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Helen Oyeyemi: ‘Prague doesn’t want to be put into anyone’s story’


In the literary world, Helen Oyeyemi stands out as a writer who consistently captivates readers with her unique and imaginative storytelling. Born in Nigeria and raised in London, Oyeyemi’s literary prowess has earned her critical acclaim and prestigious accolades. Her latest novel, Parasol Against the Axe, marks a significant departure from her previous works as it is set in Prague, her home since 2014. This intriguing novel revolves around a weekend hen party and a mysterious book whose text changes with every opening.

The Genesis of Parasol Against the Axe

Oyeyemi’s inspiration for Parasol Against the Axe stemmed from her fascination with Prague, a city that has captivated and intertwined with her life. Inspired by books like Magic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino and the poetry of Vítězslav Nezval, Oyeyemi felt compelled to add her voice to the body of work about Prague. However, she faced the challenge of negotiating with the city, which resisted being portrayed in any story. Oyeyemi’s approach was to avoid creating a portrait of Prague and instead tell stories with the city as a backdrop. This negotiation process became the foundation for the novel.

The Creative Process and Navigating Reviews

Oyeyemi’s writing process for Parasol Against the Axe pushed her creative boundaries, requiring her to invent rapidly and convincingly. She acknowledged the anxiety of addressing a place she deeply loved without knowing how it felt about her. This uncertainty mirrored her feelings towards writing and literature, as she often questioned whether her work received any affection in return. Reviews, both positive and negative, have impacted Oyeyemi’s perception of her writing. She expressed her preference for negative reviews that demonstrate an understanding of her project’s parameters. She finds such reviews more insightful than generic praise that lacks substance.

The Importance of Storytelling and Language

Oyeyemi emphasized the significance of storytelling in fiction, stating that all writers of fiction engage in it. She believes that the way a story is told holds more allure for her than the subject matter itself. However, her openness to various storytelling styles has led her to encounter authors whose writing, while enjoyable, leaves her uncomfortable. Witold Gombrowicz and Milan Kundera are two such authors whose hierarchical perspective and disdain for certain behaviors resonated with Oyeyemi.

Discovering Books and Reading Preferences

When selecting books to read, Oyeyemi avoids synopses, preferring to open the book and read a few sentences to make her decision. She is drawn to the way a story is told rather than the subject matter. This approach makes her highly impressionable to certain writing styles. Oyeyemi recently enjoyed Rosalind Brown’s Practice, which she found compelling due to its ability to captivate readers with a simple act like walking across a room. She also recalled the profound impact of Ali Smith’s Hotel World, which inspired her to take three days off from school to read it under the covers.


Helen Oyeyemi’s literary journey is marked by her willingness to explore new creative territories and her ability to captivate readers with her unique storytelling style. Her latest novel, Parasol Against the Axe, is a testament to her talent and her deep connection with Prague. Oyeyemi’s insights into the writing process, her preferences as a reader, and her experiences with reviews provide valuable perspectives for aspiring writers and readers alike.