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10 Reasons to Love Helen Oyeyemi

11th Dec 2013

10 Reasons to Love Helen Oyeyemi
Today we celebrate prize-winner and all round wonder author, Helen Oyeyemi’s birthday with a list of reasons we think she’s pretty splendid.

1. She’s kind of a literary genius

Most famous for writing her first novel whilst studying for her A-levels, Helen Oyeyemi then went on to write and stage her first (and only) stage plays whilst reading Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge.

Over the years she’s won a veritable cornucopia of praise and prizes for her novels and short fiction, and this year was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist alongside Zadie Smith and Naomi Alderman.

2. She’s been a feminist since childhood

When asked about her favourite childhood reads, in an interview for her latest novel Mr Fox, Oyeyemi revealed that she’d loved novels like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Anything populated by ‘plucky reckless girls going out into the world’ and making ‘things happen’.

3. She rates her own novels against The Bechdel Test

And isn’t afraid to tell herself off if she fails to hit the mark.

In the same interview (for Mr Fox) she laments that although it has ‘feminist preoccupations’, her latest novel (a retelling of the grisly French folktale Bluebeard) falls short of the famous test for gender bias.

Having read Mr Fox we beg to differ (we won’t post any spoilers here but kindly refer you to Mary and Katherine and Daphne and Greta. . .).

4. She loves mythology as much as we do

From the Abiku and Ibeji traditions of her Nigerian homeland, to the Santeria beliefs of Cuba, Oyeyemi’s liberal, ingenious and rather gothic use of myth and legend has people comparing her to the great Angela Carter.

With rumours of a visit to Snow-White-ville in her upcoming novel Boy, Snow, Bird, we can’t wait to follow her again down the rabbit hole.

5. She’s a bit of a rebel

As a child, if she didn’t like the way a novel ended she simply crossed it out in pen (library book or no) and wrote in another one.

In a world where communication is king, Oyeyemi welcomes silence with open arms, taking vows of silence twice a year6. She falls for cities and countries how we fall for men (and women)

‘I’m greedy about cities’ she says in a piece for The Guardian, before going on to admit that she is still looking for a city that she can ‘actually have a functional relationship with.’

So far she has claimed London, New York, Berlin, Budapest, Paris and Prague (oh Prague) as her own, but rumour has it she is still available should the city of her dreams come to call (as long as he has somewhere to put her teapots).

7. She’s an Emily Dickenson fan girl too

The American poet is said to have buoyed Oyeyemi through some very difficult times and is a reoccurring themes in her novels.

‘She’s always in the background.’ She says in an interview for New Books magazine ‘I don’t think I’ve written a book without sneaking in at least two or three quotes surreptitiously.’

8. She refuses to be put into boxes

An albatross around the neck of many minority authors is the question of cultural identity and how far one should be guided by a sense of cultural responsibility.

When asked (back in 2005 after the publication of her first novel) if she saw herself as a Nigerian author or some form of English-Nigerian hybrid she said she saw herself as neither:

‘…the cool thing about being Nigerian-born and raised in England is that I have … less of a sense of formal place and identity than most people’ leaving her free to do as she pleases. (Which she does rather well, we think.)

9. She writes passages like this

“What can it mean for a fox to approach a girl? Foxes are solitary. A fox that seeks out human company is planning evil. Or it has something the matter with it. Rabies or something worse. The fox watched the girl at play, and he didn’t understand what she was doing – it certainly wasn’t fox business. Still, it interested him, and he gazed and he gazed . . . though it served no purpose to do so . . . And it was through observing the girl at play that our fox learnt to recognise beauty elsewhere in the wood.” Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

10. She’s not afraid of silence

In a world where communication is king, Oyeyemi welcomes silence with open arms, taking vows of silence twice a year. No talking, humming, texting, emailing, Facebook(ing) – but plenty of Shostakovich, Debussy and . . . Harry Connick Jnr. On her blog, she talks about the clarity which comes with cutting out the phatic, and it certainly sounds like an intriguing exercise in restraint.

Her motto is ‘the less said the better’, an economy which is evident in her work and for which we applaud her.

And on that note_____________

Image via Picador