Oyeyemi says that she thinks of herself as “ugly but interesting,” and she’s happy with that. “It helps me to think more clearly, if that makes sense.”
I ask why she thinks she ‘s ugly.
"Boys would come up and tell me," she says, matter-of-factly. "I’d be on the bus home, and they would say, "You’re so ugly, do you know that?" And after a while, I would just say, "Yes, thank you." At first I would cry. But I after a while you just think ‘Why does it matter so much?’"
Oyeyemi clearly still carries wounds from her teenage years: “I was suicidal for a long time in my teens and I was so unhappy,” she says. “It was the kind of unhappiness that you know everyone else is feeling, but you don’t care because you’ve dehumanized them, because they’re all monsters and demons and beasts who are out to kill you, so you become a beast and a monster yourself. I regret so much.”
Her fairy tales are not of the happily-ever-after variety: “Sometimes people ask me what I write and I say that I retell fairy tales, and they say, ‘Oh, children’s books!’ And that makes me laugh. People say things like ‘I want a fairy tale existence.’ The Brothers Grimm would be looking at them in this astonished way, like ‘So you would like your whole family to be murdered and then eaten in a pie?’” She laughs delightedly.
"People think they’re soft because they’re these perfect examples of narrative order. There is an ending that is usually happy, and a beginning, middle, and end … In this era where everyone is kind of postmodern and meta, we dissociate in a lot of ways from our circumstance. So I think there’s that sense that they’re so ordered, and therefore orderly, but actually, they’re just completely chaotic."
And fairy tales teach lessons, she says. Lessons like “Everything that you see is not necessarily what it is. You have to find another way to know things. You have to find another way to know things. There is inner vision. And then there’s exterior vision. There are levels of seeing.”
They reveal “some of the hardest and harshest truths about the ways that we live and the ways that we’ve always lived.” She cites a story she found in a book of Czech fairy tales. A princess is being courted by a magician, but she refuses him. In punishment, the magician turns her into a black woman. As Oyeyemi read it, she started crying. “It was awful … The worst thing that the teller of this tale can imagine is being black.” In Boy, Snow, Bird, she writes, “it’s not whiteness that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness.” She tells me, “I feel as if we’re still in that era. There are still lots of ways in which it is horrific not to be the norm.”