"Something Just Beyond Words"

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An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi, who is not yet thirty, published her fifth book, Boy, Snow, Bird, this past March, which wrestles Snow White into mid-20th century Massachusetts. I first came to her through White Is for Witching, her third novel. It’s a haunted house story, but what a house: this Dover bed and breakfast speaks, and when it does it reveals a profoundly racist, misandrist agenda. It will, if you let it, eat you alive.

You may have noticed a pattern already, and you’ll find it echoed across her other works. Oyeyemi takes an old story and she guts it. The reworking is often violent, but it’s profoundly satisfying, and makes thoroughly adult, thoroughly literary books out of conceits that are often reserved for children’s, or genre, fiction. She finds in these stories a radiating core of truth, one that speaks more directly to contemporary issues than we may have assumed. What is Snow White about if not whiteness; Bluebeard, if not misogyny; a haunted house, if not the living sins of the past. Though she traffics in folklore, Oyeyemi concerns herself with the raw stuff of life.

I saw her read twice during her short time in the United States promoting Boy, Snow, Bird. (She currently lives in Prague.) We spoke a little at both, and then continued our conversation via email. Be warned: we talk about the entirety of Boy, Snow, Bird—even the end.

—Molly McArdle

I. WHETHER WE WANT THEM OR NOT

THE BELIEVER: You’ve explicitly made clear that Boy, Snow, Bird is grounded in the story of Snow White. You’ve also talked a little about how navigating the histories of these stories, moving through their permutations, is kind of like a maze. As I was reading the book, I was reminded of different versions of this story: the first edition from Grimm has Snow White’s mother, not stepmother, do the deed; as well as the variant story in Grimm about Snow White and Rose Red—a story of sisters! How much did you draw upon these nonstandard Snow Whites?

HELEN OYEYEMI: Ah, Snow White and Rose Red and their bear! I didn’t read alternative versions very closely—this was different from all my Bluebeards and foxes for Mr. Fox—I knew the flux in this book would be less drastic in terms of identity, and so I just went for a takedown of “fairest of them all.”

BLVR: Though they’ve been recorded by men, fairy tales are essentially women’s stories. While this novel is clearly a story about women, do you feel like it is a women’s story?

HO: I don’t think it has enough of a subversive spirit to truly be a women’s story. Off the top of my head I’d say Jane Eyre is a women’s story, as is Woolf’s Orlando, and C.J.L. Almqvuist’s The Queen’s Diadem—I think the people in this book are looking for peace, whereas in the other books I’ve named and love, there are these outsiders rattling the cage of rationalist narrative.

BLVR: Generally when the American media says fairy tales, they mean specifically the stories of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. (Maybe One Thousand and One Nights if they’re pushing it.) You’ve worked in a number of different folkloric, mythic traditions: Yoruban in The Icarus Girl, Cuban in The Opposite House, American and European in White Is for Witching and Boy, Snow, Bird, a little bit of everything in Mr. Fox. These, of course, are not clear-cut boundaries—there’s a lot of intermingling. What are you looking for as you filter through these different traditions?

HO: I see all mythology as one tradition, a way of disseminating knowledge that must come to us in code so that we can live sanely with it, since some forms of knowledge are too dark, or too complex, to be plainly spoken. And so we have these weird (and also sometimes entertaining and surprising and heartening) tales that belong to all of us. Whether we want them or not—whether we want them or not!  

BLVR: In Mr. Fox, I was struck less by the story’s interest in the Bluebeard myth and more by this idea of authorial responsibility. Mary Foxe’s objects to her author, Mr. Fox’s, slaughter of his female characters:

“You…refuse to see—or refuse to admit that what you are doing is building a world….a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, ‘Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,’ and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended….It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

I was hoping you could speak a little bit about your relationship to this concept of a writer’s responsibilities to the world, in the world. How does this shape what you write?

HO: My focus as I write is quite small: when I feel I have a story to tell, I just do my best to tell it in a way that it should be told. That’s the responsibility I feel, that of conveying ideas or the personality of the characters, or both. It’s true that writing can give new forms to concepts that existed previously with far less clarity, but in terms of the other half of a story’s story—the way a story is received and interpreted and used—the audience plays a part in that too.

So while Mary’s quarrel with Mr. Fox is (quite rightly) to do with his power to reinforce the dimensions of mainstream thought, we as audience to the kind of stories Mr. F writes have shown a tendency to accept this master narrative of love between men and women coming with inbuilt violence. This gets acted out in any number of everyday lives.

