This article originally appeared on the Georgetown Voice on 4/24/14. Find it here.
There once was a girl. She had a childlike freshness that suggested an initial impression of juvenility, but she wasn’t. She didn’t fall into convention. She believed in monsters and magic, but her thirtieth birthday was around the corner.
She loved to write and to explore the qualities of people that interested her—the way that they feel at their innermost essence. She took those feelings and made them tools for her art. Through writing she learned to explore her own thoughts and emotions, to seek the ideas that made her art innovative and transformative.
As a child, she didn’t care much for school, but who cares when you’re a literary prodigy? At 18 she wrote her first novel and published it while attending college to mixed critical acclaim.. Over the next 12 years she would write a total of five novels, each one gaining more and more acclaim. Her art was digging deeper into people’s innate feelings, growing along with the artist.
This striking individual is Helen Oyeyemi, past and present. Her life is dynamic, changing homes on a whim—Paris, Toronto, London, Budapest, maybe Prague? Her novels carry a similar wanderlust as she reflects on the boundaries of race, color, and existence through a fairytale-like telling.
Her latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, divulges an enchanting tale of complicated familial ties told through explorations of skin color and beauty. Throughout the novel, Oyeyemi conjures a sort of magic through her dynamic writing and enthralls the reader with her cheerful grisliness, an embodiment of her unique character.
Boy, Snow, Bird doesn’t read like a regular fairytale, and it isn’t trying to be one. It’s Oyeyemi’s own interpretation of Snow White as told in 1950s New England. Boy Novak, a runaway from New York City, arrives by chance to what she thinks might be paradise in a small town in Massachusetts, a trenchant shift from her misery in the city. She leaves behind a dark, abusive father and marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower, becoming stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow.
After settling down in Flax Hill, Novak begins carrying Whitman’s second child but soon discovers a secret about the Whitmans. Their newborn black baby reveals that the Whitmans are black passing as white. Initially hurt, Boy eventually feels a deep bond with her darker child, and conversely, uneasiness overcomes her feelings toward her purely white-looking stepdaughter. Much to her chagrin, she gradually becomes an evil stepmother to her white daughter, causing Snow and Bird, Novak’s baby, to live separate lives, though they struggle to maintain their sisterly bond.
Boy, Snow, Bird progress through their lives as girls seeking an understanding of the importance of beauty and appearance before society. They each struggle with the power the superficial holds. “For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors,” explains Bird. Mirrors in this novel become doors to the soul. Rather than passively looking at the mirror like they do a clock, Oyeyemi’s characters see a reflection to be interpreted, unpacked, and realized.
“There was a brass water pitcher set up in the center of the table, and a couple of times I found myself smiling at my reflection in the side of it, but stopped just before anyone caught me. The smile was a chinchilla kind of smile. Look what I got you, it seemed to say. And I can get you more,” thinks Boy. Reflections, or even the absence thereof, tyrannize the girls’ minds, indicating their preoccupation with the importance of appearance.
Boy, Snow, Bird portrays Oyeyemi’s intrigue over the paradox of beauty–its penchant for intoxication for both the onlooker and the owner. Although she finds the modern perspective of fairytales amusingly grim, her subtle use of Snow White as a foundation derives from her ambivalent feelings toward the fairy tale. As she explained to NPR, “I found it so strange how she could be so mild and so sweet after everything she’s gone through… it started to scare me because I thought that beneath that front there must be so much suffering.”
Through Snow, Oyeyemi explores beauty’s paradox, unearthing the dark truth about the “eye of the beholder.” The odd universes in Oyeyemi’s novels provide a perfect avenue for her unprocessed, grandiose ideas, and her steady evolution leads to wonder of what she’ll conjure next.