Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead, 2016)

Especially in our era, it’s become really hard to find meaning. Because there’s a multiplicity of meaning in any simple story that we’re told. There is a great temptation to move toward alienation and nihilism and just say, “Nothing means anything.” I think a faith in stories is an assertion that anything that happens to you does have meaning.

Dreamy. Fantastical. Feverish. Dizzying. These are some of the words reviewers use to describe this story collection. They’re accurate, but they still don’t begin to capture the sense of velocity and stillness, inevitability and surprise, frustration and satisfaction, that I felt after reading any one of these stories. But not during; while I was reading, there was only story, the need to turn the page.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy read. A few stories went down smoothly, but others required some wrestling. I let a few sit for a time before moving on, outlined a couple, fell asleep thinking about the puppets or the Presence or the goose (sometimes jumping up to check a detail or scribble a note, which, grrr, I can never read the next morning). In this I agree with Sebastian Sarti, who writes, “Oyeyemi’s stories refuse interpretation… Yet the reasons for my dissatisfaction point to Oyeyemi’s powers as a stylist. After three-hundred pages and hours of reading, I felt I’d only scratched the surface….” It’s the kind of puzzlement that insists there’s something there worth looking for, that comes back over and over in different shades and echoes, rather than the good-riddance kind. The kind of hard reading I love.

I read the stories in order because I feel like there’s a reason an author orders stories. Characters from earlier stories showed up in some later ones, sometimes just in mention but often as updated versions of the original, maybe a few years older and with different interests. Yet I wouldn’t call these stories linked; it’s more like Europe is a town and we see different aspects of it as we go from Spain to England to Prague to places not found on any map. The characters are likewise diverse; as Oyeyemi says, they’re “populated by the people I see.” She’s lived in Paris, Toronto, London, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, New York, and Lexington, Kentucky, so she’s seen a great deal.

Keys are the connective tissue of the collection, appearing in various ways in each story. In an NPR interview, Oyeyemi explains her visit to a bazaar shop in Cairo that sold swords and keys: “I think keys can cut — it divides property, it separates what is yours from what is not yours. A key defends what you have, but it also protects other people’s property from you.” We lock up what we treasure; and we lock up what we fear. Sometimes keys are central to the action; sometimes they’re tangentially symbolic.

Titling is another interesting quirk. Although this doesn’t seem to be the case in previously published editions of the stories, all titles are in lower case, including the title of the collection itself (and the author’s name). I’m not sure why, but that interests me; any decisions about how a book is put together has some significance, even if I can’t see it. Only one title comes directly from a line in the story; a couple of others are fairly straightforward descriptions. But the most interesting titles “inform the story”, a phrase I’ve heard so many times but never truly understood until I saw it used here, particularly in “sorry”, “freddy”, and the final story.

Then there’s the title of the book. It isn’t directly in any of the stories, but is implied in most of them. First, in the key theme by association; a key, a lock, is meant to be a barrier between what is and isn’t yours. But secondly, whether it’s a reputation, a body, a diary, a book, or a life: beware of taking what is not yours.

The nine stories:

She sketched with an effort that strained every limb. Montse saw that the Señora sometimes grew short of breath though she’d hardly stirred: a consequence of snatching images out of the air – the air took something back.

books and roses

It begins with “Once upon a time”, this fairy tale of two women each waiting for someone to return, but finding something else. Because there are several subnarrations, I found it worthwhile to outline the story to keep things straight. I kept thinking of Isak Dinesen, a feeling that came back to me later in the collection as well; I think here it was the subnarrations, the characters in the story who tell their own story. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t set in the 19th century; it had that feeling. One moment was particularly jarring, an outburst of annoyed sarcasm that sounded like any 21st century teenager. I still wonder about that. I have no doubt it’s there for a reason, but what is the reason? In any case, this ended up as one of my favorites in this collection.

“Imagine not being able to stop me from coming in, imagine not being able to cast me out because I own all thresholds. As an additional bonus, imagine me with three faces. That’s who we’re sending to have a little chat with Matyas Füst.”

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

Part ghost story, part revenge narrative, I struggled for a while to put the two together, then decided Hecate was the, um, key. This was first published in Summer 2015 in Ploughshares; it’s hard to remember there was a time before #MeToo, yet there it is, perfectly outlined: the denigrating comments a woman gets when she accuses a superstar of physical abuse, the sequence of “she’s lying” to “she deserved it” to “she asked for it”, the self-serving apology. Damn, it’s perfect. Enter Hecate, at the behest of Tyche, part-time beauty clinic attendant, part time invocation caster. Oh, and a beta splendens. I had one of those once upon a time; the exaggeration of its fierceness gives me a clue as to where the woman who keeps unlocking doors might be.

