This Is Not a Disney Story: Helen Oyeyemi Takes on Snow White

Email a Friend
Helen Oyeyemi
From and

The writer was born in Nigeria; the tale comes from medieval Germany; the setting is a small New England town in the 1950s. Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, and like most of her work it’s a form of literary mash-up. She uses the structure of Snow White to tell a story about race, gender, and love set in a 1950s American town. Oyeyemi has a delicate approach but occasionally shows a sharper edge. Take her description of Snow, a preternaturally beautiful girl born to black parents, who passes as white:

Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl — we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us.

“The only way to feel is implicated,” Oyeyemi explains. “Because we are all implicated in labeling each other and treating each other based on assumptions.  This isn’t a book to feel cozy about who you are and where you’re sitting and what your position is. Nobody comes out of this story looking particularly good.”

Raised in London, Oyeyemi was a precocious reader who would cross out and rewrite parts she didn’t like (wrecking some library books in the process). Now, approaching her 30th birthday, Oyeyemi admits to Kurt Andersen that she didn’t think she would live this long. “I suffered from clinical depression,” she says of her teenage years. “I was suicidal in this particularly reckless way.” (She once drank iodine on a dare.) Recognizing her unhappiness, Oyeyemi’s parents and teachers gave her space to “find reasons to live,” and she found those reasons in books. “Which sounds very cheesy, but all I wanted to do was read.”


Helen Oyeyemi's 3 for 360

Music Playlist

  1. Whistle While You Work

    Artist: Brother Jack McDuff
    Album: Live
    Label: Prestige