Helen Oyeyemi uses Snow White as departure point for cautionary tale

05/04/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

“Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead Books, 308 pages, $27.95)

Helen Oyeyemi is from strange times. Raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, the 29-year-old five-time novelist isn’t even affiliated with a single home anymore: London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Budapest, Prague — who knows where she is doing her thing at any given moment? For years I saw her as something of a literary mystic, reading her with a mixture of awe, confusion and delight, but only now do I feel that we’re at a place where we can properly receive her, and she’s ready for us, too. With “Boy, Snow, Bird,” a culmination of a young life spent culling dreamscapes, Oyeyemi’s confidence is palpable — it’s clear that this is the book she’s been waiting for.

When Oyeyemi published her first novel, “Icarus Girl,” in 2005, she was a student at Cambridge (she had written it while she was still in high school), and her age dominated the press about the book — never mind the extraordinary, haunting Nigerian-myth-infused meditation she had created. Every couple of years Oyeyemi has brought us a most novel new novel — “The Opposite House” (2007), “White Is for Witching” (2009) and “Mr. Fox” (2011) — traversing Yoruban tradition, Cuban lore, English Gothic, French Bluebeard legend and much more. All of her work has been preoccupied with classical and contemporary parable mashed up with her own exquisitely tailored phantasmagoria, evoking Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe, Gabriel García Marquez, Chris Abani and even Emily Dickinson. Many of those writers investigate culture and ethnicity, but Oyeyemi’s concentration comes from an even deeper remove — the fringes of the fringe, the others among the Other, the Multicultural Uncanny frontier.

As usual, the Oyeyemi foundation is located in her fairy-tale comfort zone — in the case of “Boy, Snow, Bird,” the fairy tale is “Snow White.” She uses the “skin as white as snow” ideal as the departure point for a cautionary tale on post-race ideology, racial limbos and the politics of passing. It feels less Disney or German folklore and more Donald Barthelme’s 1967 novella “Snow White,” in which the political and the social poke through the bones of a pretty children’s tale, alarming us with its critical cultural import.

Set in the 1950s, Oyeyemi’s novel opens on the Lower East Side of New York City, with a young white woman named Boy Novak running away from her violent rat-catcher father. She soon meets a widower, a jewelry craftsman and former history professor named Arturo Whitman, in Flax Hill, Mass. She marries Whitman and becomes obsessed by her new stepdaughter, Snow. “What was it about Snow?” Boy asks herself. Oyeyemi paints Snow as half virtual, half corporeal: “She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” All seems well until Arturo and Boy have a daughter of their own, Bird, who is born undeniably “colored.” Whitman’s family members are light-skinned African-Americans who have been passing as white, and the revelation becomes a turning point. The Snow White bits take over, with the Wicked Stepmother and the mirror motifs, and the fairy tale rewrites itself in startling ways.

Still, the greatest joy of reading Oyeyemi will always be style: jagged and capricious at moments, lush and rippled at others, always singular, like the voice-over of a fever dream. Sometimes literally: “I dreamt of rats. They spoke to me. They called me ‘cousin.’ And I dreamt of being caught, dreamt of sedative smoke, tar, glue, and strange lights the size of the sun, switching from red to green so fast I had no time to react.” Tell a dream, lose a reader, said Henry James, but it’s hard not to be on board with Oyeyemi when even an awful nightmare finds itself adorned with such lexical magnificence.

Perhaps another part of Oyeyemi’s appeal is that she is an outsider who staunchly stays an outsider. In 2007, with a couple of books under her belt, she enrolled in and then quickly dropped out of Columbia’s M.F.A. program (her blog post on Redroom.com details her many aversions and anxieties and ends with a single-sentence paragraph: “I’m moving to Paris next month, and I’m not sorry at all”). When you read Oyeyemi you are taught to read all over again by someone who has not been put through the fluorescent-lit, mahogany-round-tabled system of workshops, with obscure journals as sacred texts and critically acclaimed curmudgeons as deities. You are reading another reader first. At a time when writers are expected to adopt a professional polish — conforming to social media expectations and etiquettes, for example — Oyeyemi is in dialogue not so much with her media-trained contemporaries as with the old worlds of fairy tales and folk tales.

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