Helen Oyeyemi Thinks We Should Read More and Stay in Touch Less

Every villain gets an origin story, but in the case of Thea, the wedding guest from hell in Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, “Parasol Against the Axe,” her own mother wrote it. The book flashes back to Prague, in the nineteen-eighties, when Dagmar Dlouhá, Thea’s mother, penned a series of popular children’s books starring her daughter—or rather, a fully actualized Eastern Bloc version of Thea, capable of climbing mountains and cycling the Alps while her counterparts in the West sold Girl Scout cookies that they didn’t even bake. No, storybook Thea would boil the Czech knedlíky herself. In one book, she and a boy named Li Jie get into a friendly debate over the merits of the Czech dumplings versus those of Chinese jiaozi. As per the genre conventions of socialist realism, Thea and Li seize the means of dough production, each taking command of a dumpling factory to pump out their own national variant for a taste-testing contest. Eventually, they reach a détente, arriving at the happy—and politically correct—realization that with such a bounty of boiled meat for all to stuff themselves with, there is no need, or room left, for competition. After the real Thea emigrated to the U.S., other kids taunted her with a catchphrase from the story, “Don’t thank me—thank Progress! It’s UNSTOPPABLE.” As an adult, Thea processes her childhood trauma by barring her friends from moving forward, down the aisle or elsewhere, as if progress were her Cold War nemesis or romantic rival.

You might say Oyeyemi is a collector of stories that follow children, especially girls, into adulthood. Born in Nigeria in 1984 and raised in London, she is best known for spinning classical fairy tales into new forms, not to clumsily revise their politics in the way of the who-asked-for-this Disney reboots but to use make-believe to defamiliarize all that we have been made to believe. Her fourth novel, “Mr. Fox,” from 2011, based on the British folktale of the same name, was a Bluebeard story about a novelist who keeps gruesomely killing his heroines until one of them comes to life to stop the massacre. Three years later, Oyeyemi followed “Mr. Fox” with “Boy, Snow, Bird,” a loose retelling of “Snow White,” where magical mirrors play tricks on a family of fair-skinned African Americans passing as white in nineteen-fifties Massachusetts. In 2019, she released “Gingerbread,” in which she updated “Hansel and Gretel” for the Brexit era. Oyeyemi’s version of the tale revolves around an “alleged nation state” called Druhástrana (Czech for “the other side”) where children inside a gingerbread house are not to be eaten but exploited, starved of the fruits of their labor. Meanwhile, nostalgic royal-watchers long for a fictional past and polish one of the country’s key landmarks—a single large shoe—in hopes that “a giant Cinderella” will return to claim it.

Oyeyemi’s next novel, “Peaces” published in 2021, felt like a departure, and not just because it was set on a train. That book was less fairy tale, more millennial breakup fable, where the ones we’ve ghosted quite literally haunt us and our happily ever afters. The past also comes back to terrorize the smugly coupled in “Parasol Against the Axe,” the first of Oyeyemi’s novels set in the Central European city she has called home since 2013. Oyeyemi told me she was hesitant to set a novel in Prague, citing the “excellent body of work” already devoted to the place. As a cultural capital, Prague existed in the shadows of modernist Paris and Barcelona, but a touch of darkness has been its ace. Under Communism, Czech literature became increasingly known for its black humor, for satirist-dissidents such as Ivan Klima and Václav Havel, and for tipsy readings of samizdat literature at the pub. Though she may not belong by birth, Oyeyemi—whose sense of humor is more wicked than her reputation as a reteller of fairy stories would suggest—fits in, like a scullery maid who becomes the belle of the ball.

“Parasol Against the Axe” begins with Hero Tojosoa, a self-described “ex-journalist” from Dublin, arriving in the storied city. She’s ostensibly there to attend her old friend Sofie’s bachelorette party. In reality, she’s running from the mail. The subject of an exposé she published killed himself, but not before arranging for a letter to be sent to Hero after his death. For the journey, Hero has packed a copy of “Paradoxical Undressing,” a novel written in the early nineteen-nineties, following the Velvet Revolution. That book, another of Oyeyemi’s meta-textual inventions, reflects the contradictions of a country teetering between Communism and a market economy. You might be able to mass-produce the book’s outer binding, but the pages inside it resist commodification. That’s because no two readings of “Paradoxical Undressing” are alike. Everyone’s version of it is uniquely their own. The same could be said of Prague, and, indeed, of marriage. This is, after all, a novel about getting hitched. Just one hitch: Thea. Sofie and Hero’s old roommate is not about to let a couple of “I do”s close the book on their (mostly platonic) threesome. Franz Kafka said of his home town, “Prague doesn’t let go. This little mother has claws.” As with old cities, so too with old flames.

