The Sweetness and Danger of Helen Oyeyemi's 'Gingerbread'

Posted by Cybil on February 28, 2019
Helen Oyeyemi
British author Helen Oyeyemi is known for rule-defying writing infused with enchantment, from her boundary-breaking short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours to her fairy-tale-like novel Boy, Snow, Bird. This spring she's back with Gingerbread, a magical bedtime tale with multiple fantastical elements.

Oyeyemi told Goodreads about her sweet inspiration for the new novel and recommends more "modernist" reading that turns literary convention on its head.


Goodreads: Summarize your book for readers.

Helen Oyeyemi: It’s mostly a very long bedtime story that a baker of gingerbread tells in an attempt to heal her somewhat reckless daughter after an escapade—it’s possible that Harriet, the main character, also spins the tale as a way of helping herself recover from the shock of the daughterly escapade. There are also a few skeptical but mostly well-intentioned listeners who find it all quite a tall tale and chip in from time to time.

GR: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.


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HO: It’s stories over (almost) everything with me, so I think I must have become a writer through reading. I know I keep writing because I keep reading, and rereading, and thinking about turns of phrase and ways in which the telling of a tale transforms the tale and the reader too.

I’m not just thinking of books here, but Golden Age Hollywood, some styles of indie filmmaking, and my beloved K-drama. (Memories of the Alhambra is my latest obsession, but I almost don’t dare watch the final episode…I keep postponing it.)

GR: What sparked the idea for Gingerbread?

HO: On one of my favorite Prague walks I kept passing a shop with extremely ornate and delicious-looking gingerbread houses in the window, and they look so simultaneously delicious and forbidding, you fall to thinking about perfect, cozy dwellings that actually can’t be lived in, deliciousness that’s merely decorative or in some way a trick, various enticements and the values or dangers that we associate with them.

I imagined these things would be tricky to navigate if gingerbread somehow happened to be tied in with one’s own personal brand, and then I wondered what sort of person that would be, Ms. Gingerbread…and then I started to write Harriet.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

HO: I’m currently rereading Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter, and there is something in the sentences, the alertness of them and the way that vigilance tautens and relaxes like muscles under skin—you go through paragraphs holding your breath.

And here are four books to be read at once: Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars, which is so fine and intricate, it made me want to dance as bees do (or at least try); Catherine Chung’s thundersnow-like novel The Tenth Muse; Nicole Flattery’s stylistically pitch-perfect story collection Show Them a Good Time; and Hwang Jungeun’s defiantly eerie I’ll Go On (that last translated with heartbreaking acuity by Emily Yae Won).

Oyeyemi Recommends Her Favorite Modernist Reading

The linear tale with wholly plausible links between past, future, and present—I love the way modernist writing highlights the artificiality of that process…sometimes in an ominous fashion, sometimes exuberantly, but mostly as a side effect of concentrating on other forms of accuracy.

And I don’t really want to chat postmodernism, because modernism might not actually be over after all? There’s still lots to do, and each of these five books do it quite differently. So, in no particular order:

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"An urban legend in various senses of the term—and it works brilliantly on those levels. But then there’s the bonus of the marvelous prose and the ever-so-slightly giddy grace with which it layers comic, tragic, and unspeakably strange matters of heart, mind, hope, and memory."


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"I actually don’t have a favorite Jesse Ball book—or all of them are my favorites. It’s as if he has this understated yet ceaselessly resonant linguistic realm, invites various factors that limit human experience into that realm, and proceeds to outmaneuver them. Take that, Time. And the same goes for inabilities of speech, inadequacies of language, distance, disappearance…."


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"I’m beguiled, startled, unnerved, and convinced by the voices Benz throws here. The effect is so immersive that I think the modernism of the work lies in the tonal range exhibited, the fact that each story has been dreamt up by a single author as opposed to several."


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"This one’s a romp—a wry, energizing, maddening attempt to find words for an unclassifiable, outraged, and outrageous creature who doesn’t want any words to be found for it. That’s how I’d describe our feral antihero, Palafox, while looking around nervously in case he jumps out of the book and bites me for daring to describe him."


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"I love Mark’s Tsim Tsum as well—read them both if you haven’t already! I’m just especially remarking upon Wild Milk because in many of the stories there is, at least at first, some seemingly sober underpinning of order before that delightful Sabrina Orah Markian spreading of scope, tilting of meaning, and benevolent evaluation of the results."



Helen Oyeyemi's novel Gingerbread will be available in the U.S. on March 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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