The Picador Book Club reads Boy, Snow, Bird
Such is our excitement about Helen Oyeyemi's novel Boy, Snow, Bird, that we held a book club in the office. We came away with yet more questions, so we turned some of them over to Helen.
What inspired you to write Boy, Snow, Bird?
It felt like time to retell Snow White with an eye on the 'fairest of them all' statement the mirror makes. I was always a bit incredulous that the mirror was allowed to get away with that one without being at least asked for proof.
The names of your characters seem integral to the book – in which order did you create the names, their personalities and the plot? And how did you name them?
Snow came first, then gave Bird her name, and Boy's name came within a few pages of writing her. I liked that one of the things they have in common is that their names aren't typically feminine names – it gave them more room to breathe somehow.
I was struck by the importance of identity in Boy, Snow, Bird – of a sense of both the rigidity and fluidity of roles in your characters’ lives. Was this a conscious decision on your part? How does this relate to the ideas of fairy tales and storytelling in the narrative?
Boy, Snow, Bird is essentially a fairy tale in which the characters are reluctant to play the roles other people try to assign to them. And then there's the business of these characters busily trying to assign roles to others at the same time as rejecting the ones they don't want. I think that's where a fairy tale can take on the dimensions of modern life.
To what extent – if at all – do you think of Boy, Snow and Bird as the same person?
Not at all! But. But, a goddess that holds my attention is Hecate, the three-faced goddess of thresholds who is maiden, mother and crone all at once. I think it's probably in the nature of a woman to have at least three aspects. At least three . . .
Did you intentionally make your male characters fade into the background compared to the female characters? Why?
Not intentionally! Perhaps it's the influence of the source tale . . . though I do think the rat catcher is fairly prominent.
Before this book I’d never heard of ‘passing’, how did you become aware of it and why did you decide to explore the theme?
I don't think of passing as a theme, but it's interesting to me insofar as any story in which someone hides in plain sight is interesting. Nella Larsen's excellent 1929 novel Passing turns the experience of passing into something of a psychological thriller; as a reader you dread the passing protagonists' exposure.
Would you say Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel about concealment?
I'd say it's more a novel in which the characters become aware of various factors that cause their inability to really see each other.
And here are the questions that we asked ourselves at the start of our book club, and which led us to ask those questions of Helen.
Did you enjoy Boy, Snow, Bird?
Are Helen’s characters realistic? What do you make of the male characters in the book?
This is a novel that touches on lots of issues: violent abuse, racism, gender issues, family dynamics – how does Helen handle these concerns?
How much is this a book about race? Is this a feminist book?
What parallels can you draw between Boy, Snow, Bird and the Snow White fairy tale?
Do you find any of the women in this story threatening?
Does Boy cast more spells than she is able to break?
Why do you think Boy sends Snow away? Is Snow an unsettling character or an innocent victim?
‘I don’t look the way I feel’ – What degree of control can Boy, Snow and Bird exert over their reflections?
‘It’s not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness […] we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship’ – How political is Boy, Snow, Bird?
We'd love to know what answers you arrive at if you read Boy, Snow, Bird in your book club.