“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” That was the evil, jealous stepmother’s bloodcurdling question in the Snow White fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, and Oyeyemi has a modern retelling of the story in a Massachusetts mill-town. Oyeyemi has a way of seeing modern life as a series of fairy tales, and she likes to scatter them throughout the forest, upending monsters and undermining as many myths as she can. In Boy, Snow, Bird, she exposes notions of skin, beauty, race, worship, families, family fights and fears of all kinds. Helen Oyeyemi is a very accomplished young author by now; this is her fifth novel, and she was named by Granta as one of the Best Young Novelists last year. She’s a global citizen, she’s terrific fun, and she has a wonderful laugh. We’re starting a new series of interviews with authors with something extra — a set of short answers to our modified Proust questionnaire, as in our series with poets “Whose Words These Are?“. Helen Oyeyemi graciously agreed to be the first respondent for fiction.
The Proust Questionnaire
When you walk down the street, who do people see? I don’t know. I don’t tend to notice people noting me. I’m very shortsighted, so I can’t really see anything. I like it that way. Then you have more surprises in life, around every corner.
Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other enterprises? Who is doing the work of your spirit in a different way? He’s not alive anymore: Rimsky-Korsakov. I keep listening and listening to The Invisible City of Kitezh, which, I guess, is his musical retelling of a Russian folk tale, and it’s so beautiful.
What’s the talent you’d most love to have that you don’t (yet)?I always wished that I could dance ballet.
Who would you be if you couldn’t be you? Tracy Chapman. I, in fact, started dreadlocks because of Tracy Chapman.
What’s your city for all time? I think I’m living in my city, Prague. But I really, really love Istanbul. It’s a little like Prague in that it’s filled with symbols that are very difficult to interpret with the top level of your mind, so you have to relax into the codes of the city.
There’s the Bosphorus, which has its own character. The food is great. The people are very nice to me.
What is the keynote of your own personality? Evasiveness.
What is the quality you most like in a man? Kindness.
What is the quality you most like in a woman? That she be an adventuress.
What is your most treasured possession? Must be a little copy of Goblin Market that a friend of mine sent me when I really, really needed it.
Who are your favorite writers? I love Marquez, Robert Walser, Daniil Kharms, Gombrowicz, Ali Smith, Jenni Fagan — I’ve only read one book of hers, but she’s tremendous. The book is called The Panopticon. She has a heroine who hallucinates and then frightens her hallucinations. So it’s this girl who is so tough and so full of life that
she sees faces coming out of the walls and says “Can I help you?” and the faces just immediately recede. That’s life force.
What is your motto? Fruits, not sports.