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Read The First Chapter Of Helen Oyeyemi's Fantastical New Novel "Gingerbread"

Harriet Lee's homemade gingerbread has something close to magical powers — but it's not enough to earn her entry into the social circle she most covets.

Posted on March 5, 2019, at 12:15 p.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Manchul Kim, Riverhead Books

Harriet Lee's gingerbread is not comfort food. There's no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.

If Harriet is courting you or is worried that you hate her, she’ll hand you a battered biscuit tin full of gingerbread, and then she’ll back away, nodding and smiling and asking that you return the tin whenever convenient. She doesn’t say she hopes you’ll enjoy it; you will enjoy it. You may think you don’t like gingerbread. Well... just try this. If you live low-­carb, she can make it with almond or coconut flour, and if you can’t have gluten, she’ll use buckwheat or millet flour, no problem.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it,” the gingerbread addict said. “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulphurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You’ve ruined my life forever. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” said Harriet.

She makes two kinds — the kind your teeth snap into shards and the kind your teeth sink into. Both are dark and heavy and look like they’ll give you a stomachache. So what? Food turns into a mess as soon as you chew it anyway. She sometimes tells people that she learned how to make the gingerbread by watching her mother and that the recipe is a family recipe. This is true, but it’s also edited for wholesomeness. Harriet’s mother, Margot, is no fan of gingerbread. She stood alone over her mixing bowl and stirred with the clenched fist of a pugilist.

Bambi-­eyed Harriet Araminta Lee seems so different from the gingerbread she makes. If she has an aura, it’s pastel-­colored. She’s 34 years old, is always slightly overdressed, and wears hosiery gloves when pulling on her tights so as not to snag them. She has a slight
Druhástranian accent that she downplays so as not to get exoticized, and she doesn’t like her smile. To be precise, she doesn’t like the way her smile photographs as forced. So smiling's out. But she doesn’t think she can sustain a sober look without seeming unfriendly, so she frequently switches between two expressions — one she thinks of as Alert and the other she thinks of as Accommodating, though she’s the only one who can tell the difference.

Since her name is far from uncommon, she’s encountered other Harriet Lees, Harriet Leighs, and Harriet Lis. Taken in aggregate, Harriet Leigh/Li/Lee is a hard nut, a pushover, thin-­skinned and refreshingly forthright, a hedonist and a disciplinarian. She’s met Harriet Lee who is a post office clerk by day and a stand‑up comedian at night, and she’s met Harriet Li the practicing psychoanalyst. She’s met Harriet Lee the Essex princess, Harriet Leigh the naval officer, and Harriet Li the sales assistant so rude that you make a note of her name so as to be able to tell the manager about her. The only thing our Harriet really feels she brings to the Harriet Li/Leigh/Lee brand is a categorical sincerity. Her gingerbread keeps and keeps. It outlasts all daintier gifts. Flowers wilt and shed mottled petals, mold blooms greenish-­white on chocolate truffles, and Harriet’s gingerbread hunkers down in its tin, no more attractive than the day it arrived, but no more repellent either.

The gingerbread recipe came down through Harriet’s father’s side of the family. It was devised by a person who became Harriet Lee’s great-­great-great-­grandmother by saving Harriet’s great-great-­great-grandfather’s life. In their time there was a clemency clause for those about to be publicly executed. Before he made you climb up onto the beam, the hangman took one shot at matchmaking on your behalf. Will any take this dross to wed? or whatever it was they said in those days. Marriage was purgatorial, purifying. All it took was for one member of the crowd to come forward and say that they would handle your rehabilitation. This was rare, but it did happen. And then the two of you were married at once so neither party could think better of it later.

She thought it something of a mercy for the gullible to die young, as being too often mistaken breaks the spirit.

