Monstrosity, False Twins, and the Bush

Posted by Madelyn Schoonover on April 15, 2016 in Blog, Madelyn Schoonover tagged with , , , ,


In part two, I discussed Jessamy’s fractured identity in The Icarus Girl, and how the patriarchal modes of colonizing England and Nigeria both hinder Jessamy’s ability to assert a stable identity. I then introduced the ambiguous spirit TillyTilly as a productive presence in Jessamy’s life that helps her begin to find self-confidence.

Though Jessamy initially finds comfort in TillyTilly’s ability to transgress identity, as the novel progresses, TillyTilly becomes a much more fixed and dangerous thing. In keeping with the traditional Gothic trope of doubling, TillyTilly becomes a monstrous Other that must eventually be exorcised. As Gilbert and Gubar observe regarding the harmful doubling of Jane and Bertha in Jane Eyre, “while acting out Jane’s secret fantasies, Bertha […] provide[s] the governess with an example of how not to act” (361). More specifically for The Icarus Girl in relation to the postcolonial tradition, TillyTilly represents a colonial memory that reinforces dichotomies of white versus black that are harmful to Jessamy’s hybrid status. In Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning (2004), Sam Durrant argues “postcolonial narrative seeks to perform some kind of therapy, even in the absence of retrieving a history” (8). TillyTilly’s role in Jessamy’s journey toward identity encapsulates this therapeutic drive. As Jessamy’s false “twin”, TillyTilly provides solace to Jessamy’s fragmented self, encouraging her to embrace the Nigerian aspect of her heritage. Yet TillyTilly oversteps her bounds when she expresses a desire for Jessamy to return to an originary precolonial history that Jessamy has no access to. By exacting vengeance for wrongs committed against Jessamy rooted in a dichotomizing “us against them” rhetoric, TillyTilly is no longer Jessamy’s double, but a monster. The issue of anti-hybridity is addressed by Homi K. Bhabha, who argues against the harmful fixed values put in place by colonization: “Hybridity is the sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixity; it is the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal” (34). Rather than rejecting the role of monster placed upon her by colonization, TillyTilly embraces her monstrosity and thus reinforces the very dichotomies evident in the Cartesian subject and the Other.

Almost from the beginning, TillyTilly’s belief in dichotomies is evident. Although Jessamy is uncomfortable with their invasion of her rival Colleen’s home, and horrified by the violent encounter between Colleen and her mother, TillyTilly is unconcerned by the event, and uses it to polarise Jessamy’s apprehension of the relationship between black and white culture: “‘[S]he was probably hitting a table or a wall […] White people do that, I think’” (Oyeyemi 97). Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, TillyTilly places child abuse outside the realm of “whiteness”, a dichotomy that is reinforced by Sarah Harrison’s warning: “Nigerian parents […] could actually kill a child over disrespect” (Oyeyemi 115). Relegating child abuse to one side of a false dichotomy is exceedingly problematic. Yet through upholding such a worldview, both TillyTilly and Sarah reinforce the same English/Nigerian binary that is so damaging to Jessamy’s identity.

TillyTilly’s dichotomous monstrosity comes out in full, however, with her threats to harm Jessamy’s closest English loved ones: Siobhan and her father. Possessing Jessamy’s body, TillyTilly antagonizes Siobhan, Jessamy’s only real friend: “‘Don’t phone me again with your stupid stories, white girl’” (Oyeyemi 230). She also harms Jessamy’s father after he slaps Jessamy and thus refutes TillyTilly’s argument that white people do not abuse children (Oyeyemi 246). In both of these instances, I maintain these events are undeniably TillyTilly possessing Jessamy and exacting vengeance on her behalf without Jessamy’s consent. This is because, on top of terrorizing Jessamy’s white loved ones, TillyTilly clearly terrorizes Jessamy herself: “‘You really need to hate people […] You deserve to […] Stop looking to belong, half-and-half child. Stop. There is nothing. There is only me, and I have caught you’” (Oyeyemi 249 – 250). TillyTilly gives away her status as a harmful, dichotomizing spirit when she refers to Jessamy as “half-and-half child”, incapable of finding a solid identity. Urging Jessamy to blindly hate, TillyTilly is clearly too trapped by the binaries imposed by colonist rhetoric to embrace the sense of hybridity Jessamy must embrace in order to exist.

