Helen Oyeyemi expressed her appreciation for the representation of humanity through art.
Elen Oyeyemi, aged 39, was born in Nigeria but grew up in London. In 2013, she was recognized as one of Granta’s top young British novelists. She has published 10 books, including Mr Fox, Gingerbread, and Peaces, which was a finalist for the experimental fiction Goldsmiths prize. Her latest book, Parasol Against the Axe, is her first to be set in Prague, where she has lived since 2014. The story follows a bachelorette party over a weekend, centered around a mysterious book that changes each time it is opened. Australian critic Beejay Silcox has described Oyeyemi as a master of confusion and intrigue, with a creative passion that few can rival.
Where did the start of Parasol Against the Axe take place?
In other books, writing is not my entire identity. When I relocated to this place, it was because I desired to live here as myself, not just as a writer or a reader. However, when I came across Magic Prague by [Angelo Maria] Ripellino, a beautiful tribute to the city, I realized I was not alone in my fascination with it. Learning about the surrealists Breton and Apollinaire visiting my neighborhood, I discovered that many others have also developed a strong connection to Prague unexpectedly. As I read Vítězslav Nezval’s poems about the city, I felt compelled to contribute to the existing body of work about Prague. Yet, convincing Prague to be written about was no easy task.
What caused it to be difficult?
The city of Prague rejects being a character in anyone’s narrative. Throughout history, various groups have attempted to assimilate it into their empires, but without success. I had to clarify to Prague that my intention was not to depict it, but rather to weave its presence into my stories. As I continued writing, the book took shape through this compromise. I pushed the limits of my imagination as I created a multitude of seemingly factual details with Borges-esque confidence, despite their lack of truth.
Was the experience unlike your usual work process?
I was anxious about speaking at this location that I adore, unsure of its feelings towards me. Similarly, I feel the same way about writing and literature – it’s my passion, but I’m unsure if it’s reciprocated. After completing a book, I always anticipate negative feedback. I’ve even come across reviews on Amazon questioning how a writer like me can sustain themselves.
Peaces has been compared by The Times Literary Supplement to the feeling of caring for a spoiled child while reading.
A friend from the Czech Republic was really excited to share this with me. I would rather receive a critical review that is based on an understanding of the project’s boundaries. When a negative review from a Czech person about Gingerbread claimed that I prioritized form over content, I felt understood. It may seem unappreciative, but I would rather have that than praise that feels patronizing, like being patted on the head and told “Oh, she tells stories.” Well, of course! That’s what all fiction writers do.
The quote “You can’t truly comprehend Prague unless you can speak Czech” from Parasol Against the Axe highlights the importance of knowing the language. How is your Czech coming along?
I am already overwhelmed with my English studies! While I may have complaints about my gas bill, living here has taught me to be comfortable with not fully comprehending or being understood, as it reflects many of my experiences with the English language. It’s strange to be a person who appreciates others through art; when I am faced with real people, I struggle to connect.
Have you consistently experienced that feeling?
“When did you first discover your preference for people in art?” Perhaps reading José Saramago’s works evoked a sense of warmth towards humanity. Additionally, watching Doctor Who introduced me to the concept of an alien who consistently stands up for humans despite having no connection to them. I found myself questioning, “Why would you do that?” But the character is able to do so, which changed my perspective on things.
How can you determine if a novel is suitable for you as a reader?
I do not read summaries. Instead, I open the book and read a few sentences to make my decision. This is because I am more focused on the writing style rather than the content. Anyone can tell me anything, as long as it is written in a way that I enjoy. However, this also makes me easily influenced in certain aspects.
Are there authors whose writing style you appreciate, but at the same time, make you feel uneasy?
Witold Gombrowicz, a 20th-century Polish writer known for his work “The Possessed,” is an example of this. The sensation of a strong pull and resistance in my thoughts while reading his work creates a highly enjoyable experience, but I believe the underlying message is somewhat hierarchical in nature, where certain individuals or states of being are considered superior while others are seen as despicable and inferior. This does not align with my own mindset. Another writer who shares this view is Kundera. At times, he speaks as if he looks down on people who watch a lot of television. As someone who enjoys watching TV, I can’t help but feel targeted by his words.
What have been some of your recent enjoyable reads?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Practice” by Rosalind Brown, which will be released in March. The book follows a student writing an essay and, like Proust’s writing, it captivated me enough to make me content with reading about someone simply walking across a room for numerous pages. To write about reading, one must possess great skill to make it engaging.
Did a book serve as inspiration for your writing?
I often discuss my experience with Ali Smith’s Hotel World, but I don’t want to overdo it and make her uncomfortable. I even took three days off from school just to read it under the covers… the way it starts with an ending, so captivating! And every sentence is simply brilliant.
Helen Oyeyemi’s Parasol Against the Axe will be released on February 1st by Faber for £16.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees for delivery may apply.