On “Combative Love”: Q and A with Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth novel, Mr. Fox, turns a critical eye on literature’s fascination with menacing heroes and imperiled women.  The book takes its name from the fairytale of Mr. Fox, a variant of the Bluebeard story: Lady Mary famously discovers that Mr. Fox, her betrothed, keeps “a room filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead women, all stained with their blood.”  This novel’s brooding villain turns out to be a rather obtuse male author (the eponymous “Mr. Fox”) who possesses a drive to kill his female characters.  One of these characters, Mary Fox, comes to life to confront him about it, and the two proceed to vie for control of the pen.  Together they write the stories that make up this book, nine tales of seduction that flirt with death and sometimes turn it aside.

Mr. Fox is an author who maintains that fiction does nothing.  He pretends only to describe the sordid world that his writing brings to life: “These are our circumstances.  I’m just trying to make sense of them,” he claims.  On another occasion he contradicts the rationale of the realist, though, by suggesting that his work is innocent entertainment:  “It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction.  It’s not real,” he says.  Mr. Fox’s reasoning becomes more problematic when his real wife, Daphne, begins to see Mary too.  The two women begin to inhabit a world that is created by a male author; his fictions become part of their lived experience.   Mary’s stake in the game of storytelling becomes clear when the difference between “real” violence and the pursuit of writing is less so.

Oyeyemi’s exuberant touch allows the book to raise questions about the social role of literature without seeming pedantic or false.  Vigorous storytelling retains a poetic radiance and texture.   Smooth, clear language rings with beguiling suggestion.  Violence is at once a mysterious, impending force and a mundane reality, a strange threat to live with everyday.  “You should worry.  But don’t,” one character is told.   In the traditional fairytale of Mr. Fox, his bride eventually slaughters him; the man is defeated once and for all.  In this novel, however, Mr. Fox remains a stubborn presence, someone to deal with rather than to dismiss.   Mary competes with Mr. Fox for control of the stories that shape the world they live in, but she does not write him off.  Daphne, too, struggles to live with the enemy, to understand him and sometimes just to ignore him.  There seems to be no viable way to conclude this plot, and indeed, Mr. Fox’s narrative abundance might be said to offer alternatives to the fairytale of bloody courtship—multiples plots and perspectives to keep in play—rather than an authoritative new ending.

   Helen Oyeyemi, who read at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors last year, answered some questions for us about love and storytelling.


TRB: As I read I wondered whether Mary Fox was doing the right thing tolerating Mr. Fox the way she does.  What inspired you to take this risk as a writer, to imagine different endings to the Bluebeard and Mr. Fox fairytales?

photo by Saneesh Sukumaran

HO: I wondered whether Mary was doing the right thing, too, and I also wondered whether I was failing as a feminist because Daphne and Mary only seem to talk to each other about Mr. Fox.  But his experience and his voice isn’t at the dead centre of the story—the effect I hope for is that he is a person and therefore important (it would be counterproductive to dehumanize him) but that Mary and Daphne have equal weight and agency.  My current idea of feminism is broader than it was when I first became a feminist at uni[versity]—I’m now much more interested in what one of my best friends, Maria, calls “learning to live with the master in his house”—I think that if we  seriously want to dismantle the patriarchy it’s more practical to become partners with the people who benefit from and perpetuate it.  Mary does it through trickery and torture, Daphne does it through painful compromise—their methods aren’t rational, and I think subconsciously that’s my response to the observation that putting the case against sexism and misogyny rationally, with statistics etc., is working, but not fast enough for me.  If there was some way to make them feel what we feel . . . if there was some way for us to feel what they feel . . . some way to be each other . . . that’s part of the reason for all the disguises and switching of roles as Mary, Daphne and St John go into the nine different stories.

TRB: In your novels, love is strange and frightening.  Love feels like enchantment or captivity in The Icarus Girl and White is for Witching.  And Mr. Fox recalls the English courtship novel’s preoccupation with coercion—in Clarissa or Jane Eyre, for instance. What kinds of possibilities does pursuing the plot of seduction open up for you as a writer? 

HO: What I like about a combative love story (for instance, Jane Eyre) is that it’s specific where other types of love story are vague.  Other types of love story present it as a given that the lovers are a match for each other—it’s simply that one or the other of them has to realize that this is the case.  A combative love story allows the lovers to prove to each other and to us that they’re worthy of each other, that blow for blow their bond is true.  It creates a nervous tension in the writer who attempts such a story, too—that sense of “O my gosh, are these two actually going to murder each other once and for all?”  I enjoyed that very much.

TRB: The characters in your novels can be quite volatile; they morph under the eye of different narrative perspectives.  Some characters are closely linked to objects and animals.  How do your characters reveal themselves to you?  Do they ever surprise you?

HO: The process has been different for each book, and in each one I’ve tried to make the voice fit the story—the sensory flexibility of a child’s perspective in the The Icarus Girl, for example.  And the cold distant voice of a corpse (or a house) in White is for Witching.  The way I present the characters seems to tie in with the story’s voice.  But yes, the characters I end up writing almost always surprise me, and almost always challenge the context I place them in.

TRB: At the end of Mr. Fox, the reader is confronted with two possible endings.  Are we meant to choose the better one, or must they both be kept in play?  What inspired you to write a novel with multiple plots and many chances to tell the story differently?

HO: I hope both stories can be kept in play.  I hope for readers who are willing to hold both endings in their mind; for someone who prefers to be alone, the birth of a love affair is the death of being alone.  Maybe the multiple plots are a diversionary tactic to help keep my foxes from feeling trapped . . .

TRB: Do you ever think about the role your books play in the lives of readers?  Has a reader ever surprised you?

HO: It would be lovely if my books did play some (any) sort of role in the lives of readers, aside from annoying them or making them yawn.  To be honest I’m still surprised if anyone I meet shows signs of having read one of my books.

TRB: You published your first novel when you were very young (just eighteen years old).  When you began to write, did you know what you were doing?  Did you want to publish a book? Was it frightening?

HO: I didn’t know what I was getting into, no.  But at the time I thought I did.  Haha! I wanted to be a writer; being published seemed necessary because then people just let you be one.  Publication is generally frightening because then all sorts of things get said about the book.

TRB: You have been called a “fantasy author” and “a master of magical realism.”  What would you say if I told you that I think you write about things that really happen?

HO: I’d give you a big wink and say, “let’s not tell anyone.” Four books in I’m beginning to understand that a fact that goes largely unseen doesn’t cease to exist.  If anything it grows sturdier and sturdier.  An elephant in the room.