales in this book. There's Snow, of course. It makes you think of Snow White, the fairest of them all. What fascinates you about fairy tales?
OYEYEMI: I think that they're the purest form of story that you can get. They sort of strip down human behavior to the absolute basics. So with Snow White, you have this story about envy and what the consequences of those are. And I suppose that when I'm reading a fairy tale, I find it easier to figure out how to rescue the characters than with other stories.
And I wanted to rescue the wicked stepmother. I felt that, especially in Snow White, I think that the evil queen finds it sort of a hassle to be such a villain. It seems a bit much for her, and so I kind of wanted to lift that load a little bit.
RATH: It's kind of funny, though, you're doing that in a novel which is it's not simple. It's complicated and over-determined and people are messy.
OYEYEMI: Yeah, I mean, exactly. As I - you think it's going to be a quick job, like, just dash in, rescue the wicked stepmother, everything will be fine. And, yeah, things unfold.
RATH: The book deals with teenage-hood in a really raw and direct way, the way we are inside the head of some of these characters. Is it wrongheaded to assume a sort of kinship? Because I know Bird makes sense of our world through writing. She talks about that. And I know obviously, you had your first novel, I think, when you were 18. You've clearly been writing since you were young.
OYEYEMI: Yes. Well, and the kinship life a Bird has more to do with her being a mimic, really.
RATH: How do you mean?
OYEYEMI: She throws people's voices. And I think that I throw voices in my writing. I'm basically assembled of all the bits of writing in all the stories that I love. And I try and find ways to pull different things out of the books. And so, yeah, I'm a literary mimic and Bird is an auditory mimic.
RATH: You mentioned that your first novel came out when you were 18. And you got a lot of attention for being so amazingly talented and being so young. Do you feel like that - is that like a burden to have to deal with? Do you feel like that's something you can kind of shed happily now or...
OYEYEMI: No - yeah, I mean, now that I'm old, it's fine. And also, I think I was just born old, and I feel like I'm getting younger all the time, which is kind of fun for me but will be confusing for others, possibly. I've become more - perhaps I've realized I'm not serious as I thought I was.
RATH: Well, serious in what way, because this book, I mean, there's a lot of humor in it but it's not an unserious book.
OYEYEMI: This book has a lot of heavy things in it but the people still manage to - the people in it still manage to move through their lives without those weights on them quite so much. And I think that that is an outlook that's coming to me as I get older.
RATH: Helen Oyeyemi's new book is called "Boy, Snow, Bird." Helen, it was a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.
OYEYEMI: Oh, it was lovely. Thank you.
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