Natalya Din-Kariuki on Helen Oyeyemi
Photo by Saneesh Sukumaran
The twenty-eight-year-old British writer Helen Oyeyemi is soft-spoken, enigmatic, and full of wit. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she however stakes claim to a complex, shifting, global literary heritage that includes Afro-Caribbean syncretism, nineteenth-century American Gothic, and the Bechdel test. Critical writing on Oyeyemi's work, particularly on her debut novel The Icarus Girl, has tended to designate her as "postcolonial." But Oyeyemi probably does not consider herself an "African" or "postcolonial" writer since her writing celebrates the mutability of identity, with Oyeyemi-as-author provocatively inhabiting different bodies and voices in her oeuvre. Besides, she has not lived in Africa since she was four, when her parents migrated to the UK. After graduating from Cambridge, Oyeyemi pursued new cities like lovers; so far, she has experimented with Prague, Berlin, and New York, and is still looking for a homeland.
One might consider Oyeyemi "postcolonial," then, only insofar as her work occupies a period posterior to colonialism, and insofar as her work—particularly White Is for Witching—can be seen as a form of anti-colonial resistance. Beyond the powerful expressions of subjectivity that her novels represent, Oyeyemi also challenges the conventional (particularly nineteenth-century) Western novel's conception of space, time, and narrative voice. "Twin" narratives, typographical experimentation (including different fonts and spatial positionings on the page), and cultural syncretism often dominate her fiction.
Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl as a form of procrastination, to avoid revising for her A Levels (yes, she was only eighteen). She has identified The Icarus Girl as her most explicitly autobiographical work, with the mixed-race (or "half-and-half") protagonist, Jessamy, torn between her British birth and Nigerian cultural past and haunted by her deceased twin, Fern. The novel engages with Fanon's revision of the Lacanian "mirror stage," in which the black man is denied the validation provided by his own reflection. Oyeyemi draws upon the specifically Nigerian preoccupation with twins and twin births to explore the mimetic concerns of postcolonial writing and mirroring: Jess fails to fully identify with Tilly, her evil "other," with Fern, or with the blond girl in the "glossy pages" of a British encyclopedia. However, Fern demands to be given the honour accorded to dead twins in Yoruba tradition—specifically, a memorial statue known as an ere ibeji—and Jess must journey through nightmare and geography, from England to Nigeria and back again, to triumph over Tilly and her own sense of self-division.
In this debut work, Oyeyemi explicitly refers to two other Nigerian novels, situating herself within a national literary genealogy: Things Fall Apart and A Dance of the Forests. Both of these novels were published in the 1960s, in the wake of Nigeria's decolonization, and the children in Icarus read them from an irreverent distance; Bose "nearly destroyed" the beautifully bound books, including Things Fall Apart, with her food-soiled hands. Like her protagonists, all third-generation postcolonial figures, Oyeyemi acknowledges her national literary heritage without feeling limited or constrained by it. However, in creating Jess and her other migrant characters, Oyeyemi revises conventional models of postcolonial identity and negates the idea that a "postcolonial" African writer works from any singular vantage point. Her later writings in particular celebrate fragmentation, shattering, be it of memory or of bodies, and the multiple ways in which fragments can be put back together. In Oyeyemi's worldview, migrancy does not simply mean mourning the permanent loss of a homeland; it is, instead, an agonistic experience, ludic and freeing, even if predicated upon loss.
In White Is for Witching, her third and most explicitly political novel, Oyeyemi interweaves the Gothic as used by Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson, the Caribbean myth of the soucouyant or "the wicked old woman who...consumes her food, the souls of others," Haitian voodoo, and exclusionary British nationalism left over from World War II, all in an exploration of twenty-first-century racism. A mysterious house set in the chalky white cliffs of Dover serves as the central point of the action as Miranda and Eliot, twin protagonists, struggle to cope with the death of their mother. The house has its own voice, and is possessive, imposing its obstinacy on all others and asking, "Why do people go to these places, these places that are not for them?" Pica, Miranda's eating disorder, forces her to compulsively eat chalk, an action that recalls both Dover's white cliffs and her own "white white face." Miranda's subversive lesbian relationship with Ore, a black Nigerian girl, figures as the text's ultimate instance of interracial twinning, reinforcing her proximity to "other" cultures: "Is it alright to say how much I like this...The way our skin looks together."
Oyeyemi's writing of queer sexuality is refreshing, rich with affection and light, and if the idea of reading about lesbian sex in a graveyard doesn't make you want to read the novel, I'm not sure what will. Indeed, it is Ore who explains the soucouyant to Miranda and, in turn, to the reader. The proximity of Miranda to the soucouyant myth and the novel's other allusions to witchcraft—toward the novel's close, she becomes the soucouyant, ready to suck the blood out of those near her—situates the Gothic within a specifically Caribbean form of creepiness. This disordered consumption plays into Oyeyemi's broader questions in this novel and elsewhere: who eats and who doesn't? In Icarus, Jess's grandfather explicates friendship in terms of hunger: "Two hungry people should never make friends...It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one up." In White Is for Witching, Oyeyemi demonstrates the ways in which all culture and cultural practice are complicit in systems of power.
Oyeyemi's most recent novel, Mr. Fox, is, in terms of formal experimentation, her most mature work thus far. A series of linked vignettes shows novelist St. John Fox grappling with his muse, Mary, who is fed up at his propensity to murder off his female characters: "You're a serial killer," Mary states matter-of-factly. Mary gives St. John the ultimate lesson in empathy, whirling him through a range of scenarios in which, for once, he learns what it is to be a woman automatically caricatured as a damsel in distress. A self-identified feminist, Oyeyemi mocks the prostrate female corpse of Poe's gothic fiction and other literary representations of beautiful dead women. Her revision of the Bluebeard tale in Mr. Fox is just one example of the ways in which she remoulds and eventually smashes traditional gender relations. Even as she is committed to rectifying existing gender biases in literary fiction, Oyeyemi applies the Bechdel test to her own work without adhering to it too rigidly. She shrugs, admitting that Mr. Fox probably fails the test because the female characters spend most of their time discussing a man, though she is proud of their power and outspokenness nonetheless.
For many readers, exposure to "postcolonial" and/or "African" literature so far has been restricted to the giants of the twentieth century, including the legends Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose canonical work is concerned with colonial trauma and nationalisms in germination or with satire on neocolonial African governments. For this reason, reading Oyeyemi, the new voice of world literature and clarion call to bold literary experiment, is a must. Without ever fully letting go of Africa or of the seriousness of the "colonial question" and its concomitant inequalities, Oyeyemi writes with glee. She is a traveler, a mapmaker, a migrant, a daughter, a poet. I, for one, will follow her wherever she goes, be it to a new place, an old time, a different body. To read her is to frolic through the headiness of dreams and the intimacy of illicit loves, to backpack through countries that do not exist, to feel that she is drifting happily through an unknown city, laughing, with you.
Editor's Note: Helen Oyeyemi was announced as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists on the same day as this article's publication in Asymptote.