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20 October 2022

Helen Oyeyemi: “My favourite stories leave me looking like a shocked face emoji”

The author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Peaces on mongooses, Korean drama and “discipline in the pursuit of chaos”.

By Tom Gatti

Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984, and raised in south London – she has since lived in Berlin, Budapest, Paris and New York, and settled in Prague in 2014. The author of seven novels, in 2013 she was included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.

Peaces, shortlisted for the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize, follows a honeymooning couple, Otto and Xavier Shin, on a “Lakes and Mountain” train journey, accompanied by their pet mongoose, Árpád. Where the train is bound, who else is on board, and why the furniture is on the ceiling are just some of the mysteries that await them. In Oyeyemi’s rich and strange narrative, the world is “unseen”, preconceptions are unfixed and the imagination hurtles along (and occasionally off) its tracks.    

Tom Gatti: The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Helen Oyeyemi: I tend to see reading as inherently innovative (and am forever haunted by the way Carlo Ginzburg goes into that in The Cheese and the Worms). I also tend to see writing as continually presenting us with variations that were formless beforehand… that said, if head-to-toe engagement with the art we consume is something we’re interested in, we benefit from the removal of a few hurdles here and there.

One big hurdle is the unnecessary decision that there’s a fixed perspective to read from or write from – I can feel that approaching fiction that way is tidier and makes it easier to discuss with others, but isn’t it also stifling in some ways? As if you’re preparing for an exam at the end of the book where you’ll be asked about themes and significance and what you’ve learned. Is this some way of trying to convert fiction into fact because spending time with fact is somehow meant to be more valuable or productive? Or do we feel so uncomfortable participating in blatantly fabricated scenarios that we need to draw these boundaries of authority between our so-called selves and whoever/whatever is showing or telling us something?

This is a very long way of saying that this prize’s celebration of simply going book by book and reading each one by its own rubric is really heartening reassurance that meaning and/or aesthetic value doesn’t come pre-generated.

Peaces takes place during a train journey. What was it about that setting that appealed to you as a writer?

The brilliance of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights got me thinking about the relationship between movement and our perception of it – differences between intentional travel from point to bordered point and being carried, led or dragged into some additional configuration of an ongoing situation. The book has an aside about train travel and the time it insists you give to it that made me want to take more train journeys. For research, of course. I think this is 50 per cent “I really enjoyed a number of train journeys and thought that if I wrote a train book there’d at least be something to show for it” and 50 per cent desire to express something about the certain state of mind induced and developed by these sensations of motion and stillness that clash in train carriages.

The train, The Lucky Day, was used for smuggling tea and its current owner struggles with the tainted legacy of her family’s “ill-gotten gains”, though she is also impatient with those who get themselves “hyped up about some 1737 events” that they “don’t really understand”. Contemporary debates about colonialism seem to lurk in the shadows here.

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As someone who almost instantly gets really cranky when a story seems to present me with some overall “message”, I can only say that when characters’ views on their own lives acknowledge historical nuance it rarely signifies much more to me than the book’s having been written by someone who was alive in the 21st century. Is that incompatible with cheering on anyone who wants or needs to do some unambiguous conceptual heavy lifting on contemporary topics whilst reading fiction? I don’t think it is. It’s maybe worth bearing in mind that there are stories that are unlikely to cooperate when you read it that way – or may even resist such reading. 

Central to the book is the power of “unseeing” and the role of the “unseer”. I’m curious as to where that idea began for you.

So am I, Tom. (Said entirely without snark.)

Ali Smith has described Peaces as “a blast of visionary life and energy”. There is a glorious sense of freedom about the narrative and yet the prose never loses its elegance and poise. How does your creative process allow for the coexistence of wildness and control?

It really means a lot for the prose to be received like this! If I have a creative process, it seems to be reading a lot of Ali Smith and Barbara Comyns, picking a uniform that helps me feel disciplined in the pursuit of chaos (when I was writing Peaces the uniform was a white dress and red lipstick), playing Christina Aguilera’s “Reflections” on repeat and watching an episode or two of a currently airing K-drama after the day’s sentence formation is done. Everything in between is a blur. Thank you for asking!

[See also: What we lose without the dark]

Peaces contains the most memorable mongoose in literature since Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (though I’ve just discovered that Chekhov kept one for a pet for a spell). What drew you to these sleek hunters for this story?

I didn’t know that about Chekhov… but in some way, what else could one expect? He knew that mongoose involvement enriches human life stories.

I think about Saki’s story Sredni Vashtar a lot. Sredni is a polecat ferret, and from a different species family, but I got a kick out of projecting a “what if” in the direction of feral energy from a creature of a similar size to Sredni but at least partially committed to protection rather than attack.

In one passage you describe the four types of engaged audience at a marionette show: those who wish to believe the puppet is alive, those drawn to the puppet master, those who watch the faces of their fellow audience members and those who follow the strings. Which category would you put yourself in?

I’m a close match for Árpád’s category. We (the mongoose and me) are like: ‘‘There are strings?!”  My favourite narratives mostly strike me as a case of simultaneous happenings that leave me as the very image of the shocked face emoji.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.

I was watching a television drama by the redoubtable Hong Sisters, Hotel del Luna, and it shone with such a harsh and beautiful light. (Like everything the Hong Sisters have a hand in… including this year’s Alchemy of Souls!)

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

No other prize beholds artistic effort with quite the gleeful twinkle in its eye that the Goldsmiths Prize does. Each of its shortlists feel like pursuit of the full extent of fiction’s abundance. Projects that combine emotional and intellectual endeavour get super unhealthy when their hedonistic aspects are denied. (Which sounds like something a character in Peaces would say…)

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Having read both repeatedly, I’m torn between Barbara Comyns’ The Skin Chairs (1986) and Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1987). I’d say they’re typically Comynsian in their photo-realistic modernity (the skilled and selective disturbance and reinforcement of perceptive faculties, and so on) but Chairs and Who Was Changed leave the strongest impression whilst working with very different tools – Chairs does this with “I”, whereas Who was Changed is in the third person. Reading this duo you witness the enemies of human happiness being treated with such malicious affection that pain, illness and their ilk sometimes seem on the brink of being disarmed… and if that isn’t a Goldsmiths Prize-worthy thing, then what is?

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 10 November. The winning author will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.

[See also: The Passenger: The phantom world of Cormac McCarthy]