Sunday, March 23, 2014

Helen Oyeyemi (of "Boy, Snow, Bird") on Writing the Wicked Queen and the Power Fairy Tales

By now, you've probably heard of Helen Oyeyemi's book Boy, Snow, Bird, a literary retelling of Snow White that deals with racial issues. It's caught the attention of Oprah and The New York Times and is quickly rising on the best seller list.

Let me quickly add the press release blurb, in case this is still new to you, before we move on to others things:

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi 
From the prizewinning author of Mr. Fox , the Snow White fairy tale brilliantly recast as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty-- the opposite of the life she' s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she' d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy' s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving , Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.
Since there are a lot of reviews and information about the book out there already (I recommend starting with Heidi Ann Heiner of SurLaLune and her review HERE), I won't go over the same ground.

Instead I thought I'd offer some different aspects on this retelling of Snow White. As a little bonus, throughout the post are a variety of proposed designs for the book cover, which I always find interesting as they give a different but valid emphasis to the book.

Here's a short but lovely introduction to the book by way of audio. You'll get an idea of the language the author uses as well as immediate immersion into the fairy tale.
You can hear the whole book for free right now HERE (via one of those 30 day trial deals).

And here are three (four, really) treats: Helen Oyeyemi sharing her thoughts on, not only her book and Snow White but fairy tales in general, as well as excerpts from a very different fairy tale aficionado review.

First up is an excerpt from an interview in Bustle:
What did you see as the most compelling characteristics of the wicked stepmother? 
HO: I like that in the typical fairy tale, the wicked woman is the one who makes trouble. The wicked stepmother in “Snow White” made me think a lot about beauty: how women interpret beauty and how these interpretations feed into our relationships, from envy to rivalry to protectiveness. It also made me wonder why in the original story different types of beauty can’t co-exist. 
What was the most challenging part of constructing the wicked queen?  
HO: The challenge of building the wicked queen was in not relying on Boy’s past for a complete explanation of the problems between Boy and Snow — for most of the book, Boy’s quite determined not to do any reliving. 
I don’t like retellings of stories where a woman is explained by her past — where her past is something that was part of her personality. I wanted to loosen the walls and try to figure out a new way to tell the story of the wicked queen.   
You can read the whole of the interview HERE.
And from NPR, who often presents a refreshing perspective:
On playing off of fairy talesI think that they're the purest form of story that you can get. They sort of strip down human behavior to the absolute basics. So with Snow White you have this story about envy and what the consequences of those are. And I suppose that when I'm reading a fairy tale I find it easier to rescue the characters than with other stories.
And I wanted to rescue the wicked stepmother. I felt that, especially in Snow White, I think that the evil queen finds it sort of a hassle to be such a villain. It seems a bit much for her, and so I kind of wanted to lift that load a little bit. 
You can hear the interview at the NPR link above or, if you're having trouble hearing the audio on your device, there's a transcript available HERE.

And here's a very short, but interesting video of Ms. Oyeyemi speaking about the power of fairy tales in a New York Times interview:
Helen Oyeyemi, whose new novel, "Boy, Snow, Bird," was inspired by "Snow White," says fairy tales allow us to focus on "the nature of stories themselves, and the curious power they have."
Lastly, here are a couple of excerpts from an interesting write up from a Polish blog. Auto-translate is responsible for the weirdness of the language, including the his/her mix-ups but I kinda love the rawness of it as well. I'm including the introduction (shown in bold) because it gives an interesting commentary on the resurgence of fairy tale retellings in recent years as well:

In recent years, pop culture has returned to the fashion of fairy tales and their modern interpretations. After the age of luscious, candy filming the stables Disney fairy tales again regained its adult nature and conquered the imagination of a new culture all manner of modern eaters. Finally, the air is filled with the spirit of the mad and cruel story of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, sadness and despair beautiful Andersen story or moral decency fairy tale by Charles Perrault certain. She returned even coquettish Scheherazade, flew Peter Pan, or the witches in "The Wizard of Oz". I must admit that the classic fairy tale I have a big fondness. My beloved since childhood, much misunderstanding parents are "Jednooczka, Dwuoczka and Trójoczka" The Brothers Grimm - the title already seen that from an early age, I felt attracted to the strangeness, and how to add, that history also includes burying raw liver under the porch, it knows where to splatterpunka love and gore. As you know, I love to interpret... and fairy tales give me a wide range of possibilities, depending on the time in which to be not taking. Because the fairy tale worth coming back and read again, customize and play with meanings.  
Universal potential and great symbolic force emanating from the classic fairy tale has used in his latest novel entitled "Boy, Snow Bird" by British author Helen Oyeyemi . The writer very subtly and intriguingly tangled in his story magic, supernatural elements and the classic fairy tale themes, creating one of the most interesting reinterpretation of this type in recent years. The basis of the plot used in building one of the most famous stories in the world, that cult "Snow White" The Brothers Grimm. However, "Boy, Snow Bird" reader seeking also find echoes of "Sleeping Beauty", "The Snow Queen", or even "Cinderella". Helen Oyeyemi chose only a tiny kawalątki these stories, and the history of Snow White in a turbulent and presses the uneasy reality of the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century the United States. She told them a new, thus creating a fresh, contemporary fairy tale. And as it happens in the classical fairy tales filled it with ambiguity and universal symbolism, which will long remain in the subconscious mind readers. 
..."Boy, Snow Bird" Helen Oyeyemi is a story that still deceiving me, weaved and sucked in the twists and turns of its plot, as in the forest depths. A small American town seemed mysterious land which seemingly charming and "as a picture" was hidden in the shadows of a dirty racial obsession, intolerance and concerns of closed communities which do not have access to extensive changes in other parts of the country. Family of the picture in the house Whitman, who for one shake a magic wand proved to be the arena fighting for the acceptance of women, both in the eyes of others, as in his own. I mean, how can you live in harmony with each other, even when the mirror shows that we are not to end? When even those closest to us sometimes seem not to notice? When every look we have the impression that in a mirror dimly?
You can read the whole of the blog entry HERE, as long as you either can read Polish, or have Google translate. :)

I'm looking forward to reading this at some point in the (hopefully near) future but if you've already managed to dive in, feel free to share your impressions in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I really enjoyed seeing the alternate covers. Interestingly, I preferred most of them to the cover they went with, especially the one with the title reflected over and over, and the one with the rat. This is a really thought provoking book. My review is coming soon on Enchanted Conversation.