Helen Oyeyemi SBP interview

Turning the page
07 June 2009
By Nadine O’Regan

In December 2007, Helen Oyeyemi was just a few months into a Masters in Creative Writing programme at New York’s Columbia University when she decided – inexplicably to her fellow writers – to up sticks and leave. For most 22-year-old writers, abandoning one of the most prestigious writing courses in the world would have seemed like an act of sheer lunacy; hundreds, if not thousands, apply to the Columbia course every year, and precious few make the grade.

But for Oyeyemi, it was the only logical course of action. ‘‘I couldn’t do the programme,” the now 24-year-old literary wunderkind says, with an abashed grin spread wide over her face. ‘‘It clustered the way I wrote. I had done two and a half novels by the time I was on that course. I had established away of writing.”

She’s not kidding: at the tender age of 18, Oyeyemi sold her first novel, The Icarus Girl, to Bloomsbury for a lucrative sum – not the stg£400,000 reported on Wikipedia, she insists, but enough to allow her to live in comfort as a full-time writer.

Oyeyemi’s second novel, The Opposite House, moved the London Times to say that it was ‘‘intelligent, lyrical and thrilling in its ambition’’. With her third, the newly published White Is For Witching, Oyeyemi further confirms the presence of a singular talent: the plot might be patchy, but the authorial voice is unstoppable, confident, measured, flowing and thoroughly unique.

Frankly, it should all be enough to make one ridiculously jealous of the girl. When I mention her achievements to a friend, ‘‘I hate her!” is the firm and decided response. And it wouldn’t be too surprising either to find Oyeyemi a little full of herself – successful, attractive, young; on the surface at least, she has it all.

But Oyeyemi is an unusual, intricate and eminently likeable soul – and to measure her success in career terms is, in some sense, to miss the point. As she sits in a corner of a city-centre Dublin hotel, her black coat huddled around her body like a comfort blanket, Oyeyemi flips between gaiety and reserve – she’s candid, unprepossessing and friendly, but watchful for thorny questions.

Oyeyemi’s books take on magic realism and gothic themes, but they also tackle serious issues: eating disorders, depression, familial dysfunction, the pressures of academia and being gay in modern society. Several of these themes are informed by Oyeyemi’s own experiences. These young shoulders have borne a massive amount. Raised on a council estate in Lewisham, London, Oyeyemi alternated between ‘‘quiet’’ and ‘‘rebellious’’ at school, battling clinical depression. At the age of 15, she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills.

‘‘I was depressed for a long time,” she says. ‘‘It was difficult to be animated, to animate my face and have normal expressions. I had a constant sense of being at a remove. I didn’t eat very much either. I couldn’t tell whether I wasn’t eating because I was sad – or whether I was sad because I wasn’t eating. Oyeyemi’s parents – her mother is an employee of the London Underground, her father is a supply teacher – were determined not to see her problems as a condition. ‘‘I developed this perspective of parents being people who didn’t know how to save you from stuff. The whole time it was happening, I had this detached view, like I could understand that they couldn’t understand.” She confided mainly in her sister – and slowly learned how to combat her disease.

‘‘There are ways of thinking and responding to certain events that I have to be quite careful about,” she says. ‘‘It’s like walking down a certain staircase and saying, ‘No’, and going back up. Most of the time it’s okay. I think that’s because, in my third year of university, I got really tired of the way that the depressions kept hitting me and I decided to go on anti-depressants.

‘‘I’d always been like, ‘No medicine’. I wanted this to come from me, if I could get better. But I unconsciously made the whole thing more baroque. I could just take the medication and I did feel better. I could get out of bed, do my stuff. And eventually I stopped needing it.”

When she was at her weakest, Oyeyemi – a Catholic, albeit one who goes to Mass mainly at Easter and Christmas – devoted much of her time to reading about the lives of the saints.

becoming a nun,” she says. ‘‘I wanted to live a pure life, and not be touched or affected by the world around me. The edited stories of their lives is that they waited in peaceful serenity for God. And I would have liked to have done that, but I couldn’t because I’m human.”

Oyeyemi laughs. These days, she says, she feels like a completely different person: she is more sociable, more relaxed. Newly single, she had a boyfriend for most of the past year; she says prospective dates either find her career ‘‘intimidating or boring’’.

‘‘I really hope and pray that they don’t read my books,” she grins.

