- Ghostly Girls in the "Eerie Bush":Helen Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl as Postcolonial Female Gothic Fiction
In his study African Oral Literature, Isidore Okpewho describes the Yoruba oral tradition of "tales told by hunters of extraordinary confrontations with supernatural creatures and spirits in the eerie bush" (305). A haunted forest or wasteland, the bush is a symbolic space where solitary male protagonists test their mettle and, implicitly, their masculinity. Okpewho goes on to discuss the bush as an important site and source for modern Yoruba writers such as D. O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola. Fagunwa's first and best-known novel, Ogbójú Ode Nínú Igbó Irúnmalè, was published in Yoruba in 1938 and translated into English as Forest of a Thousand Daemons by Wole Soyinka in 1968. The most famous examples from Tutuola's oeuvre are The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954). This article focuses on a recent addition to this trajectory of fantastical Yoruba writing on the bush. Helen Oyeyemi arguably ushers this historically male tradition into the new millennium with her debut novel The Icarus Girl (2005).
Like her literary predecessors, Oyeyemi characterizes the bush as a treacherous realm that must be carefully navigated. Specifically, the child protagonist Jessamy Harrison, a surviving twin, must traverse the bush in order to restore balance to her soul. Also like the bush landscapes of earlier writers, Oyeyemi's "wilderness of the mind" integrates Yoruba belief systems with Western myths, literatures, and technologies. In imagining a twenty-first-century version of the bush, Oyeyemi answers the call of the anonymous scribe at the end of Fagunwa's Forest of a Thousand Daemons: "You men and women of Yorubaland, the wisdom of others teaches us not to think an elder a madman—put the story of this book to wise use" (139). Oyeyemi puts the paradigmatic stories of her Yoruba "elders" to "wise use" and creates her own next generation narrative of the bush.
Admittedly, Fagunwa's Forest of a Thousand Daemons and Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts cannot be considered postcolonial novels in a temporal sense (post-1960 when Nigeria gained independence) and they are rarely considered postcolonial novels in the academic sense of "writing back" to European stereotypes and models. Nonetheless, these texts engage with and [End Page 21] critique the experience of colonization through the metaphorical landscape of the bush. Indeed, Fagunwa and Tutuola draw on but also manipulate European literary traditions such as Greek myth, Christian allegory, and the Spanish picaresque. These early Yoruba writers are thus implicitly postcolonial, even if their novels do not obviously fit that (notoriously abstract) category.
Critics Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin frame a definition of "postcolonial" in their foundational text The Empire Writes Back that would ostensibly include the works of Fagunwa and Tutuola: "We use the term 'post-colonial,' however, to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day" (2). Speaking of Fagunwa in relation to Soyinka, Karin Barber identifies postcolonial implications in the works of both writers, despite a persistent false dichotomy that relegates Fagunwa to a position outside of the politicized canon of postcolonial African literatures: "Both were writers; both drew on extensive written and oral sources for their own purposes; both dealt with the hybrid shifting world of colonial and post-independence Nigeria" (10). Certainly, "hybrid" Yoruba novels like Forest of a Thousand Daemons and The Palm-Wine Drinkard anticipate Oyeyemi's twenty-first century postcolonial novel—a strange but compelling portrait of the interracial Harrison family (white English father, black Nigerian mother, and mixed race child) and their efforts to bridge the gap between their respective homes, England and Nigeria.
Oyeyemi highlights hybridity as an ongoing site of inquiry and charts the individual and collective efforts of this family to dialogue across languages, literatures, and locations—English/Yoruba, Shakespeare/Soyinka, London/Lagos, and so on. In postcolonial theory, hybridity continues to be a catchphrase for cultural mixture and exchange. Homi Bhabha defines hybridity as "the construction of cultural authority within conditions of...