‘I didn’t know I was writing a novel’
Boundaries are forever melting away in the unstable world of ‘The Icarus Girl’, 20-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s debut novel. Rooms widen and contract, floors cave in, walls “tilt sickeningly’’ as the protagonist, eight-year-old Jessamy, gets carried away by uncontrollable flights of fancy.
Now a second-year undergraduate reading social and political sciences at Corpus Christ College, Cambridge, Oyeyemi wrote the novel in seven giddy months while studying for her school leaving exams in a south London comprehensive. She sent the first 20 pages to agent Robin Wade who phoned her the next day, and in a tale fast becoming urban myth, Oyeyemi signed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury for a reported £4,00,000 on the day of her results.
“It was a crazy, crazy time,’’ she says over a steak sandwich and coffee in a Soho, central London, restaurant. “I wasn’t really aware that I was writing a first novel. It was so much fun, though. It’s great when the story comes to you so easily and strongly.’’ Her parents still haven’t read the book. “I really hope they won’t. I’d just be really weirded out.’’ The story of the precocious, mentally unstable daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father, ‘The Icarus Girl’ is a moving study of alienation. While holidaying in Nigeria, Jess befriends TillyTilly, a ghost (or just an imaginary friend?) who follows her to England. At first a blessing to the intensely lonely Jess, TillyTilly becomes increasingly destructive. It emerges that Jess had a twin who died at birth; in Yoruba culture, twins inhabit three worlds, the bush (a “wilderness of the mind’’), the normal world and the spirit world. “The bush is a world that doesn’t have the same rules and the same structure as our world,’’ explains Oyeyemi, “and TillyTilly comes right from that world.’’ Jess is so disturbed that her own name sounds “strange, wobbly, misinformed’’ to her, as she struggles to categorise not only TillyTilly but her own self. Jess’s behaviour is in turn feared by her mother. Growing up in Nigerian culture, says Oyeyemi, can be “really, really oppressive. It’s like something almost tugging on your coat-tails saying, ‘Hey, remember you’re Nigerian,’ and I think that’s what TillyTilly is to Jess. But you know if Jess just left it a bit, she would realise that it’s OK to be Nigerian and English at the same time.’’
Born in Nigeria in 1984, Oyeyemi emigrated to London with her family when she was four. As a child in Lewisham, south-east London, she remembers never quite finding herself represented in the books she was reading. “After a while, though, you forget that you’re not white, almost, because it’s this big pervasive culture. And then you find books like Yoruba Girl Dancing (by Simi Bedford) and you think: it’s just as interesting to be Nigerian in England as it is to be white in England.’’ Oyeyemi is self-assured and very witty but says it has been a struggle to gain such confidence, “I was a real mess at school. I got a bit of a reputation for being the weird girl, the girl who’d go silent randomly and just kind of write down replies to people’s questions in a book.’’ During secondary school, she slid into depression. She touches obliquely on the response of her family: “In Nigeria, the problems are so much more immediate and more real, like you’re not getting any electricity or any water, you actually have to struggle, and stuff. (So they think): it’s fine over here, what’s your problem? And so there was just this kind of blank silence thing between us about it.’’ She took an overdose at 15. While off school recovering, she spent the month “reading and reading and reading, so that was kinda useful’’. Reluctant to take medication, she also found visits to her psychologist unhelpful: “There wasn’t really very much to say, because I find it very difficult to say what’s going on most of the time.’’ It was a family holiday to Nigeria that finally set her on the road to recovery.