If they do, they’ll continue to find the darkness from the old days bleeding through her work. The strongest thing about White Is For Witching is its potent atmosphere: with its multiplicity of narrative voices, and creepy, spiky events, the reader is left constantly unsettled, if not always satisfied – even Oyeyemi herself cannot explain the logic of some of the happenings in the book.

Yet White Is For Witching had such a potent effect on me that I found myself having gothic nightmares in the wake of reading the book. Hearing that, Oyeyemi clasps her hands together in genuine delight.

While Oyeyemi can’t bear to watch horror films – she found The Orphanage almost too much for her – she loves gothic literature, delivered ‘‘in little doses, skillfully done’’. She doesn’t know whether she believes in magic, but she has a ‘‘respect, an acknowledgement of systems that might work in ways that I can’t understand’’.

‘‘I can’t say what I believe in, but a lot of stuff seems possible tome. I hoped this book would find people who like gothic stories.”

Set in a mysterious, talking house on the cliffs near Dover, the narrative focuses on Miranda Silver, who – we are told at the start – has vanished. The story of the book is the story of Miranda, and that of her family and her lover, Ore.

One excerpt reads: ‘‘Last night had been the fifth, perhaps the sixth night that Miranda had lain by Ore, smelling her, running her nose over the other girl’s body, turning the beginning of a bite into a kiss whenever Ore stirred. Miranda had needed Ore open. Her head had spun with the desire to taste.”

It’s intoxicatingly weird stuff – and it comes as no surprise to hear that, in preparation for the book, Oyeyemi read up on Dracula – ‘‘at one stage, I was feverishly reading and rereading it’’, she says. It’s notable that, although Oyeyemi doesn’t have any complaint about the Columbia programme, in what was clearly a protective gesture, she never showed her fellow students any drafts of White Is For Witching.

‘‘We had to produce stuff for workshops, so I’d bash something out. I couldn’t write anything I cared about while I was on the course. It’s not that I don’t need or want feedback, but the stage I require it is much further down the road. I didn’t touch White Is For Witching, which I’d already been working on, because I had a feeling that, if I did, it would shrivel.”

In truth, the only reason Oyeyemi applied to do the course at all was because she had wanted to teach fiction writing in America – and had been told that the only way for her to do so was by taking a creative writing Masters course herself. By leaving the course, she had to accept that she probably wouldn’t be able to teach fiction writing.

It might seem strange that Oyeyemi would even want to become a teacher when her writing career is going so well: often, full-time teaching is a career arc for struggling creative writers who need to make a living. But she has a discomfort about the idea of becoming a full-time writer. At Cambridge University, Oyeyemi studied political and social sciences because she felt that to study English literature would have been to ‘‘spoil it’’.

After leaving Cambridge, where she gained a second class honours degree, she moved on to Paarl, a village outside Cape Town, where she spent five months in 2006 doing something a million miles removed fromthe arts: volunteering at a centre for children born with HIV.

For a black writer used to the buzzy, cosmopolitan melting pot of London, South Africa proved quite a change – and a cultural challenge. ‘‘Was there a difference in how people treated me? It was the kids,” she says thoughtfully. ‘‘At first I felt I was being paranoid, but the kids would cry and be bad and leave rubbish on the floor for me. But with the white volunteers, they would be very well behaved. It was as if they equated my blackness with, ‘Oh, there’s the cleaning lady’.

‘‘There wasn’t one child there over three years old. It was scary to think that, so early, they had these ideas about colour and who did what.”

After Oyeyemi left South Africa, and then New York in December 2007, she moved to Paris for five months, then to Toronto and then to Washington to a writers’ retreat. In Paris, she knew no one and could not speak a word of the language, but rather than abhorring the solitude, she revelled in it. ‘‘At first I felt almost euphoric,” she says.

‘‘Sometimes I wouldn’t speak aloud to anyone for days. And then I started to descend into strange states. I knew that it had to stop, though.”

In away, the process seems to be one of Oyeyemi continually testing herself, finding out who she is and what she wants, through isolating herself and putting herself into potentially challenging circumstances. ‘‘I think I was trying to find out what was more important to me, whether it was having friends or writing,” she says. ‘‘And then I thought, ‘You’ve got to have both’.”

Few writers would take their life to such extremes in order to truly find themselves in their work; Oyeyemi is unusual in her approach – and all the more interesting for it.

White Is For Witching is published by Picador, priced €18

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