“And I’d say his puppets have a nihilistic spirit, if you’d understand what I meant by that….
Sometimes his puppets won’t perform at all. He just lets them sit there, watching us. Then he has them look at each other and then back at us until it feels as if they have information, some kind of dreadful information about each and every one of us, and you begin to wish they’d decide to keep their mouths shut forever.”

is your blood as red as this?

I couldn’t quite get this one to land; I don’t think it was meant to land, for one thing, but I’ll take 90% of the blame. Nevertheless, it’s captivating, and I sense something beautiful, and important, that’s waiting for me if I can just persevere. The structure alone fascinates me, and that’s before puppet school comes into it. The title is a line spoken by a puppet. The first half of the story, subtitled “No”, is narrated by Radha in the form of a letter to Myrna, whom she loves. The second half, subtitled “Yes”, is narrated by a puppet, Gepetta. Tyche, from “sorry”, makes an appearance. I felt the need to spend more time with the story, but not just now; I want to return to it later.

Puppets make for great stories, whether as characters, props, or just atmosphere. In an interview with Heather Akumiah at Bookforum, Oyeyemi explained how she got there:

“Writing about keys led me to puppets—trying to write from the perspective of something that is inanimate unless moved. It makes you start to think about the life of objects. Whether they can be alive even though they never exhibit any signs of life, and what they witness, and how they come to reflect the personality of the person who spends time around them.”

Additionally, Aaron Brady reports in his for New Republic that she discussed Kenneth Gross’s book about puppet theater (she also mentions it in the Acknowledgments):

In Kenneth Gross’s book about puppets (Puppets: An Essay on Uncanny Life), she read about a master puppet-maker who would make his puppets as perfect as he could, and then smash them, and then repair them. It was brokenness that made them human, she said: A puppet that perfectly resembled the perfect human form would be worrying, even obscene. It was their flaws—and the struggle to live through them—that made them most human. As Gross puts it, “The poetry of the puppet is a poetry of inadequacy, which feeds more fragile, vexed gestures of substitution, revision, replacement.”

A similar scene shows up on the story, except it is a story told by the ghost of a puppet about a group of puppets who each sacrifice a part to make a new, whole puppet. Yeah, I really want to spend more time with this story, and maybe with Gross’s puppet book as well. It’s somewhat pivotal in the collection, as other stories refer not only to these characters but to the puppet school and puppet shows.

This happened and it didn’t happen:
A man threw a key into a fire. Yes, there are people who do such things. This one was trying to cure a fever. He probably wouldn’t have done it if he’d had his head on straight, but it’s not easy to think clearly when rent is due and there isn’t enough money to pay it, and one who relies on you falls ill for want of nourishment but you have to leave him to walk around looking for work to do. Then even when you find some there still isn’t enough money for both food and shelter, and the worry never stops for a moment. Somehow it would be easier to go home to the one who relies on you if they greeted you with anger, or even disappointment. But returning to someone who has made their own feeble but noticeable attempts to make the place a little nicer while you were gone, someone who only says “Oh, never mind” and speaks of tomorrow as they turn their trusting gaze upon you . . . it was really too much, as if tomorrow was up to him, or any of us . . .

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

This sounds bleak and tragic – and it is, of course (and we haven’t even come to the part about the evil King drowning anyone who says anything mean about him) – but it’s also an engrossing story that ends up hopeful. It’s a fairy tale, of course; in an interview with Paste, Oyeyemi explains the opening lines as a more literal translation of the traditional Czech fairytale opening bylo, nebylo. Don’t you just love it when you run across a writer who uses Czech fairytale openings?

All I could think of in the description of the swamp where the King drowned his detractors was the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park in the Caribbean. But that ignores the intricacy of the story, the adulterous queen, the lovely daughter, Arkady and his beloved, and all the ways they interact without interacting to get a key to the right lock.

