Helen Oyeyemi Finds the World of Her Novel on the Train
The Author of Peaces in Conversation with Kristin Iversen
Whereas the road trip novel has such a storied place in literature that it is its own genre, the train novel is notable for being somewhat on the margins, thanks to its firm association with mysteries and intrigue and not much else. Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Peaces, confronts this stereotype, playing with it before subverting it completely, all with a dizzying clarity.
Peaces is indeed set on a train, but while it contains no small amount of mystery and intrigue, at its core it is a romantic reckoning, and a provocation: What does it mean to really see someone?
In the novel, that question is both metaphorical and literal. As Otto and Xavier—and their mongoose, Arpad—embark on a train for their honeymoon, they are alone in their voyage, save for the train’s owner, Ava, and the two women who work for her. There is also one other, unexpected passenger, an inscrutable man named Prem whose intentions on the trip are not the only thing called into question—even his very existence is suspect to the others onboard.
But perhaps everyone is asking the wrong questions—not just in Peaces, but in general. This is what Oyeyemi challenges, the idea that things need to be understood in order to be experienced, that they need to be digested in order to be real. As the train in Peaces hurtles forward, its passengers grapple with the people they have encountered fleetingly in their own lives before rushing on to the next person, the next place, the next anything.
There’s a mercurial quality to this story, a reminder that what we see is only what we see in a specific moment; the outlines of things warp and bend and look different depending on the angle of the sun in the sky, the speed at which we’re passing them by. And yet, that doesn’t mean these things aren’t present, that their essence isn’t worth keeping close and carrying with us as we head to the next stop in our journeys.
I spoke with Oyeyemi about the appeal of the train novel, the distinction between truth and reality, and existential criminals.
Kristin Iversen: How much of the story did you already have in mind when you started Peaces? Did it have any specific contours in place as you began?
Helen Oyeyemi: I didn’t know what it was going to be. It might have been partly because I would have the excuse of taking lots of train trips as research, but I was very keen that this was going to be a train book. It became very much a question of atmosphere, that feeling of being on a train and not really knowing where you are at any given point and not really knowing where you’ve been. Once you pass the stations and have all of these names and associations passing by—you are there, but only for a millisecond, and you only to some extent remember where you have been. There’s a kind of slippage of time I liked.
KI: There are lots of slippery elements in Peaces, and very definite elements of the surreal, but then it’s also grounded in the most recognizable of emotions—of fear, of love, of intimacy, of the search to know yourself and to know the people who are closest to you. Did having this emotional core allow you to more easily explore whatever you wanted in the narrative, and include the more fantastical aspects of the story?
HO: There’s a certain confidence I have in the story when I know that emotions are the basis of it. And it felt like there was an opportunity to link the train journey with the ways that we sometimes use relationships to try and access self-knowledge or to define ourselves or to identify ourselves; our past relationships are sort of like stations that we pass through on the way to The One.
KI: Only it’s not always so easy to leave an ex behind as it is a passing station.
HO: There was something that kind of shimmered in a slightly creepy and cozy way about having one ex kind of refuse, and just be like, No, I don’t accept your breakup. I’m not just a station that you pass through—and like, really try and assert themselves into the present and actually to insist that they’re not the past, that they’re not even an ex, that they continue in the present tense.
I just think that a train is a great opportunity for that person to take their revenge, and gather everyone together. It’s kind of like a mystery where everyone’s gathered together and told who the criminal is, except they are being told that they are all criminals in some way—but like, existential criminals, because they had just cut this person off.
And so, the emotional spur is very much there. I felt it from the character that everyone talks about that nobody really sees, and also from the slowness with which they come to realize that they are all connected in this way. It just kept me on my toes in a way that was different from the other books I’ve written. It almost felt like it started to connect of its own accord—or maybe it was all directed by Prem. [laughs]
KI: Maybe it was! Maybe this conversation right now is being directed by Prem—whoever he is. Which, I found myself, while reading, reaching a point where I stopped trying to figure out who Prem is, or if he is real or not, because it didn’t really matter what the truth was—the reality was that he was a part of these people’s lives. I think that speaks to the constant tension within the novel of what is true versus what is real. How do you determine the difference between what’s true and what’s real in your writing?
HO: I think that that’s something that I feel like I’m very interested in, generally. I think that my main stance is that everything is real, but not everything is true. After that, you have to start trying to decide what is true and what is not. And one of the ways that we do that is by consensus, right? If the majority thinks it, then it’s true. And with Prem, that’s just not possible. And I think that that’s as painful to him as to the people who are trying to figure out who and what they’re even dealing with. Prem was fine, until Ava shows up and says there’s no one there. And then he’s like, Shit. She’s completely ruined his whole ego because how can you defend yourself? How can you protest and claim your existence? I’m interested in that kind of doubt in a shared reality.
KI: That doubt of a shared reality, which exists in the larger world, also exists so frequently in terms of our intimate partnerships. It’s like every time a relationship dies, one reality of who a person is just disappears—it only still lives in memories. There’s so much potential for loss of the self whenever you enter into a relationship, and that’s reflected so shatteringly in Peaces. While you were writing it, did it affect how you were interacting with other people in your life at all?