Many viewed public executions in moral terms, or in quasi-­cosmic terms, as a gesture toward some sort of equilibrium. Others approached them as spectacle, but due to the clemency clause, public executions occupied a space in Harriet’s great-­great-­great-grandmother’s life not dissimilar to the blind dating and speed dating of today. Plenty of opportunity for a realist who has some idea of what she’s looking for. At the past five executions Great-­Great-­Great-­Grandma’s gut had told her no. But this time, situated as close to the scaffold as she could get, she found herself standing next to somebody sobbing into a deluxe handkerchief, and she thought it was interesting that the woman kept dabbing her face even though not a tear fell. Great-­Great-­Great-Grandma also found it interesting that the woman kept making hand signals to the man about to be executed, signals the man returned with authentic tears. The ragged reprobate and the lady in silk. And as his list of offenses was read out, it seemed to her that, while brutality had been a near-­unavoidable by‑product, the motivation was money. Great-Great-­Great-­Grandma eyed the lady in silk, who was listening with downcast eyes and her handkerchief held up to conceal what must surely be a smile. Great-­Great-­Great-­Grandma took another look at the ragged reprobate and bade him a silent farewell. She thought it something of a mercy for the gullible to die young, as being too often mistaken breaks the spirit.

But then, asked for his last words, Great-­Great-­Great-­Grandfather said he’d do it all again. His voice was so shaky he had to repeat himself a few times before anybody understood what he was saying. Could this man be any more terrible at lying? Great-Great-­Great-­Grandma put in her bid for him.

Family lore has it that they entertained each other very well, the pragmatist and the man who was almost too gullible to live. One had more patience, and the other had more resolve, and they were about even when it came to daring, so their love established possibilities and impossibilities without keeping score. They settled on caretaking a farm, raised grain crops for the farm’s owner, and lived very much at the mercy of a climate that would exhibit dazzling beneficence for three or four years in a row and then suddenly take back all its gifts, parching and flooding and freezing the land or reaching through the soil with a gray hand that strangled growth at the root. The abundance of a good harvest overwhelmed the family with glee and trepidation — it put a bone-­cracking temporal pressure on them, like raking in gold that rots.

As for the lean years... Harriet’s great-­great-­greats shunned both prayer and provocation. They had talked it over, and nature struck them as an entity that was either cruel or mad. Not caring to attempt communication with it, they merely sought not to offend it. They kept having more children, so there were always about 15, including the ones on their way in or on their way out. The gingerbread recipe is one of the lean-­year recipes, and it stands out because the lean-­year recipes are all about minimizing waste and making that which is indigestible just about edible. None of it tastes good save the gingerbread, which is exactly as delicious as it has to be. Blighted rye was the family’s food of last resort, and the jeopardy in using it was so great that it made Great-­Great-­Great-­Grandma really think about how to take the edge off. Out came the precious ingredients, the warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, the best saved for last. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs. Often that didn’t happen — often the strenuous sifting of the grain expelled just enough ergot to make this an ordinary meal as opposed to a last meal. But just in case, just in case, gingerbread made the difference between choking down risk and swallowing it gladly.

That temporary subtraction of fear still gives Harriet’s mother goose bumps. It is a veiling of alternatives, a way of making sure you don’t reject the choice Mother’s made for you. No matter what, you will not starve. She has a hunch that over the years, usage of this recipe has always fallen on the shadow side of things. In her own time, Margot Lee replaced the roulette rye flour with flour from wheat blighted by weather and worm. Nothing that would make anybody sick, just inferior grain that couldn’t be sold in the usual way. And Margot never did sell the gingerbread, though it brought her useful things through barter. Information, goodwill, and yes, on at least one occasion, compliance. Gingerbread was all she had to offer in exchange for these things, and all she had to spare.

When Harriet looks through the recipe, she sees the pragmatist and the ideologue joining hands and smiling tiredly at each other. Her version is baked with all organic ingredients, in a West London kitchen awhir with modern appliances. Everything has changed except the gingerbread, which is both trick and treat. This wouldn’t worry Emerson, with his “All things have two handles.” Though he does add: “Beware of the wrong one.” Harriet can never quite tell which handle she offers her own gingerbread by. She’s had even less clarity since her daughter, Perdita, who was born at the end of a week in November when the trees called heads or tails and let their leaves spin like red pennies as they fell. Perdita loves gingerbread and used to plead so sadly and sweetly for more. This after having already polished off a whole tin and in spite of her grandmother telling her, “That’s enough for you, Fatty Pigsticks.” The nickname wasn’t very funny in the first place, and over a period of months it fell out of use as Perdita grew gaunt and feeble.

