Imaginary Friend Reveals Young Writer’s Real Self
by Felicia R. Lee
Talk about a good day. At the age of 18, Helen Oyeyemi signed the contract for her first
novel, “The Icarus Girl,” the same August day two years ago that she was accepted at Cambridge
The book, about an 8-year-old girl with an eerie imaginary friend, attracted gleaming reviews
and attention in Britain after its initial publication in January. Ms. Oyeyemi was called “astonishing”
in a review in The London Sunday Telegraph and “extraordinary” by The Financial
Times, which said she could claim a place among Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Ben
Okri, all English-language Nigerian-born writers.
“I guess I don’t really believe it’s happening,” Ms. Oyeyemi, 20, said of her debut during a
recent interview in New York. She recalled obsessively writing “The Icarus Girl” at her parents’
computer on weekends, after school and in the middle of the night. She likened it to
being in love. She rushed the first 20 pages off to an agent whose name she plucked from a
directory of agents.
A native Nigerian who moved with her family to London when she was 4, Ms. Oyeyemi is the
youngest writer ever signed by Alexandra Pringle, the editor-in-chief at her British publisher,
Bloomsbury. “The Icarus Girl” has sold 20,000 copies in Britain, where sales of over 3,000
are considered respectable for a first-time novelist, Ms. Pringle said.
Ms. Oyeyemi is young, even for a first-time novelist, but Ms. Pringle insisted that it was her
talent, not her age, that got her published. Ms. Oyeyemi is currently a political and social science
major at Cambridge.
“It came really, really easily,” she said of her story, which tells of Jessamy Harrison, the troubled,
precocious daughter of a Nigerian mother and a British father in London. Imaginative
and lonely, Jess conjures up a nasty little invisible friend named TillyTilly while on a trip to
“But I think it came easy because I didn’t think it was a novel,” said Ms. Oyeyemi, a tall
woman with huge eyes, a shy manner and long dark braids. “It was just kind of a story that
kept getting longer,” she continued, “so I didn’t get scared or anything.” (…)
In the book, TillyTilly soon gets Jess in big trouble. The result is a dark novel that plays with
magic realism, African myth and that strange mix of innocence and intuition about the adult
world that is the province of the very young, especially a child like Jess who straddles the
boundaries of two societies.
Ms. Oyeyemi, a soft-spoken woman who as a child had an imaginary friend named Chimmy,
is confronting the usual first-novel speculation about how much of “The Icarus Girl” is autobiographical.
She insists the novel sprang mostly from her imagination. (…)
But like Jess, Ms. Oyeyemi said she knows well what it feels like to be an outsider, to fight
despair, to seek an authentic self. She attempted suicide at 15 by mixing pills, she said, and
despite attending multicultural schools, for a long time she never read black writers, and all
the characters in her stories were white.
“We didn’t understand that we could be in the stories,” she said of herself and her classmates
of color. “Or that people like us could be in the stories.”
“I never got particularly good marks for the stories I wrote,” she continued. “And I read them
over. And I started to see that in a fundamental sense they weren’t true. Not only were they
just not very good technically in terms of the writing, but there was something missing.”
Only when Nigeria came into her stories did things sound true, she recalled. She met Nigeria,
so to speak, through the novel “Yoruba Girl Dancing,” by Simi Bedford, about a Nigerian
girl in London dealing with assimilation issues.
Ms. Oyeyemi, the eldest of three children, came with her parents to London because her
father, now a special education teacher, was studying social sciences at Middlesex University.
They returned to Nigeria every summer.
Jess, she said, “represents this kind of new-breed kid, the immigrant diasporic kid of any
race who is painfully conscious of a need for some name that she can call herself with some
Source: New York Times, New York, July 2, 2005 (online edition)
Work on a total of three tasks.
Tasks 1 and 2 are compulsory. Choose one task from 3.
1 Outline Ms. Oyeyemi’s life as described in the text in no more than 150 words.
2 Briefly describe the author's attitude towards Ms. Oyeyemi and show how it is reflected
in her way of writing. (30 %)
3 A Discuss the conflict Ms. Oyeyemi finds herself in as an immigrant in Great Britain.
Refer to the text as well as to other material dealing with the situation of young immigrants
anywhere in the world which you are familiar with. (40 %)
3 B Both Ms. Oyeyemi and the narrator of her novel used to have / have imaginary
friends. Discuss possible reasons for creating figures like Chimmy and TillyTilly.
Refer to one or two similar imaginary characters in literature and / or film and possibly
your own experience. (40 %).
3 C A young woman, also of African or Caribbean descent and residing in London, has
read the interview with Ms. Oyeyemi and writes her a letter, commenting on her experiences
and comparing them with her own and those of people from minority backgrounds
in Great Britain in general. Write this letter. (40 %)
Send it to the following address:
Ms Helen Oyeyemi
London Borough of Lewisham
3 D On the basis of the text and other material you are familiar with discuss to what extent
Ms. Oyeyemi's success as a writer as well as her identity problems are a consequence
of globalization. (40 %)
You are expected to write at least 500 words in no more than 240 minutes.
Source: Berlin: Senatsverwaltung f. Bildung, Wissenschaft und Forschung