Of course, the most harmful act TillyTilly commits against Jessamy is the possession of her body. Interestingly, the language Oyeyemi employs after this event is similar to the language used in the Gothic novel Dracula (1897) when Dracula establishes a link between himself and Mina, making her “unclean” (Stoker 302). Utilizing European religion, Jessamy prays, “Dear God, please take my skin, take my feet, and my hips, because she’s been in them and spoiled them and made them not work.” (Oyeyemi 205). Jessamy’s appeal to a European God illustrates her reliance on European power structures to drive out the vampiric, possessive, evil force that is TillyTilly. In other words, after the first possession of her body, Jessamy appeals to a European religion that makes up a part of her English heritage, rather than her Nigerian one (Venning and Hofland 33). Unfortunately, this appeal is of course ineffective. At the end of the novel, TillyTilly possesses Jessamy completely and forces her into the mystical space of the Bush. This is a state somewhat similar to dream-states also explored in Dracula where mesmerism traps victims so that they may be parasitically used as TillyTilly parasitically uses Jessamy’s body. However, Jessamy’s propulsion into this uniquely Yoruba space – contrasted with the dream-state in which she sees TillyTilly’s real, long-armed woman self while in England – proves just far Jessamy has come on her quest for a hybrid identity.

Paraphrasing Bhabha’s articulation of hybridity, Stouck describes the idea of a “‘third space’ of enunciation, a space between the binaries of colonialism and resistance” (91). By the end of the novel, Jessamy is able to embrace individual parts of English culture and Nigerian culture to suit her identity. Her initial paranoia of thought invasion demonstrated by her anxieties about visiting the psychiatrist, which is reinforced by TillyTilly’s command “‘Don’t go and see that man […] You want him to make you like them?’” proves unfounded (Oyeyemi 121). Rather than hurting or changing her, Dr McKenzie helps Jessamy battle the real threat to her identity and the real thing that wants to possess her mind: TillyTilly. Additionally, Jessamy’s initial impression of Nigera as “ugly” becomes completely transformed (Oyeyemi 9). Embracing the name Wuraola, Jessamy embraces her Nigerian heritage, letting it fill the gaps that cannot be filled by Western psychiatry and religion.

Additionally, through her victory over TillyTilly in the Bush, Jessamy asserts her female heritage over a patriarchal Nigerian grandfather, who despite good intentions, fails to teach her “how to make TillyTilly stop” in time to save her body from possession (Oyeyemi 285). Thus, Jessamy claims her identity as a hybrid female, both English and Nigerian, with an undeniably complex voice, formerly written out by the colonial agenda. Because Jessamy is able to navigate Bhabha’s “third space” in real life, Jessamy is able to successfully navigate the “third space” of the Bush. Aided by the phantom of her true twin Fern, Jessamy finds her way back to her physical body, “[a]nd because Jess wasn’t afraid, Tilly was” (Oyeyemi 322). Through the synthesized, hybrid existence Jessamy has reached by the end of the novel, she is empowered to ignore the warnings of the “silent sister-girl” that the method of reclaiming of her own body is in some way incorrect (Oyeyemi 322). Refusing to forget the lessons learned from spirits of the Bush who claimed to be friends while they acted as foes, and assisted by her grandfather, who has come from calling her a false name to being the only one who can recognize Jessamy’s true identity, Jessamy asserts herself and her own way of being in the very act of her physical repossession.

Through revitalizing such classic Gothic tropes as doubling, monstrosity, and dream-state Oyeyemi brings new life and complexity to female Gothic and postcolonial genres. Jessamy’s hybrid identity at the end of the novel is a near-perfect manifestation of Bhabha’s “third state”, which is vital to the understanding of a developing postcolonial identity. Thus, though somewhat ambiguous of the future, The Icarus Girl ends on a more hopeful than pessimistic note, with a nine-year-old child of both English and Nigerian heritage learning how to reclaim her body from two harmful, juxtaposing ideologies that otherwise seek to suck her life and cage her into a damaging half-and-half identity. This reinforcement of a radical “third state” highlights the progressive nature of postcolonial female Gothic and its ability to transform destructive patriarchal paradigms into empowering, feminist spaces.



Works Cited

Durrant, Sam. Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J.M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Toni Morrison. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. PDF e-book.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd Ed. New Haven: Yale University Press,  2000. Print.

Layla, Joanna. The carving to the dead twin. N.d. Illustration Mock-ups for The Icarus Girl by Helena Oyeyemi, Com. Joanna Layla Illustrator. WordPress. Web. 10 Nov. 2015 <>.

Oyeyemi, Helen. The Icarus Girl. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

Stouck, Jordan. “Abjecting Hybridity in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.” Ariel 41.2 (2010): 89 – 112. Web. 5 Nov 2015.

Venning, Mary Anne and Barbara Hofland. “The Dysfunctional ‘Family of Man’ — Mary Anne Venning and Barbara Hofland Classify Human Races in Pre-Darwinian Primers.” X Marks the Spot: Women Writers Map the Empire for British Children, 1790 – 1895. Ed. Megan A. Norcia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010. 31 – 65. PDF e-book.


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