When Margot observed that the gingerbread was “doing something” to Perdita, Harriet said it couldn’t be the gingerbread; it could be any of a number of foods Perdita ate. Some weeks later, when it was no longer possible to deny that gingerbread was all Perdita ate, Harriet said there must be a tapeworm involved and tried various concoctions and home remedies. Margot elected not to sit through a performance of Death by Gingerbread; the soul-­cravings of a 6-­year-­old didn’t move her in the slightest. She sought medical opinion, obtained a diagnosis, and made it clear that if Harriet ever fed Perdita gluten again, she’d do her for child abuse. Now Perdita only eats gingerbread in her dreams, as the rye version is the only one for her. She’ll probably always be a little bit underweight, and her hair remains gray. It turned that color when she was sick, so now it matches Harriet’s and Margot’s. Pearl-­pale hair and bark-­brown skin. From a distance Margot, Harriet, and Perdita Lee look like three grannies. Then you get closer and see their unlined faces.

Looking back, Harriet is still aghast that

Perdita kept asking for gingerbread.
She, Harriet, kept making more.

Perdita went from asking for more to demanding more, even as her bowels stretched and scrunched up, even as iron was leached from her blood. Harriet kept making more.

Margot has already filed away this episode under a combination of fairly prosaic categories: masochism, celiac disease, and a maniacally obliging mother. But Margot only thinks that that’s how things work with Perdita because Perdita is usually quite ordinary around her. Margot wasn’t there the time Perdita’s dolls started complaining about a story she was reading aloud to them. The dolls asked Perdita how she’d like it if somebody read them the same story seven nights in a row. They asked Perdita if she was trying to drive them crazy. They shouted through their nostrils, like Susie Greene in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Harriet looked up from the essays she’d been marking, let out a startled laugh, and looked over at Perdita, who grinned the jack‑o’-­lantern grin her mother loves so well. Co‑conspiracy began.

Harriet watches Perdita in the crush at the school gates and intuits that Perdita is neither liked nor disliked by her classmates; she is merely disregarded.

That was ten years ago. Perdita is now almost seventeen, and careful with her words, she speaks them as if setting each sentence in print. She may begin to express delight, or to denounce somebody or other, before stopping mid-­sentence, looking around in a slightly dazed way, and finishing with: “Huh... it doesn’t matter anymore...” Harriet has never met anyone quite as preoccupied with ephemerality as her daughter is. She wouldn’t change Perdita, but there is peril in these diversions. Harriet watches Perdita in the crush at the school gates and intuits that Perdita is neither liked nor disliked by her classmates; she is merely disregarded. Harriet has heard Perdita ask a question and seen the answer directed at somebody else without a skipped beat, as if the question came from the other girl. Perdita doesn’t seem to mind this or to sense that she is in danger of losing her right to corporeality. On the contrary, she purposefully deflects attention. When someone accidentally speaks to her, she just shakes her head. If they still won’t take the hint, she’ll add, “No, I’m not here,” in a gentle way rather than a snippy one.

A couple of years ago, Perdita auditioned for her school talent show. She spent weeks arranging the notes of G‑Dragon’s “Black” for optimal flute-­playing. Harriet looked up an English translation of the lyrics. The first words were “The color of my heart is black...”

Undaunted by her failure to qualify for the preliminary round of the talent show, Perdita performed the piece for Harriet and Margot one midsummer night, a velvet-­clad Titania swaying between lit candelabras. She needed a little percussion, which her mother provided by rapping her knuckles against the tabletop, but otherwise Perdita’s was a minimalist rendition of the original, as much silence as it was song. The notes had this aural flash to them... it was like glimpsing a swan through reeds. It made no impact when placed alongside the rambunctious charms of her classmates’ capoeira routines, comedic rap battles, and inexplicably moving impersonations of Ariana Grande impersonating Céline Dion. But when Perdita played her cover song for Margot and Harriet, they called for an encore. Which was, of course, completely out of the question.

Perdita considers Harriet’s effort to take part in her surroundings excessive. Whenever they pass people happily taking selfies in front of some landmark and Harriet steps in to take an additional picture, Perdita says, “We talked about this.” Harriet stops people she sees struggling with surplus shopping, and she tapes the handles of their carrier bags together with washi tape so they won’t lose anything. Perdita calls upon her mother to repent, and Harriet repenteth not. She points out that tryhards rarely get enough traction to make a significant nuisance of themselves. For instance: Perdita’s school has a PPA, a Parental Power Association instead of a Parent Teacher Association, and, determined to take her own place in this pantheon, Harriet filled nine tins with gingerbread, wrapped rainbow-­colored ribbon around each tin, and attached notecards with the names of each PPA member.

