Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Gingerbread, surreally blurs fact and fiction in a tale involving three generations of women who love to bake.
Returning to the city where she was once an undergraduate, Helen Oyeyemi gave her only UK event for her new novel, Gingerbread, at the Cambridge Literary Festival 2019. Promoting her sixth novel (her eighth book in total), the award-winning author discussed her writing process, the pleasures of baking gingerbread, surrealism and the realness of places.
Oyeyemi is certainly a child prodigy. Born in Nigeria, she moved to London aged four and went on to publish her first novel, The Icarus Girl, before she completed school in 2005. Whilst studying social and political sciences at Cambridge she published a second novel, The Opposite House (2007), as well as two plays, Juniper’s Whitening and Victemese, both of which were performed to critical acclaim and published by Methuen. At the Cambridge Literary Festival, Oyeyemi candidly explained that she didn’t think she was good at writing plays and that her main motivation for playwriting at the time was to work with friends. Consequently, she returned to writing prose and has since gone on to publish five more novels and a short story collection. Her works stray into magical realism and are known for constantly blurring the lines between reality and fiction. For Oyeyemi, fiction wouldn’t be possible without the surreal. Her new novel, Gingerbread, exemplifies this.
I was quite excited when I heard that Oyeyemi was publishing a new novel titled ‘Gingerbread’; the name Gretel was revealed and the cover featured an actual well in a foggy forest. I thought this had to be linked to Grimm’s fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Of course I was wrong. During her talk Oyeyemi stressed that the novel is not a retelling of the beloved Grimm tale, but that her use of the name Gretel was intentionally misleading and provocative. Upon reading Gingerbread you realise that the focus is, indeed, not on topics related to the story of two siblings abandoned in a forest by their parents only to be found by a child-eating witch. Instead, Gingerbread is about mother-daughter relations spread over three generations: Margo, Harriet, and Perdita Lee. It’s an amalgam of reality and fantasy, and yet again magical realism becomes Oyeyemi’s hobbyhorse.
Gingerbread’s unreliable narrator contributes to this ongoing question of what is fact and what is fiction. So much so that the story related in the novel is very much a bed time one told by Harriet Lee to her daughter, Perdita Lee, over one night. Oyeyemi’s narrative structure contributes to this feeling of everything hanging in the balance, between two threads, with an atmosphere that only a fairy tale could conjure.
Although her home country Druhástrana is utterly real for Harriet, it’s also unreal (Wikipedia states it is non-existent). Telling her daughter about the place she grew up and her best friend, Gretel Kercheval, the reader can never be fully sure whether what Harriet relates is actually fact or fiction. Thus nothing is ever set in stone in this novel. At the festival, Oyeyemi mentioned that she cannot see well and may even need to wear glasses, but refuses to do so, not simply out of vanity, but because she doesn’t like to see clearly. Perhaps the novel’s enjoyable blurriness is born out of Oyeyemi’s refusal to see clearly. It would, after all, be a boring read if all were clear cut and unquestionable. Naturally Gingerbread stays tense until the end; it’s one of those books where you occasionally find yourself wishing for SparkNotes commentary out of fear that you’ve missed an important part of the story, only to realise it was missing all along. Then again, this kind of obliqueness and obscurity is what makes Oyeyemi’s writing so fascinating to read in the first place and it’s what draws us back to her novels.
Oyeyemi is not only successful in depicting well rounded, interesting characters, but she also describes places, settings, and in the case of Gingerbread, food, evocatively throughout all her works. Haunted houses are prominent in her new novel and they were far too intriguing a subject not to ask Oyeyemi about (which I did, during the talk). But having made a haunted house the subject in White is for Witching, Oyeyemi states that her curiosity about the spookiness of domestic houses has now been satisfied. Maybe that is why the actual gingerbread in her latest novel is not the foundation of a house but a substance to be consumed, much in the way that Miranda, her protagonist in White is for Witching, consumes and lives on chalk. The Lees and particularly Harriet’s gingerbread in the novel is addictive, in Oyeyemi’s words, “It’s kind of creepy, her gingerbread…but delicious.”
When it comes to her writing process and the place she works best, Oyeyemi’s answer is no less surprising than her subversion of domestic houses. Later in the talk she tells the audience that she writes best in bed. Waking up at night, writing in a drowsy state, and going back to bed is a common routine of hers. She enjoys writing in solitude and welcomes the aloneness, but also likes to sort out her life before completely shutting herself off from the outside world to retreat into her writing. In terms of Gingerbread, the novel was started at a writer’s retreat in Seoul, South Korea, and completed at her current home in Prague. In Seoul, Oyeyemi came to value the Korean writing desks which are low to the ground and don’t require chairs, in that way being similar to her writing position in bed.
Although Oyeyemi has moved and lived in various places over the years, it is less the places she visits that inspire her than what she reads. She names author Barbara Comyns as one of her greatest influences who she feels is like a telephone inside her. Emily Dickinson also inspires her and the poet’s gingerbread recipe has been tried by Oyeyemi herself because, of course, she had to bake gingerbread herself while writing her novel, although, contrary to the Lees, she is not sure whether she is any good at it. Always humble about her writing and person, you can’t help but notice how much Oyeyemi loves writing and creating stories, first and foremost for herself, and then for her readers. Accomplished and bubbling with ideas, she’s a writer whose work you’ll want to come back to.
Gingerbread was published by Pan Macmillan, Picador, on 7th March 2019. To find out more about the book and purchase a copy, click here. The Cambridge Literary Festival ran from 5th – 7th April 2019; please see here for more information.