Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Icarus Girl

I have had problems with this blog since summer and I actually wanted to delete it. But, I have decided to return and correct all the mistakes. And as you can see, the new layout is better than the old one. I simply picked a new one. No more, no less.

This news report on the exceptionally gifted teenage literary genius Helen Oyeyemi of Nigeria has been delayed for months due to the reason already mentioned above. But, better late than never. I have to blog this story.

Many people would have read most of these reports on her extraordinary novel,"The Icarus Girl". But, not presented in this manner. I have to combine different reports from different newspapers to make up this comprehensive feature on Helen Oyeyemi.

Three young Nigerian female writers have made literary waves in America and Europe. The first person was actually Helen Oyeyemi and she is the youngest and the highest paid of the three. Because, the large sum of hundreds of thousands of pounds she got as an advance payment from Bloomsbury has never been given to any other Nigerian writer. Not even the Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka could get such an advance for any of his books. The other two female literary wonders are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who won several prizes for her classic novel "Purple Hibiscus" and Sefi Atta whose novel, "Everything Good Will Come" also made headlines.

I will feature Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta in the coming weeks. So, watch out.

July 17, 2005
The Play Date From Hell
By Lesley Downer THE ICARUS GIRL By Helen Oyeyemi. 338 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $23.95.
HELEN OYEYEMI'S first novel was published in Britain last winter to considerable fanfare. Oyeyemi, who was born in Nigeria and raised in England, wrote the book when she was 18, while studying for her examinations. A literary agent took her on after reading only 20 pages of the manuscript and won her a two-book deal for an advance that was said to be in the neighborhood of £400,000 (though the publisher insists it was less). But does the book stand on its own? Would we think it was good if we knew nothing about the author?

''The Icarus Girl'' is the story of 8-year-old Jessamy Harrison, nicknamed Jess. The daughter of a Nigerian mother and an English father, she is a troubled child given to tantrums and uncontrollable screaming fits. She has no friends, hates school and is far happier sitting inside a cupboard or writing haiku alone in her bedroom. Quite naturally worried by all this, her mother decides that a change of scenery is in order, so she takes the family away from its home in England and back to Nigeria for a brief visit. Initially, Jess feels out of place there as well -- until she meets Titiola, a mysterious girl of exactly her own age, whom she calls TillyTilly.
From the start, there's something not quite right about TillyTilly: she seems out of proportion. ''Was she too tall and yet too . . . small at the same time? Was her neck too long? Her fingers?'' At first, she merely echoes Jess's words, but she soon develops into the friend and playmate Jess has never had. Together they have adventures: they manage to break into Jess's grandfather's locked study and then into an amusement park (also locked) where the gates magically swing open.

All too quickly, though, the family returns from exotic Nigeria to prosaic England, where Jess is surrounded once again by bullying schoolmates, a hostile teacher and her hateful, doll-like blond cousin, Dulcie. Then, to Jess's joy, TillyTilly reappears, simply knocking on her door. They play together, go on a picnic, write a poem. But TillyTilly also formulates a plan to ''get'' Jess's tormentors.

The reader suspects that TillyTilly is one of those imaginary friends so common to lonely childhoods, and that the strange and sinister events are happening only in Jess's imagination. But just as Jess herself begins to doubt whether TillyTilly is ''really really'' there, her playmate's malevolent magic begins to spread, infecting every corner of Jess's world.

TillyTilly's power, at least, is far from imaginary. She reveals that Jess had a twin who died at birth -- and that she intends to act on that twin's behalf. No longer a girl but a horrific primeval presence, she takes over Jess's bedroom, turning it from a safe haven into a place of terror. ''Stop looking to belong, half-and-half child,'' TillyTilly intones. ''Stop. There is nothing; there is only me, and I have caught you.''

Oyeyemi brilliantly conjures up the raw emotions and playground banter of childhood, writing with the confidence and knowledge of one who has only recently left that state herself. Jess's schoolmates, her therapist, the people she meets in Africa, even her parents, remain suitably shadowy figures, seen solely through the distorting lens of Jess's increasingly skewed perception.

''The Icarus Girl'' explores the melding of cultures and the dream time of childhood, as well as the power of ancient lore to tint the everyday experiences of a susceptible little girl's seemingly protected life. Deserving of all its praise, this is a masterly first novel -- and a nightmarish story that will haunt Oyeyemi's readers for months to come.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company Permissions Privacy Policy
Home, strange home
What do we think of when we imagine Africa? As a major programme of events celebrating the continent gets under way, the Nigerian novelist Helen Oyeyemi argues that Africa is at once a part of us, and yet deeply alien.
Helen OyeyemiWednesday February 2, 2005
Guardian

As a Nigerian brought up in Britain, I admit that when it comes to Africa, I just don't get it. I can examine modern Africa for hours, years, my whole life; saw open my head and cram it with rolls of statistics, death rates, birth rates, gross national products, and still not know where it is that I come from, what my country's problems are and have been, and how they can be resolved. These aren't the words of somebody who is familiar with the colourful emergencies of Africa, the necessities of trudging to the well and back, swaying under the weight of clean, bucketed water in the absence of the tap variety, or, to borrow Emily Dickinson's phrase in a more pragmatic context, "growing accustomed to the dark" with the heaving of an almighty sigh as the electricity is cut off. Again.

