Helen Oyeyemi says her new novel Gingerbread is not about Hansel and Gretel 

Helen Oyeyemi writes some of the loveliest and oddest books I’ve ever read, filled with shivery, evocative sentences and fairy tale tropes turned slantwise. Her first novel, 2005’s The Icarus Girl — written by Oyeyemi when she was in high school in the UK and published when she was 20 — was about a little girl plagued by her nightmarish doppelgänger. Her 2014 novel Boy, Snow, Bird, reimagined Snow White as an allegory of race in America.

Her 2016 short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, featured puppets with their strings slashed like a cut throat and a marshland full of drowned corpses that became its own city. All of her books are so vividly atmospheric that for years after I finish them, I can feel in my bones the exact kind of breathless, goose-pimpled exhilaration they created in me.

I recently spoke to Oyeyemi over email about her latest book, Gingerbread, a novel which revolves around reserved, gingerbread-baking Harriet and her wild, uncontrollable daughter Perdita. Harriet and Perdita live together in London, but Perdita longs to know about Harriet’s childhood in the obscure (and, according to many, fictional) country of Druhàstrana. When Harriet finally agrees to tell Perdita the story of her life there, gingerbread — as sustenance, as the product of exploited labor, and as poison — features heavily.

As a teen, Harriet is forced to work as a Gingerbread Girl, baking gingerbread and selling it to customers. It’s an unsettling job that sometimes reads like factory work and sometimes like borderline child prostitution. As an adult, she plies Perdita with gingerbread. Always, she remembers her childhood friend Gretel, a changeling who fiends for gingerbread with an insatiable appetite.

Gingerbread also features gingerbread houses, fractured families, abandoned children, and characters who are at various points called “Hansel” and “Gretel.” But it is not, Oyeyemi informed me, about Hansel and Gretel.

So what is the book about, then?

“Gingerbread,” she said.

Our full conversation — lightly edited for length and clarity — follows.

Constance Grady

You’ve said that you write some books for duty and some books that feel like games. Which one is Gingerbread, and why?

Helen Oyeyemi

Writing Gingerbread was such a pleasure I think it counts as a game book. A game in the sense of having something at stake that can only be won through going through a particular formula and experiencing it step by step.

Constance Grady

You work a lot with fairy tales, and you’ve said that you think fairy tales tell us truths that we would like to look away from. What kind of truth do you think Hansel and Gretel is telling us?

Helen Oyeyemi

I don’t have any particular thoughts on Hansel and Gretel, aside from noting that gingerbread appears as a kind of sustaining trap in the story — and in terms of what this book is, all the writing into and over and around gingerbread as a symbolic substance, I didn’t notice any truth claims being made or even (direct) messages being offered. Rather, I think it’s the kind of story that suggests an insistence on truth is suspicious.

Constance Grady

One of the tropes that recurs in your books, starting with The Icarus Girl and repeated here, is the idea of a supernatural little girl who is the protagonist’s friend but who sometimes seems ambiguously sinister. What is attractive to you about that figure?

Helen Oyeyemi

I don’t see this trope — an imaginary friend who terrifies you at night is quite different from one everyone can see and who quite clearly states her aims in life (i.e. with Gretel, eating as much gingerbread as possible and offering changeling services).

Constance Grady

This is a fragmented Hansel and Gretel, and not all of the figures in the fairy tale have clear analogues in the novel the way they seem to in a book like Boy, Snow, Bird. What drew you to breaking the figures apart like this?

Helen Oyeyemi

Ah, you’re reading it as a retelling … I wondered about the Hansel and Gretel question. Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird were retellings, but this one’s about gingerbread.

Constance Grady

Harriet is such an interesting protagonist because she presents as very meek and mild-mannered, so for the first few chapters I kept expecting someone wilder like Perdita to take hold of the narrative, but instead Harriet just held on fast and kept revealing these hidden reserves of strength. Did you know going in that this would fundamentally be Harriet’s story?

Helen Oyeyemi

Thank you! I’m glad it unfolded that way for you. I was sure from the beginning that this was Harriet’s story, and that the gingerbread issue (what to do with/about it, what having a gift for making this particular kind of confectionery says about her, what the confectionary itself means to her and whether she can make it mean anything to other people) is Harriet’s issue.

Constance Grady

There’s a recurring motif in this book in which various characters or places seem to resent the idea that they might be made up. Perdita’s dolls are really upset at the idea that they are the fictional ideas of a fictional character, and Harriet keeps seeing people talk about her home country Druhàstrana as a metaphorical place, to which they claim metaphorical citizenship, and getting exasperated with them. Where does this motif come from?

Helen Oyeyemi

Ha — not deliberate. It’s like all the rest of what I write, a story about stories, so it’s necessarily alive to itself in that way … which probably includes some sensitivity towards our notions of what gives a being or place substance. In our lives outside of books we tend to place nonfictional things, people and places, above fictional ones, for instance.

Constance Grady

What are you reading right now, and how do you like it?

Helen Oyeyemi

I just finished reading Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, and it’s brilliant stuff. Not just illuminating in its commentary, on the Bible stories themselves, but it engages in discourse that fixes ways of reading you’d thought were broken. I’m even reading newspaper articles with more alertness.

Constance Grady

You’ve been traveling around and living in cities all over the world. Where would you like to travel that you haven’t been to yet?

Helen Oyeyemi

I think the next new place will be Grenada, a trip made in homage to the K-drama Memories of the Alhambra!