Helen Oyeyemi, 'Boy, Snow, Bird' Novelist, Talks Wicked Queens, Being a Nomad, Tea
The word "enchanting" describes both the work and the demeanor of British novelist Helen Oyeyemi. The Nigeria-born, Britain-raised, Prague-dwelling writer just published her fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead). With this latest book, we watch Oyeyemi's talent as a storyteller and reader-bewitcher continue to grow. Boy is a complex tangle of Grimm fairy tale plot and racial themes that, in typical Oyeyemi style, will grab on to the reader and unsettle her gracefully.
In 1953, beautiful teenaged Boy Novak flees her emotionally abusive father in New York for the sprawl of Massachusetts. There, she meets a man named Arturo Whitman, whom she eventually marries. They have a child, Bird, whose dark skin exposes the fact that both Boy and Arturo are light-skinned African Americans "passing" as white. Boy grows to resent Arturo's daughter from his first marriage, Snow, who is pretty, light-skinned, and blond; she banishes Snow to keep her away from Bird. Boy's transformation into the Wicked Queen of the Snow White tale (the Grimm version, not the Disney take) is a gut-wrenching and imaginative story that examines beauty, racial identity, and the rigid societal norms of the 1950s.
I spoke with Oyeyemi while she was mid-book tour in Seattle about the figure of the wicked queen, collecting teapots, and how "people can be the same everywhere":
BUSTLE: How does publishing your fifth novel feel different from publishing your first or second novel?
HELEN OYEYEMI: Each novel feels completely different. With this one, I wanted to write a wicked stepmother story, so I had a different story I wanted to put down than in previous novels.
What did you see as the most compelling characteristics of the wicked stepmother?
I like that in the typical fairy tale, the wicked woman is the one who makes trouble. The wicked stepmother in "Snow White" made me think a lot about beauty: how women interpret beauty and how these interpretations feed into our relationships, from envy to rivalry to protectiveness. It also made me wonder why in the original story different types of beauty can't co-exist.
What was the most challenging part of constructing the wicked queen?
The challenge of building the wicked queen was in not relying on Boy's past for a complete explanation of the problems between Boy and Snow — for most of the book, Boy's quite determined not to do any reliving.
I don't like retellings of stories where a woman is explained by her past — where her past is something that was part of her personality. I wanted to loosen the walls and try to figure out a new way to tell the story of the wicked queen.
Did you feel you could only set this novel in New York and New England?
No. I think I could've set it anywhere in America. It was important to me to consider a time when segregation was still happening. I wanted to highlight the sad absurdity of laws based on categories of ethnicity, since the Whitmans were able to cheat these laws quite easily when they wanted to. They could pass these boundaries and break these laws without anyone interfering.
I've read you move frequently. What's the best part of moving?
The best part is getting to know each city and walking around and sitting in coffee shops. (Laughs) When I was in Prague, I was sitting in a cafe and just listening to this conversation between two girls. One friend was telling the other that she really must break up with her boyfriend, and the second girl was saying, "I'm scared; I don't know, maybe I shouldn't."
The first girl said, "No. You just have to go in there and say, 'I hate you. I despise you. I never want to see you again.' Repeat after me: 'I hate you. I despise you. I never want to see you again.'"
Her friend was like, "I hate you! I despise you! I never want to see you again!" And then they both started laughing, realizing I was listening to them, and I played it off like I was looking at my phone. (Laughs) It really made me think about the ways in which people my age can be the same everywhere.
Totally universal! So do you do your best work in coffee shops?
No, actually. I work in bed. With tea. It's best with shadowy light. And then I can just go and go and go.
And I've read about your teapots — tell me about how you started the collection.
Well, I got a basic one when I moved to America to start my MFA. And then my friend Grace got me a clay dragon teapot, and I decided I'd only make chai in there; it's perfect for chai. Once you've decided to brew one type of tea in a specific teapot, you've got to expand your collection for some variety.
Image: Piotr Cieplak