07.24.09 6:23 AM ET
A ghost story that’s also a perverse coming-of-age tale, White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi will make your skin crawl—even if you’re not sure why.
The 24-year-old novelist Helen Oyeyemi—born in Nigeria, raised in London, and educated at Cambridge—has certain personal customs that might be considered strange.
For example, there’s the Rule of Pie: “Rule of Pie is a week where my sister and I make a lot of pies—apple and blackcurrant, or just apple—and eat of those pies—or, if away from home, any pie to hand—three times a day for the duration of that week,” Oyeyemi matter-of-factly explains. “We like sweet pies, we just do. Nowadays we only tend to do it if there is some sort of sadness happening.”
The novel’s central character is a teenage girl with pica, a disease that compels its sufferers to eat things like chalk, stones, and bits of wood.
There is some sort of sadness happening in her third novel, White Is for Witching, just released by Nan A. Talese to strong reviews in the U.S. There’s some sort of food-related weirdness, too: The novel’s central character, Miranda Silver, is a teenage girl with pica, a disease that compels its sufferers to eat things like chalk, stones, and bits of wood.
Not helping matters is 29 Barton Road, the haunted Dover house where Miranda lives with her father Luc and twin brother Eliot. The house itself is one of the novel’s four narrators, and its history of ghosts and malevolence seem to be at the root of her illness. 29 Barton Road also happens to be a racist house with a habit of expelling foreign-born housekeepers.
“Dover seemed the perfect setting for a racist house,” Oyeyemi says. “There's tension in the community there because it's the favored port for attempts at illegal immigration and a great deal of asylum seekers’ claims are processed there.”
White Is for Witching is not your typical summer release by a major house. Unlike most ghost stories, it wants to be read in the bath rather than on the beach. And despite being all at once a disquieting ghost story, a perverse/reverse coming-of-age tale, and an exploration of troubled and protective love between siblings, the novel is very short.
“I wanted the book to be thin, like Miranda, and just a bit quaint and not easy to be around, like she is,” Oyeyemi tells me. And, as if it’s an afterthought, she adds, “I got worried, really worried, that I would go mad writing the book. I suppose it's just that sort of book—four voices constantly crossing each other and a girl no one can help or find.”
I first encountered Helen Oyeyemi at the 2006 PEN World Voices festival in New York, when I saw her on a panel sponsored by The Believer. Looking demure and wearing a shyly reproachful expression, she held her ground at an event dominated by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Yiyun Li, and Etgar Keret.
Afterward, intrigued, I bought her first novel, The Icarus Girl, published when she was 21. If you haven’t read it, do so. It’s a terrific ghost story about a little girl who visits Nigeria with her family and returns home to Britain with a new imaginary friend—her dead twin.
We’d met briefly after the Believer event and she stayed in touch by email over the next few years, mostly to discuss writing but also to describe daily life with her family in the U.K. “Last week, my mum found out that this hedgehog was chewing the washing line, and she got pissed off and spoke a Yoruba curse over the hedgehog. Tony found a dead hedgehog (there is some dispute over whether it was THE cursed hedgehog) next afternoon.”
Her reading preferences seemed blissfully erratic, ranging from Wilkie Collins to Stephen King to Daniil Kharms to “Alexandre Dumas pere and fils” to “Hans Christian Andersen because Gerda's quest for Kai in the ‘Snow Queen’ contains what I suppose my idea of love is.” Sheridan Lefanu was another favorite. “His short story 'Green Tea', about a man who drinks too much tea and finds himself accompanied by a horrific little monkey, is perfect,” she wrote. “In fact, all his short stories are brilliant because they are related at a strange pitch, something like the surprise of a friend who finds it unfortunate to have to tell you these things.”
In the fall of 2007, she returned to the U.S. to Columbia University's MFA program in creative writing—a seemingly bizarre choice for a woman who’d already received international acclaim for her first novel and whose second, The Opposite House, was being readied for publication in the following year. “I wanted to teach creative writing, and was told I needed to get an MFA first,” she says simply. “When I started the course I realized, I didn't want to teach creative writing after all.” She dropped out after a single semester.
“New York was fun, though,” she recalls. “And I enjoyed the course I took on medieval marriage customs. Very interesting! The Merovingians counseled that any woman seeking divorce should be smothered in mire.”
After I read White Is for Witching, I asked Oyeyemi how she’d come to write it.
I was in South Africa for a summer after I graduated, volunteering and hearing talk about race at every turn,” she replied. “Between that and the abundance of meat-based snacks and barbecues, it seemed something of an obsession, and got me down. Internet access was a 45minute walk away, I had only brought summer clothes, not realizing August is winter in that part of the world.
“I caught flu and stayed in my room shivering and reading Dracula—for me it began to work both as a supernatural story and a commentary on fear—fear of foreigners with strange appetites entering communities, blurring boundaries, and a different kind of monstrosity, a secret one, all the more dangerous for not being immediately visible, rather identified by signs.”
“Basically I think some fears can be good cloaks for other ones—people can read Dracula and think, ugh, oh no, horrible, the teeth, the blood, the smell of the grave, and stop there, or the story can mean more and reflect things about the mind that finds it dreadful.”
Fortunately the mind that Oyeyemi’s stories most vividly and obviously reflect is the one that created them—eccentric, inventive, and deeply intelligent. Her next book, a horror novel based on the Bluebeard legend, promises to do likewise.
Nick Antosca is the author of the novels Midnight Picnic (Word Riot Press, 2009) and Fires (Impetus Press, 2006). He was born in New Orleans and lives in New York, and his blog is Brothercyst.