by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Recently, I made the claim that perhaps we can read Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching through the lens of structural sexism, where the multi-generational female characters–most especially Miranda–are trapped in the domestic sphere not through overt actions taken directly against them by individual actors, but, rather, by a system of social practices that limits their opportunities for other, different, nonnormative possibilities.
The novel does not describe obviously sexist characters. It does not link oppression or repression directly to sexual difference. It does not depict characters of any sex or gender who intentionally belittle, reject, or even grant sympathy to some or remain skeptical toward others because of their sex or gender.
As well, though, there seems little in the novel to attach it to a critique of structural or institutional sexism. The novel does not depict a society in which the public and private spheres are organized around the subordination of some members based primarily on their sexual difference. Gender does not seem to determine the life experiences of these characters. It plays a part in their lives, but it is not determinate. Miranda gets accepted into Cambridge, her mother is an international photojournalist, her father is a respected chef who manages their bed and breakfast and later writes a cookbook, and her twin brother, who does not get accepted into Cambridge, is a photographer who likes to bake. Gender seems one aspect of their lives.
Yet, something there is about gender, sexuality, race, and lineage that haunts this fragmented, fractured, chaotic, circular novel, broken into three uneven sections, and narrated almost randomly by different characters, including the family home.
White is for Witching is a partly-Gothic, partly-queer book focused on the Silver family, their ancestral house turned bed and breakfast in Dover, England, and their relations with their housekeepers, local immigrants and refugees, and extended family in France. Miranda Silver and her twin brother Eliot live with their father Luc in Dover. Miranda’s mother, Lily, has just been shot dead while on a photography assignment in Haiti. Miranda develops Pica soon after learning of her mother’s death. Pica seems to be something she inherited from her mother, her grandmother, Jennifer, and her great grandmother, Anna.
The story begins (Beginnings are hard to delineate in circular novels, of course.) after Miranda returns home from the hospital where she’s undergone treatment for Pica for five months. Eliot and the house describe Miranda’s experiences over the next few months, including her interview at Cambridge, where she meets Ore–an black woman interviewing to study archeology and anthropology. Miranda agrees to go to Cambridge, Eliot decides to spend his year out in South Africa (or so he says). Ore, who was born in Africa (Nigeria?) and adopted by a white English family, also chooses to attend Cambridge in the fall. Two-thirds through the book, Ore takes over most of the narration of the term at university, where she and Miranda begin a passionate, if physically restrained, affair. They sleep little, spend many hours wrapped in each other’s limbs, and hike the environs around campus almost every night. They kiss a lot. [Putting things in one’s mouth is the central gesture of White is for Witching.]
Thus, as we read along, we learn of a young white woman with Pica who falls in love with (becomes obsessed with) a black woman named Ore. It is almost as if Miranda is devouring Ore throughout the book. By the end of the term, it is decided Miranda should not return to Cambridge until she is well. Ore returns to her home for the holiday but pledges to visit Miranda as soon as possible.
As the decisions are made at the end of the term, Miranda writes herself a note: “Ore is not food. I think I am a monster” (192). These words, I would argue, mark the novel as an essay into the mythologizing of the “monstrosity of lesbianism,” pathologizing of female homosexuality, and dis/abling of nonreproductive bodies precisely within the discourses of gender, sexuality, race, and lineage. A passage beginning on the next page draws together these frames of the novel.
On pages 193-194, the “shy” house describes Miranda’s return from her first term at Cambridge and her longing for Ore:
Only I knew how unwell she was. Really she should have been hospitalized. But what would have become of her beauty then?
I was–there is no correct word to place here–shy. I wanted to show myself to her, in a way she would understand. I wasn’t worried about frightening her. It was not possible for her to be frightened. When she was little I did not allow anyone or anything to do it, and now that she was older, fright was not a thing she understood.
She tucked herself into bed, drawing the blankets up over her head, smoothing them around her so that she was completely covered, as she liked to be.
‘I’m in love,’ Miranda whispered, once she was hidden.
We saw who she meant. The squashed nose, the pillow lips, fist-sized breasts, the reek of fluids from the seam between her legs. The skin. The skin.
(is it all right to say how much I like this the way our skin looks together)
Anna was shocked. Jennifer was shocked. Lily was impassive.
Disgusting. These are the things that happen while you’re not looking, when you’re not keeping careful watch. When clear water moves unseen a taint creeps into it–moss, or algae, salt, even. It becomes foul, undrinkable. It joins the sea.
I would save Miranda even if I had to break her.
White is for Witching contains several references to Miranda’s monstrosity and her pathology. The narrative circulates around Pica, dis/ability, and, through the last 100 pages, her desire for Ore. In this passage, these frames touch on one another as Miranda’s return to the fold is marred by her desire for the wrong body, the wrong fluids, the wrong skin. Miranda’s whispered declaration of love for Ore (and Ore’s body entwined with hers) is shocking. The matriarchal line is threatened by this desire, this disgusting, polluted lesbian, trans-racial obsession that cannot reproduce biologically. Miranda’s sickness, her dis/ease threatens to bring down this house, and the passage turns toward the rhetoric of homosexual reparative therapy: “I would save Miranda even if I had to break her.” It is the voices of her female kin who ultimately invoke compulsory heterosexuality here, and the house that ultimately contemplates killing her or letting her die.
Perhaps, then, it is possible to suggest, that White is for Witching is an essay into generation and regeneration. Perhaps Miranda’s nonreproductive deisre and its threat to matriarchal inheritance that are at the center here. Perhaps Oyeyemi’s novel is a query into the repetition of tropes that tie lesbianism to monstrosity, female homosexuality to pathology, dis/ability to asexuality and nonreproduction, and nonnormative sexuality and miscegenation of any sort to disgust. Perhaps.