Alexandra Masters meets the gifted Nigerian-born author who signed a publishing deal while still at school and now, at the age of twenty-six, has three successful novels published and a fourth on the way.
Helen Oyeyemi is a bit of a rebel. not that it’s necessarily deliberate – sometimes she just has a compulsion to do things that might not seem ‘correct’ or conventional to the rest of us. And amen to that, otherwise the 26-year-old might not ever have written her three critically-acclaimed novels (with her fourth, and arguably her best, out this summer) which have swept up some coveted awards and been compared with the likes of Haruki Murakami, Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe.
As a young child there were early hints of a subversive streak and Oyeyemi admits she used to scribble out lines in library books if she found the storyline ‘too harsh’. By the age of 18, while her parents thought she was studying hard for her A-levels, she was in fact secretly penning her first novel, The Icarus Girl. ‘I didn’t do any homework. I didn’t do much of anything except writing the book,’ she explains. She’s perplexed as to what drove her to do it. ‘I really have no idea, I just muddled through somehow. I had the characters and I had an idea and I just went with it. It wasn’t even really prioritising, I just had to do it so I did it!’
Some of the most successful novelists have had to deal with rejection at some point in their careers (even with the aid of a prestigious agency, JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel was famously rejected by a dozen publishers, including Penguin and HarperCollins). But Oyeyemi was accepted by the first (and only) literary agent she approached after sending just 20 pages. And the only reason she’d selected just one was that ‘he was the only one in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook who accepted emailed submissions at that time.’
The Icarus Girl became an overnight success and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. And little wonder. It’s a gripping, deeply unsettling ghost story full of spirits and ancient lore that explores one young girl’s longing for a sense of place in the world. It’s seen through the eyes of Jess, a precocious, troubled eight-year-old girl who finds it hard to fit in at school, is prone to tantrums and hysterical screaming and is happier sitting in cupboards or writing haiku. When her concerned mother decides to take the family on a short trip to Nigeria to visit relatives, Jess befriends Tilly Tilly, a mysterious girl who has surreal powers. But when Tilly Tilly reappears in England, her behaviour becomes increasingly sinister and the tale descends into an all-too vivid nightmare. It’s unclear who Tilly Tilly really is – an imaginary friend, a ghost, Jess’s alter ego? But (and this is typical Oyeyemi) certain mysteries are never fully explained; we are only offered nuance or suggestion.
This debut novel proved Oyeyemi to be a mistress of the imagination – the youthful voice of Jess is spot-on and the ghostly presence of Tilly Tilly horribly real. But it’s also peppered with autobiography: the references to Nigeria and cultural shifts echo Oyeyemi’s own childhood: she was born there in 1984 until, aged four, she moved with her family to a council estate in London. And, having suffered from clinical depression in her teens, the theme of troubled childhood is no doubt drawn from personal memories.
While she doesn’t deny that a combination of fact and fiction inspires her work, she’s reluctant to agonise over the sources of creative spirit. ‘I think it’s a mix… you never really know. The whole process is really mysterious to be honest. When I finish a book I think, how did I do that? Where did those pages come from? So I just feel like questioning or analysing it might make it go away.’
However, she’s certain that the first seeds of the idea for The Icarus Girl came to her when, aged 13, she began writing short stories. ‘Well not really short stories,’ she says, ‘more sketchy things where this girl called Tilly Tilly would appear to young children and ruin their lives and exit mysteriously. I feel like I had that character for years. I wanted to build a proper story around Tilly Tilly and find out who she was and so that’s how I started writing The Icarus Girl. With the others [novels] I was just exploring other ideas around that.’
After school, Oyeyemi went to Cambridge to read Social and Political Sciences. ‘Some of the preoccupations that I picked up there come out in what I write, like I really got into feminism and gender studies and things like that. But in terms of actual governmental politics… not really!’ Again, the rebellious streak returned when, aged 20, instead of revising for her end of year exams, she went to Florence during the Easter break where her second book, The Opposite House (Penguin), was born.
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THE SOMEWHERE HOUSE
From myth and identity to family relationships and unsettled minds, The Opposite House revisits many themes from The Icarus Girl. The novel consists of two interwoven narratives: one of pregnant Maja, an Afro-Cuban jazz singer who migrated to live in London with her white Ghanaian lover, and Yemaya or Aya, a Santeria (a Yoruba-Cuban religion) Goddess who lives in the ‘somewhere house’ which has two doors in the basement: one leading to Lagos and the other to London. As Maja’s pregnancy intensifies her feelings of dislocation, worsened by her ‘personal hysteric’, her story is interlaced with fables about Yoruba deities in Cuba forced into disguise in order to survive and who struggle with their own concepts of ‘home’.
