HELEN OYEYEMI (Nigeria, 1984)

By Patricia Bastida Rodríguez (Universitat de les Illes Balears)

Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 but was raised in a council state in London, UK, after moving there with her parents when she was four years old. She was a very lonely child and as a teenager she was diagnosed with depression and had to visit several psychologists. Oyeyemi is a very precocious writer: she wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl (London, Bloomsbury), in seven months, while she was studying for her A-level exams at a south London comprehensive school. She sent the first pages of her manuscript to literary agent Robin Wade, who soon contacted her and offered her a deal with Bloomsbury for a high amount of money. The Icarus Girl was finally published in 2005 to wide critical acclaim while she was studying Social and Political Sciences at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It deals with the experiences of eight-year-old Jessamy, the daughter of an English father and a Nigerian mother living in present-day London, who goes into difficulties because of her identity conflicts and her friendship with a mysterious girl she meets while on holiday in Nigeria. Combining elements from primitive Yoruba folklore, contemporary Western culture and the Gothic genre, it is a partly autobiographical, hard-to-classify novel which has even been perceived by some critics as a teenage narrative due to the presence of supernatural motifs and childhood anguish.

While at university Oyeyemi also wrote drama, in particular two plays which were performed by fellow students and later published as a result of their critical success. Their titles are Juniper’s Whitening and Victimese (London, Methuen, 2005) and in them she focuses again on complex relationships and unsettled states of mind. Oyeyemi graduated from Cambridge University in 2006 and travelled to Kenya for some time to do voluntary work for the UK charity CAFOD, helping in a project to prevent forced abortions in married women from a desert community.

In 2007 she published her second novel, The Opposite House (London, Bloomsbury), conceived during a stay in Florence before her final exams and shortlisted for the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. This novel explores the diasporic experience through two characters: pregnant Cuban singer Maja, living in London but with deep conflicts linked to her memories of Cuba and, in a parallel reality, Yemaya Samaragua, a santera woman in the Afro-Cuban tradition whose house has doors opening to London and to Lagos as a symbol of the syncretism in her life. With strong influences from Emily Dickinson’s poetry – the novel owes its title to one of her verses –, The Opposite House engages the reader in a reflection on cultural and linguistic displacement which is full of allusions to Cuban folklore and Yoruba culture.

After finishing university Oyeyemi chose to lead a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, spending periods in different places: New York, Paris, and more recently, Prague and Berlin. In 2009 she published her third novel, White is for Witching (London, Picador), which received the Somerset Maugham Award in 2010 and was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. In it Oyeyemi returns to troubled states of mind and the Gothic tradition to depict a haunted house in Dover, UK, and the family living in it: the twins Miranda and Eliot and their father Luc, after their mother’s death years before. Since moving into the house, Cambridge undergraduate Miranda goes through a period of depression and madness which includes visions of her dead mother and she finally disappears to the bewilderment of her brother and her Nigerian friend Ore, the only one to realise the house and her maternal lineage have something to do with it. Through a polyphony of voices which include the house itself, the reader gets to know what happened to Miranda in a mournful, cryptic narrative full of ghostly elements which evokes Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction.

In the same year White is for Witching was published, Oyeyemi was included in the “25 under 25” list in the women’s magazine Venus Zine, which highlights the early achievements of young women in culture, fashion, sport, media and the arts. Oyeyemi has also written short stories, among which we can mention “My Daughter the Racist”, which was shortlisted by the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010. Oyeyemi, aged 25 then, was in fact the youngest novelist to have been nominated for the prize. The story portrays the plight of a mother who is ready to do anything to protect her outspoken, free-thinking eight-year-old daughter from any harm in the context of a country occupied by foreign troops.

Oyeyemi’s most recent novel is Mr Fox (London, Picador), published in 2011. In it she breaks with her previous thematic concerns to offer a complex rewriting of the Bluebeard myth, set in the 1930s and with a male writer as its protagonist. American novelist St John Fox forms a love triangle with his compliant wife, Daphne Fox, and his perfect, imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, who is tired of his killing all his female protagonist and proposes a number of playful stories – one of them the aforementioned “My Daughter the Racist” – exploring misogyny, love and marriage in life and fairy tale. Mr Fox has been seen as Oyeyemi’s best, most mature novel so far, which combines deep reflection on inspiration and gender relations and a sinister, dark side in some of the stories. The influence of Poe and Dickinson is clear again in this novel, as in her previous narratives. Despite her outstanding achievement at such a young age, it is significant that Helen Oyeyemi still defines herself more as a reader than as a writer, with favourite authors ranging from Dorothy Parker, Pablo Neruda or Zbigniew Herbert to Agatha Christie, Jesse Ball or Camille Laurens, apart from the ones already mentioned.

From The Icarus Girl:  pp. 3-4, 171-172.

From The Opposite House:  pp. 1-3, 97-99.

From White is For Witching:  pp. 1-3, 25-27.

From Mr Fox:  pp. 50-52, 101-102.

Forna, Aminatta 2006: “New Writing and Nigeria: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helen Oyeyemi”. Wasafiri no. 47, 2006, 50-57.

Masters, Alexandra 2010: “Helen Oyeyemi. Free Spirit”. In The Magazine for Readers and Reading Groups. In http://www.newbooksmag.com/left-menu/authors/helen-oyeyemi-big-interview.php