A little over a year ago I was at a seminar on Helen Oyeyemi’s work, and wrote the conference report below for Foundation (and there’s a version of it here). Boy, Snow, Bird had been published a few months before and I’d read it quite recently, but otherwise hadn’t read the author since Mr. Fox a few years before. Which is why, though the report creates a nice, easy framework through which to read Oyeyemi’s work, it’s one I’m reluctant to use, when it’s so far removed from the texts themselves (and I’m unwilling to turn everything into a nail for a particular critical hammer in any case). But I’m reading the author’s new collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, at the moment, and keep wanting to come back to this and play with it.
Anyway, as flawed as it is, it is here. Things it’s currently bouncing off productively in my head: Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the collection here; Aaron Bady here; and a forthcoming Nina Allan review that I’ll link to when it’s up (edit: here).
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels and two plays, is British and of Nigerian descent, and has been on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. Each of her novels contains fantastic or supernatural elements; White is for Witching is a haunted house story, The Icarus Girl centres its protagonist’s relationship with a ghostly double, Mr Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird are both rooted in fairy tales, while The Opposite House is the story of a goddess. She has, predictably, been claimed (and I want to think about the implications of that word) at various points for fantasy, horror, the gothic, literary fiction, postcolonial fiction, magical realism. What is less understandable is the lack of critical material that has thus far been produced around her work.
Which is why the Helen Oyeyemi symposium at Teeside University in February was so very welcome. Organisers Sarah Ilott and Chloe Buckley are the editors of a forthcoming collection of essays on Oyeyemi’s work. Most of the presenters were working on chapters for this collection; as a result the symposium became in part a space where people could test out ideas. There were fewer conclusions than papers, yet this added to a general sense of the symposium as a single conversation, the subject of which was something like: what, exactly, is Oyeyemi doing? During the welcome address Dr Ilott insisted that she did not wish to impose a master narrative upon Oyeyemi’s work; that reluctance was to become something of a theme as the day progressed.
The symposium opened with a panel on “Race, racism and postcolonialism”. Dave Gunning (of the University of Birmingham) presented a paper titled “Locating Racial Harm”. Oyeyemi, Gunning claimed, has responded to a discomfort over being always read through a framework of postcolonialism, or as a Black British author, by consistently nuancing and problematising race. An ongoing tension he locates within her work is that between individual identity, “the urge to autonomy that can characterise adolescence” (Gunning was not the last speaker to point out that Oyeyemi’s protagonists are usually young people) and its uneasy relationship with history—a tension that is palpable through White is for Witching in particular.
David Punter (University of Bristol) presented a paper titled “Witches, fox fairies, foreign bodies”. This too was concerned with the notion of individual identity when in so much of Oyeyemi’s work the self is rendered violent and strange, twins and doubles and other iterations of the same self are menacing, the subject (and subjectivity) are displaced. Punter, however, is interested in the effects of this as narrative. White is for Witching is in part the story of Miri, who has developed the eating disorder pica, which causes her to ingest materials like chalk from which she cannot derive nourishment and so are both inside and apart from her. But selfhood is so fraught in these narratives that at times it appears to be no more than this concatenation of foreign bodies; scraps of other myths, other narratives, Frankensteined together. Punter and Gunning both, then, were working around questions of agency and narrative (or historical, which is a subset of narrative) authority, of the self as subject vs the subjective self, and how these come together in Oyeyemi’s work.
Chloe Buckley’s paper “The burden of representation and the gothic child” opened the next set of papers on “The Gothic”. In gothic fiction the child figure often functions as a repository for adult desires, particularly for stability and futurity. Buckley reads Oyeyemi’s child protagonists in this context, as burdened by identities and expectations placed upon them, but also irreducible to empty vessels. Sarah Ilott’s paper, “(De)constructing national borders” brought together acts of (physical) consumption and racial and national identity construction, demonstrating the ways in which the bodies of protagonists (Ilott focused on White is for Witching and The Icarus Girl) become sites of domination, conflict and control. Anita Harris (University Kebangsaan, Malaysia)’s “Vampires, monsters and consuming the other” tied together both of the previous papers on the panel, in addressing parenting, gender, consumption and monstrousness, and making a useful comparison with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is signalled as an intertext in The Opposite House.
It’s probably clear from all this that the first two panels often felt as if they were in conversation with each other, as well as among themselves. One particularly interesting idea that arose from the discussion afterwards was the public narrative that has been placed upon Oyeyemi herself, as a celebrated young, Black, British writer and whether we might usefully read her work in this context as well.
The final session, on “Revision, rewriting and metafiction”, focused on Oyeyemi’s use of fairy tale, in particular in Mr Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird. Jo Ormond(Lancaster University)’s “Retelling fairy tales” read Oyeyemi’s work in the context of other recent fairy tale adaptations, which humanise their villains and present them as sympathetic subjects of trauma. Yet “it’s obscene to make such things reasonable,” as Oyeyemi reminds us in Mr Fox, and so the author must negotiate the space between humanising and excusing while, like Angela Carter before her, challenging narratives of how victims should behave. In a paper titled “Gender, race and history”, Helen Cousins (Newman University, Birmingham) discussed beauty as a shaping force in female identity, linking Boy, Snow Bird to “The Juniper Tree” and making connections between Oyeyemi, Angela Carter and Barbara Comyns. But while these were both interesting papers, they lacked some of what had made the earlier sessions so exhilarating. Perhaps it was that they seemed more closed-down; we have frameworks in place (haunted eternally by the spectre of Angela Carter) for talking about fairy tales, and so there was less space for the open-endedness and uncertainty that made the earlier discussions so full of possibility. (Or perhaps it was because we had all just had lunch.)
It’s not always clear where this uncertainty comes from. In an interview with Niall Harrison in 2013 Oyeyemi explained that she wanted to “make room within the gothic genre for stories that make some of its themes explicit”, and if these books are difficult (and they often are), they are rarely obscure about what it is that they are doing.
And yet. To be “got” in The Icarus Girl is to be attacked, and possibly possessed. Through the symposium the larger narrative of these books that emerged was that of a body of work deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a larger narrative.
“Please to tell a story about a girl who gets away,” says Miri in White is for Witching. This isn’t it.
I stammered finishing the story, because of Miranda’s gaze, her eyes like swords. We were nose to nose. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘That was just the thing.’ ‘The girl doesn’t get away. It’s not a story about her getting away. She was born free.’ ‘The soucouyant gets away, though. Doesn’t she count as a girl?’ I drew back. ‘No she doesn’t,’ I said. She is a monster. She dies.’