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Too talented to be this young

Meeting British author Helen Oyeyemi, you can't help but think of the caution printed on the sides of aerosol cans: "Warning: Contents Under Pressure."

Not that Oyeyemi, 23, is in any danger of exploding. An implosion is the more likely prospect, given the personal, academic, family and professional pressures that seem to weigh - and have weighed - on her youthful shoulders.

After all, it's not every young woman who, as a teenager, completes in secret an astonishingly mature novel before she graduates from high school, then goes on to score a two-book contract worth a reported $1-million and then earns a nomination for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It's not every child, who from the age of 6, is hassled by her immigrant parents as to which university she plans to attend - Oxford or Cambridge? (Oyeyemi eventually chose Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and took social and political sciences.) And it's certainly not every girl who, at the age of 15, tries to kill herself with an overdose of pills only to be rescued by a quick-thinking 11-year-old sister - the same sister to whom Oyeyemi, six years later, would dedicate her acclaimed debut The Icarus Girl with the words, "Sorry about that time I pretended to be the Angel of Death."

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Life remains a high-pressure container for Oyeyemi. In the summer, she moved to New York from London - which has been her home, more or less, ever since her Nigerian parents moved there in 1988 - in preparation for a two-year MFA program in creative writing at Columbia University. Three months earlier, Penguin published her second novel, The Opposite House, to great acclaim at the same time as she was invited to this month's International Festival of Authors in Toronto (she also appeared at this month's Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival). Did we mention she has also had two plays published and is working on a third novel?

Sitting outside a Toronto Starbucks on a recent sunny afternoon, Oyeyemi seemed not so much driven as girlish - a little nervous, a little shy, but quick to laugh and palpably intelligent. Asked why, given her success as a bestselling, critically lauded author, she's taking a degree in creative writing, she explained that it's more backup strategy than a case of carrying coals to Newcastle. "Novels come about so mysteriously for me, it's a worry," she observed. "I mean, I have all these ideas for books right now, but the wellsprings might just dry up all of a sudden. I might need to teach one day" and getting a graduate degree "seems only fair."

Two books into the sport of novel writing, Oyeyemi still doesn't think of herself as a writer because "I don't write every day and isn't that what a real writer is supposed to do?" Instead, she "would just as soon be called a reader because that is something I do every day." She laughed. "I've gradually built my identity around books. I'm almost a literary map more than a person."

Yet even here she has her doubts. While confessing to being "cynical about the idea of home, of nationality," she didn't know how secure an identity literature could provide, either. "I don't think it's sane to go into something so deep that's not real, which is what the novel writer does: He slips from this world."

Oyeyemi claimed she loved writing The Icarus Girl, about a mixed-race eight-year-old and her imaginary friend, "because I didn't know it was a novel. I just wrote it." She wrote undetected at home in a subsidized housing project in south London, while her mother worked as a supervisor for London's subway system and her dad as a special-needs teacher.

By contrast, preparing The Opposite House, with a fractured narrative split between grotty contemporary London and a mythic "somewhere house" populated by Yoruba-speaking spirits from the Santeria religion, was much more onerous. "Terrible," in fact, "since I now was feeling self-conscious about the process. There's this awareness that you have to write as if you're not aware, otherwise the text is not going to breathe."

Oyeyemi likes living in New York but isn't that keen on attending Columbia or any university ("I find them oppressive ... I don't know why I keep coming back to them for more punishment"). At the same time, she doesn't intend to stay there when she finishes her degree in 2009 nor return to London or even to go to Nigeria, which she last visited more than five years ago. "I'm restless, I think, and never really content. My mind travels a lot and attaches itself to stuff. Like, I spent so much time imagining New York before I came that when I got there, it was like I'd already moved in!"

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Berlin might be a possible destination. Oyeyemi has a grasp of conversational German and "I think it could get fluent if I immersed myself in a German-speaking environment."

Perhaps, it's suggested, she needs an experience akin to that of the protagonist in Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans's famous 1884 novel without a plot. In that book, the jaded anti-hero, inspired by reading Charles Dickens, decides on the spur of the moment to travel to London from his home in Paris. En route, he visits a pub-like bar where he overhears the conversations of English tourists, eats British fare and consults a London guidebook. With that, he decides to return to Paris: He figures he has had the quintessential English experience and "it would be madness to risk spoiling such unforgettable experiences by a clumsy change of locale."

"Oh," she laughed softly, "I wish there was a place like that somewhere where I could just sample everywhere and then just decide. ... I just don't know where in the world I want to live yet. There are so many places and none of them are my home that I feel I might as well try as many of them as possible."

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James More


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