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II. DISFIGURATIONS

BLVR: One thing I loved about White Is for Witching is how, for me, whiteness itself became a kind of bad magic. That house was like all the diseased, warped energy of racism, and what racism does to white people (eat them alive), made literally structural, and given voice. (I love too how the bed and breakfast is a pretty big misandrist on top of everything else.) In Boy, Snow, Bird, Boy is careful to qualify that whiteness itself isn’t the problem but the worship of whiteness. Do you agree with her?

HO: Yes. Skin color doesn’t get to be an automatic character flaw; we shouldn’t let people off treating each other as human beings all that easily. The whiteness that feeds the house in White is For Witching is as much of a construct as the house itself—it’s a “purity” defended by various denials; if the Silver women had been more honest with themselves they’d have stood a better chance of being fine. Boy Novak would survive that house! Maybe I should send her back in to help Miranda out…

BLVR: You’ve talked a lot about the influence Little Women has had on you as a writer. Reading Boy, Snow, Bird, I thought about another Massachusetts’ native, Hawthorne—the attention to magic, witchiness, inheritance, purity. (I loved Snow’s contempt for the Hawthorne name later on in the novel, and the Salem judge from whom it was inherited.) Were there any particular American authors (or books) you thought about while writing this?

HO: I think about Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables quite a bit in general. But maybe my thinking on that—the generations of accursedness aspect—mostly went into White Is for Witching.

BLVR: The central conflict of the novel is the repercussions passing—primarily in terms of race, but also in terms of gender. You’ve talked in other interviews about how you feel this is a quintessentially American story. Did you spend very much time reading about experiences of passing in the U.S.? I thought a lot about Charles Chesnutt, and all the “tragic mulatto” novels of the 19th century, but also more recent stories, both fictional and true: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and the life of Anatole Broyard.

HO: I’d read about Anatole Broyard but didn’t read much more about passing; I wanted this book to have some people who passed in it rather than be a book about passing, per se. But I had read and admired The Human Stain, and Kate Chopin’s short story “Desiree’s Baby,” and The Invisible Man (whose protagonist passes on wholly different terms, after all), and Zora Neale Hurston’s narrative essay “High John de Conquer.” I brought High John into Bird’s La Belle Capuchine story, written in a letter to her sister, as a nod to Zora, but I do want to note that the rest of the La Belle Capuchine narrative is made up because sometimes readers can be reluctant when it comes to accepting that something’s been fairly recently fabricated; especially if the something is told in a folkloric register and has black people in it.

BLVR: I was stunned when I learned that Frank Novak, the rat catcher, was born as Frances: that Boy’s father is a transman. Could you speak a little bit to this revelation? (And this authorial decision?)

HO: When Frank tried to disfigure Boy, I knew that he’d been a woman, and that his horridness was a coldly sane acting out of a form of power he felt had been held over him as a woman. And it’s true to the rest of the book and may even connect to Boy’s other failures to see clearly—that first inability was in her own home, contrived between the two Novaks together: the elder forbidding the younger to see his past, the younger turning her eyes on herself and on mirrors instead.

BLVR: The quest Boy, Snow, Bird, and Mia embark on at the end of the novel is “to see somebody. She needs us…and we need her.” Do you think this is Boy’s failure to see her father as a man, a matter of misgendering? Or do you think that Boy sees something (someone) else inside her father that she feels she must free or open up or commune with?

HO: There’s a range of gradation along the gender spectrum the person formerly known as the rat catcher may ultimately wish to present, and there are seven or eight ways things could go beyond the point at which we leave the story: of those seven or eight ways only a couple are happy endings. It’s all absolutely the opposite of simple. I think Boy knows that, but she may not know that she’s actually quite afraid of men and wouldn’t have the strength for such a quest if it wasn’t framed as a quest for a woman. Boy just wants to see her mother, and has an idea that her mother wants to be seen, even if once upon a time, only once, and then never again, to quote from another part of the book. What Boy needs is to know whether this kindly personality she conceives of as her mother was ever in any way there with her. If this book wasn’t called Boy, Snow, Bird, I might’ve have called it “The Things That Never Can Come Back,” after Emily Dickinson’s “The Things That Never Can Come Back, are several — / Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —”

BLVR: Dickinson has shown up in a few of your novels, and you also wrote about her for The Guardian a few years ago. What about her draws you back as a reader? Does she shape how you think of yourself as a writer?

