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Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer - Literature - Nairaland

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Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by obong(m): 1:17am On Jun 22, 2005
Ozier Muhamad/The New York Times

The Nigerian-born British author Helen Oyeyemi, 20, who wrote her
first novel, "The Icarus Girl," at age 18.



By FELICIA R. LEE
Published: June 21, 2005

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."
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by hotangel2(f): 5:36am On Jun 22, 2005
Good Job she's done there!! I bet Nigerians are fetching names for themselves now.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by kemmy(f): 6:15pm On Jun 22, 2005
Good job, we are always doing great.

Please, somebody read the purple hibiscus by Chimamanda Adiche.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by SMC(f): 3:59pm On May 05, 2007
Since we are celebrating the success of Nigerian Writers, I thought this should return to the top of the postings list. Heady stuff huh? smiley What do you guys think?
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by spikedcylinder: 9:58am On Sep 03, 2007
Sorry. I read the book and I think it was utter CRAP!!
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by zukkie4eva(f): 10:22am On Sep 03, 2007
@spikedcylinder

Which book are you talking about?, Purple Hibiscus??, I was thinking of buying it, ther's been so much hype about it
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by spikedcylinder: 10:27pm On Sep 05, 2007
Helen Oyeyemi didnt write Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did. I was referring to Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl and please buy Purple Hibiscus, it is worth the hype.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by shushu(f): 6:06pm On Nov 08, 2007
yep.i share the same views as spikedcylinder.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by angelempy(f): 12:02pm On Nov 09, 2007
wow, its nice work done by a naija person.
great, i wish it could be possible for first time authors to go half the mile she's gone with hers.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by cuteguy4u2: 9:18am On Jun 17, 2009
Someone should read motivational book 'How To Make Wealth Without Capital' By Austin Aniekie.The book is wonderful.More power to his elbow.Cheers for Nigerian Authors.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by spikedcylinder: 12:41pm On Aug 03, 2009
Crap book. angry
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by dentedface: 1:11am On Mar 26, 2010
I actually quite liked this book, i don't see why you say it's crap. it was a very good book.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by spikedcylinder: 9:45am On Mar 26, 2010
Crap book! angry angry angry
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by dentedface: 1:04am On Mar 27, 2010
alright, i respect your view, but i feel it is a very good book. you can think what you want, but i will think what i want.
Re: Helen Oyeyemi: A new Nigerian writer by spikedcylinder: 8:31am On Mar 29, 2010
Lol, no doubt. cheesy

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