The Short Version: Bewitching tales of doors, keys, locks, and the pursuit of understanding other people. A mysterious library and a mysterious garden of roses are more linked than is first apparent, a school for puppetry is more than just learning hand movements, a company develops a way to relive moments with lost loved ones, and more – all crafted by Oyeyemi’s keen magical eye.
The Review: Short stories, I find, are often a great way to get a taste of an author’s work. Helen Oyeyemi has written five novels and two plays (the first of both coming when she was just 21[!!!]) and while her particular take on mythology and fairy tales is certainly appealing to me, I – for some reason – never actually made the leap into one of the novels. Perhaps it was feeling a little worn out by the Gregory Maguires of the world or just a worry that it would be too twee. Whatever the reasons, What is Not Yours is Not Yours delivers a sharp correction to my errant ways: Oyeyemi is a masterful mythmaker for our modern age.
These stories are, admittedly and as in most short story collections, something of a mixed bag. The collection opens with two absolutely transcendent stories and includes several other terrific entries – but it also closes with two stories that don’t quite reach the heights they set out for. Still, every single story is surprising and each carries at least one small delight, like a tiny jewel set into the pages. The thing that fascinated me the most is that, quite often (although not always), these stories seem to start out as one thing and then they juke down a side alley you didn’t see coming, ending up as something completely different but where, in retrospect, they were always going to go.
For example: the opening story, “books + roses”, is like a version of Cloud Atlas that doesn’t close. We’re introduced to one story, then another story, then even sort of another story within that… and the abrupt (and amazing) conclusion comes so suddenly that it’s hard not to want to know what else is going to happen. We only get pieces of all of those stories but the conclusion wraps things up more neatly than is first apparent – because, again only in retrospect, we see that Oyeyemi wasn’t telling the story we might’ve thought she was, several times over. Also, this story includes the delightful introduction (to me) of the way St. George’s Day (or Sant Jordi, in the local parlance) is celebrated in Spain: with the gift, to one’s lover, of a book and a rose. Sounds way better than Valentine’s Day to me – and, surprising none of you, Dani and I are already planning to make it a tradition.
The second story, “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea”, is perhaps my favorite (and definitely has my favorite name), in the same way that I really loved the standalone issue 13 of The Wicked + The Divine: it deals with the poisonous way we, the regular people, interact with our celebrities and specifically our pop stars. Where that issue of WicDiv grappled with the tribulations of being a female pop star in our modern world, this story takes on the behavior of male pop stars and how it affects the young women who idolize them. It was painful to watch the way Aisha sees her objection of affection shattered before her – and to see the way that the larger community reacts to the scandal. I was thinking of Chris Brown, as I’m sure Oyeyemi at least somewhat intended, when I read this story – and the fact that, just the other day, Chance the Rapper (an artist who seems genuinely respectful and wonderful) tweeted that he has always been a big fan of Brown and that he fought to get a song featuring Brown included on Kanye’s latest record. What to make of this? Have we, the general community, forgiven Brown for brutally beating his girlfriend? Violence – whether literal physical/emotional violence or just the belief that as a man you have power over a woman – towards women, especially in the hip-hop community but also quite frankly in the Republican community, is all too prevalent even still. Dare I say it’s all too accepted in our culture. Oyeyemi gets back at this in one small way and the ultimate message behind the curse in this story is amazing. It makes this the most important story in the collection, I think.
Oyeyemi is not just inventive with her concepts and the sometimes unique angles she uses to confront the world – she’s also a wonderfully inventive writer. “She recouped her losses”, for example, is an amazing way to describe someone gaining back weight they lost. There’s a wink and a bounce to the writing, a sense of fun and joy that seeps through even in the more serious stories – joy, of course, being far more complex than happiness. The complex “is your blood as red as this?”, for example, doesn’t quite bring it home in the end (it could, I think, have been expanded out into at least a novella-length tale if not a full novel) but manifests the paradoxical complexities of life with such skill and in such a way that can, I think, only be described as joyful… and even the somewhat wistful/somber conclusion of a story like “presence” is, in fact, also full of joy at the same time. (This story is recommended, by the way, for those who saw Marjorie Prime onstage or, someday, on film – it grapples with the idea of how to recapture the spirit of a lost loved one in a different and, I think, altogether more effective way.)
But even the somewhat more slight stories like “a brief history of the homely wench society” or the oblique riff on Red Riding Hood in “dornička and the st. martin’s day goose” (which was, most interestingly, originally published as part of a collection of stories accompanying a Carsten Höller exhibit) have some of this complexity to them. Perhaps it’s putting the tales in juxtaposition with one another, perhaps it is just the skill of Oyeyemi as a writer – but even the stories I didn’t love (and there were two) still made me nod in appreciation. How can you not when a writer crafts with such care and delight in the telling of the tale?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The highs of this collection are magnificent and the lows are still very good. It’s an excellent introduction to Oyeyemi (at least, I think so, as it was my intro to her work) and it captures everything I’ve been told about her writing in little bite-sized morsels. Morsels may actually be a great word for these stories – because there is something confectionary about them. Not in that they are sweet, necessarily, but in that they are often surprising (“I didn’t realize this had raspberry filling!”) and that they are crafted with care, hand-made in a way that you don’t often think about stories as being. If you’re wondering whether or not her work is for you, check out one of the first two stories in the collection – almost doesn’t matter which one – and you’ll know. Then dive deeper and you’ll be assured.