Oni Magazine

An Ode To Helen

Oni Magazine
An Ode To Helen

1. There is a feeling of terror that creeps upon my heart whenever I think of my future as a writer. A writer of a genre so incredibly exclusive of people that look like me. That talk like me. People who speak in colors and the sky bow downs to their hair. I try to envision myself in the world in which anything is possible, but for some reason my existence isn’t, or maybe it is but only for the benefit of the white bourgeois, so that their guilt won’t consume them. They won’t have to be reminded everyday of the bloody history that has permanently stained their hands.

2.  But then there are people like Oyeyemi who isn’t here to prove her existence to anyone, nor validate her humanity. No, she simply is and becomes in a world where anything is possible. She is a reminder to the those like myself who question whether we belong or need to belong. There is no belonging in this literary world of anything is possible. You just exist and exist unabashedly. She is a black woman. An example to black writers that the possibilities are endless for the black body and that the societal impression that most times lead to our death, is not something that defines us, but something that must and can be destroyed. And it starts with our own perception of the world, the ontological and the imaginable world in which writers immerse themselves in.

3. Oyeyemi constantly plays with perceptions, bending it, subverting, personifying inorganic things and giving them their own perception. Her work reads like a dream, in which perception and the imagination is incredibly fluid and sometimes nonsensical but it works in her writing which fluctuates between weird fiction, magic realism, and what Ben Okri calls “dream logic”. It's that moment between full consciousness and your dreams slipping through liquid cracks, and there's a blending of two worlds, one tangible and the other imaginable, but both all so real. Dreams, which for people of color, are just another aspect of reality. Life after life is just another part of reality, whether good or evil, and she delves into that in “Icarus Girl”.  As she demonstrates in Boy, Snow, Bird, you can see in her work, her empathy, not only for her characters, but also for the people her character's situation seem similar to, especially when dealing with themes of passing and colorism. She takes extra care in every sentence, every word, and even down to every letter.

4. Robin Coste Lewis once said, “Beauty is dark, complex, transformation—and not for the faint at heart. Beauty is the Sublime, which means you cannot stand in its presence, but must fall to your knees.” When you read Oyeyemi’s work you can’t help your breath being taken away, for it is the definition of sublime, the visually visceral language and tone. In “White is for Witching the tones are blue and the imagery is a bleak gray. In “Mr. Fox”, it is beige and a light yellow. Her work is a surrealist dream, neo-weird, and incredibly magical. Despite the fantastical themes of her work, her work is incredibly human. A humanness that you can tell is intentional and required. There’s always a touch of humanness in her work that you can tell is intentional.

5. This is is a love letter to Oyeyemi, a full-fledged romanticization of her being, her words. I am in constant awe of the way she uses language to create life, to privy us into the complexity of the human psyche, of the ways in which personalities come about. She is the connection between magic and the real. She gives names to the unexplained. They become almost as familiar as home even if it has a mind of its own. She personalizes even the most insignificant characters. There is no sort of filler for the sake of a word count. She knows that every character is imperative, real and this is what makes her world-building seem all the more real and present. 

6. When Oyeyemi’s work gets compared to that of white writers, it erases the nuances of her identity and how it dictates her writing. Black people, especially black girls, have this hyper-awareness of the world, a direct effect of anti-blackness. The way we see the world differs from the way whiteness navigates the world. We’re hyper-aware of personalities, the way people react to whatever we put out into the world, attuned to people’s tics and nuances. White people are only attuned to other white people. We’re aware of everyone and it is why Helen Oyeyemi’s work is unlike any other. I would compare her more to Toni Morrison or Zadie Smith, women who are specialists of the human mind. Not that I want to ghettoize black female authors but I think it would ahistorical to compare and lump black women authors with their white counterparts and present it an equal comparison. It's also setting white authors as the standard/paradigm of quality literature and trying to make her work palatable to white audiences which is driven by racism whether you want to admit to it or not. And to water down her genius to make others comfortable to her blackness does a disservice to her. 

7. Even though I think comparing authors to each does a disservice to either author and is a lazy practice, I  would be more inclined to compare her to the likes of Toni Morrison and Zadie than Edgar Allen Poe because there is more of a historical connection between these black women and Helen Oyeyemi. Toni Morrison, with her book “Beloved” paved the way for works such as Oyeyemi’s Icarus Girl and The Opposite House, who intertwine the supernatural with the black existence.  No matter if Oyeyemi’s work is depicting white people (such as with White is for Witching and Mr. Fox) or not there will always be something intrinsically black about it that just cannot be compared to that of white authors. 

8. However, I don't want to make this about white people. This is an ode, a sonnet, a love letter to one of my idols, someone who drives me to move forward and not be afraid to live in my blackness and create anything as far as my imagination takes me.  This is a thank you to helping me discover that anything is possible.

9. Thank you, Helen Oyeyemi.