'Beware Mirrors': The Ludic Magic of Helen Oyeyemi

by Hilary Ilkay

If you have not yet delved into the eccentric, eclectic wonders of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest literary offering, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, you have missed out on one of the most entertaining and riveting short story collections of recent years. The stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi’s first published collection of short fiction, showcase the fierce originality and genre-bending prose that characterised her previous works, most notably the immensely popular novel, Mr Fox (2011).

The unifying strand threaded through the book as a whole is the motif of keys: stories unlock each other in mysterious and often unexpected ways. This volume might easily be called a collection of fairy tales, for the stories within it are fantastical and whimsical, often darkly comical, featuring abandoned babies in Catalonia, mystical puppeteers, an inventive reimagining of the Little Red Riding Hood myth and a university society of ‘homely wenches.’ As a contemporary literary talent, the author’s ingenuity and playfulness are unrivalled.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Oyeyemi in my hometown of Toronto in March 2014, when she released her spellbinding fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. While I excitedly got my book signed, we chatted about Ovidian echoes in her work, especially the importance of mirrors. I was struck by her humility, eloquence and clearly sponge-like mind. Inside my copy of the book, she wrote, ‘To Hilary: Beware mirrors . . .’ The encounter stuck with me, and I looked forward to her next release, hoping our paths would cross again at a future signing.

Fast forward almost exactly two years to March of this year. Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn is packed with devoted readers of Oyeyemi, eager to hear her speak about her new collection with her dear friend and fellow writer, Catherine Chung. Oyeyemi is bashful and gracious, often deflecting questions about herself and her writing, more interested in listening to Chung’s perspective than providing her own. When she does speak, however, her voice is unmistakable, just like her prose: insightful, quirky and humorous. ‘Reading makes you slippery like a key,’ she said in response to one of Chung’s questions. The reader becomes just as mutable as the story she is encountering.

Having already devoured the book in a matter of days, I worked up the courage from my perch in the front row to pose a nerdy Classicist question about Ovid, as I see Oyeyemi’s writing very much in the spirit of the Metamorphoses, full of shape-shifting, ambiguity and darkly comedic scenes. She was delighted by the connection and mentioned the 1001 Nights as one of her central influences. In Ovid’s story of Pygmalion and his famous statue in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses, the poet makes a comment on the seductively deceiving powers of art, writing: ‘To such a degree is art concealed by its own art.’ Oyeyemi cited a similar modernist suspicion of stories: are they friends or enemies? Not even she, the creator of many, can tell.

If I were compelled to pick a favourite story, I would have to nominate the first one in the collection, ‘Books and Roses.’ I first encountered an excerpt in the late 2014 ‘Fate’ issue of Granta and was left craving more. The tale in its entirety did not fail to deliver. Its opening line sets the tone for the entire series of stories: ‘Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.’ Oyeyemi’s prose is to-the-point but retains the lilting lyricism of a fairy tale. Later in the story, she writes, ‘Senora Lucy was a painter with eyes like daybreak.’ This is Oyeyemi at her finest. The reader finds herself situated in a world that is both foreign and familiar, supernatural and relatable. Chronicling the coming of age of a female child abandoned in a church in Spain with nothing but a golden chain containing a key and a cryptic instructional note, ‘Books and Roses’ is a sweeping tale of mystery and intrigue, with an incredible cast of characters. I won’t give anything else away, but you can expect more notes, tender love stories, monasteries, and, yes, plenty of books and roses.

Over email, I asked Oyeyemi if she had a favourite story in the collection. She responded that all the stories were fun to write, though ‘Books and Roses’ came to her first. ‘Is Your Blood As Red As This’ was the most challenging: ‘[it] stretched my limitations so much in terms of the experiences I aimed to describe (the lives of puppets) that I have a soft spot for that story . . . so much slow and careful typing and deleting.’ Oyeyemi knew from the outset of the project that each story would have its own exploration of keys, which would result in a chameleonic writing process. ‘My thinking was that you probably have to change methods when trying to surprise an object as symbolical as a key into revealing something of its nature,’ she says. Writing about keys allowed Oyeyemi to access and experiment with a multiplicity of perspectives, voices, and narrative twists and turns. ‘The abundance of narratives that spring to mind when you hold a key and don't know what it unlocks, or even whether the lock that matches the key still exists . . . immediately the mind travels, both geographically and through time.’

During her talk with Chung, Oyeyemi discussed the writer’s difficult relationship to language. There is a struggle, even a disconnect, between the object and the means with which it can be represented. Oyeyemi compared the writer to ‘a curator with a treasure trove of words.’ This abundance of language can be both a blessing and a curse. Her wish is for the reader to forget that the ‘I’ of the supposed author exists and believe that the words unfold out of nowhere, of their own volition. In a sense, she wants her literature to becomes a sort of linguistic puppet show, in which the strings between writer and words are not visible to the reader.

Oyeyemi’s reflections made me think of a 2013 email interview with Anne Carson, published by The New York Times, in which Carson said the following about writing: ‘we’re talking about the struggle to drag a thought over from the mush of the unconscious into some kind of grammar, syntax, human sense; every attempt means starting over with language. starting over with accuracy. i mean, every thought starts over, so every expression of a thought has to do the same. every accuracy has to be invented.’ I mentioned this quote to Oyeyemi, and she agreed, citing one of the zaniest tales in her collection, ‘Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose’: ‘Anne Carson Knows. She just Knows. I recognise this struggle and when writing, take it as a stepping stone up to further invention - once you have organised sufficient language to describe the means by which a goose joins a household, why not have that goose go and confront a big bad wolf? And so on . . .’

Books such as What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours hold a unique position in a literary market that has been dominated by the hyperrealist, quotidian, deeply personal multi-volume sagas by the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante; they demonstrate, much like historical fables and myths, the cultural importance of storytelling that plays with reality. Oyeyemi writes: ‘I'm very happy that there's room for everything and also that apprehension of literary quality is changing so that confessional narratives and fantastical tales are far less likely to be automatically rubbished. I think we're all just reading better – I don't know why . . . maybe we all just got fed up with concealing or denying some of the places where we find meaning . . . but part of reading better is reading more broadly.’ When we are reading Helen Oyeyemi’s books, we are certainly reading better, and more broadly, and her latest collection is a testament to a talent that continues to mature, expand, and help us as readers find meaning. Luckily, this book is not locked, and it can, and should, be opened again and again.

Helen Oyeyemi's What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is published by Picador.