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Helen Oyeyemi: A New Light on Old Fairytales

Helen Oyeyemi's previous books include Mr. Fox and The Icarus Girl, written when she was still a student.
Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi, Piotr Cieplak/Penguin Group

Helen Oyeyemi — “Edgar Allan Poe’s Weirdest Daughter”

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing has been called “haunted,” full of magic, horror and mysticism. She was fittingly described as “Edgar Allan Poe’s Weirdest Daughter” in a “France 24” magazine interview. She is a Nigerian-born, London-raised author who has written several novels, short stories and even some plays. However, she is perhaps known best for her specialization in the dark retelling of old fairytales.  

Oyeyemi started her career in writing from a rather young age: she was 18 when she wrote her first novel, “The Icarus Girl,” while studying for her A levels at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. Oyeyemi gave an insightful look into her first venture in writing in her 2014 interview with Annalisa Quinn from “National Public Radio (NPR):”

I was a baby; I had no idea what I was doing. I was just 18 and writing this novel instead of doing my homework. I don’t think I understood that it was going to be read. So that has a kind of — not innocence — but a kind of unworldliness to it. I don’t think I could ever write like that again.

Several years of life and some travel around Europe have now given her that “worldliness” that can be seen in her newer novels. Oyeyemi has lived in Berlin, Paris and Budapest, though now she lives in Prague. She explains that “I feel a need to choose a city, or have a feeling that it chooses me.” In a 2019 interview with Anrifa Akbar from “The Guardian,” she described her passion for traveling by saying that “I had such a lovely time dating different cities before moving to the Czech Republic.”

Helen Oyeyemi: The Dark Reality in Fantasy

Helen Oyeyemi’s stories grapple with dark topics both fantastical and real. In her “NPR” interview, she said her second novel, “White Is for Witching,” was about “racism and eating disorders and hauntings” and describes it as a “book that doesn’t want to be read, in some way.” Her 2016 book “Boy, Snow, Bird,” (inspired by the Snow White myth), tells the story of a light-skinned Black family in 1950s New England that has to “pass” for white.

Boy, Snow, Bird book cover,
Boy, Snow, Bird book cover, Courtesy of http://helenoyeyemi.com/

In the same interview, Oyeyemi explains her interest with fairy tales, saying that they teach lessons like:

Everything that you see is not necessarily what it is. You have to find another way to know things. You have to find another way to know things. There is inner vision. And then there’s exterior vision. There are levels of seeing.

She also notes that these cultural stories reveal “some of the hardest and harshest truths about the ways that we live and the ways that we’ve always lived.” Her example involves the traditional tales’ tendencies for racism, often depicting dark skin as something ugly, monstrous or immoral. Though her retellings of old fairy tales are quite grim, Oyeyemi gives a much more diverse, nuanced, and culturally fluid perspective that offers a modern take on old fairy tales.

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