This book was beautiful. I was partway through Deathless when I picked it up and well, I still haven’t finished Deathless, and I finished “White is for Witching” over a week ago. Helen Oyeyemi is an author who doesn’t talk down to her readers but it doesn’t come across as if she’s trying to come across as an intellectual or forge an active crusade for social justice yet she still manages to do both by sheer virtue of her writing. For one thing, she’s very young, only a decade older than I am, and lacks the airs many older writers exude and simply writes in an extraordinarily fluid manner. And for another, Oyeyemi succeeds in writing a story about race and gender and sexuality without coming across as tokenized because the crux of the matter is that those traits aren’t tokens. A white man is seen as the universal norm and I can’t really rationalize why a black woman isn’t since love and anger and sadness aren’t individualized sentiments, they’re what bring us together in this mortal coil of humanity, no matter what our backgrounds may be. I think this idea can be summarized with this excerpt from the narrative:
“Look at me.
Will you not?
It is useful, instructive, comforting to know that you are not alone in your history.
So I have done you good
Above all, the overarching trait of humanity that we crave validation; we want to belong in the world as it is, even if we simultaneously crave to be seen as exceptional. The purpose of literature is to teach us empathy for those who aren’t like us, to remind us that we are not alone; Dostoyevsky felt like we did 200 years ago, and Virgil felt the same way 2000 years ago, and that most of all, literature assures us that our humanity will not isolate us.
“White is for Witching” is about people first and foremost, the tale of two twins, Miranda (called Miri) and Eliot, their deceased mother Lily, their housekeeper Sade, Miri’s college friend Ore, and most interestingly, the house itself. It’s a ghost story, not specifically concerning the spirits straight out of a dinky corner Halloween costume store, drowning in garish makeup and sweltering masks but of the ghosts we don’t like to talk about, which are far too raw and sensitive to discuss without immersing them in art. With a glance at the Goodreads reviews, many are blazingly derisive of the novel and denigrate it as “overtly intellectual” and “impossible to comprehend,” but I don’t think it’s Oyeyemi’s responsibility to write in a way that’s accessible to the masses and to shame a novel as intellectual is something out of a Dystopian novel. The purpose of media as a whole is to be understood, but for a work to take time to process isn’t the same as it being ludicrously dense to the point of pretention and unreadability. As I’ve said before, humanity and all its facets are complex; racism and love and sexuality aren’t possible to constrain in designated boxes of black and white, and I’m not inclined to condemn an author who gives those topics the nuance they warrant.
The mood of the novel is actually extraordinarily light for the range of topics it covers, which is why I found it so readable despite its denseness. For instance, Miri suffers from an obscure eating disorder called Pica that serves as a metaphor for other issues in the novel, and the descriptions of it are borderline triggering to read about especially with the repeated metaphor of placing salt on open wounds. But I think accusations of it being “Ivory Tower Fodder” for its supposed checkmarks for literary political correctness are way off mark; the thing is that almost nobody in the Ivory Tower is comfortable enough with themselves to make themselves so vulnerable as to process relationships in the manner explored in the novel. The conceptualization of the world as a fairy tale with us as the main characters is how to come to terms with the world as it is, but it’s also borderline taboo since it’s what children do before it’s beaten out of them by so-called rationality. We’re supposed to be okay with the world and know how to deal with its trials and tribulations without resorting to compartmentalizing it into different parts of our mind and using our long suppressed imagination to come to terms with it but the fact is, those who are most at ease in the world are those who can tie together those disjoint aspects of our being.
Oyeyemi articulates the beauty of daily life amidst the tragedy and destruction that surrounds us, since in the words of Warsan Shire, we may smell of war and running but we still crave love and peace. Almost nobody thrives in painful discord, and the book didn’t hesitate to remind us of that, even when we’ve become so conditioned to fighting that we forget it ourselves. In a sense, we’re all the girl who wants out of a fairy tale she never asked for in the first place, the boy who has no idea how to be the prince but is such a good liar he even fools himself, the woman who was never given the opportunity to be the princess in the first place, and we intrinsically relate to the manner in which they all meld together.
“Her throat is blocked with a slice of apple
(to stop her speaking words that may betray her)
her ears are filled with earth
(to keep her from hearing sounds that will confuse her)
her eyes are closed, but
her heart thrums hard like hummingbird wings.”
It’s written in poetry because prose can’t say what needs to be said sometimes. In short, the novel about the importance of fighting an unseen battle with ourselves and coming to terms with the world at large, about unblocking the obstacles we can foresee, and protecting ourselves blindly from those we cannot. I don’t know if I’m conveying my appreciation for the novel exactly how it’s meant to be lauded but I don’t think if that’s a requirement for this work in particular. It’s open to interpretation and the narrative itself invites ambiguity so unzip yourself and feel safe in digesting “White is for Witching,” or at least try to.