Every single one of the PPA members left the tins on, under, or behind their chairs without even opening them, leaving Harriet to wonder whether she had caused offense by misspelling names or misidentifying people — she could have been more diligent. She’d been a bit tired when she wrote the notecards, her head full of the GCSE coursework she’d sat up all night correcting. Even so, effort was not the issue. When she told her mother about it, Margot said: “This is sounding exactly like the time you kept saying, ‘It can’t be the gingerbread,’ when it was the gingerbread. It really, really was.”

Gioia Fischer, head of the PPA, wears no scent and no makeup apart from a touch of berry-­red lipstick; her chestnut-­colored hair bounces from scalp to shoulder, and she exudes well-­being with an aggression that’s difficult to deflect; before you know it, her health is arm-­wrestling yours. Her living room is a sort of delirium of blue and white, like fighting your way through clouds on a mountain peak. Harriet arrived half an hour early for the meeting, and all the other PPA members were already there in their heartbreakingly casual clothing; catwalk casual, really. They traded gossip and witticisms and current affairs commentary, and Harriet stared and listened. They talked about Felix Nguyen’s parenting blog, which seemed to be all about raising twin boys in adherence to a family tradition of “supreme banter” (SO FUNNY, FELIX... almost wet myself. And if I had, I’d have sent you the drycleaning bill, mate). Harriet looked up the blog on her phone — access password-­protected, yes, of course it was. And as these beautiful people talked, they politely discarded the tins of gingerbread that had been forced on them out of the blue.

Gioia ran through a list of items and repairs the PPA intended to make contributions toward. Harriet can’t remember if she made any fundraising suggestions or not. She does remember picking up her gingerbread and making another attempt to force it on one of the more approachable PPA members. The biscuit tin fell into the void between Harriet’s outstretched arms and Abigail’s folded ones, and gingerbread tiles spilled out, tessellating with an air of intelligent design. There was so much of it, and it all fitted together so fastidiously... it was spreading, and it had to be stopped. Houses are houses and biscuits are biscuits and people are people, and we all know nothing good comes of relaxing boundaries such as these. This is the only reason Harriet can think of for the mass trampling. Gioia bellowed, “Er, excuse me,” a couple of times, then gave up when she saw the damage had been done. Harriet spent the rest of the PPA meeting on her knees, dustpan and brush in hand as she chased clumps of sand-colored powder into corners and under tables.

Harriet thought they must be famous, the other parents. She found their faces familiar, and they were either indifferent or accustomed to being gawked at. Days later, walking through the lobby of Perdita’s school, she stopped before the wall with all the photos of previous prefects on it, and there they were, every single member of the PPA laughing together in a 21-­one-­year-­old photo. Gioia Marchesi (now Gioia Fischer), Emil Szep, Abigail Klein, Hyorin Nam, Gemma Jones (now Gemma Ahmad), Felix Nguyen, Noah Finlay, Alesha Thomas (now Alesha Matsumoto), Mariama Guled Ismail. Then, as now, each was an appealing example of a physical type, utterly at ease with his or her genes and with one another. Collectively they were an embodiment of Cool Britannia before the concept had even had a name. And this set of parents certainly is one body — it’s impossible to speak to any of them individually. Group communication or deafening silence... your choice.

Harriet can see why the other parents don’t bother with the PPA. Harriet has asked about her fellow PPA members’ kids, has seen the offspring around, has not stalked them, not exactly... they’re Perdita’s classmates. There are eleven of them in all, including two sets of twins, one identical and one fraternal, every base covered. And they’re shaping up nicely to be members of another impenetrable in‑crowd. So Harriet maintains her point, which is that joining isn’t a question of effort or overextension thereof. You miss your chance to join several generations before birth.

She wants to know how it feels to be absolutely sure that you haven’t done anything wrong.

Still... does Harriet want in? Fuck yes. Imagine the sense of invulnerability! What must it be like to clock that someone’s staring at you and feel no concern? She wants to know how it feels to be absolutely sure that you haven’t done anything wrong. She’s not intimidated either — she doesn’t believe for a second that these people aren’t tryhards just like her. They’re tryhards who succeed, that’s all. Their striving is never past tense; it’s merely concealed. Harriet’s close reading of body language at the PPA meetings tells her that Abigail and Mariama are exes, the kind who can’t work out why they aren’t still together and send their current partners into spirals of paranoia whenever they meet up.

