Helen Oyeyemi is one young author who has always been a bit special in my book. Not only is she a Cambridge Alumni, she's also in the process of attending Columbia University whilst doing press for her third book, 'White is for Witching' which is about to come out in paperback.
Helen's origin story is really quite incredible. Hailing from Deptford, South London, Helen's debut novel 'The Icarus Girl' was picked up and published by legendary publishers Bloomsbury before she was 24 years old. Since then, she has followed her amazing success with 'The Opposite House' which is set in her native Nigeria.
I can't wait to see what she does next!
Here's an interview with The Times in 2007, just before the launch of her second book:
When Helen Oyeyemi was up at Cambridge, she took to going everywhere by taxi. It wasn't a grand gesture. Although she was one of the city's best-known undergraduates with her debut novel, The Icarus Girl, published during her second year and was in possession, according to breathless newspaper reports, of a £400,000 advance, she was suffering a crippling bout of self-consciousness. She had joined one of a tiny minority (0.7 per cent) of black students at the university, and was the only one at Corpus Christi College.
"I felt both visible and invisible, but above all, I felt ugly. That was why I took cabs. I have the bills to prove it," she says with a soft snuffle of laughter. Her accent veers between South London, where she grew up on a Lewisham council estate, and received pronunciation; her adjectives range from "cool" and "rock" to "solipsistic".
Dislocation is familiar territory for Helen Oyeyemi. It's merely the strategy for dealing with it that changes. Born in Nigeria, brought to England at the age of four, she was a precocious brat, a depressive adolescent, and now, at 23, is an engagingly unstudied young woman, who picks her way in outsize trainers through the clubby English ambience of the Georgian offices of her publishers, Bloomsbury.
She is palpably nervous about the publication of her second book this week. The Opposite House abandons linear narrative for a risky juxtaposition of magical fantasy and mundane reality in which a young Cuban-Nigerian, Maja, struggles with leaky plumbing and an unexpected pregnancy in London, while the Yoruba gods exist on the other side of the "reality wall". Yes, it is a flawed novel, but it is also intelligent, lyrical and thrilling in its ambition. It proves she has a future as a writer, that she's the real thing.
But if, as Alan Bennett contends, a writer finds him or herself on the page, what do her novels tell us about Oyeyemi? "Hmmm. My novels share a continuity of themes. There's a mother-daughter tension going on. There's this idea of hysteria. In The Opposite House, you have these two girls [best friends] who are conscious of their acting-out behaviour, but that doesn't stop them. I'm interested in whether there's a cure for it, so I'll keep poking into that." There is also the question of identity. Oyeyemi's earliest memories are not of Nigeria, but of inglorious Lewisham. "Memories of settling in at school.
The more long-standing émigré Nigerian parents were a bit worried about me hanging out with their kids in case I infected them with my strong Yoruba accent. The main thing was to blend in. When I lost the ability to speak and think in Yoruba, my parents didn't want me to re-learn it." Of course, this was but one of an immigrant's contradictory impulses. She grew up sequestered in the two-bedroom flat, reading, writing and living in her own head because her parents didn't want her assimilating too well, didn't want her turning into an estate kid. "I think they worried I might never get out, wouldn't reach as far as they wanted me to reach," she says.
"From the age of six, they were on at me,'Oxford or Cambridge?'" Both were teachers in Nigeria, but their qualifications were not recognised here. Her mother became a Tube driver, stepping back to a supervisory role after the July bombings, while her father retrained as a special needs teacher. In the early years, though, he worked as a security guard on the night shift.
Humiliating? "Yeah. But he was so stoic about it. He'd be reading Engels and Durkheim each night. I got this idea of my dad as a night-time philosopher." So... not middle-class, not working-class; not African, not European. Brought up Catholic, but told the Yoruban myths about the Orisha, the gods. In childhood, Helen loathed returning to city grime after family summers in Nigeria, but when her father talked of moving back, she resisted firmly. "It was like a fairy kingdom; you had to leave before it changed you. My experiences are shaped by the way people perceive me. This is why I say I'm not Nigerian, not English, I'm not anythingŠ That's my way of making a choice." She sounds like a bit of a minx. Even her depression came spiced with defiant, up-yours attitude. Once, she simply stopped speaking for a month.
