Rae Nudson | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,277 words)
In Helen Oyeyemi’s books, reality can twist and bend until the distinction between what’s fantasy and what’s real disappears entirely. In previous novels, Oyeyemi takes familiar tales, like Bluebeard’s unlucky wives and Snow White’s unlucky youth, and breaks the well-known stories, putting them back together in new ways that jump through time and space. The result is always something weird, dark, and unfailingly interesting. Her latest book, Gingerbread, uses a well-known symbol from fairy tales, the eponymous dessert, rather than a tale itself to spark the story, one in which children take on adult responsibilities and come to experience the effects of work, capitalism, and the complexities of family.
Gingerbread is narrated with the help of a Greek chorus of dolls who come to life to hear the story that the gingerbread-maker Harriet is telling to her daughter Perdita about where Harriet came from — a place called Druhástrana that may or may not exist at all. While evidence of Druhástrana’s existence is scarce (it’s name translates to “the other side” in Czech), Harriet’s memories of growing up there are vivid.
It is during her childhood in Druhástrana that Harriet learns how to make gingerbread, a treat that provides sustenance to her family when times are hard and eventually provides a path to leaving Druhástrana behind — Harriet makes friends with a changeling named Gretel and moves to the city to work in a gingerbread factory, sending her wages home to her family. As she grows up, Harriet learns more about what’s true and what’s false and what matters in life. But one thing Harriet remains sure of is the quality of her gingerbread. She knows it’s good, and she knows that she can add value to the world through the treat she bakes.
I talked with Oyeyemi about the reason she likes to retell familiar stories, the role children play in their households, and — of course — her favorite recipe for gingerbread.
Rae Nudson: You said before that Boy, Snow, Bird was your evil stepmother book and White is for Witching is your haunted house story, so how do you see Gingerbread? What type of story is that for you?
Helen Oyeyemi: It feels like a very different kind of story. I think because I didn’t so much have a character or a figure that I was trying to work out. It was more gingerbread itself. I was trying to think of what gingerbread could mean. And I suppose I ended up interrogating the symbol through a maker of gingerbread, so then I got involved in her life story and I ended up feeling as if I’d made a pact with her, Harriet, the character, that I would just get her through all of this madness in one piece.
The central problem of it seems to be Harriet having this thing to offer. It became a kind of neoliberalist problem, if that makes any sense, in that we are now sort of on the job and branding and putting out our brand all of the time and trying to figure out what our contribution is and where what we offer can be valued. So for Harriet, because she’s so very much bound in with gingerbread, that’s her sort of quest, to make everyone accept her gingerbread. And I sort of envied that she feels so sure that it’s good. If I draw some comparison between, say, my writing and Harriet’s gingerbread, I’m not quite as sure, but I loved how sure she was. She was like, “It’s good, people just don’t know it.”
What drew you to gingerbread in the first place?
Just seeing it around. So there’s a very good Czech tradition of gingerbread, it’s called pernik over here. It’s kind of more honey-ish, like more dark honey flavored. And it also looks darker and grimmer, but it’s delicious. And there’s a walk that I take up to Prague Castle, and I would pass this gingerbread shop that would always have gingerbread houses in the window, and there was something just so inviting but also sinister about it.
Then I started thinking about gingerbread as a foodstuff and the place that it has in stories. How it’s a way that we feed our young, like in Hansel and Gretel, a way that we feed our young but also track them.
The central problem of it seems to be Harriet having this thing to offer. It became a kind of neoliberalist problem, if that makes any sense, in that we are now sort of on the job and branding and putting out our brand all of the time and trying to figure out what our contribution is…
I think that’s a really good metaphor for your writing. Like it looks darker but it’s really delicious — and you use fairy tales a lot, and those are another thing that people feed their young. I’m wondering, to you, what is the difference between fairy tales and magical realism?
I don’t know what magical realism is. Fairy tales, I kind of know what they are. With fairy tales, it’s a structure and a sensibility. It’s something that’s fun to play with, but I would not say that it’s something that I own. So the whole thing that I’m doing with these books is trying to figure out what my own style is. So while it can be good and energizing to work with conventions, like the haunted house story and Grimm’s Fairy Tales and so on, I don’t feel like an expertist.
Is that why you’re interested in them, because they have a structure that you can explore?
Yeah, and because I think traditions like that are more rewarding when you do this kind of simultaneously working with and working against it. So it’s almost like, maybe like making dough. I don’t want to go into too many food analogies, but you’re sort of pummeling something that’s taking form, even as you’re pushing it out of shape. And I think that’s the best way to write. It feels like you’re really changing, as if your mind is changing as you’re writing these things.
I’ve heard from various people that having restrictions makes them feel more creative, do you feel like that, too?
Definitely. I think that that’s why I tend to set a brief before I start writing the books, so for Gingerbread, I knew I was going to write a book about gingerbread, and that kind of shaves away everything that is not gingerbread. But also it makes me aware of how many things do pertain to gingerbread, like I found myself writing about plants and houses, and I was like, “Huh, I didn’t know these had to do anything with gingerbread, but I guess they do.”
