Boy, Snow, Bird: The Power of Retelling
Helen Oyeyemi is a gifted young writer of contemporary fairy tales. She wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while she was still a high school student, and is now a prize-winning and bestselling author. In her retellings, she utilizes fairy tale tropes, doppelgängers, and the uncanny with a contemporary and critical approach. In Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi’s exquisite and richly-descriptive scenarios transport her readers into the magical story of Snow White, but all throughout, the magic is interrupted by envious characters, trickery, and racist behaviors—a constant reminder about our society’s propagation of racial inequality.
In her retelling of Snow White, Oyeyemi hints at the fairy tale’s main theme all throughout, but with an added twist that challenges the way society treats people: there is either black or white, good or bad, beautiful or not beautiful. While Snow White worships appearance and attributes fairness to whiteness—often describing the character’s beautiful pale skin and red lips—Oyeyemi questions common definitions of beauty, calling attention to the negative impacts of racial discrimination. In her version, the white girl, Snow, “is not the fairest of them all;” instead, the fairest is the black girl, Bird (Snow’s half-sister).
The mirrors in Boy, Snow, Bird present “convincing and yet conflicting images.” They seem to be untrustworthy. Interestingly, Bird is unable to see her own reflection in the mirror, and shatters it, irritated that it shows, instead, “bits of faces” that aren’t hers. Through Bird, Oyeyemi might be highlighting the need to change society’s hegemonic definition of beauty. Bird sees beyond race. She dresses as Alice in Wonderland, for example, and is frustrated when people mistaken her costume for a housekeeper or washerwoman.
Oyeyemi’s characters feel the need to pass as white, repressing a part of who they are. Even their names echo whiteness: the Whitmans remind us of white man. The setting is also dominantly white: they live in Flax Hill, a town where “snow [comes] down heavily.” Oyeyemi calls attention to white privilege and to racial limitations imposed by society: Olivia Whitman enjoys the opera, but the only reason she feels comfortably there is because she passed as white. Besides her, the only black person in the opera is the stagehand to prevent the (white) performers from being injured. Also, a black man is denied membership to the Flax Hill Country Club, with the excuse that the club is already full. But Gerald Whitman, who is standing behind him in line, is able to join, for he is passing as white. The Whiteman family constantly tries to hide their heritage, and go to the extent of sending away their daughter who is unable to pass as white. Olivia Whitman is “worried about unsavory characters from her past showing up to damage her reputation.”
Oyeyemi plays with genre, and includes in her story elements of fairytales, folktales, magic realism, and historical realism. In her novel, readers will find hints of American history, like the Civil Rights Movement and reference to Emmett Till, fairytale tropes, like the mirror, collective storytelling, which is an African tradition, and references to folktales, like High John the Conqueror. She weaves history and culture, connecting readers throughout time and place, calling attention to the ongoing and widespread existence of racial discrimination.
Boy, Snow, Bird is an innovative retelling of Snow White that addresses significant contemporary issues. Characters deal with abusive parents, white privilege, and hidden pasts. Oyeyemi guides her readers through the life of an African-American family who passes as white in order to hide their true heritage. Through unsettling characters and situations, Oyeyemi raises awareness of racial issues and of hegemonic definitions of beauty which go back generations. As we read, it is impossible not to flinch at the absurdities characters say or witness. But if we stop to think, the absurdities in Boy, Snow, Bird are merely a reflection of our society. We witness and perpetrate racial discrimination every day, whether explicitly or through microaggressions. Regardless, it must be addressed, and literature is often a powerful vehicle to initiate change. Boy, Snow, Bird is a page-turner. It is intriguing, innovative, and yes, it is definitely provocative and vexing. But if society isn’t disturbed, nothing ever changes.
Find out more about the author and her work here.
By Marcia Ramos