Global writer Helen Oyeyemi: “I’m trying to make Prague go down in history, but it doesn’t want to be there.”

gingerbread chronicles the magical delights baked in teacher Harriet Lee’s family and the consequences of ingesting it not only for Harriet’s sixteen-year-old daughter Perdita and her talking dolls. To quote the aforementioned Englishman Petr Onufer, Helen Oyeyemi began writing this “complicated, colorful, bipolar, nervous text” in October 2016 in South Korea and finished it at his home in Prague after six months. This native of Ibadan, Nigeria, has lived in the Czech capital for eight years, as you can read in the profile interview of the current Réflexe n°12/2022. Here we would like to add some bonus questions and answers that didn’t fit on paper, and at the end also a sample of gingerbread.

Helen, do you make a living writing?

Yeah, I can handle it somehow.

And does it matter where you write from? Otherwise, why aren’t you, at least during the winter, somewhere much sunnier and maybe even cheaper than the Czech Republic? I see a painting of sakura blossoms on your bedroom wall…

I really like Japan – I’ve visited a few cities on the main island, Tokyo is fantastic, I even prefer Seoul… But now my place is in Prague. When I read the surrealist collection of Nezval Prague with rain fingers, I felt a huge sympathy for him. I knew I wouldn’t feel this anywhere else in the world; wrote a wonderful collection of love letters to my city. Before, I was a slow traveler, for example in Argentina I spent six weeks here and six weeks elsewhere, I tried to be and live like a local… But now I only think of Prague.

Vojtech Rynda March 13, 2022 • 11:48 a.m.

IN gingerbread you used Czech realities for the first time – in this novel, the Czech Republic is the only country in the world in which Andersajtán’s dreamland appears on maps – Druhástrana, the homeland of the protagonist Harriet and her mother Margot. How much will your next book on the Czech Republic be about the Czech Republic?

I can’t talk much about her yet. I try to put Prague in the story, but I feel like Prague doesn’t want to be in my story. So much has happened here, I think in the past the city defies fictionalization – it’s not about unrealistic stories when it’s had so many real ones. But I keep trying.

“Girls are mysterious minefields full of classified information,” he says. gingerbread Margot her daughter Harriet while they are in the hospital visiting the poisoned Perdita. The relationship between mothers and daughters is always an extremely complicated thing in your books. Is that why you don’t want kids?

Hard to say. I’m afraid that if I had kids, they’d ask me why people do this and that, or they’d want to make sure everything was okay, and I might not be able to do it. I don’t want to get into that, so my approach would rather not inspire anyone in such a crucial decision, but I think I would be a sad and worried mother if I had a child. And yes, the relationships between mothers and daughters in my books are enormously complicated – but so are the relationships between all of my characters.

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Some of your translators claim that translating your books is a chore; for Petr Onufer, it is said that working on Gingerbread was more difficult than before on the demanding works of DeLill, Conrad or Faulkner. Do you realize how you make translators work?

I suppose. Being translated into foreign languages ​​is a privilege, but I don’t think about it while writing, until I’m away from the book.

Like Milan Kundera, Kiran Desai and other authors around the world, aren’t you afraid of being translated inaccurately due to the surrealism and a certain elusiveness of your stories?

Of course, and it happened. Not in Czech, Petr Onufer and Ladislav Nagy (translator of the novel Girl named Boy, which Argo published in Czech in 2016; editor’s note) they are fantastic, they are respected and erudite translators, and I appreciate that my prose wanted to translate that they were interested in them. But in some other languages ​​I had to wonder if I meant that, if that was my words and my message to the reader.

You studied political science at the University of Cambridge. Do you observe the Czech political scene?