Emil and Hyorin are not amused by the way that Noah pervs on Gemma, but they let it go because, against all odds, Gemma likes it. Alesha backs up everything Felix says out of fear, while Felix backs up everything Alesha says out of fondness. This could be down to a couple of specific incidents, or they could’ve been misreading each other for years. Harriet sees all this and more, and she supposes these factors could be used by a newcomer to destabilize the group. But Harriet would never do that! Well, she might, actually, for their own good. Much can be improved through reorganization.

Harriet and Perdita live in five affordable rooms of a house that has monumental staircases and no lift, which is where the affordability comes in. Each step is so large that climbing the staircases takes more than just walking up; it’s also necessary to spring, scramble, and wriggle. This upsets delivery people and is more exercise than Margot Lee likes, but she has a soft spot for houses that look sensible until you get inside. There’s lion-­print wallpaper to look at on every floor. When visiting her kid and grandkid, Margot brings a book and sits down to read a little at each of her rest stops on the second, third, and sixth floors. Then, one more flight up and she arrives at Harriet and Perdita’s front door, swaps her outdoor shoes for a pair of slippers, and is admitted to their cheerfully warped matchstick box of a home, where a velvet forest stands between the rooms and their casement windows.

Margot made these curtains herself, embroidering them with vine-­like patterns that seem to lengthen in the mornings and retract at night. Above those, silver satin parasols have been turned inside out to take the place of chandeliers — light bulbs dangle from their spokes. On the kitchen wall there’s a black-­and-­white photo of a gingerbread man in an antique frame, a jumble-­sale find from a decade earlier. The photo has an outdoor setting; the gingerbread man is posed so it looks like he’s ambling through foliage with his gingerbread knapsack, off to see the world. Once, when Perdita was little, she took the photo into school and told everyone the man pictured was her father. She sounded so much in earnest that nobody knew what to say. Perdita’s teacher got tears in her eyes telling Harriet about it and flinched when Harriet laughed.

On an evening when Perdita’s away on a school trip, Harriet sits in front of her computer eating sample squares of lavender shortbread and practicing her favorite form of procrastination: writing highly positive reviews of her eBay, Etsy, and Amazon purchases. Five stars for everybody. She didn’t finish one of the books she just gave five stars to. She just liked the author photo. Five stars for the portrait photographer, then. She’s been doing this ever since some of her students told her they do this with one-­star reviews. Opposing random negativity with random positivity — that’s the main thing. She sips some bitter melon tea; the shortbread is just a little too sweet. When she’s run out of synonyms for the word “fabulous,” she visualizes a message from Gioia. Hi, it’s Gioia. Just broke my Lenten fast with your gingerbread, and all I can say is wizzy wow. We need this to be part of the fundraising bazaar. Not want, need. I won’t take no for an answer. How much can you make? Also, do you want to go bowling with us?

OK, maybe not bowling, but an invitation to something.

In the absence of that message, Harriet drafts an email to the entire PPA, to Gioia, Felix, Emil, Abigail, Hyorin, Gemma, Mariama, Alesha, Noah. It is both rant and unanswerable questionnaire. WHAT ARE YOU ALL SO AFRAID OF? Harriet types. Why won’t you try
the gingerbread? Are you looking down on me because you think all I have is a handful of flour?

But Harriet has this friend... well, she doesn’t know if Gretel’s still her friend; she isn’t sure where Gretel is and doesn’t know what Gretel is doing right now, but sometimes she receives an opinion from Gretel, an opinion just as clear as if Gretel’s phoned her up and said the words herself. Harriet likes the thought of occasionally bursting in on Gretel’s thoughts too, advising on all sorts of situations she couldn’t possibly be aware of. This time her psychic projection of Gretel calmly and coolly looks over the email Harriet’s about to send. Send it if you want, the projection says. They won’t reply. It is all pork in different sauces.

Psychic-­projection Gretel has been doing this a lot lately. Giving apathetic counsel. It’s as if she knows Harriet doesn’t pay her as much heed as she used to.