HO: No, I just love reading her. I love the prosody of her verse, her metaphysical games and abruptly shifting speculations about where human perception ends and where other forms of perception begin, and I love that her imagery has a tendency to short circuit your brain: this happens when you try to imagine the ‘dripping feet’ of a turning wheel in one of her poems, for instance. She’s taught me to read more carefully and with far greater enjoyment—not just things that are written in books, but also my own thoughts, and the glimpses of other people’s world view that come through sometimes in speech.

III. THE LANGUAGE OF MYSTICISM

BLVR: At one point in the novel, Agnes says very sternly to her almost-granddaughter, “Magic is not a joke, Bird.” You’ve compared its effects in other interviews to money, with the capacity to act both orderly and chaotically. What is magic, for you?

HO: I reckon it’s an exercise of a pattern of thought (sometimes represented by a gesture, ritual, or the calling of a true name) that results in manifestation/s. But these patterns of thought can have so much to do with whimsy that magic often is jokes. C.f. much of The Thousand and One Nights and the pranks the jinns and jinniyahs get up to. 

BLVR: You’ve talked a little bit about your Catholicism, in particular your attraction to the mystics. As an adult nonbeliever who was raised Catholic, I find myself really intensely (if only intellectually) drawn to the early and medieval church. Reading Perpetua and Angela of Foligno and Pseudo-Dionysus—it’s heady but also exciting, in a particular way. I feel like I have my finger on the core of something to do with the mess that is western society. Not so much an original sin as an original weirdness. What about Catholic mysticism interests or attracts you?

HO: The language of mysticism—its repeated attempts to lay consciousness itself bare and speak all the intensely opposing yet interconnected parts of it that cannot be spoken. In these writings we’re offered a nutshell or a rose or spear and each image is part allusion to something just beyond words and part utter misdirection. So yes, original weirdness is right. And it crosses traditions—I love Kabir and Hafez too, and Rumi’s sweet oblivion: Whoever brought me here/Will have to take me home…

BLVR: You mentioned in the New York Times recently that you reread The Horse and His Boy, which I also just reread (along with the rest of the Chronicles). For me, it’s tied with The Last Battle for how upset it made me. It’s a book smitten it with white supremacy—Lewis takes such pains to talk about how lily-white all his protagonists’ complexions are! How were you able to salvage this story from its worst predilections?

HO: Well, for me The Horse and His Boy a story about overcoming various forms of baseness—I was moved, and still am, by the moment where, having been as brave as he could, Shasta is asked to be braver still (as an adult it makes me think of Porchia’s “No one understands that you have given everything. You must give more.”) And when he comes to an understanding of Aravis as an individual that rubbishes the dodgy thinking that links the Calormene’s ethnicity to supposedly naturally villainous dispositions. And then there’s that  glimpse of the boxing match between Corin Thunderfist and the Lapsed Bear of Stormness…I read that, looked around for my heart and what could I do, it’d been stolen.

BLVR: I loved when Boy describes screwball comedies that she watches while working at a movie theater as supernatural thrillers. Are there any contemporary genres that feel like supernatural thrillers to you?

HO: No, though I’m sometimes guilty of reacting to heartfelt urban tragedy in much the same way as I would comedy. I’m thinking of the TV soap Eastenders

BLVR: I love this passage in an early letter from Bird to Snow:

“Speaking with spiders and other things you call unusual…there’s no special trick to it. When something catches your attention just keep your attention on it, stick with it ‘til the end, and somewhere along the line there’ll be weirdness. I’ve never tried to explain it to anyone before, but what I mean to say is that a whole lot of technically impossible things are always trying to happen to us, appear to us, talk to us, show us pictures, or just say hi, and you can’t pay attention to all of it, so I just pick the nearest technically impossible thing and I let it happen. …If you’re thinking I’m going to grow out of this, you’re wrong.”

It feels to me like an instruction manual for your style of writing, storytelling. “Stick with it ‘til the end, and somewhere along the line there’ll be weirdness.” Have I cracked the code? Am I miles away? (If the latter, I blame a grading-addled brain.)

HO: Ha—no, grading hasn’t slowed you down on this front at all—that passage is indeed more or less a sorry-but-not-sorry for the way I write. That said, I reserve the right to suddenly publish a bleak socialist realist novel about a young man who works at a fish finger factory in Norfolk and struggles with feelings of bitter inadequacy after a failed romance with the factory owner.

Molly McArdle’s fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Bitch Magazine, PANK, and Library Journal, where she was a book review editor for two years. She’s currently working on her MFA in fiction at UMass Amherst and running The Rumblr (The Rumpus on Tumblr).