Global Black History

Fairy Tales of Race and Nation

In its own allusive way, Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread considers the imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. A textbook in the novel explains that the fictional, magical, and vaguely Slavic nation of Druhástrana has held a “referendum” and decided “to definitively withdraw from the so-called brotherhood of nations,” to keep out “all the foreigners who kept coming in and trying to propagate distracting inequalities, stuff about physical appearance and who people should and should not fancy and places of prayer that were better than others,” and because “what Druhástranians wanted was to keep things simple and concentrate on upholding financial inequality.” In its casual syntax and in diction (“stuff,” “people,” and “places”) that at first glance seems quite vague, these lines manage to satirize Brexit, critique the idea of a singular national identity, and call attention to the ways racism, homophobia, and religious bigotry motivate political decisions.

Gingerbread is Oyeyemi’s sixth novel; she has also written a book of short stories and two plays in her 15-year career. This pace of publication means that her works can respond to political conditions of the moment, and her latest does so more directly than her earlier writings. In this thrilling and unsettling novel, Oyeyemi offers an elegant, sometimes humorous, and always acute marriage of fairy tale and contemporary politics of race, nation, and belonging. Like Oyeyemi’s earlier fiction, Gingerbread is both beautiful and useful, because elements of fairy tales—the unspecified temporal and geographic dislocation of “once upon a time”—gift to the reader the distance necessary to perceive the fantastic and absurd functions of race and nation.

The novel opens in London, with Harriet Lee, an immigrant with “a slight Druhástranian accent that she downplays so as not to get exoticized.” Harriet’s busy life includes parenting her teenage daughter, Perdita; navigating a tense relationship with her own mother, Margot; teaching literature courses at night; and striving to be included in the cliquish parents’ association at Perdita’s school. The domesticity of the titular gingerbread, as a treat baked in the kitchen, quickly gives way to the danger of gingerbread implied by its use as the construction material for the witch’s home in “Hansel and Gretel.”

Perdita concocts a batch that puts her in a coma, not because of her celiac disease, but because she has mixed a poison that renders her “not dead, just traveling” to the mysterious land of Druhástrana. As Perdita recovers, Harriet tells the story of her past. With this telling, Gingerbread begins to move back and forth between England and Druhástrana, past and present, and between two families, the poor rural Lees and the wealthy urban Kerchevals. The history of these two families unfolds as a bedside fairy tale told to an ailing teenager, a multigenerational story of class oppression and immigration, a mystery about the identity of Perdita’s father, and a story of Harriet’s longing for her only friend, Gretel.

In “Gingerbread,” national identity becomes increasingly unstable, a fragile fabrication that, like any other myth, requires faithful repetition.

Druhástrana, though it does not appear on any map, becomes as real a place as England, and the nations seep into one another, making England as fantastic as Druhástrana. The phrase “druhá strana,” in Czech, means “the other side,” used to refer to the opposing party in an election or a lawsuit. Oyeyemi, who lives in Prague, never gives the reader this translation; instead she deploys the connotations of the phrase in English: Druhástrana is on the “other side” of near-death experiences, induced in Perdita’s case by the poisoned gingerbread. The novel charts characters’ movements from rural to urban (Whitby to London, “the farmstead” to Druhá City) and between the two nations. Such journeys require, alongside poison, money and seemingly endless paperwork.

Most of Oyeyemi’s fiction uses fairy tales and folktales not as allusions or in the service of plot, but rather as a source of tone, structure, and an implied distance from the here and now. By the conclusion of her novel Boy, Snow, Bird (2014), Oyeyemi has employed shifts in person and point of view and variations on characters from “Snow White” to utterly destabilize the binaries between good and evil, male and female, Black and white.

Oyeyemi uses “Snow White” to unsettle the reader, rendering a well-known story weird and unfamiliar. The embedded stories written or spoken by characters in Boy include old tales that the reader will know and stories the author invents but presents as if they were old ones that the reader should know. In one instance, the young women Boy and Mia collaborate on a story, set in italics and block-indented in the text. This tale of a magician and a witch is “the kind you find in an old library,” and the women treat it as an established fairy tale, but they are in fact making it up on the spot. The story is set in the distant past and reads as if it had the weight of knowledge that has circulated for hundreds of years, but it is simultaneously clear that the story is brand-new, invented in the present tense of the novel.

In Gingerbread, the fairy-tale world of Druhástrana and the recognizable world of contemporary England meet in the mundane inhumanity of immigration, economic oppression, “checkpoints,” and “papers.” National identity becomes increasingly unstable, a fragile fabrication that, like any other myth, requires faithful repetition. Both Harriet and this reader are skeptical and amused when a Druhástranian textbook confidently asserts that “All aggression against Druhástrana was unjust and ultimately unsuccessful.”

Oyeyemi worries the line between mapped and unmapped, reality and fairy tale. The results of this are sometimes disturbing, as when Harriet looks into Perdita’s bedroom at a set of dolls, one with hands “removed … at the wrist and replaced … with a pair of bonsai elm trees with leaves that separate into finger-like bunches” and another with an “open chest cavity” from which “twelve weeks of the year, pink-and-white primrose petals emerge.” It is jarring and strange to see these dolls in an ordinary room where “Perdita dances, reads, sleeps, does her homework … and so on.” The dolls, who can speak, and other elements of the book are fantastic, but Oyeyemi refuses the reader the comfort of imagining these events as wholly distant in space or time. She reminds us that this unsettling story takes place in our here and now, with references to contemporary pop culture celebrities such as Ariana Grande and Tyra Banks.