"I remember refusing to answer the register, just writing yes on a piece of paper. But I did feel physically unable. I thought if I spoke, I would scream." The depression began at 13, coinciding with her brother, Tony, then four, being diagnosed as autistic. "He'd always seemed to be anxious and stressed. His eyes would wander everywhere. I'd say,'You know what? I think he's autistic.' And my mum was like,'Sssh! Don't say that! Don't you know you'll make it true?' "With my brother, my parents could engage a bit more because it was immediate: something is wrong with Tony's brain, we need to plan. Whereas, something is wrong with Helen's.. what? They couldn't sit down with someone from education services and talk about a special school. There was no strategy. They couldn't grasp it."
At the age of 15, Helen took an overdose and was found by her sister, Mary, then only 11, who had been her confidante even during the non-speaking episodes. This image the beloved younger sister frantically dialling for an ambulance hits Helen hard even today. Her face crumples as she tries to control her emotions. Helen describes Mary as, "a lot more sober than you should be at 18. I think she feels like she has to be the one who's OK all the time, which definitely isn't the case. I can't sit her down and say,'Mary, you can have a breakdown now!' but I do try to let her know she doesn't have to be the opposite of me."
Today, Oyeyemi makes rather a good role model. Of course, the newspaper deception is that her life turned around overnight. One minute she was an anonymous, sullen member of the sixth form of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial comprehensive in London, the next she had landed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury and a place to read Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge.
She had been writing The Icarus Girl in secret after sending 20 pages to an agent, who immediately rang to say that if she finished her Turn of the Screw-ish tale of a mixed-race child and her ghost-like imaginary friend, he was sure he could sell it. On A-level results day: "I walk to the board, see my name. Three As! Wow! Then I get a call from my agent. We've signed the contract. That day was so weird." But the publicity game unnerved her. She has avoided Nigeria since. "This supposedly fantastic book advance had hit the headlines and my family over there was talking about it, and it was just... weird." Still, the money was enough to satisfy her desires. She was able to take off to Florence to write during the Cambridge vacations rather than return to dispiriting Lewisham.
She had expected Cambridge to provide like minds. "I was holding on to [the idea of] some place where I would not be strange." In reality, she was ever more the outsider. "I never blame people who have to teach me for not supporting me, because I'm not a good student and I'm not personable in that way," she says. "For a long time I was like,'No medication! No medication!' I didn't want to feel like a machine, putting medicine in and happiness comes out. But in the third year, I took anti-depressants and I wasn't robbed of personality, I just found it a little bit easier to get out of bed." She wrote The Opposite House while at Cambridge, finishing in June just before her finals. It was also there, in a café, that she introduced herself to one of her literary heroines, Ali Smith. "She hates the word mentor. Says it's too close to tormentor. But she is amazing. Lively, irreverent, such a great friend ahh, she's my hero!" In Oyeyemi's company, you get a real and touching impression of a young woman who is working on herself. Since graduating last summer, she has spent time working with the Catholic charity CAFOD in Kenya. How Catholic is she?
"Tough one. Not as in Mass every week, but I'm a believer and I feel it's possible to be rational and recognise your duties to..." But she tails off, squirming. "Oh, I don't know! I don't want to use grand language." She's off to New York this autumn, taking an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia, which is taught by another literary hero, A. M. Homes. "Maybe Columbia will be the one place where my teachers will not dislike me intenselyŠ" Her aim is eventually to split her career between writing and teaching, but she is unsure if this will be in Britain. "I don't really want to come back." Pause. "There's nothing wrong with England but I want to go away. I want to go to Tokyo."
Has she strategies in place for coping with the depression? "Not really. Being self-conscious about it doesn't make it go away." It seems brave of her, being so vulnerable, to cross the ocean for her art. "Oh, yeah, thanks!" she drawls. Then more soberly, "I don't know what will happen, but I figure when I'm right down at the bottom I'm completely alone anyway, so it can't make much difference if I get depressed in New York. Although the Brooklyn Bridge would be good for jumping off."
There's a shy smile when I tell her not to joke. "I'm a coward. I won't jump," she says. And she seems to know herself well enough for that to hold the ring of truth.