Yes, I watched the election with interest for the last time. In the Czech Republic, I gained a new perspective on the outdated division of the political spectrum between left and right. We have Tories and Labor in Britain, and what they think has been clear since time immemorial. You are more complicated here. Czechs are quite apolitical and have an a priori distrust of political parties, which is a nice change – in London it all starts and ends with who you elect, whereas in my day governments were more clerical than ideological, I think they were deciding in terms of civic welfare and general importance only in light of the worldview. Your country seems ideologically drained, perhaps that’s typical of post-communist states. Such an approach is rational, but when we are not careful, we open the door to cynicism.

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Kateřina Kadlecová February 8, 2022 • 11:46 a.m.

You contracted the coronavirus in London during the Christmas holidays. What was the course of the disease?

Just like the flu. And because I knew from the media that the symptoms of covid were the same as the flu, I got tested and boom, there it was. It was ten sad days… I got out of it quickly and my family didn’t catch anything. They are vaccinated, it may be that. I didn’t have a cold for a long time before or during the pandemic, took two walks in London and immediately got infected. I came there like every year for Christmas, with family and friends. I wanted to see as much as possible and ended up spending my time there in isolation. Next time I go I have to go to parties a lot more the first few days to get more done.

At that time, was the British approach to the virus different from that of the Czech Republic?

No one has checked anything in restaurants in London, but in the Czech Republic you don’t go around on Christmas without a point or a certificate. Everywhere I went in Prague they wanted to see the covid passport.

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Krystof Eder March 2, 2022 • 08:38

You invented stories from a young age, told them to your younger sister and wrote them down later. Her first novel The Icarus girl, a horror fairy tale about a paranormal little girl, which you wrote as an eighteen-year-old high school student at night on your parents’ computer. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I used to want to be a psychologist, but I don’t have the cells and wouldn’t be able to do the calculations and statistics that come with studying. So I studied political science because it didn’t involve any mathematics. I also wanted to be a screenwriter and I was thinking of going to film school. I was obsessed with Bollywood and the idea of ​​a really good movie, every minute of which is like a novel that I’ve been personally writing for about a year; the imagination is very condensed there. I may study it one day.

Critics use terms like “incredibly beautiful and admirably original” in connection with your novels. It’s not hard to succumb to praise…

I don’t take it seriously. There is something I want to do, and I try to do it despite the criticism. I want to have an inside interview with many of my favorite authors and their books, rather than reviews that derail me. Sometimes I read the review and it is favorable, and I still perceive it as fake, but thank you for that. When other writers tell me or write something about my books, I listen to them and it encourages me to be on the right track. But this happens at most once every three years! But that is enough for me to continue; sometimes I feel like a mighty master of magic when attentive readers find something in these books that I don’t even know I put there. These are the times when I know much more strongly why I am writing.

Which authors are you having this conversation with?

I’ve loved Barbara Comyns ever since, then Ali Smith, José Saramag and Jorge Luis Borges. I discovered Olga Tokarczuk quite recently, only in 2018, but I absolutely loved everything I read from her. And then there is the Hungarian Dezső Kosztolányi – each of his books, whether poems or novels, seems to be written by a completely different author. I would also like to be able to do that: change my style and my way of telling each book.

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Gingerbread sample

Close the beak. The gingerbread men suddenly found themselves on the ground, the girls kneeling on their ponytails until the gingerbread men stopped getting up. Then the strange girls began to bite them, pulling them by the flesh and the folds on the hands, thighs and bellies, and walking them here and there. They didn’t say a word for a long time, they just rolled under the gingerbread house clothes and pinched them like they were dirty. Harriet stared into the girl’s eyes through a web of bony hands: she tried to determine whether she was giving in to anger, satisfying her curiosity, or simply enjoying it, but those eyes meant nothing to her. Over time, Harriet thought that the prick could only be compared to the procedure of a masseuse, who is almost after shift and is completely out of mind. Then another girl stepped on Harriet’s face and rolled her head in the mud here and there. She seemed to make sure Harriet couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. To laugh, said the girl. Show the pretty adults how we became friends here.

Read the great interview in the new Réflexe published on Thursday March 24 >>>

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