The plots and family trees of Gingerbread become difficult to track, branching out in all directions like the creepy plants growing out of talking dolls. As is the case in each short story in Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (2016), the ending of Gingerbread is not exactly a conclusion. This is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of the delicious uncertainty that gives the novel its mystery, spookiness, and momentum. In third-person narration from Harriet’s point of view, Oyeyemi describes the effect of the novel’s porous boundaries in terms of Druhástrana and England: “Talking or thinking about ‘there’ lends ‘here’ a hallucinatory quality that she could frankly do without. Pull the thread too hard and both skeins unravel simultaneously.”

This “hallucinatory quality” within ordinary domestic life (signaled by the metaphor of “skeins” of yarn) is chief among the readerly pleasures of Gingerbread. It is also the shift in perception that the novel demands of its characters and readers. The “hallucinatory quality” allows Harriet to see that money is a shared myth, an agreement to believe in the utility and meaning of pieces of paper. When Clio Kercheval pays Harriet for her child labor as a “Gingerbread Girl” with “representative vouchers” that are supposedly equal to “ten English pounds,” the vouchers of “there” show the arbitrary value of currency “here.” Immersed in the delights of this “hallucinatory quality,” the reader can follow Harriet’s example and perceive nation and race, too, as shared myths.

In Oyeyemi’s latest novel, the titular sweet can make decisions and act with intent; it is a gift, a commodity, and a weapon; it can satisfy, poison, or transport the eater.

The unsettling of narrative authority and national identity in Gingerbread means that Oyeyemi’s destabilization of race works differently than in racial passing narratives, from Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) to Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998), where plot and character contribute to detailed depictions of the outlandish extremity of racism in the United States. Twenty-first-century Black diasporic fiction often experiments with genre to represent complex and varied workings of racial identity. Senna’s stunning New People (2017) draws on conventions of the thriller in a novel of justified and escalating racial paranoia. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) is a contemporary narrative of slavery that is also a work of speculative fiction. Zadie Smith, Oyeyemi’s fellow Black British writer, turned from the realism of her earlier fiction to formal experimentation in the arrangement of text on the pages of NW (2012) and in an escalation of her satiric dark wit in representations of celebrity, wealth, and women’s friendships in Swing Time (2016).

Oyeyemi is also among a group of contemporary writers of Nigerian descent currently enjoying a period of significant visibility in the academy and the literary marketplace. The cohort includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Nnedi Okorafor, and Lesley Nneka Arimah. Their output varies widely in style, and includes nonfiction, science fiction and speculative fiction, novels for young adults, and comic books. These writers merit consideration as a group because, like Oyeyemi, they have produced writings that explore and unsettle notions of coherent racial, national, and even planetary identity, both at the level of content and, in terms of literary genre, at the level of form.

Among the many recent Black novels that experiment with genre conventions, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling (2017) may be Gingerbread’s closest cousin. In LaValle’s novel, a children’s book about a changeling baby becomes a kind of nonfiction guide for characters navigating terrifying events. LaValle uses horror genre conventions to satirize gentrification and depict the deep fear of a parent trying to keep a Black child safe. Gingerbread, too, represents the known and mythic worlds as porous and includes a changeling. Though less rooted in gothic and horror conventions than her earlier novel White Is for Witching (2009), Gingerbread, like The Changeling, uses the fantastic to reveal the inhumanity of the mundane.

Oyeyemi’s first reference to any character’s race in Gingerbread appears about 70 pages in, giving the reader plenty of time to wrongly assume that British and Druhástranian characters are white. Like several of Toni Morrison’s works, particularly her only published short story, “Recitatif” (1983), and her novel Paradise (1997), Gingerbread calls attention to the functions of race and racism by delaying or withholding declarations of characters’ racial identities. In this Morrisonian vein, Oyeyemi treats Blackness as a racial identity that need not be marked, because here it has the primacy of the norm (a position reserved for whiteness in most writing in English). Oyeyemi reveals Blackness by delay, comparison, and negation. In Gingerbread, for instance, we learn first that a mysterious girl trapped in a well “was of similar build and skin color” to Harriet, then that “she didn’t wear her hair in the dreadlocks typical to black peasants in Druhástrana.”

The Lee women are Black, and that matters in this novel. When Harriet and Margot make a journey by boat, there is no mistaking that a story of Black people traveling as cargo, crammed together on a ship, from a supposedly unmapped place to the empire and then the metropole, evokes the Middle Passage. The echo is inescapable, but more faint than in boat trips of Black characters in African American and Black British literary fiction of earlier decades. The fairy-tale structure of the novel has so unsettled the known or knowable by this point that reading only for the presence of the Middle Passage is too narrow. Blackness here also includes voluntary migration, encounters with the racism of the city, and all kinds of literal and figurative border crossings.

Like many foodstuffs, especially those made from recipes passed down through generations, gingerbread in this novel carries multiple meanings. It can make decisions and act with intent; it is a gift, a commodity, and a weapon; it can satisfy, poison, or transport the eater. In other words, gingerbread, like Blackness, is powerful and wildly diverse; bears the weight of ideas that those who make and consume it bring to the table; is constantly constructed through interpersonal exchanges; and has material stakes in the world, be it this one we know or the “other side.” Oyeyemi proffers a fairy tale as an irresistible invitation for the reader to, like Perdita, taste the gingerbread in all its complexity and make a fantastic journey with stakes for living in a world where race and racism remain defining features of our political and social reality.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

Featured image: Spring of Flower (2019). Photograph by JR Korpa / Unsplash

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