As you’re writing it, is that a thing that you’re consciously doing? Like, “Oh, this relates, but this doesn’t, so I need to go down this path and not that one?”
Yeah, I mean, it’s going by feel. It’s more like taking a step and then feeling like, “Oh, actually I take that back.” And then not necessarily returning to the original spread, but sort of going forward. I guess like if you’re started climbing a staircase and then there was one step missing, you’d still keep going up. You’d be like, “Oh, I’m just going to lengthen my stride and go up to the next thing.”
If you’re writing a chapter and you think, “Oh, that was a missed step,” do you just keep going, or do you delete all that and then go backwards?
I do a lot of deletion, but in the actual writing, I just keep going and then I’ll go back later and be like, “Okay, this is not part of the story.” But with Gingerbread, especially, I felt like the tone changed so much at a crucial point because I started off thinking that it would be a sad book, but then it just got more and more lighthearted, but then suddenly it got sad again and then it got lighthearted again, so I was kind of very guided by and I kept reassuring myself that gingerbread, as a foodstuff, is a mix of things, right? So it can be like this. It can be dark and light.
I wanted to talk to you about houses because I think in a lot of your work, you have really interesting descriptions of literal homes that move and change and are mysterious and haunted. So for you, is there a difference between a magical house and a haunted house?
I think that houses, or at least the home part of them, are so much constructed that they’re simultaneously magical and haunted anyway. I like to stay home a lot. I feel like at a certain point, I got so branded by my friends and various people who knew me as some sort of traveler, but I’m not really, it’s more that I just go to a place with a lot of suitcases and then I just stay home. But it’s just that they’re different places across the world, like that’s the only thing that makes it seem like traveling. And I think there’s something about staying still that allows the construction to move around you, so you are home and that sense of home develops and it is sort of loosely linked with architecture at the place that you’re in and the history of the place that you’re in, which is where the hauntings come in. But it is sort of like a spell that you’re casting on the place, or allowing the place to cast a spell on you. I feel very spellbound by Prague. So, yeah, I do think it’s magical and haunted.
When it becomes slightly chaotic … I just get more cheerful. Maybe I look for some reassurance in stories that linearity is not crucial, and it’s not the model of destiny that works … There’s still some possibility for everything to change, all of a sudden.
In your stories, are you ever worried that things are too weird for the reader? Or is that not something that you’re concerned with?
I used to worry about that all the time, and now I think, at this point, it’s the eighth book and I’m just going to do what I want and have fun.
Sometimes I’m aware of writing things that will be annoying, I mean, in terms of the construction of the story. So there are always stories within stories and then there’s a digression and then there’s all this stuff, but that is the way that I tell a story, so I feel like all I can bring to it is what I’ve been.
In your work, and especially in Gingerbread, there’s a lot of going between places and times, and it’s kind of all flexible, so how do you structure a story when places and times can just change whenever?
I think it helped with Gingerbread to have the dolls as a kind of critiquing audience because then they were guiding the story to some extent, but I don’t think that they really had that power over it. I suppose what I’m most interested in is the elements of a story that in some way cannot be controlled by the teller, so it’s almost as if the story itself is asserting its own order. So when it becomes slightly chaotic that way, I just get more cheerful.
Maybe I look for some reassurance in stories that linearity is not crucial, and it’s not the model of destiny that works. In some ways, there’s still some possibility for everything to change, all of a sudden.
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I love the dolls. Where did that come from?
I like the dolls, too. I wasn’t sure how long they were going to be in because at first they were just kind of a slight joke within the story. I liked that you had these dolls asking if things were realistic — it was like, “Are you realistic?”
I wanted to express something about Harriet and Perdita’s relationship, and how close they are, and how they could possibly share some kind of delusion. Even I’m not fully sure whether, if you walked into the room and looked at them objectively, whether you would hear the dolls talking or whether it would just be Harriet and Perdita having this conversation. So there’s something about that kind of borderline, it was like a way of showing the reader that closeness and kind of the element of life that the mother and daughter share. But the dolls would probably say, “No, we are real!”
I think a lot of your stories are telling stories about mothers and daughters. Is that something that you consciously do? What interests you about that relationship?
It is something that I come back to, maybe because it seems to me that there are so many different types of mother-daughter relationships that you could just go on like that with any number of books. But I was surprised with Gingerbread to do actually a little bit of father and son stuff as well. So it might be more of a mix going forward.
Childhood I think shows up a lot, also. I’m wondering if that is something on purpose.
I suppose, especially with Gingerbread, I was thinking a lot about childhood as like this special status, an almost endangered status.
But also, kids can be dangerous. Harriet maybe not so much, but I think that part of what she loves so much about Gretel is that she doesn’t really know what Gretel’s going to do or say, and she is this changeling that has come around and loves her gingerbread.