A word of advice, Gretel: You’re losing authority. Shouldn’t you put in an actual appearance instead of just talking?

Chop chop — now’s the time. What do you mean, why now...

...there’s never been a better time than the present. As you know, as you know.

Harriet’s lights flicker, and she hears feet on the long flight of stairs between the sixth and the seventh floors. Skip, step, hop, skip, step, hop, and quick exhalations, hfff hfff hfff. But otherwise a dauntless ascent. Long, long strides.

Harriet listens with nothing in her mind but ?!?!

Skip, step, hop, Gretel. Skip, step, hop, Gretel. Skip, step, hope and hope and hope—

WHAT ARE YOU ALL SO AFRAID OF? Harriet types. Why won’t you trythe gingerbread?

This is part and parcel of living at the top of seven steep staircases. Princess‑in‑a‑tower syndrome sets in. You expect momentous visitors, since those are the only kind who would take the time and trouble to seek you out. Visitations from fate or from one you long to behold. But Harriet might do well to bar the door. If the climb from first to seventh floors isn’t a big deal for Gretel Kercheval, that could be because the longest climb was the one that brought her to the first floor. The silver lights flicker again, and the stitched vines grow across the windows, grow toward one another. The vines do that sometimes, become a bridge with one tread of its deck missing. Twenty years. Gretel might be dour at first, mostly because of the bother of having to inform her grievances they must part ways. She never was able to surrender a feeling without a review of its peaks and low points.

Harriet stands by the front door with a corner of a shortbread square poking out of her mouth like a stylized tongue. She doesn’t remember standing up and walking across the flat: she was in her chair, and now she’s at the door, that’s all. She listens as two feet settle on the top step. The puffing stops.

She covers both eyes with her hands for an instant before looking through the peephole. No Gretel. But she’d come close. There must have been something Harriet could’ve done on her end. She should have gone to meet her guest halfway, and she would have, if she wasn’t wearing slippers and a baggy T‑shirt that reads "Fried in Butter." Nothing remarkable has ever happened to anybody while they were wearing a T‑shirt that reads "Fried in Butter."

Harriet opens the door, and it is just her, the smell of her downstairs neighbor’s potato pancakes, and tawny lions embossed onto navy blue wallpaper. Each one hails her solemnly, with upheld paws. The lions seem sorry that Gretel isn’t here. The square of shortbread falls into her palm. Gretel would have leaned forward and drawn it into her own mouth with her greeting kiss — soft lips, sharp teeth. And then she would have said: “More.”

Harriet deletes her draft message to the PPA and texts Perdita instead: How’s Canterbury? Everything OK? Perdita sends her a thumbs‑up emoji.

Harriet:

• makes dinner for one and plans the lesson for the class she’s teaching the following day: Spotlight on Lady Macbeth, she’s calling it. “Out, out, damned spotlight,” the class will not say.

• responds to her mother’s flustered inquiry about what to do if you’ve accidentally “superliked” someone on Tinder and then discovered that the accidental superlike has superliked you too (also accidentally?).

• checks that her bag is filled with the essentials she’ll need for the next morning, including the gingerbread with which she bribes a librarian in the Wellcome Library reading room to keep watch over her window seat of choice

• googles Druhástrana, but there’s nothing new. The top result is the Wikipedia page, like it always is.

Druhástrana (druhástranae) is the name of an alleged nation state of
indeterminable geographic location. Very little verifiable information
concerning Druhástrana is available, as there have been several prominent cases of stateless people claiming Druhástranian citizenship under a
form of poetic license, and other, yet more unfortunate cases in which
claims to Druhástranian citizenship or ancestry have been proven to result
from false memories or flawed cognitive information.

Even when credible witnesses have described flying over or sailing
past an island that could be identified as Druhástrana, there is conflicting
data as to whether the island is currently inhabited and further conflict as
to who or what the island may be inhabited by. Reports include “a bearlike species clothed in human fashion,” “some form of lizard,” and “beings
either long dead or not visible to the human eye.” To date, Druhástrana
has been formally recognized by only three nations. (See: Czech Republic,
Slovakia, and Hungary.) Slovakia revoked recognition of Druhástrana
without explanation on January 1, 2010, and Hungary followed suit on
January 1, 2013.

Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana
as a purely notional/mythical land since a) nobody seems to actually come
from there or know how to get there and b) literal interpretations of the
assertion that Druhástrana exists may be a profound mistranslation of
Czech humor.