Rather, I have the muddled perspective of someone who is in a Nigerian cultural framework but not of it, being carried along by a culture at a distance from its source and its pervading influence. I'm a mix of first- and second-generation Nigerian - I was born "back home", where I feel more comfortable in my skin, but I am still often baffled by certain Nigerian ways. I find Africa in the weirdest places, with the jolt of someone waking up in the middle of the night and catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror across the room. I have sat in mortification when a couple of Jamaican girls called me "jungle bunny" in primary school, all three of us knowing there was something wrong, hateful, in the name, none of us knowing exactly why. I've exchanged glances of mixed embarrassment and defensiveness with another African pupil while classmates earnestly express their wishes to "help feed the Africans".

Part of the reclaiming of a personal image of a country can be done through history and culture. Beginning this week, there will be a broad-ranging attempt to explore Africa's multiple meanings and identities, as London hosts a cultural celebration of the continent, part of an international effort to spur progress. Africa 05 is a unique collaboration between the British Museum, the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, Hackney Museum, and even London Underground. There will be music from Dizzee Rascal and King Sunny Ade; there will be a place called "Salon Afrique" set up in the Royal Festival Hall from March 7; Chinua Achebe will be in conversation with Caryl Phillips in October; and past winners of the the "African Booker prize", the Caine prize for short stories, Leila Aboulela, Binyavinga Wainana and Helon Habila, are taking part in the Africa literature series at the South Bank Centre.

The celebrations begin, appropriately, by looking back to some of the oldest objects in the world, brought together in the Made in Africa exhibition at the British Museum. The rocks on display here are between one and two million years old and mark the beginnings of human enterprise. But without understanding their meanings, these tools are difficult to engage with. They don't speak or show themselves as the foundation of modern essentials. They need to be spoken for. And the silence of such artefacts has been a contributing factor in the failure of African countries to be recognised as major artistic and architectural players in the past. Anthropologists and historians in Africa could not believe, for example, that the court of Great Zimbabwe, once a palace where the Queen of Sheba was rumoured to reign, now an imposing ruin, was built by Africans. They reasoned that it must have been the work of Asians.

At the British Museum, I follow an Africa 05 "trail", not unlike a treasure hunt, to discover an array of quietly dignified exhibits that wait in glass boxes with the good-humoured beauty of well-preserved matriarchs. Downstairs are the Benin bronzes, crouching in block formation on the walls, and carved leopards that are still as salt, yet shot through with potential motion. Walking through these rooms, I am dull and ironed flat under the feeling that I have forgotten something. It's only when I see the cloths, the fine Moroccan gowns and Ghanaian Kente cloth robes, which seem as vital and changeably colour-veined as people, that I realise: here is brilliance that doesn't need handling or explaining. If I had the chance, I'd be playing dressing-up games like you wouldn't believe.

By virtue of their very presence in a British museum, there is an uncomfortable sense of African art and history being catalogued and presented according to the post-colonial values of the dominating side. Has Benin ever asked for its bronzes back? Some were returned in 1994, but there has been no formal recent request. I think about Nigeria, and about how there is so little to recommend it for a tourist; quite simplistically, I think about the Egyptian museum in Cairo, stuffed with home-produced artefacts, and I wonder if maybe Nigeria has nothing to show because European museums have stolen it all. How is this going to be Africa's year if it can't even tell its own story with concrete evidence? And there is such a lot for us to tell. Africa is much more a collection of countries than it is a continent. Each country is compartmentalised in its own challenges: South Africa's box is still layered with the thin fissures left over from apartheid; the shadow of children-made-soldiers starkly overlays the image of Sierra Leone; and Somalia and Ethiopia's names are always twinned with starvation and poverty. And then there's my home country, Nigeria. The 1980s and 90s saw the bleakness of rule by military junta; first Babangida, then his successor, Abacha, led the country in a state of fear and internal violence leading to the execution of the environmentalist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, as well as the death of Moshood Abiola, the president elect, who was to have helped turn Nigeria into a democracy. Wole Soyinka, one of Nigeria's greatest talents, managed to escape with his life.

Nigeria bled people: they left for Europe; they came to England, to a place where, according to a recent poll, 60% of the population would still "prefer not" to live next door to a member of an ethnic minority. The unease of a generation who left their homes for such veiled hostility has been well captured by writers, such as Buchi Emecheta, who have specialised in documenting Nigeria's blood flow, its spillage into other countries.

As a programme, Africa 05 faces the unenviable task of emphasising unity of artistic heritage and influence at the same time as trying to dispel the concept of Africa as one big, overgrown, jungly country. It might make little difference to non-Africans, but Africa as one concept does not work for most Africans. Africa remains a collection of nations splitting up a vast and ancient landscape. Many of my generation feel that we will never be purely African enough for our parents, while accepting that this is not our fault. But divisions still exist between us, our search for fellow Africans in our situation is selective; we're running around looking to see reflections of ourselves.

We need to recognise that the continent belongs to us all; coming from Nigeria or South Africa or the Ivory Coast, being "home" not only means when you set foot on the ground of that country, but also hanging out in an Egyptian cafe drinking karkadeh and eating kosharee. With this understanding it will be even easier to be proud of each other and to know that, alongside the urgent humanitarian needs, there are voices rising out of our continent, a resourcefulness and energy to which it is good to lay a shared claim, even if these voices tell no more than myths, even if these shared characteristics are impossible to distribute among a citizenship like so many handfuls of rice.

But I'm confident that 2005 will mean Africa is finally recognised on the world scene, and for something besides crippling hunger. This celebration is the opening-up of an amazing secret, and I, for one, don't begrudge its telling.

Helen Oyeyemi's novel The Icarus Girl is published by Bloomsbury. Made in Africa is at the British Museum, London WC1B, until April 2. Box office: 020-7323 8000, www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk.Africa Remix is at the South Bank Centre from February onwards. Box office: 020-7921 0600, www.southbankcentre.org.uk
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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