And I was thinking that kids don’t eat for free, I guess. There’s a role within the household that the child should play — be loving towards parents, be willing to be molded and guided. And in a way, this is how Harriet has earned her mother’s love, by just being willing to follow her. So I was thinking about that as a state and how precarious it is, I suppose.
We have some construct of childhood that it must be carefree, that children shouldn’t have anything to worry about, and I wondered at what age are the cares of adulthood supposed to fall upon you because it seems like Harriet had always been worrying.
I was thinking that kids don’t eat for free … There’s a role within the household that the child should play — be loving towards parents, be willing to be molded and guided … I was thinking about that as a state and how precarious it is.
I think that’s true with a lot of the children she grew up with, too, like they had to work and have these adult responsibilities.
That special status is, I think, generally being eroded, the more that we start thinking of ourselves as these units of value and start worrying about what we’re worth to other people and what we can give to other people. I think that childhood goes that way, too, like you just become more conscious.
I think it’s interesting, too, that as they were losing that and taking all this responsibility, like in the gingerbread factory and workplace, they were valued for their appearance of being children, and then lost all that childhood innocence at the same time.
Yeah, it was some sort of vampiric process, it kind of felt like everyone who visited the house was taking youth from them. And in exchange for it, they were earning their keep that way.
I wanted to ask you about the way you literally lay words out on the page because sometimes it looks like poetry or like verse, where things are broken up and then sentences start and flow together. So I wanted to ask about when you decide to do that.
That’s not planned. It just kind of happens and then I see how it looks and I’m like, “Yeah, this seems fine.” I don’t think I have a poetic impulse, I don’t think it’s that. I am preoccupied with trying to make it sound or read the way that it felt. It’s something that I go back and change if I think that I’ve forced it. But otherwise I just leave it if it appears.
I feel like when schools inevitably teach your books, they’re going to look at all these symbols and squeeze meaning out of everything. Is that something that you think of when you’re writing?
No way, no. And I think actually that the writing resists that. I really don’t like the aspect of reading something where it’s not enough that it’s a story and doing all of the things that it does, but you have to say that it “deals with” or it “treats” or it “tackles” such and such issues. I’m like, “No, people — human beings — tackle those issues living their lives. The story is doing something else.” And it’s not something I deliberately do, but I think in their weirdness, the stories kind of challenge those interpretations.
Are there any books that you read specifically to prepare for writing Gingerbread?
No, I was just baking a lot of gingerbread and looking at a lot of recipes.
Did you have a favorite recipe that you found?
I have been baking Emily Dickinson’s recipe for years. And it’s still the best one. I tried so many different ones, but hers is the best. I think it is the molasses and just not having fear of using a lot of molasses. It’s decadent. It’s just decadent gingerbread, I love it.
Did you go through a period of baking where you had gingerbread everywhere and your friends were like, “Enough with the gingerbread.”
Yeah, I was like, “This is research.” There’s a city in Czechia that’s famous for gingerbread, called Pardubice, and I took a trip there with a friend and he kept looking at me sideways the whole time and saying, “Are you getting ideas for your book?” And I was like, “Shush, let’s just eat gingerbread.”
I guess I didn’t realize how big gingerbread was there.
You know, I hadn’t either. It’s one of those things that until you start looking for it, you don’t realize there’s this whole network of gingerbread. You can have conspiracy theories about it.
Did you ever get sick of it?
[Enthusiastically] No, no. I’m still eating a lot of gingerbread.
Speaking of eating and drinking, I’ve read that you drink a lot of tea, so I wanted to know if you had a favorite tea right now.
I’ve been doing this thing called Matcha Monday, I don’t know why, but Mondays, I’m just like, “No, not Monday,” and so I make it more cheerful by drinking a different kind of matcha. There’s actually this tea company in Brighton, England, that does things like Mermaid Matcha and Chili Kale Matcha, there’s just like different flavors and they’re all delicious. So I’m working my way through those.
Is there a fairy tale that you never want to write about?
I feel like I can never say never. I think because with fairy tales, they always have some symbolic quirk that draws you in. I don’t think that there are any that I’m not interested in. I would have said that I was not interested in Bluebeard, and then I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and then I ended up writing my own Bluebeard. So I think ever since then, I’ve just learned not to count any story out.
Do you think that you’ll stick to this process of picking a story or a fairy tale or another kind of story and exploring that? Or do you see yourself going a different direction in your writing?
No, I think I’ll stick with it. I mean, the next book is going to be a train book, it’ll be set on a train. So I feel like I just know the type of story and then I go from there. But even once you’ve decided the type of story, then it’s deciding how to tell it that is like the biggest challenge and fun and headache. But it feels like it’s worth doing.
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Rae Nudson is a writer based in Chicago with bylines at Hazlitt, The Cut, Paste Magazine, and more. She writes about about fashion, culture, mental health, history, and women’s lives.
Editor: Dana Snitzky