Helen Oyeyemi on her new novel Boy, Snow, Bird


Nigerian-born, England-based author Helen Oyeyemi is considered a literary prodigy. By the time Helen was 19 years old, she'd signed a two-book deal, reportedly worth $1 million. Now almost 30 Helen Oyeyemi has written five critically acclaimed novels. Her latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, is a whole new take on the fairy tale Snow White. She discussed her latest work with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio's Writers & Company. You can listen to that interview in the audio player:

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In Boy, Snow, Bird, Boy stands in for the evil queen, Snow is the stepdaughter and Bird is the queen's daughter. Doubles, mirror images, metamorphosis, dreams, and peculiar love relationships have come to mark Oyeyemi's work. "It is a book about mirrors and reflections," Oyeyemi said. The character Snow has a double, and the character Boy "admits in the first chapter that she's obsessed with her own image and mirrors."

Oyememi's retelling of Snow White challenges the 'fairest of them all' element of the fairy tale. "It's about them being skeptical of mirrors and...the weight we place on mirrors to reflect the truth of things," she said. "But it's also [about] mirrors being quite puzzled and unable to do their job around certain people." In the story of Snow White, Snow White trusts what the mirror says, where Oyeyemi believes we should be more skeptical about what we see reflected back at us. "We can sometimes look into mirrors and think that that's all there is." 

Mirrors play a magical role in the novel, but there's realism in the relationships, especially between parent and child. "I looked at the source story, and I tried to figure out what the source story is trying to transmit to us about mothers and stepmothers and I sort of go down that maze," she said.

The book also adds an element of race that Snow White didn't have. The main characters grow up in a small town in Massachusetts in the 1960s. "I don't know if it's because reading it as a person who is not white, you read it and the beauty of Snow lies in the whiteness of her skin and so the kind of retelling I was going to take on was going to have to include that," she said. "It felt right to set it in a time just on the cusp of the civil rights movement."