The article is peppered with footnotes that link to a number of essays available online:

“I Belong to Druhástrana, Republic of Beauty,” by Guadeloupe Moreno, translated by Drahomíra Maszkeradi

“I Belong to Druhástrana, Republic of Freedom,” by Anele Ndaba

“I Belong to Druhástrana, Republic of Justice,” by Tansy Adams

“I Belong to Druhástrana, a Republic That Is Judging You All,” by Nimrod Tóth, translated by Drahomíra Maszkeradi

“Nimrod Tóth Does Indeed Belong to Druhástrana, a Republic of Breathtaking Hypocrisy,” by Simeon Vesik, translated by Drahomíra Maszkeradi

Harriet has lots to tell Gretel too. About Margot and the Kercheval men: Aristide, Gabriel, Rémy, and Ambrose, four walls of a charmed prison. But the Wikipedia entry for Druhástrana would be the first thing Harriet would show her friend, followed by a selection of maps and atlases that almost uniformly substitute Druhástrana’s spot on the globe with unmarked stretches of ocean. Then she’d show Gretel photographs from her trip to the one country where Druhástrana does appear on maps. The average Druhástranian has only ever heard tell of the Czech Republic, so Harriet and Margot Lee took a trip there and had a look around. Cream cakes and amber glass, concentrations of
cigarette smoke (a blue-­gray mist curled out onto the street every time a pub door opened), grim light pressing down on grass so that whole fields of green stalks lean to one side, rainfall that seemed semi-­divine in nature, blurring and brightening the faces of the statues.

And then there were those street-­corner skirmishes — three times Margot and Harriet had held onto each other so as to stay upright in a sudden wave of starched shirts and petticoats as masked men and women appeared out of nowhere, fought with axes made out of balloons, and then ran away crowing into the night, leaving the fallen where they lay, popped balloons strewn all around like burst lungs. Nobody would explain the skirmishes to Margot and Harriet, so Harriet decided they were reenactments of some key battle of antiquity and Margot decided they were prophecies of a battle to come. By the time they crossed off the last cathedral on their list and stood before an altar contemplating a Virgin Mary garlanded with precious stones and grinning an unnervingly modern grin (the kind of grin one stereotypically attributes to corporate fat cats when they’re among close friends), by the time they were standing before that altar, Margot and Harriet didn’t know what to make of Czechia and the fact that it’s a place that doesn’t get called notional or mythical, while Druhástrana does. They’ll always appreciate the acknowledgment, though. Having glanced through the literature, it’s their understanding that Druhástrana wasn’t a favorite with the Czech travelers who somehow found their way there. Most describe it as “nightmarish.” But at least they don’t dismiss it.

Harriet stands in the doorway of Perdita’s bedroom before she goes to bed herself. The room is almost entirely four-­poster bed, with a doll at each post, guarding the inner sanctum, where Perdita dances, reads, sleeps, does her homework, watches TV, swigs cold tea from a hip flask, and so on. Harriet likes to look in even when Perdita isn’t there,
because Perdita’s dolls have grown with her, and living with them is like having four bonus daughters. When Perdita’s among her dolls, she is part of a clique of willowy teens with exactly the same shade of improbably perfect skin. Perdita calls them Bonnie, Sago, Lollipop, and Prim. Their names match the plants they bear... it was Margot and Perdita who removed Bonnie’s hands at the wrist and replaced them with a pair of bonsai elm trees with leaves that separate into finger-­like bunches. And Margot said to Harriet: “Whenever you begin to find Perdita too odd, just think how odd I find you.”

Sago has feathery palm leaves for hair, and Lollipop’s golden beehive hairdo is a Pachystachys lutea shrub. Prim’s open chest cavity is a dormant green right now, but for 12 weeks of the year, pink-­and-white primrose petals emerge. The dolls haven’t got anything to say about these changes. They had these names before they changed, so maybe they already knew. ●

Copyright © 2019 by Helen Oyeyemi​.​ From Gingerbread ​by ​Helen Oyeyemi​ (Riverhead, March 5, 2019)


Helen Oyeyemi is the author of the story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, along with five novelsmost recently Boy, Snow, Bird, which was a finalist for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She received a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award and a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists. Gingerbread is available now.

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