Naija's sweetheart novelist

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Meet Nigeria's Latest Sweetheart Novelist

Weekly Trust (Kaduna)
February 21, 2004
Posted to the web February 24, 2004

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Foreign reporters got the payment for Oyeyemi's book wrong - by a factor of ten. Her parents still have not read the novel that has made their 19-year-old daughter a literary celebrity, even before actual publication. They did not even know she was writing it until she told them she had signed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury for a reported £400,000 advance, which Helen says is exaggerated and refused to disclose the exact amount. The reported £400,000 is much higher than the actual £40,000 the young author got for a two-book deal. Publishing industry critics cannot seem to shake off the nagging feeling that the error was deliberate. An industry insider said : "It reminds me too much of the Sunday Times's claim that London bus driver Magnus Mills received an advance of £1m for his first novel, 'The Restraint of Beasts'. Four days after the story broke in the Evening Standard, the paper printed a correction. "The figure... is a good deal less than everyone has been led to believe." The correct sum was £100,000. By that time, tons of free publicity had been garnered for the book.

Literature has no doubt become a singing, dancing, flashing-with-bright-lights beauty contest of late. But the harsh competition these days has more and more titles fighting to stay on the shelves before being relegated to the darkest corners of memory. This makes publishers desperate to sign up that most elusive mix of youthful freshness and mass-market appeal. Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi was born on 28 September 1984, in the Catholic Hospital, Ibadan, and left for England with her mother in 1988, a year after her father had begun studying Social Sciences at Middlesex University. She is currently at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where she is studying Social and Political Sciences. A multi-cultural background definitely informed Oyeyemi's poignant creativity, making her the perfect target for Bloomsbury, known for cornering the most unconventional talent and grooming them up to mythical proportions. Helen Oyeyemi's 'The Icarus Girl', will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2005. The book tells the story of eight-year-old Jessamy, whose mother is Nigerian and father an Englishman. Jess writes poems and hides in cupboards. Her parents worry about her alarming mood swings and thought at one time she might have a disease called Asperger's syndrome. They take her to visit her relatives in Nigeria, to her grandfather's extended family compound, and there she meets Titiola, or 'Tilly-Tilly', whom only Jess can see. Is she a sort of invisible and imaginary friend or a ghost? When Jess returns to England and school, 'Tilly-Tilly' follows her. At first she is her friend, her comfort and joy. But gradually her presence becomes more and more disturbing, until one day Jesse discovers that she herself is a twin, her other half stillborn. The story continues in sheer brilliance and an underlying darkness to it which will no doubt appeal to jaded readers in search of a fresh read.

How could she write a novel without her parents finding out, since she did it on the computer in their bedroom, one would wonder? She told them she was doing homework. They thought I was writing a really long essay," she laughed. "When I signed the contract I thought I'd better tell them. They thought I was joking. But then again, they had been getting reports from school telling them my homework is never in on time." When asked why she does not want her parents to read the book, Helen answered "Because the book is about Nigeria, and they are first-generation Nigerians. I came over here when I was four years old. Jess, the main character, feels she is on the outside wherever she is. In England, she doesn't feel she's English; in Nigeria, she doesn't feel she's Nigerian. It's like that for me but I don't know how much a first-generation Nigerian would connect with that. I can't do any of the things my mum can do - such as cook Yoruba food - and when I have kids, all that is probably going to die out. For her to read my book, it would be like watching her culture die."

There is a sad truth in Oyeyemi's words, but it is generally hoped that her book will spark off an interest in writing among young Nigerians, thereby giving life to a sector which seems in hibernation, perhaps even restarting a fast-dying reading culture. Nevertheless, the world waits for Helen Oyeyemi's book with bated breath.
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