HO: I think I realized that I’m very sketchy in my own life in that way. It’s even things like talking with my sister and she remembers things that are actually big memories, and I’m just like, Do I remember that? Was I there? And she’s like, Yeah, you were there and you said this! I don’t remember these huge things, but other people do. And then I feel a weird guilt for it not being huge to me; it’s just these moments of absence. It’s kind of alarming, but maybe it’s just something in the nature of consciousness itself.
And actually, I don’t think that these absences undermine the relationship, I feel like it’s just important to acknowledge them and to keep the relationship honest in that way rather than pretend you remember everything. It’s actually not possible to be present all the time—no matter how desperately you want to be or need to be with the people who are most important to you. You are always kind of slipping away, and they are always sort of slipping away from you. But the main thing is to get back on the train tracks [laughs] and keep going along after checking out for a couple of seconds.
KI: I feel like I’m going to start seeing every relationship in my life as a metaphor for being on a train from now on. I’m not upset about it, I’m just very clearly realizing that. Everything’s compartmentalized!
HO: I just loved the whole concept of Otto and Xavier going on their honeymoon, and just having a ticket. And because they’re together, it doesn’t matter where they’re going—they’re just trying to go. In relationships, we don’t know what the destination is. The whole standard thing of “marriage and kids” is not where a relationship is taking me. It’s about how to be together—well, I don’t actually think longevity is meaningful, either. [laughs] It’s just about really being together. And you don’t know where that’s going to take you.
KI: The subversion of recognizable relationships in Peaces—whether it’s a couple going on a non-honeymoon honeymoon or very unorthodox family histories—feels so liberating and free. Was it fun to write this way, just doing unexpected things? Adding a mongoose or two to the story?
HO: There was something about Arpad coming in, because I didn’t know that was going to be a part of the story. And then that was like, Ok, this is here. Let’s keep going. There was something about Arpad and the way that he represented unexpected experiences. I spent the first third of the book worrying about having to deliver something plotwise, and then once I stopped worrying about that, I was having a blast—it was so much fun.
KI: You also included a theremin in the book, and I don’t know that I’ve ever read much about theremin playing.
HO: I think my very first encounter with it was when I had started writing Peaces, and I went to a concert and I think they probably mentioned that there was a theremin. I did not know what was happening—I just heard this music as I saw this woman moving her hands as if she were weaving. And I was like, What is this? No instrument?I feel like I’m going to start seeing every relationship in my life as a metaphor for being on a train from now on.
I felt like something was happening—an experience was happening because of the sound and the combination of her movements. And it was a particular juxtaposition of her stillness and the movement of her hands. I thought, I have to have it.
KI: It’s just the perfect instrument for this book in which you’re not really sure of what’s happening, even as you’re seeing it happening right in front of you, but you can’t understand it, really. So you just have to accept that you don’t always know what’s happening.
HO: Right, and that’s why it’s better to disagree on a story, than be like, this is the version.
KI: You’re never just going to get one true story, or one discrete ending. Things are going to be open and unfinished and experienced and remembered differently by different people—especially in relationships.
HO: There’s something sort of Jungian about the way that in some relationships there are archetypes that you’re carrying without being aware of carrying them, and when you meet another person, those archetypes come out and fight or love each other or do whatever they’re going to do. And then afterwards you go your separate ways and you’re both like, What happened?
KI: How much do you find that, when you’re writing a novel, it’s a reflection of whatever emotional state, whether conscious or subconscious, you are in at the time? Do you ever look back at your novels and think, Oh, that’s why I wrote that.
HO: It’s actually interesting because I have books I don’t like—I feel like I went and I did the best I could and that was fine. But, I don’t like them, because they were a mental exercise—an exercise in voice and style and what could be said and how. And then there are the ones that I just feel very proud of and love. And those have always been the ones that I’ve written in tune with what I’m emotionally feeling. So Mr. Fox, which I think is still like—one time, I was on a plane and I thought it was going to crash. And I was like, No, but at least I wrote Mr. Fox.
But, I wrote that at a time when I was terrified about being murdered by some man, just some random man I didn’t know. I just felt endangered by existing as I exist. I was drawn to the story of Bluebeard, because it’s the story of the wife-killer, and I found myself trying to write through that terror, and then becoming more interested in how stories are told, whose stories are told, and who gets to control the narrative and how that can be intercepted, and whether the person telling a story actually has authority over the story or whether it’s the other way around. I just got interested in all of these things, but the emotional notes of being afraid and pissed off and also kind of amused at how there’s always some element of violence to violence, like how we can’t actually extricate it, were all there. And with Gingerbread, I wanted to write something warm because it was right after Trump had been elected and there was the Brexit referendum and I just needed to pull something out of the oven to comfort myself and anyone who’s looking for that.
With Peaces, it’s just kind of me deciding that I am forever alone, so I’m going to send this couple on a honeymoon that makes me feel glad that I’m not in a relationship. And then, I fell for someone anyway. [laughs]