This Is Not a Disney Story: Helen Oyeyemi Takes on Snow White


Friday, March 14, 2014

The writer was born in Nigeria; the tale comes from medieval Germany; the setting is a small New England town in the 1950s. Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, and like most of her work it’s a form of literary mash-up. She uses the structure of Snow White to tell a story about race, gender, and love set in a 1950s American town. Oyeyemi has a delicate approach but occasionally shows a sharper edge. Take her description of Snow, a preternaturally beautiful girl born to black parents, who passes as white:

Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl — we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us.

“The only way to feel is implicated,” Oyeyemi explains. “Because we are all implicated in labeling each other and treating each other based on assumptions.  This isn’t a book to feel cozy about who you are and where you’re sitting and what your position is. Nobody comes out of this story looking particularly good.”

Raised in London, Oyeyemi was a precocious reader who would cross out and rewrite parts she didn’t like (wrecking some library books in the process). Now, approaching her 30th birthday, Oyeyemi admits to Kurt Andersen that she didn’t think she would live this long. “I suffered from clinical depression,” she says of her teenage years. “I was suicidal in this particularly reckless way.” (She once drank iodine on a dare.) Recognizing her unhappiness, Oyeyemi’s parents and teachers gave her space to “find reasons to live,” and she found those reasons in books. “Which sounds very cheesy, but all I wanted to do was read.”


Helen Oyeyemi's 3 for 360

    Music Playlist
  • Whistle While You Work
    Artist: Brother Jack McDuff
    Album: Live
    Label: Prestige
    Purchase: Amazon


Helen Oyeyemi

Produced by:

Sean Rameswaram

Comments [3]

Mark Schuyler from Brooklyn, NY

I meant to quote Andrew Solomon. My apologies!

Mar. 17 2014 08:38 AM
Mark Schuyler from Brooklyn, NY

What a delight, giving us insight into a young artist's mind, experiences and ideas...her laugh and refreshing views are lovely.

Her story makes me wonder, Studio 360...

How about sponsoring a contest to create new words to describe clinical depression in artists, in people?

It seems inappropriate, as the writer and journalist Andrew Sullivan observes, to over-use one word to describe the same continuum as a boy disappointed with rain on his birthday compared to the feelings of a woman moments before taking her own life in a desperate escape from pain.

Depression in both extremes? I hardly think so. Perhaps others do as well.

And what is the opposite of depression? Clearly, it is not happiness.

A "killer" novel? A "life circle" Broadway musical? A "deadly" horror video? A painting "to die for?" The hottest video "game over?" This season's "deep sleeper" movie?

What a contest, with unimagined consequences!

Mar. 17 2014 07:27 AM
Robin Cryan

Thank you for introducing me to Helen Oyeyemi. Her new book had already been checked out at the local library. So I picked up "White is for Witching". I'm halfway through the book, and can't put it down. Needless to say, "Boy,Snow, Bird is now on my request list.

Thank you again,

Mar. 16 2014 09:30 PM

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