I talked to Oyeyemi over Zoom about her new novel, the novel within it, and how she knew Prague was the one after a string of dates with other cities. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your background is blurred so I can’t do that New Yorker interview move of making pithy observations about your surroundings.

Tell everyone I’m coming to you from the void.

It’s funny, because I’m going to ask you a lot of questions about place and the slipperiness of it in your work. I’m assuming that you’re coming to me from Prague, but I don’t actually know for sure.

I’m in a small flat on the riverside in Prague.

Your new novel is set in Prague, where—if the Internet is to be trusted—you’ve been living since 2014.

2013, actually. 2013 was the second time that I moved here. I lived in Prague in 2009, and I liked it so much I felt delusional. So I dated other cities, on my friends’ advice. Then I came back for good in 2013.

So is there something about Central Europe that you’re drawn to?

No, not necessarily. If I could live anywhere, it’d be Seoul. Every time I visit Seoul, it’s different. I remember the first time that I went there; it was because my book had been translated into Korean. There’s a replica of the Prague Astronomical Clock there. It felt like a blessing from Prague, like the places that I love were connected in some way, by some rubric that I am not aware of yet.

I’m hoping we can talk a bit about Prague as part of the former Eastern Bloc, which you raise in the novel. My background is in Slavic languages and literature. I loved the reference to Pushkin and “Peter the Great’s African” in “Boy, Snow, Bird,” by the way.

How did you fall into Slavic languages?

Oh, completely by accident. I wanted to study literature, but I was interested in politics, too. I was eighteen and I wanted to make a difference in the world. Then I saw this class called “Literature and Revolution,” and I hoped it might resolve some of these questions for me. I didn’t realize it was Russian literature. Most of the students, it turned out, were heritage speakers. When I first arrived in the class, I was, like, “Who are all these radical blondes?” Russians.

[Laughs.] Radical blondes. I love it. Did it satisfy your craving for revolution?

I don’t know. It showed me the flip side of what happens when people take literature’s capabilities too seriously. Russia’s a place where they killed their poets.

So your new novel is set in Prague, and all the characters are reading a novel called “Paradoxical Undressing,” which is set in Prague as well. And yet, there seems to be some tension in the story about what a “Prague book” is; even that term is used flippantly within the novel to describe “Paradoxical Undressing.” What would you say is your relationship to place and place writing? Are you uneasy about attaching stories to fixed localities?

I am uneasy about it. Once you start trying to nail down a place is when it begins to elude you. That’s especially the case with Prague. It’s hard to know what you’re talking about when you talk about Prague. Which Prague? Which aspect of it do you mean? When people talk about London, too, I don’t know which London they’re talking about. I know my very specific South London context, like the streets of Deptford. When I went to school in Holland Park, I would get on the Tube for forty-five minutes, and it felt like I had travelled across the world. It’s tricky to talk about a place. There is always some element of deception involved with trying to represent a place, and I wanted to be upfront about that in the text.

There’s a funny scene early in “Parasol Against the Axe” when Sofie’s fiancée, Polly, picks Hero up from the airport, dramatically intent on showing her “the real Prague.” She proposes taking Hero to a gas station on the outskirts of the city to drink Brazilian coffee. So you’re not necessarily buying into this idea of the real Prague over the not-real Prague. I think you’re saying, All these Pragues are real.

Yeah, I think that’s a completely false dichotomy. Real and pretend are the same thing at different times. This is part of what I love about fiction and the reading of fiction. It’s allowed me to discern different types of imaginary. Even when it comes to media and political processes, it’s not a question of what is imaginary and what is not: it’s just a case of whose imagination is at work here. What is being acted on and who is being acted on? Who’s being shaped in this kind of delusory crucible? It’s a constant process that only fiction observes and embraces. That’s why I exaggerate so much in my fiction. Whatever can happen does happen. I’m delighted by letting the story run away with itself in that way.

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