lauantai 26. marraskuuta 2011

Imaginary Friend in the Search for an Authentic Self

Talk about a good day. At the age of 18, Helen Oyeyemi signed the contract for her first novel, "The Icarus Girl," the same August day two years ago that she was accepted at Cambridge University.

The book, about an 8-year-old girl with an eerie imaginary friend, attracted gleaming reviews and buzz in Britain after its initial publication in January. Ms. Oyeyemi was called "astonishing" in a review in The London Sunday Telegraph and "extraordinary" by The Financial Times, which said she could claim a place among Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri, all English-language Nigerian-born writers. Now, the soft-spoken 20-year-old Ms. Oyeyemi is looking forward to the American release of "The Icarus Girl," which is being released today in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

"I guess I don't really believe it's happening," she said of her splashy debut during a recent interview in New York. She recalled obsessively writing "The Icarus Girl" at her parent's computer on weekends, after school and in the middle of the night. She likened it to being in love. She rushed the first 20 pages off to an agent whose name she plucked from a directory of agents.

A native Nigerian who moved with her family to London when she was 4, Ms. Oyeyemi is the youngest writer ever signed by Alexandra Pringle, the editor in chief at her British publisher, Bloomsbury.

Ms. Oyeyemi's age is on the far side of tender even for a first-time novelist, but both Ms. Pringle and Ms. Talese insisted that it was her talent, not her age, that got her published. Ms. Oyeyemi is currently a political and social science major at Cambridge.

"It came really, really easily," she said of her story, which tells of Jessamy Harrison, the troubled, precocious daughter of a Nigerian mother and a British father in London. Imaginative and lonely, Jess conjures up a nasty little invisible friend named TillyTilly while on a trip to Nigeria.

"But I think it came easy because I didn't think it was a novel," said Ms. Oyeyemi, a tall woman with huge eyes, a shy manner and long dark braids. "It was just kind of a story that kept getting longer," she continued, "so I didn't get scared or anything."

A book project was also a handy way to duck studying for her final exams and homework before getting into Cambridge, she joked.

Without giving away too much of the plot, TillyTilly soon lands Jess in big trouble. The result is a dark novel that plays with magic realism, African myth and that strange mix of innocence and intuition about the adult world that is the province of the very young, especially a child like Jess who straddles the boundaries of two societies.

Ms. Oyeyemi, who says she was a literary, smart, smart-mouthed child with an imaginary friend named Chimmy, is confronting the usual first-novel speculation about how much of "The Icarus Girl" is autobiographical. She insists it sprang mostly from her head, with its genesis in a story about TillyTilly that she wrote at 13.

But like Jess, Ms. Oyeyemi said she knows well what it feels like to be an outsider, to fight despair, to seek an authentic self. She attempted suicide at 15 by mixing pills, she said, and despite attending multicultural schools, for a long time, she never read black writers, and all the characters in her stories were white. The default cultural category was white, she said.

"We didn't understand that we could be in the stories," she said of herself and her other classmates of color. "Or that people like us could be in the stories."

"I never got particularly good marks for the stories I wrote," she continued. "And I read them over. And I started to see that in a fundamental sense they weren't true. Not only were they just not very good technically in terms of the writing, but there was something missing."

Only when Nigeria came into her stories did things ring true, she recalled. She met Nigeria, so to speak, through the novel "Yoruba Girl Dancing," by Simi Bedford, about a Nigerian girl in London dealing with assimilation issues.

Ms. Oyeyemi, the eldest of three children, came with her parents to London because her father, now a special education teacher, was studying social sciences at Middlesex University. The family returned to Nigeria every summer.

Jess, she said, "represents this kind of new-breed kid, the immigrant diasporic kid of any race who is painfully conscious of a need for some name that she can call herself with some authority."

"The Icarus Girl" has sold 20,000 copies in Britain, where sales of over 3,000 are considered respectable for a first-time novelist, Ms. Pringle said. Doubleday's first run is 35,000 copies, a measure of the publisher's high expectations.

Ms. Oyeyemi said she was working on a second novel, about Afro-Cuban mythology and the pantheon of gods that African slaves brought to the new world. Two plays that she wrote and staged while at Cambridge, "Juniper's Whitening" and "Victimese," published by Methuen, will be released in the United States in September.

Heady stuff. But Ms. Oyeyemi said she intended to keep studying political science, both because she is intrigued by politics and because it seems a good fallback position.

"It's quite good to have a separate arena, I think, because I could quite easily get a bit weird about writing," she said in her earnest way.

"It's quite easy with this one to keep it in perspective," she added. "I'll just try to get better."

The New York Times
Published: June 21, 2005

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