Nigerian-born Brit Helen Oyeyemi, whose first novel was published when she was 20, is a constant on “best of” lists like Granta’s. In her fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi revisits the “Snow White” fable and addresses the always-timely issue of race in America.
Some of your books reveal an affinity for fables and folktales. What attracts you to them?
For one thing, fables are very good about the passage of time and its accompanying gifts and perils. Also, there’s a kind of music to the structure of a folktale, down to the repetitions of certain phrases. When you say or read, “But grandma, what big eyes you have!” you’re echoing other tellers of the tale, past and present, and anticipating tellings far into the future.
In Boy, Snow, Bird, certain characters are “passing” as something they are not. What interests you about this phenomenon?
I’m interested in any scenario in which something you think you know about someone, based on his or her appearance, turns out to be utterly wrong. (This is also something I love about fairy tales—I’m thinking of the “Green Serpent” in particular.) It makes a bit of a mockery of a few artificial categorizations that we cling to. A black person who looks white forces both “sides,” as it were, to deal with the fact that the other is one of us.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer! But I wanted to do other things too—be a psychologist, a librarian, et cetera. Now I’ve decided that reading fiction that features characters who are in those professions will do. I wasn’t ready to write a novel; [The Icarus Girl] was essentially a short story that grew and grew.
What have you read recently that made a big impression on you?
I’m reading Tanizaki’s tense, melancholy family drama, The Makioka Sisters, at the moment, and there’s a character in it, Yukiko, whom I’m very worried about and wish all the best for—so, shallow breathing until I find out what happens to her. Also, Silvina Ocampo’s short stories—I’m really wondering where they’ve been all my life.