Oyeyemi book Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi and her fifth novel, which explores race using the tale of Snow White.


Piotr Cieplak/Penguin Group

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.”

(Originally aired March 14, 2014)

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