His project focused on a particular type of experience that a large number of his clients reported having undergone. “To oversimplify the descriptions I’ve been given, this experience presents as . . . an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone. These presences aren’t reported as ghostly, but living ones . . . minutes, sometimes hours when the mourner feels as if they’ve either returned to a day when the deceased was still alive or the deceased has just arrived in the present time with them . . . and what’s interesting about these lapses people experience is that most of them happen under fairly similar physical conditions.”
“So you’ve put together some sort of program that induces this feeling of . . . presence?”


This started out as a domestic drama that didn’t interest me at all, but morphed, as all these stories tend to do, into something else. In this case, it was more like science fiction than fairy tale or fantasy: a physical environment that allows the bereaved to reconnect with their lost loved ones, and, presumably, provides some kind of closure or comfort.

I got a bit more interested when Jill finds herself experiencing the presence of her son, a son she never had, a son who goes from about 12 years of age to his 50s over the course of their time together. Maybe its my total indifference to motherhood, but in spite of the interesting premise – and the slight echoes of Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Wall” – I still wasn’t drawn into it.

Among Cambridge University’s many clubs, unions, academic forums, interest groups, activist cells and societies, there’s a sisterhood that emerged in direct opposition to a brotherhood. What this sisterhood lacks in numbers it more than makes up for in lionheartedness: The Homely Wench Society. The Homely Wenches can’t be discussed without first noting that it was the Bettencourt Society that necessitated the existence of precisely this type of organized and occasionally belligerent female presence at the university.

a brief history of the homely wench society

This story shows that Oyeyemi doesn’t have to rely on fantasy or fairy tales to captivate. It’s straightforward realism-grounded, and it’s a lot of fun. The above quote is taken from a memo that serves as an invitation to Dayang (from “sorry”) and comes complete with wee conversations via footnotes between the senders. And that’s just the formal aspect of it.

It’s a battle-of-the-sexes story set at Cambridge University. It involves an elaborate scheme, and an eventual surrender. And, by the way, while it is fun, it hooks into a real issue: the boys read boy books and the girls read girl books, and through a surreptitious library swap, the girls discover, amidst the blossoming of a forbidden love and the possibility of peace, they… kind of like the boy books.

Well, Dornička met a wolf on Mount Radhošť.
Actually let’s try to speak of things as they are: It was not a wolf she met, but something that had recently consumed a wolf and was playing about with the remnants.

dornička and the st. martin’s day goose

So it starts off as Little Red Riding Hood, and then goes in a very different direction. And this, too, is a lot of fun. We’re in the Czech Republic now; Oyeyemi made her home in Prague for a time (and may still, I’m not sure). To say she writes diversely is an understatement.

As I was saying, I’m an inadequate son.

freddy barrandov checks . . . in?

Poor Freddy. His father was a master handyman, a legend at the Glissando, a hotel that might remind you of an Eagles’ song from the 70s. Freddy tries to step into his shoes, but really just isn’t that handy. So he sets himself to another task: breaking up a couple. As it happens, we’ve met the couple before, though they weren’t a couple then; in fact, in this story, a great many characters come together, some in mention, some in cameo, and a few more centrally. I’ll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what happened at the end. But instead of feeling unfinished, it feels more like having a lot of options.

Every time someone comes out of the lift in the building where you work you wish lift doors were made of glass. That way you’d be able to see who’s arriving a little before they actually arrive and there’d be just enough time to prepare the correct facial expression.

if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think

Available online at Buzzfeed

I don’t think that would work; it would just push back the moment of uncertainty a few seconds, because, after all, the elevator occupant could see you, too, as well as any other people standing around waiting. I suppose one-way glass would obviate the first issue, but wouldn’t that be pretty creepy, knowing someone could see you and you couldn’t see them?

As it happens, that has a lot to do with this story, this idea of one-way information. The unnamed narrator analyzes data for client corporations to determine which employees are less profitable and should be let go. Eva, a new employee in the office, isn’t very forthcoming about herself and prefers to eat lunch alone rather than with coworkers. She’d been something of a sensation at first, having a great deal of panache, but a visitor accusing her of unseeming behavior changes that, and the coworkers go all wolf pack on her. And then there’s the diary. The locked diary. Of course. I love Eva. I want to be Eva. It’s a remarkable story.

I chose to read this collection because of Michael Shaub’s NPR review. In addition to words like “dreamy” and “flawless”, he brought up the keys and the puppets and her sense of humor, and I was hooked. I’m interested in her novels now as well, particularly Boy, Snow, Bird, a reimagination of Snow White, now that I’ve seen what she can do with the kernel of a fairy tale, and a key idea.

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