Influences of the American poet Emily Dickinson are unmistakable: the book’s title is taken from Dickinson’s poem ‘There’s been a Death in the Opposite House’ and each chapter heading is a reference to the poet’s work. ‘She’s amazing,’ Oyeyemi says almost reverentially. ‘She’s always in the background. I don’t think I’ve written a book without sneaking in at least two or three quotes surreptitiously.’ Indeed, poetry is something she admits has a significant impact on her prose. ‘I tend to like a lot of poets and that kind of affects the way that I write. I play around a bit with writing; sometimes my prose isn’t quite straight and it breaks off at different places.’
In her third novel, White Is for Witching, written just two years later, Oyeyemi returns once again to familiar turf with themes of alienation, ghosts and insanity. I’ll admit part of me had hoped for some ventures into new territory but this is a meagre criticism considering the sheer brilliance of this book which sees her narrative powers and lyrical language reach new heights – it’s not hard to see why it won a prestigious Somerset Maugham award.
The gothic tale follows teenage twins Eliot and Miranda (Miri) who move with their father to a large house, full of passages and secret floors, in Dover to set up a bed and breakfast. Reeling from the sudden death of her mother, Miri develops an eating disorder, pica (‘an appetite for things that don’t nourish’), that makes her eat chalk and pebbles. Eliot watches her descend into madness and depression as she starts to hear voices and sees the ghost of her mother. But it appears that the house, one of the four narrative voices that steers this book, is also monitoring her decline. And when Miri goes missing, it seems only the house has the answer.
White Is for Witching is more intricate and cryptic than her previous works and possibly the darkest. Oyeyemi admits it was a hard book to write. ‘I was really scared and freaked out all through writing it so I had to have a schedule otherwise I wouldn’t go back in to that world.’
“ Everything became much more intense. I hadn't realised how much you get rid of feelings by talking about them.”
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With creative influences from Poe and Dorothy Parker to Neruda and Dickinson, Oyeyemi is evidently a voracious reader. But with such a vast pool of literature to draw from, she struggles at first when I ask her to name her favourite writers. ‘Oh gosh loads…’ she pauses, truly stumped. Then she remembers, with some relief, that she’s written a list of her top books. ‘I don’t know why I compiled this… this is what writers do when they should be writing!’
Her top book is Mr Cogito by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. Also on her list is In Those Arms by Camille Laurens; In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu and The Way through Doors by the American novelist Jesse Ball – ‘He’s a brilliant, brilliant novelist,’ she says emphatically. ‘He’s like a modernist writer with an adventure angle. Do you know Daniil Kharms, the Russian absurdist writer? He reminds me of absurdist surrealist mixed with rip-roaring adventure tales. He’s a poet as well and it really comes through in what he writes – his sentences are very clear and sharp and slightly odd in a really creepy way.’
She recently read the proof for Ball’s latest novel, The Curfew, due for release in June. ‘It’s about a father and daughter who live in this strictly controlled state where there’s a curfew and everyone has to be in by that hour but no one knows what the hour is! So everyone stays in but he has to go out one night… and it’s about what happens then.’
She also has ‘a really big thing’ for Agatha Christie. ‘I think I’ve read all the Poirots and Miss Marples… now I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life!’ she laughs. When animated, Oyeyemi talks quickly, her thoughts interrupted by sudden fits of infectious giggles. At times it can be almost disorienting to witness this apparent girlishness when it belies such a fierce intellect and a maturity well ahead of her years. ‘Who else?’ she continues, now on a roll. ‘I like Alexander Dumas. Oh and recently I’ve discovered Barbara Comyns and I’ve been reading everything by her. She’s so amazing. She has this kind of faintly hysterical tone but slightly naive and matter of fact so lots of crazy things happen and it’s all just fine and normal.’ It reminds me of the narrative tone of The Icarus Girl which relates a similar hysteria with an unnerving sense of calm.
‘I think my favourite one by her [Comyns] is called The Vet’s Daughter which is about this girl who discovers she can levitate,’ she explains, becoming increasingly animated. ‘It’s very English in a way because it appears to be a manners thing because when she shows these people they don’t like it at all, they’re like can you stop doing that please. I really like her; she has a quietly boisterous spirit in everything that she writes.’
And what’s on her bedside table at the moment? I picture a New York skyline of books balancing precariously. ‘I’ve been reading the complete short stories of Graham Greene and Pushkin’s short stories. Pushkin is amazing. It took me a while to get accustomed to him; I think maybe the translations I had been reading were quite clunky.’
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