Helen Oyeyemi’s debut novel, The Icarus Girl, tells the story of Jessamy Harrison, an eight year old of precocious intelligence and fierce imagination. During a visit to her mother’s family in Nigeria, Jessamy meets TillyTilly, a girl whose presence literally haunts her from their very first encounter.
Jess is a girl who is struggling to find her own identity in the hyphenated world in which she lives; half Yoruba and half English, she is torn between two cultures and finds herself occupying a world made up of dichotomies. TillyTilly who is at once a comforting friend and a disruptive demon is the embodiment of Jessamy’s struggle to discover her own identity – ‘My name is Jessamy. I am eight years old… She felt she needed to be saying this so that it would be real.’
Jess’ behaviour at home and school is disruptive, smashing her mother’s computer, cutting pictures out of books in the classroom, breaking the mirror in the bathroom – blamed in an eight year old’s plaintive tones on the mysterious, invisible, TillyTilly, ‘You have to believe me. I didn’t do it!’ The help of a psychologist is employed, though it is TillyTilly who reveals to Jessamy the true roots of her disturbance – the death of her baby twin sister, Fern.
Helen’s prose style is varied and vital. A lively spirit, as energetic as TillyTilly herself, weaves its way through the narrative which manages to recall both the naïveté of childhood, and to capture the uncertainty Jess faces as she firms her grip on reality. Her difficulties are compounded by the apparent contradictions between the tradition of her Nigerian roots and the British society in which she lives – in one world a wooden carving or ibeji must be made to lay to rest the soul of the dead twin, in the other world, sensitive if misguided psychologists probe with questions, ‘I know that things can be real in different ways’, offers Dr McKenzie by way of an explanation. Neither solution makes sense to Jess whose vulnerable childishness underscores the novel with tender pathos, ‘I’m tired and you’re confusing me,’ she responds.
The LIP: Do you consider yourself to be an ‘African novelist’? J.M Coetzee has said some interesting things about assuming such a title – does the African novelist have more responsibilities than the European novelist?
HO: Though I’m clearly influenced by a tradition of writers dealing with African consciousness, I think it’s more likely that I’d be placed on a different rung on the post-colonial writing ladder (if indeed I was going to get placed anywhere…) – basically it’s to do with uncertainties of language – I think and dream in English, and any words that I reach for in describing Nigeria are automatically and inextricably loaded with a sense of foreignness – ‘vibrant’, ‘colourful’, ‘hot’ – it’s so close to cliché that it’s embarrassing, and it almost suggests that I don’t even know what I’m describing anymore. A book coming from someone who thought in, say, Yoruba, would take all those adjectives as a given and either get past them and unravel new descriptions or just get right to whatever point they’re making. It’s that hesitancy and circling around the point that stops me from being qualitatively similar to the African greats like Soyinka, Emecheta, Achebe, Ola Rotimi.
I seem to have begun in a halfway niche that maybe writers like Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri, though they handle it better, wouldn’t scoff at. Though social commentary of some form is integral to the dynamic of almost every novel, I don’t think novelists have any responsibilities outside of the honing of their craft; they obviously have responsibilities and concerns as people, but if these come above storytelling, it doesn’t work. ‘Concept’ novels are only interesting up until the point where the concept becomes clear – a major gripe I have with Dostoevsky’s blatant focus on morality and the mechanisms of psychological health in Crime and Punishment is that after Raskolnikov murders the old lady, which fulfils the concept, ‘what if a student entered into the act of murdering an old lady?’, I lose interest and have to struggle to finish. So, mostly I say, ‘If you’re writing about politics or sociology, kindly call it a politics or sociology book and not a novel.’ Arundhati Roy, whom I greatly admire as a writer, has made that distinction and is concentrating on using her writing skill to draw non-fictional attention to issues in India. ‘Concept’ novels really seem to interfere.
The LIP: Has your age been a help or a hindrance in getting published and/or getting people to take your work seriously?
HO: My age did become a somewhat cynical bonus selling point, and with good reason – a crazy number of books are being published every year. Couple this with the fact that readership inevitably decreases when films, plays and video-games are becoming stronger and stronger as industries, and it’s starting to seem like you need some kind of kooky trademark just to keep your head above water. Since there’s nothing else kooky about me, I guess age helped with Alexandra Pringle, my editor at Bloomsbury, who wanted to know what an eighteen year old would have to say. If you’re looking for a new and distinctive writing voice, it must be tempting to try and plumb our generation, who are (if they’re into that sort of thing) growing up with both filmic and literary imaginations in equal effect. In terms of general readership and critics, though, yes, the book is almost guaranteed attention, but people are bound to be more unpleasant about it than gracious. They question quality, (What has she read? How sophisticated is this going to be?) and they are more than likely to get horribly cynical and paint your publishers as monochrome ogres who’ve chained you to your desk and forced you to write like a bitch when you could be getting healthy, real-life material. Someone who interviewed me for a radio show told me that they’d been dreading reading The Icarus Girl because they thought they were going to have to contemplate the musings of a precocious brat. Luckily, they changed their mind a third of the way in, but obviously not everyone coming to the book will.
The LIP: What does multiculturalism mean to you? Jess struggles to get comfortable in a hyphenated world, do you think many ‘half and half’ children (TillyTilly’s words, not mine) feel that same pressure?
HO: Multiculturalism doesn’t really mean anything to me. I guess as a term it means embracing and integrating what was formerly ‘foreign’ into an eclectic framework that can then be identified as national culture, but I think at bottom it is very difficult to truly understand that someone from another culture, who dresses differently, may have a different skin colour and may speak a different language, is the same as you. It’s a big old fallacy.
The LIP: Where is Africa now?
HO: Africa is in a place where, alongside the urgent need for humanitarian aid to be found in Africa as a continent, people are beginning to recognise the immense talent that’s emerging from that intensely prideful, unembarrassed place.